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Light painting photography is one of the coolest things you can ever do with your camera. It’s colourful, futuristic, and most importantly, fun. Unfortunately, a lot of people often feel discouraged to try it because they think it’s technically challenging.

The truth is that it’s a really easy process, and we’re happy to show you how to do it with these easy-to-follow tips.

1. How Does Light Painting Photography Work

A red light paighting photography spiral on a beach at night.

Light painting may seem complicated, but it’s really just a clever use of long exposure techniques. All it takes is opening your camera shutter long enough to record the moving subjects (such as light sources) as blurry streaks. It’s that simple.

For instance, if you leave your shutter open for five seconds in front of a busy highway, car lights will register as long trails in your photo. Light painting works the same, except that you get to control exactly where the light goes.

Light painting is tricky because you don’t see what you’re doing until the photo has already been taken. To help you visualise what you’re drawing, think of your light source as a paintbrush.

A single stroke in the air leaves a long streak in your image. Meanwhile, turning your light on and off creates staggered pattern, and waving it in the air produces beautiful swirls and light orbs.

2. Collect Colourful Lights

A man holding three coloured light sticks for light painting photography

Gather different types of battery-powered light sources for your project. It could be anything from toy lightsabers to flashlights and string lights. Feel free to use a variety of colours to make your photos look vivid and engaging.

The most critical light source required for spirals is a toy lightsaber. Its long light allows you to create swirls in the air effortlessly. For light orbs, you’ll need a small light source (such as a small LED) tied to a string which you’ll spin in the air.

Apart from those main props, you can use flashlights and other light sources to accentuate your light painting. They’re helpful in lighting up the background or adding colours and effects to your spirals.

Remember to check what type of batteries required for each light source. Don’t just buy the exact amount you’ll need. Always bring extra batteries, so you don’t have to worry about losing power. Light painting sessions may take hours, so better be prepared.

3. Rehearse Your Shots

A green and blue light orb on a beach at night. Light painting photography.

In many ways, light painting is like dancing. Every effect has its own “choreography.” It helps if you get used to the moves first before you begin taking photos.

To create spirals, start with your back turned away from the camera. Once the shutter opens, turn on your lightsaber, point it downwards and turn slowly. As you spin, lift it higher and higher until it’s above your head. When you’re done, stay still until you hear the shutter close.

When you pivot, make sure that you’re rotating on the same spot. Otherwise, the light streaks will look crooked and messy.

For light orbs, you’ll need to put a marker on the ground (such as a coin or a leaf) to guide you as you move around. As soon as the shutter opens, spin the light source attached to the string at a consistent pace.

Then slowly turn as you whirl your small LED. Just make sure your light passes the coin every time you turn. Doing so will guarantee that you’ll have a perfectly round orb.

Of course, you can also think of new ways to create your light painting. There aren’t any hard rules when it comes to this process. As you gain a better understanding of how the technique works, it will be easier for you to develop your own methods. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what you do as long as the final photo looks interesting.

4. Switch to Manual Mode

A DSLR camera on a tripod surrounded by a white light spiral - light painting photography.

Your camera’s automatic functions don’t work as well in dimly lit situations. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to use Manual Mode when light painting.

First, set your ISO between 100 to 800. The higher the value you choose, the more sensitive to light your camera will be.  However, choosing a high ISO also introduces noise that can ruin your image. So try to stick to ISO 100 to 400 in normal situations.

You should only use ISO 500 and above when your location doesn’t have enough ambient light to create a proper exposure.

Next, set your aperture between f/8 to f/22. Since they have a deep depth of field, choosing these f-numbers guarantees that everything in your image will be sharp. Just keep in mind that the smaller your aperture, the lesser the light that goes through your lens.

Try to start with f/8 because it’s wide enough to let enough light in and still maintain deep focus. If you think your area is a little too bright, feel free to use anything between f/11 to f/22 to regulate the exposure.

Finally, set your shutter speed between 10 seconds to 30 seconds. Find out how long it takes you to finish a light orb to figure out the right value to use. And depending on the available light around you, keep adjusting your setting until you feel the exposure is correct.

