Open Flash – Painting with light

This is an old timers technique used by poor mans photography to create shadow less studio works before strobe lights were available. A film camera would be set on a tripod and the photographer would use a single tungsten light. Lights were turned off in the studio, camera shutter opened and the light pointed at the subject would be waved in an ark resulting in a very subdue soft shadow. In the early days exposures were a bit of trial and error.


I revisited this technique in the late 80s using a flash strobe with a bit of a twist. In almost any environment where studio lights where difficult to place or required too many lights a single flash can exceed your expectations. The only real limitation is a need for a dark space without light.

First set you camera on a tripod and frame your subject. Next determine where you think you would use studio lights to illuminate that same scene. It’s those strategic areas that you believe a studio light is needed that a flash will be popped off. To get a meter reading I use a strobe meter that you can lock the button in to get multiple readings. (I use an inexpensive Gossen Luna-Pro F with the ambient dome over the sensor.) Pop off your flash at each predetermined location at the subject and you will get your f-stop reading.

We’re now ready to paint that object with light. Set the lenses f-stop, turn room lights off and open the camera’s shutter (I usually use the bulb setting with shutter cable). Using a pencil flash light I travel from one spot to the next triggering off my strobe and close the shutter.

There are many variations to painting with light. Once I lit up a whole row of buildings with a Lumdyne flash pack, which is capable of outputting 1200 watt seconds. It was timed at twilight and an assistant was needed. The camera was about a couple hundred yards from the subject. Communicating via radio I asked the assistant to block the lens with a black non-reflective material between flashes.

Recently I used an eight second timed exposure at twilight to capture a custom painted car and surrounding environment. Three flashes capture this event as shown with my example.

This technique may take a little practice but once learned you will no longer be limited by studio lights.

Submitted by David W Sussman
Panama City, Florida

See also: Photography Tips

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