Light Painting Without Lights

Lightroom and Photoshop to the Rescue!

Recently, the Park Service announced slight changes in the enforcement of a few rules already on the books. The change involved a restriction on the use of artificial lights to illuminate a subject for the purpose of photography. Flashlights are still allowed for safety and wayfinding. I posted a new page on the subject a week or so ago. Check out this page: Artificial Light for Photography in Grand Teton National Park.

Night Barn Original Capture

I thought it might an interesting challenge to attempt to imitate a light painted shot. This is a screen grab of an image as it was captured on a Nikon D5 body and a Nikon 14-24mm lens. You can see the shooting data near the top corner: 20 seconds at F/2.8, with ISO 2500 at 18mm. The photo was taken during the “blue light” period, which can often appear too blue. I set the White Balance to a Custom setting of 6800k. (This is just a starting point for LR and not set in stone).  Of course, I was using a tripod.

This page will show a lot of steps and tools that might spark some ideas of your own. I am using Lightroom CC 2015 (the current version) which contains a nice set of features that are not included in the boxed LR6 version. One of the recent additions is the Guided Transform tools, which work similarly to the Perspective Crop tool. It has been in Photoshop for quite a few revisions. Lightroom can do a lot of the heavy lifting on most images—and can even do all of the work on many images—but a project like this one still needs Photoshop.

Transform Tab There was a taper in the image caused by aiming up using a wide angle lens. It might be difficult to see in the image above, but I wanted to get this issue resolved first thing. I used the Guided Transform tool in my base image, aligning one guide over one of the posts on the left side of the barn and another on one of the faint tree trunks on the right side.


After applying the transformation, I used the Crop tool to end up with my final image frame. I allowed the two bottom corners to be white, knowing I could fill them later in Photoshop. This cropped version became the base image for the other three images. I made three “virtual copies” of this image. I used the keyboard shortcut of Control+’, but you can always use the menus: Photo>Create Virtual Copy. (On a Mac, the shortcut is Command+’).

Initial Sky Adjustment

On one of the Virtual Copies, I adjusted the night sky using the various sliders in Lightroom.

Amber Barn

On a second Virtual Copy, I changed the color Temperature, moving the Blue/Yellow slider to the right and the Green/Magenta slider slightly to the right. The exposure slider was moved slightly to the right, to lighten the lower section slightly.

Night Barn Mask

On the third Virtual Copy, I adjusted the various sliders, such as Highlights, Shadows, and Contrast to create the beginnings of a mask layer I knew I would use in Photoshop.

As Layers

I selected my three Virtual Copies in Lightroom, then used the command “Open as Layers in Photoshop”, by clicking on the Photo menu, the Edit In and Open as Layers in Photoshop as seen in this screen grab. Lightroom opens Photoshop and builds a layered document. Each layer can be rearranged in the layer stack as desired.


I activated the Mask Layer and used a black brush to knock down the small details, and then a white brush to get rid of the gray in the corners of the original layer. (Normally, I wouldn’t leave the two layers seen in the layer stack in the Layers screen grab below, but I left it there for this demo.) This layer becomes the “mask” used in the Layer Masks to isolate the sky from the foreground.


Just to have it at my disposal, I highlighted the Amber layer ran the Reflector filter in NIK’s Color Efex Pro.  NIK always makes a new layer above the source layer.

Layers in PS

After opening the three files in Photoshop, I gave each layer an appropriate name by double clicking the default names in the layer stack.

At this point, most of the parts were in place. I activated the Fixed Mask Layer, then clicked on an area of the black to select the black portions. Occasionally, I add the Select>Select Similar command if there are non-contiguous zones of black. With the “marching ants” active, I activated the Amber Layer and then clicked the Add Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers tab. Photoshop creates a new layer mask of black and white based on the current selection.

Often the layer mask is opposite of what is needed. Click Control-I to invert the mask (or Image>Adjustments>Invert). In my project, I had the Amber Layer stacked over the Night Sky layer so I needed to mask the sky.

This image shows the lightened foreground under the night sky. There are a few problem areas, but this serves at the base for the final touches. I used a medium opacity, soft black brush to paint black and gray into the Amber Layer’s Layer Mask to block out some of the offending areas.

Masked Sky

In the NIK Reflector Efex layer, I used the same layer mask to paint in some additional hints of light. The effect was a bit harsh, so I adjusted the opacity on that layer to 30%.

Merged Layer

The project was coming along nicely. I Merged All of the Layers into a single new layer by using a keyboard shortcut of “Control+Alt+Shift+E” as seen above. I used a Magic Wand to select each of the two triangles in the bottom corners and used the Content Aware Fill tool (Edit>Fill>Content Aware). I cloned out the red light streaks on the left at this stage.


I tried an experiment that seemed to work. I ran the merged image through NIK’s Color Efex Detail Extractor. It lightened the image and brought out some of the details. I created an Adjustment Layer to paint black to conceal some of the Detail Extractor’s effects. (See the Layers screen grab a couple of images below).

