Painting with Light :: Digital Photo Secrets

Painting with Light

by David Peterson 0 comments

You've heard me talk a lot lately about inspiration, and about how to find great photos in boring places. Let's say you've tried a bunch of those tips but would really like to break out of that whole reality box and try something completely different. Here's an idea: get yourself a flashlight, a few glow-sticks from the dollar store and a tripod and try painting with light.

[Top image LP after BBQ by Flickr user Athalfred]

What exactly is "painting with light?"

Photography is generally viewed as a whole different medium from art forms such as painting and drawing. "Light painting" blurs that distinction. When you paint with light, you are using your camera's viewfinder as a canvas and light as your paintbrush. Digital photography has made this cool technique even more feasible for most photographers, since you can see exactly what you are doing right or doing wrong in real time rather than waiting for a roll of film to come back from the lab. This means you can have fun, experiment, and take home some great shots, all on the same night.

What do you need?

You don't need a lot of fancy equipment to paint with light, but you do need a camera that has a bulb setting. This allows you to keep the shutter open for as long as you need to while you are completing your masterpiece. You will also need a good, sturdy tripod and a backpack full of paintbrushes: in your case, not paintbrushes at all but flashlights (with and without colored lenses), glow sticks, laser pointers 4th of July sparklers or whatever else you think might make for a fun and interesting shot. An assistant might also be helpful too, though not necessary.

Fire Island, NY by Flickr user sebastien.barre

How to do it

The first thing you need to do is carefully choose your setting. A good setting is any place where there is very little ambient light (unless you plan to incorporate that light into your shot), and where there won't be any surprise light. If you live on a busy street, for example, your front yard will not be a very good location because passing cars will provide unwanted illumination, possibly ruining a shot that took a lot of time and effort to set up. If you live out in the country, though, where passers-by consist of a few prowling coyotes and a skunk, your front yard might be a great choice (just try not to surprise the skunk). Otherwise, you can set up indoors (depending on what it is you're interested in shooting) or you can travel to a remote location and set up there. Just remember that the more remote you are, the more you'll probably want to have that assistant along, for safety purposes if nothing else.

If you are planning to use ambient light in your composition, just make sure you are able to visualize what that light is going to do to your image. Keep the part of your image that is lit by the ambient light in the background, for example, and you'll have a nice contrast between the subdued background and the painted foreground.

The Garden by Flickr user Athalfred

Now choose your subject or your focal point. You don't necessarily need to have a subject because your painting itself could become your subject, but you should try to include something of interest in the scene so that your painting has some context. Compose the image and take one shot to make sure everything is in focus, then disable autofocus by switching to manual focus.

Now guess. Because you're going to be introducing an impossible-to-measure amount of light into your scene, guesswork is the primary way you will arrive at the correct exposure. So set up your shot, do your painting, check the resulting image and make adjustments as necessary. Reshoot if you're not happy with your results.

Variations of Light Painting

Some light painting is done merely to emphasize as subject against a dark background. The result is a surreal and sometimes eerie looking subject, but there isn't really anything fantastic about it. For this type of light painting, all you need is a flashlight with a wide beam. Just open up your shutter and then start painting your subject with the beam of your flashlight, taking care to stay out of the frame. Your goal is to paint every part of the subject you wish to emphasize without overexposing or underexposing any of it. Start by shining the flashlight on each area for two or three seconds, then check the result and make adjustments for your next shot. Make sure you illuminate each part of the scene for roughly the same amount of time, so your subject will appear evenly-lit. Or try illuminating parts of the scene and see what kind of effect you get.

LED light Painting by Flickr user spdu4ia

Another form of light painting relies on a flashlight with a small, exposed bulb, a light -stick or some other focused light source. This type of painting creates images with visible colored lines that form shapes or tracings throughout the image. To accomplish this, you need to make sure that the point where the light is coming from is visible to the camera, so you will need to actually physically walk through your scene carrying or waving your light source. Don't stop too long in one place unless you were planning to include a ghostly image of yourself in the shot.

Painting with light by Flickr user Carlos Smith

This is where light painting can be really fun and creative. Try drawing a figure in your scene, write some words in the sky or just trace the outline of your subject. Or, fill the subject in completely with your light beam. You'll need to do a lot of experimenting, adjusting and re-shooting, but the good news is that you won't be able to help having a good time while you're doing it.

Advanced Work

If you want to take light painting further, I highly recommend Trick Photography by Evan Sharboneau. It's a huge ebook filled with tips and techniques for taking light paintings, and lots of other crazy special effects images that aren't hard to create but are very effective.


Sometimes the best way to inspire your inner photographer is to try something completely different. As far as that reality box is concerned, nothing will get you out of it faster than a glow stick and a tripod. Light painting has great potential for inspiration because if you experiment and tweak you'll not only learn a great deal about light and exposure, but you won't be able to avoid creating images that make people go, "Wow, that's amazing! How did you do that?" Which is, of course, something that every photographer loves to hear.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.