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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 about taking great light painting photos and you’ll be well on your way.

What is Light Painting?

Light painting is opening your camera’s shutter up for a long enough time so that you can draw in the darkness with a light source such as a torch or a lantern and effectively paint inside a photo. This is not to be confused with light graffiti, which is much the same, the difference being that you’re using the light source as the subject to create some cool shapes in the air, rather then 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 minimalise camera shake (optional)

Getting Started

The first thing you’re going to want to find is a good, dark location. Light painting adds to the interest of the photo so actually finding a location worthy of a photo shouldn’t be too hard. For my first shot i’ve chosen the breakwater down my local beach at low tide. Next thing you’ll need to do is set up the shot.

Once you’ve found where you want to put your tripod, the first thing I like to do is focus. I like to bring a lantern along with me that I use to paint with and place it about a third of the way into the scene, and manually focus on it. The reason i use manual focus is because autofocus will have a lot of trouble focusing exactly where you want it to in these conditions. If you have live view, I recommend using it now as you can digitally zoom in 10 times onto exactly what you want to focus on and have it displayed a lot larger and therefore have it focus more accurately.

The next step would be 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 quite 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. Shutter speed depends on how much light i’m working with really, but my main ‘go to’ speed it about 30 seconds, but can be as slow as just a couple of seconds in the right conditions. Finally, I usually stick the aperture on about f/5.6 as it allows the depth of field i’m looking for, without the letting too much light into the camera so that i can still use a long shutter speed.

For this first demonstration in light painting, i’m going to be using torches, the second demonstration uses flashes.

Light Painting with Torches

From a couple test shots, I decided that shooting down the breakwater didn’t really have the effect i was looking for. Have a look at the photo below and you’ll see what i mean; with the torches i have with me, they didn’t really do the job. Also, it’s pretty hard to stand in the frame and paint at the same time as you’ll cast a lot of shadows and the camera will likely pick up the ends of the torches, resulting in this unwanted messy effect.

A much more effective way to do light painting is to choose a certain area in the frame that you want to highlight and only paint part. In my 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 feels unbalanced though so i decided this still wasn’t the shot that i was after. 

I moved down the beach a bit for my next shot and pointed my camera in land. One of the great things about light painting at night is that you can you play around with your white balance and it doesn’t even matter, because you can make the colours whatever you want. The sky is orange due to the 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. 

When i was walking around 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 photo 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’s a couple more examples of light painting created using torches: The first was shot at ISO 100, f/4 at 30 seconds and the second photo was shot 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 external flashes.

Light Painting with External Flashes

Here’s the basics of how it works: The flash from a camera freezes the scene because in a dark situation it’s likely the only light the camera will see. To layer a photo, all you have to do is add more flashes, which captures the movement. In my first example below, I set off 4 flashes of 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 a speed of the swing all right. 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 used to it by then. Same settings used here as the above photo. 

Have a look at these last 2 photos where you can see that I actually walked around the photo setting off the flashes lighting up the scene from different angles. The light from the flashes become an important element to these photos and is just as important as the subject itself. For the first of the 2 photos I added movement to the roundabout and that in turn make 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 on 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’s no 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.

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How to Photograph Light Painting

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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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