Lightpainting in Garden of the Gods

After what has seemed like an eternal winter, the weather here in Colorado is finally warming up.  Moreover, we seem to have shaken the 60 mph winds that made photography difficult last week.  I finally got out to attempt a project that I’d been previsualizing for some time; lightpainting the Siamese Twins formation in Garden of the Gods.

I’ve photographed this formation before during the daytime; it’s a popular spot to catch the juxtaposition of the twin rock towers with the summit of Pikes Peak between them.  But I’d never hiked to it at night.

The Siamese Twins, in the classic daytime capture.

Lightpainting is a technique whereby you artificially illuminate your subject with a flashlight or lantern.  This technique enables you to control the exact placement of light in the scene and you can use it to selectively illuminate subjects of interest.  I headed up to the Siamese twins with my gear in a Think Tank “Streetwalker Pro” bag.  I had my D3s, 16-35/4, 24-70/2.8 and a 70-200/2.8 VR II.  I also had my Gitzo tripod and a couple of strong flashlights.  I reached the formation about 20 minutes after sundown and I set up.

When you are lightpainting outdoors, your exposure needs to be long enough to enable the sky to provide some color.  I found that spot-metering on the sky and using manual exposure settings worked well.  Unfortunately, it was clear from my initial test shots that the 3 D-Cell Mag-Lite that I brought wasn’t putting out enough light to illuminate the rocks.  The good news was that I had a 2M candle-power spotlight. The bad news: it was in the car.

My three D-cell LED flashlight couldn't compete with the twilight sky

15 minutes of hiking later and I was back at the site, armed with my 2M candle spotlight and ready to blast the bejeezus outta those red rocks.  I started out using ISO 800 and exposures of around 10 seconds.  I quickly discovered that the spotlight had plenty of power, but getting even illumination was going to be tricky.  Fortunately, at the suggestion of my friend and lightpainting guru, Dave Black, I had purchased a spotlight with a trigger switch.  Rather than just blasting the rocks with light, I switched to a “pulse” mode.  This technique prevents the spotlight from reaching full power and allowed me to slowly and evenly build up the lighting effects on the rocks.

By this time, it was getting pretty dark.  Civil twilight had ended and the full moon was rising behind me.  Although there were some clouds, there were enough clouds in the sky that I noticed some star trails in some of my images.  This observation led me to my final effort.  I would use a very long exposure to try and capture some star trails in the image, and the full moon might actually light up the snow on Pikes Peak.

I dialed the ISO back down to 200 on the D3s, and figured I needed at least a three-minute exposure.  Problem: the D3s only provides automatic exposure settings up to 30 seconds.  Of course, I had my locking release cord, but it’s the one without the fancy timer and intervalometer.  Fortunately, I had my iPhone.

I set the countdown timer on my iPhone to three minutes, enabled long-exposure NR on the D3s, and tripped the shutter.  The lightpainting only took about 20 seconds to perform given the brightness of the spotlight.  I then waited for the exposure to finish, and then I waited for the long exposure NR to finish its work.

I brought the resulting image back home, processed it slightly in Capture NX2 and Nik Color Efex Pro 3 (Tonal Contrast) to produce the final image.  I was pretty happy, and I look forward to doing this again.  For more on landscape photography techniques, be sure to check out my new eBook, The Photographer’s Guide to Digital Landscapes.

The final result, after an hour of experimentation, looked pretty nice! (Click for a larger view)


4 thoughts on “Lightpainting in Garden of the Gods”

  1. Jason, This is awesome and now I want to get myself a spotlight. Can you share info about the light you bought since I do not see too many that can pulse.

  2. Hey Jason,

    I am looking into getting a spotlight. How long does the charge last on your spotlight? Have you ever tried to gel a spotlight? I wonder if an LED spotlight would be more battery efficient and then gelling it for a warmer color….. if needed.


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