Light painting photography is the practice of using a moving light— such as a flashlight, glow stick, or light brush— to alter an image while taking a long exposure photograph. Instead of just capturing an image as-is, the photographer adds another element by highlighting an object or creating streaks, colors, or flashes within the image.
Light painting has been around almost as long as photography has existed, but digital cameras made it even easier than ever. Some of the very first light paintings were created when a pair of French photographers who were studying movement attached incandescent bulbs to one of their assistants in 1889. The resulting light painting looks simplistic compared to the work that artists create today, which tends more toward the psychedelic.
But there are many possibilities for developing a style with light painting. And studying the work of artists you admire is a great way to get inspired for your own light paintings. Here are a few contemporary photographers who are known for their work with light painting.
The person behind LAPP-PRO is JanLeonardo and he’s one of the best known light painting photographers right now. His work combines choreographed manipulation of light, performance art, time, and photography.
Hannu Huhtamo is known for his flowers and structures that look as though they could be CG creations.
Michael Bosanko’s work has a playful, whimsical quality. He uses light to create otherworldly scenes that can include humans, animals, and well-known motifs.
As with any specialized kind of photography, you’re going to want to play around with your camera settings in order to figure out the exact ones to use for the effect you desire. But there are some specifics that can help you get started with light painting.
The most essential thing that’s different from the majority of photos you’ll probably take is the fact that you’re going to want a long exposure. We’re talking really long: at least 30 seconds, if not longer, depending on what you’re creating. A long exposure allows your camera to capture motion in a blur, while stationary objects stay crisp. In the case of light paintings, the motion will be a light source.
Here are the most basic settings you’re going to need to set on your camera in order to successfully get that long exposure and create a light painting:
Mode: Manuel or bulb
Shutter speed: 30 seconds
F-stop or aperture: 8 or 10
See the “How to create a light painting” section below for more details on each.
There is some basic equipment you’re going to need in create light painting photography. There are also some slightly more complicated things you’re going to need to do with your camera settings. We’ll go over both. First, equipment.
You’ll need a camera in order to create light painting. A DSLR with manual settings is best.
However, you can also use an iPhone to create light paintings. It’s a good lower cost entry to the art, as most people already have phones. But if you’re choosing to go that route, you’ll need an app that’s designed specifically for light painting -- and many of the other tips listed here won’t be relevant.
You don’t want your camera to move while doing a light painting, because the long exposure means the shutter is open longer and will result in an unwanted blurred image. Usually, blurs are always unwanted in photography, but in light painting, the blurs you create with your light source are actually desired blurs.
So make sure you have a good, sturdy tripod. The only case in which you won’t need a tripod is if you’re doing kinetic light painting, which we go over below.
You can use any tool as a light source for a light painting, but each one will have a different effect—and even a different color. Some examples of popular light sources for light painting are light painting brushes, flashlights, lasers, glow sticks, cellphones, candles, or even LED string lights. It’s worth experimenting with different light sources to see which ones work best for your desired effect.
There are three main types of light sources for light painting: on camera light source, off camera light source, and kinetic light painting.
An on-camera light source means the element creating the light is a visible subject. With this technique, you actually step within the frame of the image and use a light source to “paint.” It’s a good idea to wear dark clothing if you’re choosing this technique, so that you don’t show up in the image yourself.
With an off-camera light source, you’re going to shine a light from outside the frame of the photo onto a section of the thing you’re photographing. Off camera light sources are great for highlighting specific objects or for changing the overall tone of the image.
And, finally, with kinetic light painting, you’re actually going to move the camera, not the light source. So, for example, you could “paint” using the light emitted from a candle.
You really don’t want to touch your camera or your tripod when you’re light painting (unless you’re doing kinetic light painting), because it will blur the image. When you’re shooting with a long shutter speed, even the slightest motion can blur the image. So you’re going to need a remote shutter release or a cable release. These tools allow you to snap the image without ever touching your camera!
If you’re not ready to invest in a remote shutter release or cable release, the timer function on your camera will also do.
A stop watch
A stop watch is helpful but not necessarily essential. It’s very likely that you’ll want to keep track of how long your shutter is open and counting in your head can be distracting and difficult. You need the shutter to be open long enough for you to move the light when you’re doing a light painting. That might be 30 seconds or even a minute or longer, depending on what you’re doing.
Color gels are also helpful, but not essential. A color gel is a transparent colored material that goes over your lens and chances the color of the image you’re capturing. You can buy them online, at camera stores, or you can even make them yourself out of colored pieces of transparent plastic. They’re great for changing the tint of the light you’re working with. Use these if you’re going for certain effects, but they probably won’t be necessary every single time.
The very first thing you need to do is make sure your camera is set to the correct settings, as outlined above.
Second, you need to determine the base exposures of the ambient light, before you even add any new light painting elements. Because you’re working with long exposure times, it can help to set your ISO to six stops higher than the ISO you’ll be using. If you’re using ISO 100, that means you’ll set it to ISO 6400. At that ISO, figure out how many seconds you need to expose the ambient light. One second at ISO 6400 is equal to one minute at ISO 100.
Once you’ve figured out the exposure in seconds, set the ISO back to 100 and check the exposure in minutes. If it matches up, you have your base exposure time.
It’s important to focus your image before you start light painting, but that can be difficult in the dark. This is where the manual focus setting is useful. If you have the option of turning on an overhead light, you can do that in order to focus the camera. But if you don’t have an overhead light—like if you’re shooting outside—you can simply point a light source at a part of your scene that you know needs to be in focus. Leave that light source on as long as you’re focusing and turn it off once you’ve found your focus.
This is the fun part! It’s time to begin your exposure and start painting. The majority of cameras will allow exposure times of up to 30 seconds, so if you want a longer exposure time than that, set your shutter speed to bulb mode. Bulb mode means the camera will keep taking the photo until your finger leaves the shutter button.
Finally, the most important thing to remember with light painting is to experiment, have fun, and develop your own style. It’s a medium that provides so many ways to express yourself, so dive in and see what grabs you.
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