Ghost Ship: How to paint with light

This picture is the wallpaper on my computer screen and almost everyone who sees it wants to know how it was made.

The word photography means, literally, drawing with light. But “painting with light” is a technique to add a light source during a long exposure. Here’s an example:


This is a picture made aboard the schooner Mary Day. We were at anchor in Blue Hill Bay, had just come back from the lobster bake on an island, and everyone was just chilling on deck.

I set up my camera on a tripod, composed carefully, then set the aperture to (I think) about f/16. Then I locked the shutter open.

So the shutter is locked open for several minutes, I’m guessing about five to seven. If I did nothing, I’d get almost no exposure except for the kerosene lanterns and a little of the sunset. It was actually a bit after sunset, so the horizon was pretty dark.

But what I did was: I took out my LED headlamp and turned it on. I shined it on the sail and boom, moving it around to illuminate it more or less evenly. Then I hopped down on the deck and walked around to the people, stopping at each and telling them to stand still while I “painted” them with light. I’d shine the light on their faces, making sure not to let the camera see the light source.

The two men on the left were the first to get painted. As soon as I had finished with them, they moved away, so their legs don’t show up. If they had stayed, they would have blocked a lot of the light of the kerosene lantern on the deck. The third person from the left moved before I could paint him, so mostly, he shows up as just a shadow.

You can see the shadow of a tripod leg on the box with the star on it. I’m not sure what light was casting that shadow.

There’s very little Photoshop work done after the fact, though I did clean up a few light streaks where the light source turned toward the camera.

My one regret is that I didn’t take the cover off the boat’s steering wheel. It’s a pretty wheel, varnished and bright. Next year.

One comment

  1. Jim … I don’t know if I’ve ever met you or not … could have been, I’m a bit older than you, I’m sure. I’ve gone to Monhegan for about 22 years in a row. Stayed with June Day, Barbara H., at Ed Deci’s cabin and lots of other places. Have done and am still doing paintings of where my heart resides,…. Monhegan (and, of course, Maine). I’ve painted with Clay Kent (I was ‘ok’ but my sister who accompanied me one year, really benefited and was really good) and am dear friends with Marie, to whom I still write, along with Paul Niemic and others. I’ve seen and been following, with iterest, YOUR work and words for a long while now and I have to tell you what joy your creations have given me to date. This painting with light really caught my interest and appreciation for your talent and I was moved to write you a wee note and tell you so. You’re an inspiration and a real creator and just wanted to tell you so. I was saddened to hear of Mary Barney’s passing. I knew her only slightly and was familiar with the Mary Day …a beauty…. and she will be deeply and sadly missed I know. Ever since I went to Monhegan and other places in Maine back in 1972, my life changed and perhaps I might even end up there one day,…. who knows,…. life is so changeable and full of surprises. Have a great fall and winter and keep up the good work.
    An admirer of ‘The good stuff’ Mrs. Robinson (Joanie 🙂 )

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