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Photo Tutorial — Paint A Ball Of Light At Night

Published by Debs Slater · June 27th 2012

There is so much to learn about photography and rather than intimidate those new to photography let’s educate them! If you have a tutorial you’d like to share, be it in shooting, or post production, or even top tips for getting your work out there please get in touch. Alternatively, if there's something you're looking to learn let us know and we'll see if we can find a photographer to help you.

Today's tutorial is courtesy of Richard Steinberger who often paints orbs into his images and was generous to share his tips & tricks with us.


A few weeks back Debbie from 500px asked me if I'd be interested in contributing a tutorial to the company's blog. Specifically she was interested in how I create one of my "balls of light" images. Always up for a bit of nighttime fun, I agreed, and we (me, my wife Heather and my husky Kai) set out to produce a photograph for the 500px Blog during the full moon on June 4th.

I figured it wouldn't do to produce the ball of light in my front yard, so we headed for the high country about two hours southwest of Denver, Colorado. We traveled to the tiny hamlet of Grant and, from there, drove up to Guanella Pass. Leaving our car behind, we climbed from the parking lot at 11,500 feet to the top of a nearby hill at approximately 12,000 feet. From there, we had jaw-dropping views of Mt. Bierstadt, one of Colorado's celebrated Fourteeners, and a variety of other nearby peaks.

One of those peaks was Square Top Mountain, pictured below. I framed the shot in the remaining daylight, planning to place the ball of light between the two boulders that appear toward the right side of the frame. 

A Storm Coming

Unfortunately, the weather didn't clear as we had hoped. In fact, it became worse. After seeing rapidly approaching storm clouds and worrisome lightning strikes on nearby ridges, we decided to abandon the plan and hike back to our car. Quickly. By the time we reached the car, it was completely dark, and we had solid cloud cover. There was no full moon in sight.

What to do? Well, I've always thought that a person makes his or her own luck, so with that in mind we stopped at a waterfall on the way back to Grant for one more try at our ball of light.

A Ball Of Light Painting

So, what is this "ball of light," and how can you create one? The simple answer: light painting. And it can be done in different ways. The most popular way is to take a light source, put it on a string that you swing around in a circle with your hand while rotating your body in its own circle (making sure that the lowest point of the circle is always in the same place). I've seen varying forms of this done; from LEDs connected by wires to a battery pack, to flashlights tied to a rope. I've never cared too much for doing it this way; it doesn't seem very exact, and quite frankly, it's a lot of work.

I figured it would be much more practical to put daylight-balanced LEDs on a 5-foot pole that's fastened with a bolt to a second pole that's resting vertically on the ground. You can then move the 5-foot pole in the needed circle and, to suit your purposes, you can vary your turning speed and the angles of your lights to the camera. It's also a lot easier on the wrists!

Geneva Creek by Richard Steinberger (steinberger) on

Great Advice

When setting out to shoot balls of light, and when light painting in general, you should wear black clothing otherwise you risk showing up as a ghost in your image. As the camera can only record light, your chances of appearing in your photo are reduced greatly by wearing black.

In addition, a full moon offers the best opportunity to shoot a ball of light; it will allow you to see the surrounding area in the final image. Depending on how long your exposure is, your image might even look as if it was taken in the daytime.

During this project, however, cloud cover nixed our hopes for the full moon. Since it was completely dark, I decided to light-paint everything I wanted to show in our photograph. I've prepared a three-minute video, and I'll go into the details after you've seen the movie:

Ball of Light Tutorial from Richard Steinberger on Vimeo.

Getting Technical

Now, let's begin with the technical details:

As I noted in the video, the exposure was 1024 seconds — nearly 18 minutes at f13. If we'd have had a full moon, my exposure probably would have been closer to 40 minutes at f/13, without the light painting. I found that f/13 gives me good sharpness with my Canon 16-35 lens at 16mm, and it's a good f-stop for the high-powered LEDs that I use. I chose ISO 100 to minimize the digital noise. You'll have to experiment a bit to see what works best with your camera and light sources.

Here is a raw capture with absolutely no retouching or corrections done:

Post Production

I knew I had to do a bit of post-production work to get the image to look good, so I captured it in RAW. After importing the file into Adobe Lightroom 4, I adjusted the image with the settings seen to the left.

My results:

Next, I created two virtual copies in Lightroom, to which I applied the following settings:

My efforts yielded these two files:

Sandwiched Shots

Why create three different files? Remember how I "painted" the three different areas in the video? My intention was to combine the three different images in Photoshop into one, as the "raw" file did not have the apparent tonal range needed. As you see, the image above on the right has been pushed 3.65 stops to show detail in the far trees.

Of course, if I had taken more time to "paint" the trees, or if I would've used a stronger light source / higher ISO, I wouldn't have had to push the original file and sandwich the different exposures together. However, with light-painting, it's difficult to know when enough is enough; there are so many variables. At any rate, here's what the three images combined looked like after I "sandwiched" them together and erased from each the components that weren't needed for the shot. Basically, I created an HDR file by selectively erasing the elements of each file that were too bright and/or too dark.

Now there is detail all the way up to the far trees. The advantage of painting the light during the exposure and later in post-production is that you have complete control over the image. If you can visualize the outcome, you can formulate a plan and then selectively illuminate the parts of the image that you want the viewer to see. You'll be able to direct his or her eye throughout the image.

