Light Painting Photography: A Step-by-Step Guide
What is Light Painting Photography?
Creating an image whereby words, patterns, or shapes are painted with light is a photographic technique where a light source is used to ‘paint’ while taking a long exposure photo.
By doing this in low light conditions, it enables light painters to paint something by moving a light source such as a torch at the camera. These photographic techniques are known as light painting because it is essentially painting with light. It is also referred to as light drawing or light graffiti.
The beauty of the light painting technique is that it is an art form. On social media, there is a diverse community where light painting photographers all have their own style, and you can find a wide range of spectacular images.
The kinetic light painting looks amazing and gives light painters the opportunity to really impress people. As a light painter, you are in complete creative control because you determine the outcome of an image with a moving light source.
Ordinary shots are likely to impress, but as it is customisable, why not turn it up a notch?
You can create a photo for friends, family, or followers with a personal message, such as wishing them a merry Christmas or even an I love you one for your partner.
Choice of Light Sources
To create light painting photos, all you need is a camera, a tripod, and your choice of the light source. A light source is a tool that enables you to paint with light in your images. Artificial light sources are used, and there is a wide range of options available for use to create light paintings.
Examples of popular artificial light sources used to paint with light are torches, sparklers, tubes, brushes, string lights (such as fairy lights or Christmas tree lights), glow sticks, and any sort of LED lights that project light.
The light source used has quite a large influence on the outcome of the image, with each one creating a different look and effect. Below are four of the most commonly used light sources will be explained to provide an understanding of what using each of them entails:
Using a torch for light painting photography is a simple and effective way to produce light paintings, especially if you are a beginner. The reason is that they are widely accessible, cheap, and easy to use.
Any small battery-powered LED light that comfortably fits in your hand is sufficient and will do the job. The only important feature that it ideally must have is an on and off push button which is in a position that is easy to press.
This is a type of handheld firework that burns slowly while emitting sparks. It could be considered to make a light painting photo look more interesting than just using an ordinary torch. It produces a great effect, they are cheap and create spectacular patterns.
Something to keep in mind is unlike a torch that can be turned on and off at will, the sparkler cannot. For this reason, when creating a light painting photo, the entire creation must be carried out in one single stroke.
3. String Lights
These are small LED lights on a wire or string which are commonly hung up as a decoration both indoors and outdoors. They can be battery powered or plugged into the mains power supply like Christmas tree lights are.
However, for flexibility of positioning, it is better to use the battery powered type. Using string lights to create light painting photos produces magical results with vivid colours. They are widely available from local hardware stores and are not very expensive to purchase.
4. Light Painting Tube
Simply put, this is a hollow handheld plastic tube that a torch gets inserted into, which then illuminates the colour of the tube. They are available in various different lengths and a selection of different colours. Many different types of tubes exist, which all produce a different look, some examples are: diffused, naked, star battle, holly, complimentary, tri-colour, rainbow, and dark matter. Buying a light painting tube is relatively more expensive than other light sources, but they produce eye-catching images and are easy to light paint with.
No matter what light source you use to create a light painting, the principle is always the same. Essentially, once the camera starts taking the long exposure photo, you turn on the light source you are using and wave it around. However, there is some logic to it. You could just freestyle the photo and light paint with no exact plan and create something. Nevertheless, light painters generally use their light source to make shapes and patterns, whether geometric, like a nice circle or an orb, or just plain abstract.
Finally, regardless of the light source used, you can either simply paint something with the painting being the main attraction and having an interesting backdrop behind it, or you can use an object or model as the centre piece of the photo and incorporate your light painting in with it/them.
The Different Styles of Light Painting
In this section, we define most of the basic styles for painting with light in your photos.
Light Painting Words
This style involves using an appropriate light source like a torch in a dark environment to draw words in the air whilst facing the camera while it is taking a long exposure photo. To successfully take this style of photo, there are several important factors that must be known.
