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How to Use Your Smartphone to Create Stunning Light Painting Photography

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Related course: Wow Factor Photography

We’re all in search of creative outlets in life. In this article you’re going to see how you can light up your creative photography with light painting!
We’ll run through various techniques for painting with light. The best part? You can use your smartphone as either your light painting tool, or even your light painting camera!
You’ll discover various tricks which you can apply to this fun technique, and boost your creative photography today!
This article is broken down into two main parts. First, we’ll look at taking a light painting photo with a smartphone. Then we’ll look at how your smartphone can be turned into a dynamic light painting tool.

Atmospheric photo of a glass ball, computer mouse and cable surrounded by stunning purple light painting photography
In this photo I used a purple/pink coloured gel to light paint with a flashlight. Then I used the flashlight to light up the mouse. Placing everything on a sheet of glass caused the reflection.

Equipment You’ll Need

  • Smartphone – You’ll need this both for taking photos, and to use it as a light source to paint with.
  • Tripod – This is desirable, though in a pinch you could rest your camera where it won’t move. If using a tripod, you’ll need the relevant bracket to hold your camera.
  • External shutter release – These are available for both smartphones and DSLRs. You’ll need this to ensure your camera doesn’t move when you take the photo.
  • A light source – This could be your camera, an LED light, a torch, a smartphone. Anything that emits light can be used for light painting.
  • Gels – This refers to transparent plastic of different colours. You can use these to change the colour of the light you paint with.

Using Your Smartphone as a Camera

Those with older smartphones will have only one real option when it comes to making long exposures, and that’s using an app that allows you to take long exposure photos.
The newer models have a feature within the live view, which allows you to transform a video recording into a long exposure photo. Whichever method you choose to use, this is a long exposure photo so using a tripod is best.
Let’s look at how you go about this, and why for the time being DSLR‘s are still a long way ahead in this area of photography despite recent advances by smart phone manufacturers.

Atmospheric photo of a highway tunnel with streaming light trails an example of long exposure with a smartphone
This is an example of long exposure with an iPhone.

Download a Long Exposure App

The app you’ll need to download to perform long exposure with your phone is called Slow Shutter. Once you have this app you’re ready for painting with light!
To use this effectively position your camera somewhere it won’t move during the exposure, preferably on a tripod. The app gives you a choice of exposure times from 0.5 to 15 seconds. There is even a bulb mode! If you have an external shutter release for your phone, you could experiment with this.
In addition to this there are a few capture modes, with light trails being one of those options. Those without an external shutter release are also catered for here. The app has a self timer to release the shutter for you to utilise.

  • Traffic light trails – Simply set up your phone in an interesting place to capture car light trails, and record. The light will be painted as the cars move through the scene.
  • Light painting shapes – You’ll need one of the above mentioned tools such as a torch to do this. Set your camera to expose. You’ll likely need to use 15 seconds or longer to complete your light painting.

Use the Camera’s Live View

An alternative way of creating long exposure is now available with the iPhone for those users with iOS 11. The way in which this photo is taken even means you can make a handheld long exposure, but I’d advise against this.

  • You’ll need to set your camera to live view.
  • Now expose your photo, and create your light painting. You can light paint with shapes, or create traffic light trails.
  • When you have finished the recording, turn the camera shutter off.
  • Now view your finished exposure in the camera app.
  • Now hit the details tab, and choose the effects selector. Here you’ll find the long exposure effect, which will transform your photo into a light painting!
Stunning night cityscape photo using Canon 5D mark II. The starburst effect that you can see on the street lights is only possible with a small aperture.
This photo was not taken with a smart phone, it was taken using a Canon 5D mark II. The starburst effect that you can see on the street lights is only possible with a small aperture, currently not a feature on smart phones.

Aperture and Sensor Size

Camera phones do have a couple of serious short comings when it comes to nighttime long exposure. These are unlikely to be fixable except perhaps by post-processing.