Soft Light

In Photoshop, I’ve created quite a few “Actions” that I can run at any time. One of them is what I call a “Soft Light” adjustment layer. I can always do the same technique manually by clicking the Create Adjustment Layer icon in the Layers tab, and choose Curves. Without making any adjustments, I accept the changes, but when the new Adjustment Layer is created, I simply change the Layer Mode to Soft Light. Typically, I drop the opacity of the Soft Light Adjustment Layer, depending on the strength desired. While I chose to apply the Soft Light Adjustment Layer over the entire image, I could have easily added a layer mask and modified or limited the effect to either the sky or foreground.

final layers

Final Layered Image

At the very end, I created a final Merged copy and did a few minor tweaks. I cloned out a few airplane trails and eliminated the halo on the hillside on the far left.

This is a very moody, night time image. While it might seem like a lot of work, I could actually complete the project is a short period of time. Using a small flashlight would have been a lot easier!

If I did the project again:

Typically, night time long exposure images are kept to roughly 20-30 seconds, depending the focal length. Longer times result in star trails. Most cameras have a limit of 30 seconds for the maximum shutter duration unless the image is taken in “bulb” mode. In other words, 30 seconds is a practical limit but it is not the limit. The project above was created using a single capture— favoring the night sky over the dark foreground.

In the future, I would consider taking two images. The first would be the same as the capture in this image, and the second one could be captured over an extended time using a much lower ISO and exposing for the foreground zones. Exposure times might be a minute or two, but unless the wind is blowing trees or the subject, it shouldn’t matter. The low ISO capture would have more detail and less noise. There would be no worries of star trails since the sky was captured in another image. Once isolated in Photoshop with the Mask, either could be adjusted as needed.

Quick Project Recap

A project like this one blends some of the better features from both Lightroom and Photoshop. Lightroom may eventually be able to handle all of the project, but I don’t think it’s ready yet. The concept of making Virtual Copies of an image gives Photoshop users some powerful tools, and features like “Open Images as Layers in Photoshop” makes a job like this fairly easy. It is possible to create three or four Virtual Copies at various exposures that can now be Merged into a single faux “HDR” style image while in Lightroom. I used the NIK Color Efex Pro filters on this project, but there are similar tools in the Topaz filter suites. If you are already a veteran Lightroom and Photoshop user, the concept of creating Virtual Copies in LR for the sole purpose of creating mask in Photoshop might be new and unique.

The steps I did here fit this particular project. Other projects might need a slightly different approach, but once you understand how some of the features and tools work, you can begin to plan how you might later use them during the initial captures.

Unsolicited Light


This is a quick edit of a capture in which headlights from drivers on Antelope Flats Road lit buildings, fences and trees. Traffic is currently heavy on Antelope Flats Road due to the 2017 (temporary) closure of Gros Ventre Road. There’s a steady stream of vehicles and campers heading east on the Antelope Flats Road. At other times, bright lights from drivers southbound on Highway 89/191 light the north side of the barn. It’s possible to time an exposure to take advantage of their headlights.

Leeks Marina

Also check out Leek’s Marina at night. There are a couple of “street lights” that can softly bathe the area. Over a 25-30 second exposure, the camera’s sensor picks up some of the ambient light on the boats, masts and surface fog.

Artist's Point

The moon can also work as a light source. This is a screen grab from an image I captured in 2012 at Artist’s Point in Yellowstone. At times, the full moon was almost too intense but if I waited for the right opportunities, a cloud softened its effect on the scene.

Artist's Point

This is a screen grab of the same image after I made a few targeted adjustments for exposure, contrast, clarity and saturation. These adjustments were all made in Lightroom but I could make a few Virtual Copies and export them as Layers to Photoshop and would have even more control of the darks and lights. It might be possible to expose and process this image bright enough to almost make it look like a daytime shot, but that’s definitely NOT what I would want to do with a shot like it this. I was there at night on purpose, so the vision I had would be to present a moody, night time image.

NIK Adjustments

I opened the previous image in Photoshop, then ran two filters in NIK. They were the same two filters I ran in the Mormon Row barn shot—”Reflector” and “Detail Extractor”. I inverted the layer mask and then painted black at a low opacity in the layer mask to reveal the effects on the edges of a few of the ridges. I like to make these kinds of changes, then do something else for a while and come back to the image with “fresh eyes”. Right now, there’s something making me like the middle image better than this one. It is easy to turn off the filter effects in a layered Photoshop document by unchecking the small eyeball icon or it is also easy to reduce the effect of a filter by adjusting the opacity of the filter layer.

Safety Note

Even though photographers are not supposed to be lighting the barns and other objects in GTNP, you will need a flashlight or headlight to be moving around at night. Deep badger holes and scattered logs and fences rails on the ground make night time movements potentially treacherous.

Additional Resources:



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