Light painting photography is one of the most appealing techniques in the modern digital world. Despite being extremely easy to put into practice, the results are nothing short to stunning. In fact, it is a very pleasant way for beginners to visualize just how much they can do with their cameras.
This technique requires very few prerequisites and a lot of creativity. In this article, we will teach you the basic steps of light painting photography, along with the camera settings you need to use to take amazing pictures of your own. We will also tell you all about light painting brushes and other devices that you can use for this technique.
Light Painting Overview
Light painting photography is actually a subtype of long exposure photography. Your lens will be open for 30 seconds or more and it will capture the background image you select, as well as the light you place in the frame.
The long exposure enables the camera to record the full movement of the light in one picture. Light painting photography makes use of this fact and controls the movement pattern to create a wide variety of shapes. The mastery of some photographers has turned this technique into a very impressive art form that is simply impossible to ignore.
1. Long Exposure Time
When you use the typical exposure times of one second or less, you only get to record the light in a static position. As such, even the strongest light will appear as a dot or a line, depending on the movement of the light source.
Prolonging the exposure time to 30 seconds or more will give you the time you need to record more complex movements of the light source. This way, you can use the light to essentially “paint” anything you want to appear in the final shot.
2. Dark Settings
To maximize the intensity of the light source, you will need to shoot your pictures in a dark setting. You can either choose to shoot at night or turn the lights off in the room. Your main aim is that the source of the light you will use for painting is significantly more intense than the background light.
3. Light Movement for Painting
You can use flashlights, light pens, or glow sticks as your light source for painting. During the 30 seconds of exposure, move the flashlight to create the image you want in your photo. Your camera will capture the complete shape you have outlined.
Required Tools for Light Painting Photography
A light painting photography session requires only a few basic tools that any beginner photographer has access to. Here is the complete list of prerequisites for the light painting experiment:
- DSLR Camera. The settings for the light painting shots must be set manually. As such, a DSLR camera is required for this type of shooting.
- It is essential that the camera remains perfectly still during the entire exposure time. As such, the camera must be secured on a tripod to capture the light movement accurately.
- Light Source for Painting. Anything from a flashlight to a glow stick can be used in light painting photography. The light source must be more intense than the background light, but it does not have to be extremely strong in itself.
Camera Settings for Light Painting Photography
To achieve light painting, the camera must be set to focus strictly on the main light(s) rather than the background. As such, all the settings must be adjusted to achieve this goal. In this section of our article, we will offer photographers looking to experiment with light painting a few details on how to get their cameras ready.
1. File Format
RAW formats are preferred for light painting photography because these will ensure better quality editing. However, these are not mandatory. Cameras that do not support RAW formats may also be used for this experiment.
To ensure that the lens is focused on the painting light (the main light) and not on the background light, your aperture must be f/8 or higher. f/11 is the preferred setting, go as high as possible on your camera.
As we have mentioned above, the lens must be focused on painting light and not the background light. As such, the ISO must be as low as possible to avoid adding artificial light into to your background. Cameras should be set for ISO 100 for this experiment.
4. White Balance
The white balance is typically selected according to the type of light used for painting. As such, “Tungsten” and “Incandescent” are the most used presets. However, this setting does not influence the results significantly, which gives the photographer the chance to choose.
The exposure must be set manually for light painting. Any exposure time longer than 30 seconds is excellent, but good results can be achieved with shorter exposures as well.
The background of the photograph will be dark, which makes focusing quite difficult. We recommend that photographers use their flashlights on their subject to set the focus for the final photo.
How to Use Light for Painting
The shape of the light painting is determined by the movement of the light source during the exposure time. As such, photographers can experiment with various types of sources, such as flashlights or glow sticks of various colors shapes and sizes.
The movement pattern can be adapted to create specific shapes such as spirals, orbs, domes, and even words or phrases. There are special techniques that can lead to specific shapes, but photographers can adapt these according to their imagination.
Guidelines for Light Painting Photography
While the photographers’ imagination can roam free, there are a few guidelines they should keep in mind to get the most out of their light painting experiment. Here are the most important things to remember:
- Remaining invisible is key. Photographers must essentially blend in their dark backgrounds. To do so, they should wear dark colored clothing but most importantly, they should remember not to aim the light painting source at themselves.
- The light painting source must always move. A fluid and continuous motion will lead to even lines in the final picture, whereas stopping will determine harsh lines and/or very bright spots that will stand out.
- The light must not be aimed at the camera. The light must be aimed at the subject, rather than the camera, as this will create unwanted bright spots.
- Getting close to the subject will create defined lines. Lighting up the subject from afar will create a discreet wide line. The closer the photographer gets to the subject, the narrower and more intense the light line gets.
Ideal Settings for Light Painting Photography
Photographers can use the light painting technique in virtually any type of dim lit setting. But there are a few key settings that they should include in their first experiments to get an idea of the boundaries of light painting.
- A Dark Room
This is ground zero for light painting photography. Photographers can exercise their technique in a studio or even in their own homes. They can begin their experiment by turning off the lights and trying out their flashlights and glow sticks to see what they can do.
- Gardens or Forests
Trees look fantastic at dusk, which makes gardens and forests excellent settings for light painting photography. Photographers can begin shooting as the sun is setting and determine when the background light is dim enough for light painting.
- Urban Settings by Night
Urban settings are excellent for light photography. The street lights are static, which means that they will create bright spots in the final picture. Photographers can imagine shots that include these bright spots and that use them to create a certain effect.
- Amusement Parks
Amusement parks are filled with moving bright lights. In fact, these are excellent light sources for painting because they will create impressive shapes in the final shots. This is an excellent setting for beginners because they will be able to see the wonderful results of light painting.
Light Painting Brushes
These amazing tools enable photographers to create certain shapes with the light painting technique. They are called brushes because the texture of the light determines the type of lines created in the final shot. Here are some of the most used light painting brushes:
- Fiber Optics. These create multiple thin streaks in the final shot. They can be used to create numerous effects like wings or fire.
- Fiberglass Diamonds/ Feathers. These create wide lines in the final shot.
- Opaque Light Writers. These create thick intense lines in the photo and they can be used for writing or drawing.
- Light Sword. This creates the widest type of line and it can be used to color large parts of the background.
Light painting photography is a modern technique that enables photographers to put their imagination to very good use. It is also the best possible experiment for understanding the complexity of long exposure photography. It is truly impressive what can be done with a camera, a tripod, and a flashlight.