Light Painting Photography Technique

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Light painting is a photographic technique used when shooting long exposure photos, and it involves adding a moving light to a subject or space in the frame or to shine that light at the camera to draw or write. This technique is called light painting, painting with light, or light drawing. Since the 1880s the technique is used for both scientific and artistic purposes, as well as in commercial photography.

The light painting techniques involve opening your camera’s shutter. It has to be long enough for you to ‘paint’ in the dark with a light source. The light source can be a torch or lantern, effectively painting with the light inside the photo.

In the following post, I’ll introduce to you the light painting technique and its types, the required equipment, camera settings, and how to do it.

The types of light painting photography

There are three ways and arrangement to do light painting photography:

  • The Light Source is seen and is within the camera frame:

This arrangement is done by illuminating elements of the photo by the light source, and at the same time, the light source is seen by the camera. With this technique, the light painting artist stands in front of the camera during a long exposure photograph and uses an illuminated light source to create color and design within the frame. Examples of using this technique are Light Writing, Light Drawing, and Light Graffiti.

light painting

light painting
Photo by Matheus Bertelli from Pexels
  • The Light Source is not seen by the camera

This is creating a light painting where the element illuminated by the light source can NOT be seen by the camera. With this technique, the light painting artist stands behind the camera during a long exposure photograph and projects light into the scene to create color and design within the frame. Sometimes the artist can enter the scene and selectively illuminate parts of the image without the light source being seen by the camera.

light painting
Photo by Bruce mars from Pexels
light painting
Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

 

  • Moving the camera: Kinetic Light Painting Photography

Kinetic Light Painting is where the light source stays stationary and the camera is moved to create color or design within the frame. An example would be using a Camera Rotation Tool to spin the camera in a 360º motion during the exposure using stationary city lights to create the image. The history of this technique can be traced back to 1953 and image below from Photographer David Potts. (Via: lightpaintingphotography.com)

light painting
Photographer David Potts

The required equipment

It is very important to have the right equipment in order to achieve amazing light painting photos. Although this technique involves a lot of trial and errors approach, it is good advice to try to have the suitable equipment at least to make your trials less.

  • Camera:

You are going to apply the light painting technique in a low light situation, so it is clear that you should have a camera with a good low light capability. Another important aspect is your camera ability to handle the noise especially when you need to crank the ISO up for low-light situations. The following are my recommendations, I’m a Canon lover!

Canon EOS 5D Mark III

 

Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Canon EOS 5D Mark III

Canon EOS 7D Mark II

 

Canon 7D Mark II
Canon 7D Mark II

Also, Nikon D5Sony a7SII, and Sony Alpha a6300 are great for light painting.

  • Lens:

Of course, your choice of lens will be largely dictated by what you intend to shoot and in what kind of environment you plan to visit. But it seems that wide angle lenses are good for interior light painting. If you’re looking to include a little astrophotography in your images as some light painting practitioners tend to do, then Sigma 14mm f/1.4 would be more than appropriate.

  • Tripod & wireless shutter remote

As you’ll be out working in the open and working with long exposures you’re likely to be faced with winds, uneven ground, you want to avoid camera shake, and probably you are going to work alone it seems that a sturdy tripod with a remote shutter release is a must.

  • Painting tools:

There are plenty of tools out there to help you on your way to creating successful light painting images. Just a quick glance online will reveal several specialized tools, such as:

External Flash (Speedlights)

It is the first source of light that can be utilized for light painting. You can take it off the camera and walk around your subject, such as a car, deliberately popping the flash as you walk around the subject. Also, if you’re able to remotely trigger your flash units, you can place them inside buildings or inside cars, so that they will be triggered when you press the shutter button. This will give your interior nice illumination, and you can also introduce other light sources to illuminate the outside of your subject.

PeakPlus Super Bright LED Flashlight

 

PeakPlus Super Bright LED Flashlight


IMALENT MS12 Brightest Flashlight 53000 Lumens

 

IMALENT MS12 Brightest Flashlight 53000 Lumens


Westcott Ice Light 2

 

Westcott Ice Light 2


YONGNUO YN360 LED

 

YONGNUO YN360 LED


Zitrades EL Wire Neon Lights Kit

 

Zitrades EL Wire Neon Lights Kit


There is a wonderful site that specializes in light painting tools and different types of painting brushes “Light Painting Brushes”, contains a lot of tutorials and useful information about light painting and I strongly recommend that you pay it a visit.

  • Other items:

It is good advice to have spare parts of your SD cards, and enough amounts of AA batteries, which will get eaten up by your lighting tools.

light-painting

Camera setting:

You can start with a low ISO of 100, f/5.6 or f/8, 10-20 seconds shutter speed. Remember to adjust your camera with the following points in mind:

  1. Shoot raw file format whenever possible, you can pull out so many more details out of the shadows and highlights in post-processing that you ever could using jpeg file format.
  2. As you are shooting in dark or at night, your camera will have a hard time focusing and will “hunt” unless you find focus and lock it for all your exposures. To achieve focus you may use your flashlight. If your camera has back button focus capabilities I’d suggest using that, if not you can focus and then turn it to manual focus so it doesn’t attempt to refocus when you hit the shutter release.
  3. Use Manual or bulb mode: to control the exposure, in this way the camera is not trying to guess the correct exposure. For exposures longer than 30 seconds, you’ll need to find and use your BULB setting.
  4. For the white balance setting, you may choos