Light painting is a fun and creative way to photograph at night. It doesn’t take much to capture interesting light painting images that you’ll want to share.
You don’t need to spend hours looking for a cool location. You can do light painting photography anywhere.
Follow my step by step guide to shooting great light painting photography and you’ll learn what it takes in no time.
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What Is Light Painting?
Light painting means creating patterns with a light source of on a dark background, such as a night sky.
This technique involves opening your camera’s shutter. It has to be long enough for you to ‘paint’ in the dark with a light source. This can be a torch or lantern, effectively painting the light inside the photo.
Be sure not to confuse this technique with light graffiti, which is very similar. The main difference is that you’re using the light source as the subject. You’re not using it to paint light onto a dark scene.
In short, light painting is a fun, easy way of getting some very cool photos.
What Do You Need for Light Painting?
You will need the following items to begin:
- 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 minimize camera shake (optional).
How to Get Started With Light Painting
The first thing you want to find is a good, dark location. Light painting needs darkness to allow the light to shine through.
Light painting adds to the interest of an image; finding a location worthy of such an image 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 – focus.
I would bring a lantern along with me as a light source to paint with. Place the light source about a third of the way into the scene, then manually focus on it.
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. This allows for more accurate focus.
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 but my main ‘go-to’ speed is about 30 seconds. That said, it can be as slow as a few seconds in the right conditions.
You might decide to choose ‘Bulb’ mode. This is because it gives you the most control over the exposure time.
Here, you want to use a shutter release cable on your mirrorless or DSLR cameras.
For the first demonstration in light painting photography, I’m going to be using torches as my light source. In the second demonstration, I use flashes.
Light Painting with Torches
You are creating a long exposure photograph.
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 shot 1 below and you’ll see what I mean: the torches I had as my light source didn’t 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. This results in this unwanted, messy effect.
A much more effective way of light painting is to choose a certain area. This would be an area in the frame that you want to highlight and only paint part.
In the next two shots, I chose a part of the foreground to paint and played around with that for a little bit. This is a great idea and one of the best light painting tips.
The combination of the torchlight 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 inland.
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 colors whatever you want.
For successful light painting, consider your environment.
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. It had been staring me in the face for the past 20 minutes.
For the first image with this setup, I used the lantern as a light source. This cast some interesting shadows around the photo. This was taken at ISO 400, f/5.6 at 30 seconds.
I really like this image. But it is lacking the real light photography effect I’m after.
For my final shot, I used the same camera settings but this time shined a torch onto the centre 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 the image looks a lot more striking now.
The overall effect is similar to that of an HDR (high dynamic range) image. But without the unnecessary over-saturation HDR often comes with.
When I’m capturing light paintings, I like to walk around the subject. I point the torch from all different angles to really make it stand out.
Here’s my finished image.
For great light paintings, make sure you light the object from all sides.
As you can see, it’s 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.
Shots 6 & 7
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.
The first tip for shooting light painting is to make sure you have enough light sources for your environment.
Of course, you don’t have to only use torches – you can get very interesting light painting effects using an external flash.
Light Painting With External Flashes
Here are the basics of how light painting with an external flash works.
The flash from a camera freezes the scene. In a dark situation, objects illuminated during the flash are the only ones the camera will see.
To layer an image, 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.
One of the best light painting techniques is to use external flashes. They will help you with your aim in achieving light painting effect.
ISO 320, f/5.6 at 15 seconds with 4 flashes.
Another 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 image.
Have a look at these last two 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. It is as important as the subject itself. Painting with light photographs tends to show light sources.
For the first of the two photos, I added movement to the roundabout. This makes the photo more interesting and shows how light painting photography effect works.
For the second photo, I lowered the flash. It actually ended up being one of my favorite photos of the night. 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 a case of taking the time and effort and having fun.
Try and experiment with your light painting photos. Add different colored flashes along with glow sticks and lasers into the mix.
Light Painting Photography With a Model
The concept for this photo was to make it appear as though the same girl was in several places at the same time.
There are a couple of things to note before we get started: the model I used was an absolute pro but I still had to be quick as it was freezing outside and she was sitting on a metal roundabout.
It was also dark, making the shot hard to compose. Before I show you where I started, have a look at my final image:
Below is my first image. As you can see, there’s plenty wrong with.
For a start, the model is only in the photo twice and they completely overlap. There’s also too much dead space at the top of the photo and it’s off-centre.
The settings used for this photo were ISO 320, f/5.6 for 4 seconds.
The first thing I noticed is that 4 seconds was nowhere near long enough to get the photo I wanted. I increased that to 15 seconds for the rest of the photos.
This will allow the model to appear more than twice in the photo and for the flash to appear from more angles.
For my next shot, I used a longer shutter speed. This allowed me to move the model around the image more times without having to worry too much about the time.
I also straightened up the image a little and angled the camera down.
Even with the longer shutter speed, I didn’t pay enough care and attention as to where exactly the model was positioned when I set off the flashes.
Because I had the extra time, I ended up setting off too many flashes. These have made the photo quite messy. For the rest of the photos, I decided to stick to three carefully chosen positions.
Another couple of things I noticed were that I didn’t step far enough back when setting of the flashes. You can clearly see my foot on the left.
The photo is still not quite symmetrical… time to take another photo.
This third photo is a step in the right direction but with 3 main flaws. The most obvious of these is the red line running across the middle of the photo.
This came from the light on my flash, indicating that it was ready to set off another strobe of light. I need to keep this covered in future or it’ll ruin the shot.
Secondly, and less noticeable to most, there’s still too much dead space at the top of the photo. I need to either zoom in or recompose the shot.
Finally, the model doesn’t stand out enough which comes from not enough light in the photo.
The best way to counter this is to set off more flashes for each position – previously it was one or two.
Finally, I managed to frame the shot how I wanted it. I did so by zooming in by 4mm in focal length (if you want to understand focal length better, click on that link).
Now, this is a big improvement. The whole composition is a lot better and the positioning of the model is nearly perfect.
The positioning of the model in the centre still isn’t quite to my standards. And there’s not enough light on her in the other two positions.
It’s time to go back and take one more shot.
This is much more like it.
Whenever I start out with a photo, I like to picture the best result I could hope for in my mind and this is it.
Considering how the model is sitting, having her head off centre helps with the balance of the photo as her legs go off to the right of the frame. It also means that she’s not overlapping the other exposures of herself.
Now that I’m done, I hope you like it!
Light painting is a creative photography technique that makes your photos stand out. You will be able to achieve awesome results with a little patience and attention to detail. Consider your environment, choose an appropriate background, pick an external light source and you’re good to go!
As you’re already out taking photos at night, have a go at some milky way photography too! Find out how with our Milky Way Mastery course here.