  • Aperture – The aperture on a smart phone is typically on the large size. For instance the iPhone X goes from f1.8 to f2.4. Having a large aperture is usually great, but not when it comes to light painting. That large aperture will mean the lines of light you produce are bright, and wide. This isn’t a great look. It also means any stationary light sources won’t produce a starburst-like effect, like you’d see with a camera at around f11 or smaller.
  • Sensor size – Using any camera for long exposure is going to produce an image that has more digital noise. The smaller sensors perform worst in this area, and this is another disadvantage to using a camera phone for this type of photography.

Using Your Smartphone as a Light Painting Tool

Now the second way you can use your smartphone is as a tool for painting with light. You’ll use it together with a DSLR camera or a camera capable of long exposure.
The phone has two main light sources, which can be used to create your light painting in several ways. Remember that the camera must be on a tripod when light painting, and you’ll want to expose for 15 seconds or longer.
While the camera is painting move your light source around, to create the light painting.

A Japanese wooden doll lit up using a smartphone's flashlight for light painting background
In this photo you can see the Japanese wooden doll is lit up using a smartphone’s flashlight. The background is painted using the smart phone’s screen.

Lighting an Object Up

Light painting will occur in a dark place, either indoors or outdoors. If you wish to light up a person or object then using a flash in conjunction with your light painting is an option.
The other option when the object you want to light up is perfectly still, is to light it up through light painting. In this case the light source will be facing away from the camera lens, and toward the object you wish to light up.
The flashlight on your phone is perfect for this function, and can be used to light up an object, or specific areas of your photo. If the room is dark enough, you may even be able to light up your still life object, and then light paint behind that object in the same exposure.

Words drawn in the sky over a seascape at night, using a smartphone's flashlight for light painting photography
As well as painting shapes, you can also paint words using a smartphone’s flashlight.

Painting With the Camera’s Flashlight

The first light source you can use to paint with is the camera’s flash light. This is a bright beam of light, and so there will be a very strong light in your photo. This can be used for making shapes like circles, lines, or perhaps heart shapes.
Avoid keeping the light stationary within your scene for any prolonged length of time, as the light will then begin to overpower the photo. Now this light will be white, and is often a “cold” white light. It has a bluish tint to it.
It’s not always desirable to have this colour for your light painting though, so how can you change it up?
The solution is simple. You can just place some colour gels over the top of your flash light, and you’ll be able to change the colour! When you add a gel to the front of the flashlight it will make the intensity of that light slightly dimmer. This can be an advantage for your light painting.

A glass illuminated with many colours up using a smartphone for light painting background - creative photography ideas
In this photo you can see a light pattern created by a screen on a smartphone. The colour is created using a photo as the screen background.

Painting With the Camera’s Screen

An even more creative way of painting with light is to use the camera’s screen. This also emits light, but the light is much less intense than the flashlight. What you now have in your hand is a mini light stick, which you can program to emit different light sources.
Do you want to change the colour of the light? No problem, and this time you won’t even need gels to do it. You have a number of options to change the screen.

  • Photos – You can use a photo you already have. Photos that have solid blocks of colour work especially well for this, though you can experiment with any photo to see how this would look when used for light painting.
  • Flashlight appThis app allows you to change the screen colour of your phone. You can even choose more than one colour, so you can have colour blocks when you paint with the light.
A red and blue background with a water drop photography splash in the foreground
This is the photo used to create the light painting seen above.

Conclusion

As you can see light painting is a great technique, and you can do a lot of things with your smartphone.
Have you ever used your smartphone to make a light painting? Have you ever tried something different with the smartphone when you do your light painting than what we’ve covered here?
We hope that we’ve inspired you to try your hand at this dynamic form of photography. So please share your experience of this in the comments section, together with any photos you have!
Looking for some more creative photography ideas? Why not check our posts on minimalist photography, surreal photography or even try out a MIOPS Smart trigger!

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