Darkness. Torches. Dancing.

Painting with Light

Painting with light... Isn’t that what all photography is? The art of manipulating and capturing light to create the image you intended? Well yes, but recent years have allowed that concept to grow and expand, and painting with light is now considered an art form in itself, where you create pictures using a variety of moving light sources, whilst your camera shoots on a long exposure.

Shooting with long exposures means that you need to keep your camera steady to maintain crisp and clear images. You can use a tripod, or merely resting it on something static will do the trick – although be aware that composition can be a lot harder without a tripod.

Light Painting 2 by Zevotron


Once your camera is in position, you can choose how long the exposure is – a few seconds, minutes, or even hours long – ultimately this is decided by just how ambitious you are!

Painting with light can be done with any camera; point and shoot or SLR. To set up for your shot, set your camera to Manual (M) mode – you should be able to find this on the dial on the top of your camera or within the menu system. If you’re struggling, check your manual! Once you’re in Manual mode, change the exposure setting (also found in your menu) to the length of time you want the photo to expose for, try 30 seconds at first. Then change your aperture to around f2.8 to allow a lot of light into the camera during those 30 seconds.

The lower the f number, the wider the aperture is that lets light into the camera – you will need to experiment to get it right, but f2.8 is a good place to start. Check out our Exposure Guide for more on aperture.

Saint Etienne by geishaboy500


You should also turn off your flash and set the self-timer to, say 5 seconds, which will allow the camera to ‘settle’ before taking the shot, eliminating the chance of shake and giving you a chance to get into position…

Halo's by Jasonr611


SLRs provide more ‘options’ than a standard compact camera, so you can be more experimental with your photos. They will also deal better with the potential for ‘noise’ that arises in photos shot in the dark. If you own an SLR you may want to purchase a remote cable release, such as one of these Hahnel models as this gives you greater flexibility. Cable releases are useful as you can set your camera exposure to ‘Bulb’ and use the remote to keep the shutter open for a long time, keeping the camera exposing for as long as you hold the shutter down. Obviously you could do this by holding the shutter button on the actual camera down, but you would need to be really careful not to shake or even slightly wobble your camera.

Zombie by geishaboy500


So, once you’ve set your exposure to 30 seconds, ‘Bulb’ or whatever time length you choose, press the shutter button and get to the other side of the camera to start the show!

What equipment do I need?

A torch is the first thing that any fledgling light painter should invest in. Ideally, get one that has two brightness settings – bingo, two lights in one. Secondly, and in fact most importantly, you need a dark place. If you are shooting indoors this is easy – pull the curtains and turn off the lights. If you are shooting outdoors then you’ll need to go after dark. Do a proper reccy of your location to make sure your shoot is not going to be thwarted by the neighbour’s security light, passing cars, or even the moon on a particularly clear night.

Lightpainting Tools by geishaboy500


These are the basics, but there is so much more you can use and really, it is up to your imagination to decide what. If you have a range of torches, then invest in coloured Perspex to give the light sources different colours. Alternatively you can cheaply purchase a range of LED lights in different colours, or a selection of glow sticks, light sabers (steal them from your kids!), sparklers, matches or roman candles – anything you can think of that emits light. When something is cheap, it is a good idea to buy a few, and spare batteries, tape and string are all pretty essential. Take a look at the picture above for some ideas - if you click on it you will be taken to the photographer's Flickr page, where each component is explained.

Take a sample shot with the lights / flash on so that you can check your composition is as you want it, then you’re ready to go – flash off, lights off, camera, action!

Getting down to it

So, your photo is exposing, you have all the equipment you need, what next? Well, this is the really, really easy bit. You dance like a crazy person (providing you have lights attached to you…) and make wild shapes, which your camera will meanwhile calmly pick up. Of course, make sure you’ve turned the lights out first – not least to avoid anyone else seeing you dance…

Move your lights around like they are paintbrushes (painting with light, geddit?), spin them, twirl with them, jump with them, do the loop-the-loop, throw them, whatever, to create the effect you want – this is artistic license in its truest form.

Light painting with a 3pi robot by donjd2


Studio Lightpaint Sessions (12) by geishaboy500

Lightpainting sessions -1- by geishaboy500


If you sweep your ‘paintbrush’ across the scene you will get less precise paint strokes than if your use your light source like a pen. Areas where you take your time will be more lit than others, but don’t leave your light source on any one point for too long as this will create a burnt highlight.

If you want to light the location briefly, with focus on the light painting, then you can keep your flash on. The camera will capture all the light movements during its exposure, then at the end of the exposure, the flash will trigger, briefly lighting the rest of the scene – great for taking shots of your kids with sparklers on bonfire night.

SpaceBoy Spun by geishaboy500


You can also get nice results by shooting where there is some ambient light, for example adding a supernatural sheen to the edge of objects, such as cars. Part of the photo will be lit 'normally' whilst the light-painted part will add an element of interest to the shot. In this image for example, the photographer used ambient light to highlight the 'path' of the light source down the stairs and towards the camera.

Lightpainting sessions -3- by geishaboy500


Once the shutter closes you can check out the results and decide what worked and what didn’t. There is an element of trial and error, but that is all part of the fun!

Light Drawings by geishaboy500


Our thanks to all the photographers whose photos have featured here, all courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.