First, each letter of the word/words you choose to paint must be painted backward for it to show on the image the correct way around. This can sometimes confuse and make it more difficult to produce the photo you want to create without mistakes. Before attempting it, it is advisable that you envision and memorise how to paint each letter to make up the word/words. With this prepared in advance, it will improve efficiency and help reduce the number of attempts it takes you to get your photo as desired.
Here is an illustration to provide you with a firm understanding which is also how the photo below was light painted with a torch as the light source:
This is an explanation of the diagram: ‘ON’ indicates when to turn your torch on and ‘OFF’ indicates when to turn your torch off.
Most letters only require one stroke, but there are some that require two or three. To move to the starting position of the next stroke, the grey arrow shows where to move your torch while it is off.
Second, you must consider the distance you are from the camera. When light painting words, you need to carry out your painting at a minimum distance of three metres from the camera. At a distance of three metres, you should aim to paint each letter approximately the size of an A4 piece of paper. With that being said, the further away from the camera you paint, the bigger you will need to paint each letter for it to fit in your frame.
Light Painting Strokes, Patterns, Shapes, and Drawings
Compared to the style of light painting words, this requires a little less forethought and memorising. The possibilities for what you can create in this style are quite broad and wide-ranging. This can range from ‘freestyling’ what you light paint to light painting some sort of design. Either of these can be incorporated with a person as a model or with an object.
With regards to freestyling in light painting, it could be considered to be comparable to the work of abstract contemporary artists and of abstract geometric artists. They are classified to be expressive in their work, creating in a free-form and gestural kind of way where the art created is of a spontaneous nature rather than being carefully thought out and applied. Simply put, to light paint in this way would be to use your light source to create abstract patterns or wavey patterns through the frame whilst taking a long exposure photo.
Light painting some sort of design involves a little more thought. There are a number of patterns that you can use to create a design, the easiest being a circle, but you could also use squares and triangles. In combination with this, you can also embellish that with some swirls or create a door or some other simple wavy patterns.
An example of a common design that light painters create is orbs. To create one, with a light source you physically stand in the same spot and spin the light around in a circle multiple times while turning. Essentially you are just spinning and turning while standing in the same place.
With all of the above stated, i.e., light painting words, strokes, patterns, shapes, drawings, freestyle, design, and orbs, they can be used in combination with one another to create a light painting.
Additionally, light painters also combine these styles with a person as a model or with an object instead of doing it with a plain or detailed background behind them. Incorporating an object into an image could be considered to make an image more interesting.
It is important to note and remember that light painting in photography is ultimately an experimental undertaking. You never know what the outcome will be or what the photo will look like.
Experiment with different light sources, use a combination of the above styles and have fun, and it is inevitable that you will end up creating some interesting photos.
Essential Tips and Ideas for Light Painting Photography
Before you begin to light paint, here are six valuable tips which will help you with kinetic light painting by improving your overall efficiency:
- Be patient! It may take some time to get the photo you want, so be prepared to have numerous attempts at it.
- Always start with your settings on ISO 100, aperture 3.5, and a shutter speed of 20 seconds. After you see how this looks, adjust accordingly.
- Wear dark clothes and non-reflective clothing when using any light painting techniques. It helps keep you hidden from the image.
- A torch with a smaller light will help you paint more precise strokes and patterns.
- Don’t stick with using the same light source, try other light sources and experiment!
- Think of and then memorise how to paint the word/s, pattern, or shape you want to create in advance. This will help reduce the number of attempts to produce the photo you want.
How to Create Light Painting Photographs
This is where the fun starts! This section of the article has been dedicated to providing a step-by-step guide to be followed in order to create light painting photography. Deriving from the book A Beginner’s Guide to After Dark Photography with Gimagery, it uses the highly regarded ADP Formula. It is outlined in four phases which are;
Phase 1: Plan
The first phase entails carrying out planning all that is required. To be more specific, what kind of light painting image needs to be thought of and decided upon, where to do it, and what equipment do you need?
Firstly, decide on what kind of light painting image you would like to create.
