Painting with Light with Eric Curry

March 28, 2011

Painting with Light with Eric Curry
At first glance the photographs tend to look 'fake,' like a drawing or computer rendering might appear, because they are 'too nice.' 

The following short video tutorial and artist's interview demonstrates how industrial/fine art photographer Eric Curry used the 'Painting with Light' technique to create Submarine. By creating multiple photographs all exposed by lighting different details of the same scene, and then layering those same photographs back together into a single magical image, it does seem that the sum of the parts total more than the individual frames.

Canon Digital Learning Center (CDLC): Please explain your post-production in more detail. For example, how do you separate tiny details of each image to layer together with others?

Eric Curry (EC): The basic layering process is simplicity itself. After completing a few images from the location, I open them up in Photoshop and then drag all of the images into the same file by simply dragging each image onto the starting photo. Basically overlapping each photo onto the others as you “stack” them up. You will need to make sure that each image lings up with its counterpart underneath, so turn off all other visible layers and just turn on (make visible) a single one of your exposures / layers. Now, one at a time drag the image until it “snaps” into place in the corner. Turn on “Snap” from the view menu will make this easy.

For convenience I use a solid black layer underneath all the different layers / exposures. Now one at a time you can go to each individual layer and erase or use layer masks to remove all the information you do not want in the final photo.

After you have completed tweaking an individual layer, go to the LAYERS tab at the top of the layers window and choose “Lighten > Screen” or “Overlay” for example (instead of the default, Normal). This will allow each consecutive layer to become transparent to the other layers below it. That way, each time you add another layer to what started off as a solid black background field, the image will grow as you add more and more layers.

Each time you do add another layer to the stack, assuming that the tripod was not bumped during the shooting process the images should overlap pretty well. The only difference, from shot to shot, should just be the different surfaces that you light with your flashlights.

CDLC: How long do these images typically take to edit/composite?

EC: After initial photography is completed it usually takes me about fifty hours to recombine all the desired images back into a single photograph.” There, that’s the bad news first. Keep in mind that when it comes to this series of photographs I tend to become more of a perfectionist, so my interest in making the final image sparkle is powerful. I will often shoot over eight hundred separate frames from location, and the final completed photo that you are seeing might well include over 200 or more of those exposures, so there is a lot to choose from and manage ultimately.

For all the readers of this article and viewers to the previous video, keep in mind that this technique does not need to be this complicated at all. It is absolutely possible to make a “Painted with Light” photograph with only two or three separate Photoshop™ layers (exposures). For myself, because the concepts and settings are so very intricate I tend to go a bit overboard here and there, but it is by choice, not necessity.

CDLC: How did you discover this technique, and how long did it take to perfect the process?

EC: People often ask me how I invented this particular technique. I explain that I did not really invent it per se, my belief is that we do not really invent new “tricks” as such. We just keep rediscovering older techniques that have been lost. In a way, I was the perfect guy to stumble upon this again. I have been a studio special effects photographer for many years. In the old days I would use multiple large format cameras in the studio and create complicated, technically demanding exposures by moving the film from camera to camera to create a quadruple exposure all on the same sheet of 4x5” film. I’m just taking that concept of time as it applies to the process of photography and using the new cameras and the technology that exists today.

Actually, I am sort of amazed that it took me so long to figure this out considering that I was doing the same thing fifteen years ago. By no means did I invent the concept of a “double exposure”. That has been around since the beginning of photography -- I just pushed it a little farther.

Also, instead of making the technique visible to the final viewer, I am really trying to bury the technique in the final photo. I do not want the viewers of my photos to think to themselves “Wow, great trick photo!” Instead, I want people to become lost in the message and story I’m trying to tell. These images are tributes to the subjects in the photograph; they are not supposed to be about the photographer.

CDLC: How do you typically display and/or distribute your work?

EC: I have been very fortunate so far in that I have had two different one-man shows at museums in California and Virginia. My preference for displaying these unusual photographs is to print them very large. Because of the ability of my EOS-1Ds series camera to create very large sharp photographs, it’s a mind-blowing experience for viewers of these shots so see them in a large format. On that scale it is possible to see every little detail built into the digital file. Even at five or six feet across the shots are razor sharp. You can see tiny details such as cigarette butts on the ground and individual rivets on the side of an aircraft fuselage.

The shots were designed by me to be a joy to see, when viewed in a large format, it is almost like being there. When first glimpsed they might give the impression of being some sort of super detailed illustration or painting because the lighting is so nice and the scene is almost too interesting…. It is upon further inspection that the viewer is confronted with the realization that these are indeed photographic, almost hyper-photographic in nature. I think that is part of the interest and charm of seeing them. One has to just let go and join the fun, to go for a ride by “being” in the moment of the scene presented.

CDLC: How is this a more effective technique for your imaging goals than traditional lighting, or even other specialty effects such as High Dynamic Range (HDR)?

EC: Several times over the last year or so other photographers have asked me if this is some sort of HDR technique because it looks so unusual. I would explain that instead of using software to “fix” a photograph by bringing the deep shadows and bright highlights back into the visible range of what we perceive, I purposely light objects and people the way I want them to look in the final photo. Deep shadows should be dark, and so on.

On the face of it, this does seem to be a very complicated method to make a single photo, but it does not need to be by any means. It can be as simple or as complex as you choose to make it – as simple, for example, as having just two separate photos/layers if that fits the subject or concept you are trying to illustrate.

Regarding the amount of effort required to make a “good photograph” let me share just a little bit of my philosophy (as it relates to these photographs specifically): As a professional photographer shooting for over 28 years I have been asked by clients here and there to cut corners. Either the budget was very tight, there is no time to do a proper job, or this specific shot is not that important because it is only going to be used on the internet, etc., etc. Three months later after the shot was published and the photograph maybe did not stand up to my best work, nobody cared that it was done on a tight budget or was a rush job. All that mattered in the end is the quality of work you, as a photographer, put out there for the world to see. Now after bearing in mind what I just told you about the amount of effort expended and the results achieved, I have to ask my self- “How much work am I willing to put into a photograph that is indeed a work of art?” I expect that I will never be monetarily compensated for all the effort expended to make these little jewels of photography, that’s not the point.

In years to come when this shot is hopefully hanging on some museum wall, it is irrelevant how long it took for the photographer to create. All that matters to me is the finished photo and that moment of joy a viewer to this photograph will derive from understanding the scene unfolding and the story inside the photo.

Photographed and created by Eric Curry. Eric has been a professional photographer for 28 years, and currently specializes in industrial/location photography, working exclusively with Canon EOS cameras. To see more samples, videos, slide shows and narratives of Eric Curry’s unusual work please visit his website:

The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.

All images are copyright Eric Curry

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