How to create a Painterly Effect on your Images


I (Zach) have been asked a few times why some of my images or backgrounds have a painted look and how I create that effect. Today, I am going to show you how to do it.

The Artists

Just 3 days ago, I photographed the Matt & Ben from Likewise near my house in Franklin, TN. We are updating their promo shots and  getting them a cover shot for a new single. We had a stellar day with some blue skies and some nice clouds, and even though the direction of the shoot was not necessarily that style, we wanted to capture a few images of it all. Sometimes you want to go in one direction for a shoot, but something else you do ends up being the favorite from the day.

Getting the Painted Look

We then headed to this spot that had a nice open view of the afternoon sky and set up. The reason that the images have a “painted” look, is 3 fold which I will break down for you.


Key 1. Large Light Source


(image of the 59 inch Zeppelin Modifier used for this shoot to give you an idea of the size)

Many of you know this and we preach it all the time, but the larger the light source the softer the light. What I sometimes forget to mention, is that large, soft light looks like it is Painted On to your subject because of the way it creates beautiful (soft) transitions between highlight and shadow. Small light sources create much harsher shadow lines and therefore looks much more “flashy” and a lot less painted.

For this shoot I used the very large Zeppelin Light Modifier from Westcott. Now, this is not your everyday soft box that you want to bring out to a wedding or portrait shoot. It is big and needs at LEAST one person that is fairly buff to just handle moving it around. But, when you need light that is hollywood quality and can light multiple people head to toe and look painted on, this is the type of light you want. I was shooting the album cover for these guys and needed the light to be outstanding.

Another added benefit of using an octobank like this, is that the nature of the octobank wraps light around your subject even better than a traditional softbox. That is because of how the light is forced from the center to the edge to create a low light fall-off and much more even lighting.


2. Reducing Ambient Light


(Ambient reduced by close to 2 stops)

Once we have stunning light that is very large on our subject so they look painted, we now need to get that effect in the sky. We do this by overpowering the sky by MORE than 1 stop. Once it gets darker than 1 stop under-exposed, it starts to look unnatural and more “fake” or painted.

The only issue that this creates, is depending on where your main light is, we can get some dark shadows wherever our main light is not hitting which can then give away the effect and show that we have a large flash to one side. This isn’t a bad thing, but, if you want an overall nice contrast where you can see everything better, we need to add something to the shot.

(Side note: Some photographers will create a similar effect using a large scrim (or big diffuser) to reduce light on the subject only, then fill in with flash, This allows you to create dynamic contrast on your subject, but have a brighter background if that is what you are going for. Many times on movie sets, this is how they do outside lighting in bright sun).


3. Adding Fill-Light to the Shadows


(fill-light to camera right)

Because we overpowered the ambient by at least 2 stops, we now need to fill-in the shadows that we created with the main light (camera left) by using a fill-light.

I used the Elinchrom 33 inch Varistar Umbrella as my fill. You can basically use any type of light you want from a small one to a larger one, but this mid-sized 33 inch one is perfect for filling shadows with fairly soft light. This light was 1.5 stops under my main light exposure so my images still had some deeper contrast.

The key here, is to make sure that everything in the final framing of your shot is being lit by your lights, otherwise you will see the heavy light fall off and it will give away the effect.

Final Images

Now that we have these 3 elements working for us (large light, darkened sky and our fill-light), the images will look very painted! All of these shots have zero Photoshop and no retouching done to them whatsoever.