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Why you Should be Light Painting

In short, it’s a fun, easy way of getting some really cool photos.

You don’t need to spend hours looking for a cool location; light painting can be done just about anywhere, so just follow my step by step, insightful thought process to take great light painting photos and you’ll be well on your way.

What is Light Painting?

Light painting involves opening your camera’s shutter long enough for you to ‘draw’ in the darkness with a light source such as a torch or lantern, effectively painting inside the photo.

This is not to be confused with light graffiti which is very similar. The main difference is that you’re using the light source as the subject, rather than using it to paint light onto a dark scene.

What do you need?

You will need the following items:

  • A camera that you can set to manual
  • A tripod to hold the camera steady
  • A dark location
  • A light source to paint the scene
  • A remote for your camera’s shutter to minimise camera shake (optional)

Getting Started

The first thing you want to find is a good, dark location.

Light painting adds to the interest of a photo; finding a location worthy of such a photo shouldn’t be too hard. For my first shot, I’ve chosen the breakwater on my local beach at low tide.

The next thing you’ll need to do is set up the shot:

Once you’ve found a suitable position for your tripod, I like to focus. I’ll bring a lantern along with me for painting with and place it about a third of the way into the scene, then manually focus on it.

The reason I use manual focus is because autofocus has a lot of trouble focusing exactly where you want it to in these conditions. If you have live view, I recommend using it now; you can digitally zoom 10 times in on what you want to focus on and have it displayed a lot larger, allowing for more accurate focus.

The next step is to set your ISO, shutter speed and aperture.

Because the exposure is quite long, you don’t want the ISO to be too high or the photo will come out looking grainy. I like to set mine to 400 as it allows me the sort of detail I’m looking for in the sky even though I’m not painting onto it.

The shutter speed depends on how much light I’m working with really but my main ‘go to’ speed it about 30 seconds. That said, it can be as slow as just a few seconds in the right conditions.

Finally, I usually stick the aperture on about f/5.6. This allows for the depth of field I’m looking for without letting too much light in to the camera so that I can still use a long shutter speed.

For the first demonstration in light painting I’m going to be using torches, and in the second demonstration I use flashes.

Light Painting with Torches

From a couple of test shots, I decided that shooting down the breakwater didn’t give the effect I was looking for.

Have a look at the photo below and you’ll see what I mean: the torches I had with me didn’t really do the job. Also, it’s pretty hard to stand in the frame and paint at the same time. You end up casting a lot of shadows and the camera is likely to pick up the ends of the torches, resulting in this unwanted, messy effect.

A much more effective way of light painting is to choose a certain area in the frame that you want to highlight and only paint part.

In the next 2 shots, I chose part of the foreground to paint and played around with that for a little bit. The combination of the torch light and the lantern blocked by the breakwater felt unbalanced, so I decided that this still wasn’t the shot I was after. 

I moved down the beach a little for my next shot and pointed my camera in land.

One of the great things about light painting at night is that you can play around with your white balance and it doesn’t even matter; you can make the colours whatever you want.

Here, the sky is orange due to light pollution in the area but the sand has a violet hue because I changed the white balance to white fluorescent light. This makes the photo look like it’s from another planet which can be a lot of fun to play around with. 

As I walked around on the beach, I noticed this dynamic asymmetry that had been staring me in the face for the past 20 minutes.

The key features in the photo below are symmetric, while the surrounding objects in the scene balance the photo with their asymmetry. For the first photo with this set up, I just used the lantern as a light source which cast some interesting shadows around the photo. This was taken at ISO 400, f/5.6 at 30 seconds. I really like this photo, but it is lacking the real light painting effect i’m after, so for my final shot, i used the same settings but this time shined a torch onto the center support. The darkness is still balanced by the shadows on the outer beams and behind the rocks, but you get a real sense of light painting and it looks a lot more striking now. The overall effect is similar to that of an HDR (high dynamic range) photo, but without the unnecessary over-saturation that’s often found. When i’m light painting, I like to walk around the subject and point the torch from all different angles to really make it stand out. Here’s my finished photo. As you can see, it’s fairly easy to take an otherwise ordinary, everyday scene and make it much more interesting with the use of light painting. I recommend taking whatever portable light sources you have and going out with a friend one evening – it can be a lot of fun.

Here are a few more examples of light painting created with torches:

The first was shot at ISO 100, f/4 at 30 seconds and the second at ISO 100, f/3.5 at 30 seconds.

Of course, you don’t have to only use torches – you can get very interesting effects using an external flash.

Light Painting with External Flashes

These are the basics of how it works:

The flash from a camera freezes the scene because, in a dark situation, objects illuminated during the flash are the only ones the camera will see. To layer a photo, just add more flashes – this allows capture of movement.

In my first example below, I set off 4 flashes on to a moving swing to capture it exactly how I wanted it. This took a lot of trial and error to get the timing, angle of the flash and speed of the swing all correct.

ISO 320, f/5.6 at 15 seconds with 4 flashes. 

Another idea I had was to add a person into the photo and capture their movement. Again, this took a little trial and error but less so than the previous shot as I was more used to it. The same settings are used here as in the above photo. 

Have a look at these last 2 photos – you can see that I actually walked around the photo setting off flashes, lighting up the scene from different angles. The light from the flashes become an important element of these photos and is just as important as the subject itself.

For the first of the two photos, I added movement to the roundabout, which makes the photo more interesting and shows how the light painting effect works. For the second photo, I lowered the flash and it actually ended up being one of my favourite photos of the night because the reflections on the roundabout made it look like a stage.

As I hope you can see by now, there aren’t any real rules to light painting, it’s just a case of taking the time and effort and having fun. Try and experiment with your photos by adding different coloured flashes along with glow-sticks and lasers into the mix.

How to Photograph Light Painting

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Josh

I'm a self taught photographer from Brighton, England. I take a lot of photos and enjoy teaching my methods to anyone willing to learn- this is my blog, check out my video training & Google.

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