5. Best Lens for Light Painting Photography

A DSLR camera on a tripod surrounded by a red light spiral.

You can use any type of lens that you like for light painting. A 50mm or even a regular kit lens will do just fine in most situations. However, wide-angle lenses tend to be the best option since they include more of the surroundings in your shot. You can start with 35mm or even go wider with fisheye lenses.

It will help a lot if you choose a lens that has a maximum aperture of at least f/1.8. You typically don’t have to set your camera larger than f/8 when light painting. However, there are situations when you’ll need a larger aperture to let more light in. That’s when using a wide aperture such as f/1.8 would be beneficial.

Just like your device’s other automatic settings, your lens might also have a hard time focusing automatically in the dark. To solve this problem, switch it to Manual focus and adjust the focus yourself. To ensure that everything’s sharp, place a bright flashlight exactly where you plan to position yourself in the frame.

Once you’re done, twist the focus ring until the light source looks sharp.

If you don’t trust yourself focusing in the dark, you can turn on the autofocus briefly. Using your click wheel, choose a focusing point (the small box on your screen) and target the flashlight. Afterward, half-press your shutter button until the subject is in focus.

Once you’re done, switch your lens back to Manual Focus. Doing so will prevent your autofocus from readjusting and “hunting” for an object to focus on.

6. Use a Tripod to Avoid Camera Shake

Three blue light orbs on a beach at night. Light painting photography.

Since you’re doing long-exposure shots, even minute movements can cause motion blur. Therefore, it would be best to use a tripod to stabilize your shots. It’s also advisable to trigger the shutter with a remote to prevent yourself from accidentally rattling the camera.

If you don’t have a remote, you can use a self-timer, instead. 10 seconds should be enough time for you to get into position for your photo. If your camera doesn’t beep as it counts down, listen to the shutter carefully.

Once you hear it click, start painting immediately. You could either keep moving until the shutter closes, or stop and stay still until the exposure is over.

7. How to Find the Right Background

A green light orb in front of a fountain at night. Light painting photography.

Finding an excellent location is crucial in light painting. You can consider it a stage, and your light photography a performance. Find a way to interact with the environment and make your orbs seem like they’re a part of the surroundings.

Your background doesn’t have to be a famous landmark, and it doesn’t have to be that beautiful either. It could be a park filled with trees or even your own backyard. What matters is how you use the space for light painting photography.

Think of where to position yourself for a balanced composition. You should also try using elements in the background when possible to make your image look more cohesive.

When looking for a location, consider the ambient light around it. If it’s too bright, it may drown out your light painting. The best background should be dark enough to allow you to expose up to thirty seconds.

8. Try These Changes From One Photo to Another

A palm tree surrounded by a red light spiral .

Learning how to draw light is a process of trial and error. It typically requires several takes to come up with one good photograph, so be prepared to mess up. You can easily ruin your image by using the wrong camera settings and or forgetting your light painting choreography. To minimise errors, here’s what you’ll need to do.

First, take test shots of your location using the manual settings you chose. If the photo is a little too dark or too bright, adjust your values incrementally until it’s well-exposed. Tinker with the aperture and shutter speed first. If your image is still not adequately lit, then that’s when you adjust your ISO.

As you already know, high ISO means a lot of noise, so you should only bump it up when necessary.

Now that your camera is ready, quickly go through the movements of your light painting. Practice it a few times before you click the shutter. Doing so will make you less nervous and less prone to making mistakes.

Once you make your first exposure, check how your photo looks. If your work appears messy, make corrections in your movements until you get it right.

Conclusion

Ultimately, light painting is a fun way to teach yourself about how a camera works. It shows you exactly how to control the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to get the effects you want. There’s no doubt that it can be intimidating at first. But once you grasp the concept, you can use the techniques you learned and apply it to other forms of photography.

So why don’t you let go of your fears and give it a spin?

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

Thank you for reading...

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Thanks again for reading our articles!

Chad Verzosa

Chad Verzosa is a writer and photographer from Florida, United States. He likes to travel, write, and take photos.

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