Swapping The Sky

There are still a few issues to deal with, however... most importantly, the ugly sky. Leaving it black wasn't an attractive option, so replacing it was the best thing to do. (Hey, this is art, not the news... anything goes!) For the sky replacement, I decided to use an image I had done a couple of weeks prior and not too far away from this location. Here it is:

This one was photographed at ISO 1600 for 30 seconds at f/2.8. The twinkles of the larger stars were done through a Photoshop action created by Pro Digital Software.

To replace the sky, I made a copy of the original layer, then I slid this image between the top and bottom layer: Then I erased the "ugly" sky on the top layer:

Last Minute Cleaning

Admittedly, I had a few minor things to fix aside from "dusting" the image. I had a few spots of light pollution to clean — see the red circles below, where my head lamp showed up. There also was some foam buildup at bottom center left that I didn't like.

Finally, I did a bit more color correction of the rocks and water, ran it through Photoshop's noise filter, sharpened the image and adjusted the levels to where I thought they should be. 

Close-ups And A Comparison

Here are a couple of different crops at 100% so you can see how the image held up after being pushed to its limits:

Here's a side-by-side comparison with the original "raw"capture:

And here's the final image:

Ball of Light by Richard Steinberger

I hope this was helpful and that you liked the image. If you did, please feel free to vote and/or comment on it here. If you have any questions, I will do my best to answer them right here on the post.

Big thanks to Richard (and Heather and Kai!) for trekking into the hills at night to create this awesome orb shot for us! If you'd like to give it a go yourself there's a tutorial on how to make your own orb tool here. And if you do create an orb of your very own make sure you upload it to 500px and post the link below!


Login or sign up to comment on this post.

Jason Vinson  4 months ago
Richard, do you have a pic or a how to on how to make the tool you use to make these? i can never get a perfect orb when free spinning so im looking to make something that i can get a perfect orb with
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Richard Steinberger  16 days ago
Here is a pic of my light stick...
Crystal Samson  12 months ago
Wonderful tutorial, thank you
Tonny Verhaard  about 1 year ago
Good work, I like it...
Toni Määttänen  about 1 year ago
Tried to nail that too:

sandeep walvekar  over 1 year ago
Awesome Account
Nimit Nigam  over 1 year ago
Lovely Tutorial...
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A.M. Ruttle  about 2 years ago
Hi Richard, excellent resulting image, and detail on how you got there... including your inside secrets on orb making. Thanks for pulling this all together & posting the various pieces right down to the detail of the joint on Flickr at I was wondering as I watched the video if you were counting (1-onethousand, 2-onethousand...) to yourself as you lightpainted, but maybe you do it more by gut-feeling, and then adjust it in post processing? However you do it, the ending image is fabulous and a testament to your ability to "see' the shot that's not there until you create it! v/f
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Richard Steinberger  almost 2 years ago
Thanks so much for your kind words!! I've done a few light paintings in the past and you do develop a sense of how long to paint at what f-stop and with how-bright a light you've got.... And you can certainly tweak the results in post... Thanks again!
Umer Prince  about 2 years ago
Wow....This is amazing article
David Mann  about 2 years ago
Amazing tutorial - thanks!
Dan Cadden  about 2 years ago
Thanks again Richard for this great post and would love to get your feedback my first complete attempt..
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Richard Steinberger  about 2 years ago
Great first try!!! Really like the texture of the ball, almost looks like it's weaved... very nicely done, looking forward to seeing more! :)
Dan Cadden  about 2 years ago
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Dan Cadden  about 2 years ago
such a help.. thanks very much and fantastic photo!
Eric Malherbe  over 2 years ago
I would like to thank you for your tutorial !
I had a first try and it was not so bad !
Altough it remains far from what you achieved but i'm happy that you shared your technique and give us new ideas and experiments !
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Richard Steinberger  about 2 years ago
Well done for your first try! Maybe try to stop down your aperture to f16, it'll keep the ball from blowing out too much. Good for you for going out there and being creative!
Vanessa Hernandez  over 2 years ago
thanks for sharing this!
Stefano Tranquillini  over 2 years ago
Nice tutorial, but since i'm not mother tongue i found difficult to understand how to create the ball of light.
this is the paragraph:
"I figured it would be much more practical to put daylight-balanced LEDs on a 5-foot pole that's fastened with a bolt to a second pole that's resting vertically on the ground. You can then move the 5-foot pole in the needed circle and, to suit your purposes, you can vary your turning speed and the angles of your lights to the camera. It's also a lot easier on the wrists!"

can you - or someone who has did it - provide a picture or a small video on how it works? would be terrific.


kombizz kashani  over 2 years ago
nice creative works
I always knew that 'they' are out there!
Hugh Chaloner  over 2 years ago
Brilliant, thanks so much for the explanation.
Mark Richardson  over 2 years ago
Very Cool
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Richard Steinberger  over 2 years ago
ok, ok... now you know all my secrets... :) Here is a pic of my light stick...
Armin Reimold  over 2 years ago
Thanks for sharing your technic and idea!
Wim Barelds  over 2 years ago
Very beautiful shots. Thanks for sharing the technical side of the story and how you did the retouching of the photo. Please continuing sharing your "how to do" .
Mark Richardson  over 2 years ago
Brilliant! Also interested in seeing how the orb device is constructed.
Matt Burt  over 2 years ago
Great info but I'd love to see your orb apparatus up close. Can we? Or is it a trade secret? :)

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