How to Paint With Light

Photography means painting with light.

How to paint with light:

1. Look for the light

The first tip — always look for the light.

If you’re out shooting on the streets (at around sunset) — keep following where the light takes you. Study Rinzi Ruiz for inspiration.

So look for simple streaks of light. Follow where the light takes you.

Also as a tip, keep shooting the same part of town. Then you will start to learn what time the light hits a certain part. And you can also know what time the light at a certain part of town is the best.

2. Shoot like a madman during golden hour

Golden hour: sunrise and sunset.

This is when the light looks ‘golden’ — which almost looks like God put his paintbrush onto reality.

I am too lazy for sunrise, but I like to photograph during sunset.

So a tip: be really lazy for most of the day, and shoot like a madman during sunset.

For example, during the day, wander around and go ‘location scouting.’ When you find a good area to shoot, take a nap in the middle of the day, and then (around 5-7pm) shoot like crazy for an hour or two.

It is a ‘smarter’ way to shoot — better to shoot intensely for 1-2 hours, instead of shooting aimlessly for 10 hours.

3. Use a flash

Make the light your slave, by using a flash.

Either use the flash already built into your camera (I use it on the Ricoh GR II), or get a small external flash. For the Leica cameras, I recommend the Leica SF 20 (for film), or the Leica SF 25D (used) for TTL on digital.

If you have another camera brand, just buy the smallest flash possible, that preferably has automatic ‘TTL’ mode (which means you don’t need to use flash manually). Honestly, it is better to use automatic settings for flash, as you can focus more on composition and framing.

On the Fujifilm cameras, use the integrated flash (if you use a X100-series camera), or just use the little pop-up that is included on the XT-series.

The reason why I recommend using a flash: you improve the ‘figure to ground’ (contrast) in your images, and allow your subjects to pop from the background. Photos without good light (or a flash) lack contrast, which makes the photos look grainy and ‘muddy.’

Flash especially works well with color photos — because high-ISO noise in color digital photos look ugly. Color film grain (Kodak Portra 400) looks nice, however.

Also as a tip — if you have a scene where you have time, take photos both with a flash, and without a flash. Then when you go home, you can sit down and decide which you prefer.

4. Minus-exposure compensation

If you photograph during noon when the light is harsh and directional — use minus-exposure compensation (I recommend trying -1, -2, or even -3) when photographing your subject in the direct light. I learned this from my buddy Neil Ta.

So if you are photographing someone in harsh light, have them look up directly at the sun. See where the shadows fall, and imagine the shadows as pitch black.

This has helped me create more dramatic and ‘edgy’ photos.

There is no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ light— there are just different forms of light. So harsh and direct lighting can look good if you want a more ‘punk rock’ look — or to photograph someone who looks badass.

Or if you use a smartphone, just lower the exposure (brightness). On an iPhone, you can tap the subject, drag the exposure on the right side. Or use the ‘Pro Camera’ app to manually adjust and lock your exposure.

5. Consider the emotion of your light

Don’t photograph light for the sake of it. Rather, consider what kind of emotion you’re trying to get through the light.

For example, if you want a feeling of serenity and peace — maybe photograph your subject against soft light next to a window. Or photograph during an overcast day, to prevent harsh lights.

If you want a more ‘edgy’ and ‘hard’ photo (if you are photographing a rapper), photograph them when the sun is at the top (at around noon, or 3pm).

Or if you want a more nostalgic, timeless feel — perhaps shoot during sunrise or sunset, to have warm tones, to reflect the feeling of nostalgia.

Or photograph during ‘blue hour’ — after the sun has set, to create a sense of loneliness, loss, or contemplation.


For more inspiration on color and light, study these photographers:

Why color photographers? I think color and light look nicer. But of course, you need to think about your light in monochrome.

Find inspiration from all the masters of photography.

And friend, always look for the light (photographically and philosophically).

Be strong,

Learn more: Photography 101 >