What is Light Painting? :: Digital Photo Secrets

What is Light Painting?

by David Peterson 3 comments

Have you ever seen one of those wedding pictures where the happy newlyweds used sparklers to spell out their date? This is called light painting. Light painting is the use of a slow shutter speed and a light source to create or enhance a photograph. This process allows you to use light in a similar manner as you would a paint brush. Using your camera and a light source, you can create a completely new photograph or add emphasis to an established scene. Here's all the light painting information you need to illuminate yourself.

Types of Light Painting

There are two basic types of light painting. The first is streak painting, where you are adding something to the photograph. This is often seen when people use a light source to add words or pictures to a photography like the photo above. This type is also called graffiti light painting. Usually this is done with a small, concise LED light.

The other type of light painting is illumination painting. Illumination painting uses less direct light to highlight certain portions of a photograph while leaving others in the shadows as in the photo below.

  • Pentax K20D
  • f/18.0
  • 20

Painting With Light by Flickr user cypheroz

You’ll Need:

A Camera with Manual Mode: In the case of light painting, you’ll be doing extended exposure photography where your shutter is open for more than a tiny fraction of a second. In order to do this successfully, you’ll need a camera that gives you the ability to control the time the shutter is open, or has bulb mode. Bulb mode allows you to leave your shutter open for an extended period of time. When you press the shutter while in bulb mode, it opens the shutter and holds it open until you press the button down to close it. This allows you to shoot in very dark situations and walk away from your camera with the shutter open.

A Tripod: Since light painting requires you to leave your shutter open for an extended period of time you’ll also need a tripod. When you are taking a photograph with a fast shutter speed, the motion from your hand and your breathing isn’t detectable. The shutter opens and shuts way too quickly for that type of movement to register. When the shutter is open for extended periods of time, even the slightest movement can cause unwanted blur. A tripod will allow you to avoid that blur by holding your camera still. It also makes consistent composition considerably easier than hand-holding your camera.

Image by Peggy Armstrong

A Light Source: Any light source will technically work but the ones which are bright and easy to move and manipulate are the easiest to use, especially if you are new to light painting. Also, the smaller the item, the easier it is to direct the light. Popular light sources include LED flashlights, glow sticks and sparklers because they are bright and easy to control. I’ve also seen people use cellphones, flare guns, candles, and camping lanterns. You can also purchase special light wands that are made to be used for these types of projects. If it creates its own light, you can use it.

An Idea: There are several different types of light painting. Some are literally just light in a pitch black room while others are shot on location and the light is used to trace or highlight one or more elements. There are no real rules. Think about why light painting appeals to you and how you want to use it to enhance your photography.

Light Painting in Eight Easy Steps:

<li>Find yourself a light source. Start with something easy like a flash light.</li>
<li>Use a room that is easy to black out. When I first started out I used my bathroom because it has no windows so I could just flip a switch. </li>
<li>Get your camera set up your tripod. </li>
<li>Set your camera to <a href="http://www.digital-photo-secrets.com/tip/1308/manual-mode-a-primer/">manual mode</a>. My typical starting settings are an ISO of 100, an aperture of 5.6 and your shutter speed to 30 seconds. You can always tweak it as needed but it’s usually unnecessary. </li>
<li>Set your camera on a timer. If you quick set it on a two second delay and if you aren’t set it to a ten second delay. </li>
<li>Manually focus your lens. </li>
<li>Flip off the lights and press the shutter. </li>
<li>Once the shutter opens, you’ll have 30 seconds to create your masterpiece. Go in front of your camera, shine your light towards the lens and write yourself a love letter.</li>

Image by Brenda Cortes

Tips and Tricks:

Manual Focus: Use manual focus instead of trusting your autofocus. The vast majority of light painting is done in dark areas where the autofocus is going to hunt for something to cling to. Even if it finds something to focus on, the focus is unlikely to be completely sharp or even focused on the right spot. Using manual focus gives you way more control over your finished product before you even start shooting.

Start Simple: If you are just starting out, I suggest starting in an environment where you can control all the variables, especially the amount of light. If you have a room without windows or a room where you can easily black out the windows completely, start there. You can also shoot at night with all of the lights out. This way your light source won’t have to compete with other light sources such as street lights. Use a single light source and learn how it looks and what other properties it has. Once you’ve done that you can come up with a concept and shoot it.

Experiment: Experimentation is an important part of being an artist and just one step to discovering your voice but a vital part of the process with light painting. Figuring out how different light sources differ from each other and the effects they have on your photographs will require a great deal of trial and error. Changing the exposure time, type of light, aperture, distance from the camera, and ISO are all ways to tweak your photo. If your first light painting doesn’t turn out exactly as hoped, don’t get discouraged, keep trying.

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  1. Martin says:

    Very interesting but do you write left to right like on a piece of paper or in reverse because of the camera being in front of you?

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Martin,

      Actually, no. Just write the correct way around, and then reverse the image in an image editor!


  2. Derick says:

    Thanks for the info Dave, will definitely give it a shot!

  3. Garry says:

    Your presentations are very interesting and informative.
    Thank you.

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8 minutes
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+.