Secondly, you must decide on the location. Ideally, you should choose somewhere that has very low levels of artificial light. Be sure that your choice of location has adequate space to do your light painting, so nothing gets in your way.
Lastly, you need to gather all the equipment needed to create your light painting image. As explained previously, for light paintings, you will need your camera, tripod, and your chosen light source.
Phase 2: Setup
The second phase entails going to the location and setting up everything that is needed to be set up. To be more specific, your camera position needs to be decided on, set up the camera settings, set your camera’s focus, and lastly, take test shot photos.
Firstly, you must decide where you will position yourself to execute the light painting, which includes taking into consideration your movement. Your light painting position should be at a minimum distance of three metres away from the camera. Once your light painting position is chosen, remember this place or put something on the floor to mark your position.
After that, place your tripod down (about three metres away) so your camera can be put on top and aimed at where you will light paint. Put your camera on top of your tripod, turn it on and, if needed, zoom out so your camera frame can see the entire area of where you will light paint with your light source.
Then, look through the viewfinder on your camera to check the following three things: (1) Nothing is in the shot that you don’t want, such as anything that is obstructing or getting in the way of the frame (2) The frame is reasonably straight (3) The camera is positioned exactly in the centre by taking into consideration where the middle of what you are painting will be.
Secondly, The settings such as the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed need to be set. Ensure the camera is set in manual mode so the settings can be manually adjusted. Go to your ISO settings and put your camera so it has ISO 100. After, set your aperture to f stop 3.5. If your camera allows you to go below f stop 3.5, then set it to the lowest number. After this, set the shutter speed to 20 seconds (this should be enough time to light paint your word/s, pattern, or shape). Finally, set your camera to self-timer/remote mode. The settings provided here are a good starting point and can be adjusted accordingly later.
Thirdly, your camera focus needs to be set. Using your camera’s auto focus, go ahead and make it, so it has been focused on the centre of your camera frame. Once this has been successfully done, ensure your camera is switched over to manual focus. This is important as the focus you have just made will be locked and will not need to be done again.
The last part of this phase entails using your camera to take some test shots. This is so you know that your camera has been set, so it has a sharp focus, and to know that the camera settings are suitable. Keep taking test shots and adjusting the focus until you get a clear photo. Also, if you find that the test shot photo is a little too bright or a little on the dark side, use the aperture and change this appropriately. In order to proceed from here, you need to have a photo that is in focus and properly exposed. Generally, the camera settings of ISO 100, aperture of 3.5, and shutter speed of 20 seconds are perfect for this kind of photo.
Phase 3: Execute
Phase three is where the light painting begins, and you start painting your long exposure photograph. If you are using a remote control for wireless shutter release, take your position, then press the button on the remote to trigger your camera to take the photo. If you are not using a remote, set off the self-timer with the shutter button, then go to your position. Once you hear the sound the camera makes when it has started taking a photo, proceed to do your light painting with your light source.
Phase 4: Analyse
The fourth phase is all about analysis. You need to analyse your photo to see if anything needs to be changed in relation to the camera settings or any errors that have occurred.
Possible adjustments could be a combination of the following:
(1) Distance – you may need to move closer or farther away from the camera.
(2) Focus – the photo or photos you have created could have ended up blurry, and you might have to adjust the focus of your camera.
(3) Too Bright – the photo or photos you have created may have ended up being too bright. To fix this, do one of the following: raise the aperture or lower the shutter speed.
(4) Too Dark – the photo/s you took might be too dark because of the low light conditions. To fix this, either slightly increase the shutter speed or if possible decrease the aperture or slightly increase the ISO but try not to go over ISO 400.
(5) Speed – your painting might be unfinished. If this is the case, either paint it faster or increase the shutter speed to a longer duration.
If any of these five suggestions need changing, carry out both phases three and four repeatedly until you create a photo that you are happy with as your final image.
Interested in learning how to capture light trails? Explore our complete guide here.