Many photos focus on capturing a scene or subject that actually exists. Unless you’re working with photo manipulation, photography tends to be about real things, captured artfully.
One exception to this generalization is light painting. When photographers paint with light, they manipulate the subject rather than editing the photo. Using a slow shutter speed with simple tools like flashlights and light wands, they create scenes from their imagination.
Though the light actually exists, the effect of light painting turns it into something fantastical. Here are some great ideas for photos of light painting to get your creativity going.
Cool Ideas for Pictures with Light Painting
First off, for a light painting tutorial, check out this quick one from SLR Lounge or this in-depth one from MasterClass. Since those tutorials cover everything you need to know about light painting, we won’t get into the technical details here. It’s super simple to do, though, so even if you’re a beginner, you can find inspiration in the following ideas.
Draw or write something.
This is often where photographers begin with light painting. Although drawing a picture or writing a word with a flashlight is actually more challenging than some of the other ideas on this list, it’s undeniably fun, too.
Make the inside of something glow.
This idea is much easier than drawing or writing, since you won’t need to move the light while taking the picture. You just need to place the light inside an object or building. Then, with a slow shutter speed, the light will fill the space with a strange glow.
Add drama to a still life photo.
Still life photos are another way to use a static light with light painting. Though subtle, shining a light on a still life subject in a dark room can make a huge difference in the mood and drama of your photo.
Create sparks with steel wool.
Want even more drama? Try working with steel wool that’s been set on fire. (Note: this can be dangerous, so be careful, and stay away from flammable locations!) For details, check out this guide to steel wool light painting from Lomography.
Mix portraiture with light painting.
If you want to try something new as a portrait photographer, light painting is a good technique to play with. Since you might already need other people to assist you with the light painting, taking their portraits can be a nice way to repay their help!
Take a surreal portrait.
Light painting always adds a surreal element to a photo, but you can choose to lean into that surreality even more. Instead of trying to capture a normal portrait, try creating a portrait that’s a bit bizarre, like a dream instead of reality.
Use light painting as a background.
Often, light painting is the main subject of a photo, but you can also use the technique to create cool backgrounds. It’s a great way to instantly make a simple portrait or still life photo more interesting.
Play with silhouettes.
When you’re using light painting as a background, you can go a step further and create silhouettes against the light. For tips on composing photos with silhouettes, check out our post about silhouette photography.
Get a reflection of the light painting.
To double the size and impressiveness of your light painting, shoot it over a reflective surface like a quiet pool of water. It’s an easy way to make your photo more dramatic!
Work with a crystal ball.
Like reflections, crystal balls can bring an unexpected element to a picture of light painting. Especially if you combine the crystal ball with a reflection, you can end up with a fascinating image.
Combine light painting with astrophotography.
A starry night sky can be so spectacular that it’s tempting to focus on it alone. But in fact, the most captivating shots in astrophotography often have an interesting foreground, such as a lovely landscape or cityscape. If your foreground isn’t interesting enough or needs more lighting, you can use light painting to make it more intriguing.
Shine a flashlight at the sky.
While many pictures of light painting look a little weird (in a good way), you can also use light painting to show normal beams of light. For instance, flashlight beams don’t always show up in a photo, especially when they’re shining against the night sky. With a longer exposure, you can “paint” these flashlight beams onto the picture.
Depending on the flashlight’s angle and how long your exposure is, the flashlight beam will either glow subtly or shine brightly against the sky. Both can look beautiful.
Give landscapes an otherworldly vibe.
Even without a clear night sky, you can get awesome landscape photos at night with light painting. Even if the landscape is plain and unremarkable, the light painting will make it strange and eye-catching.
The same effect can be used with architecture, too. For example, look at these surreal photos by Xiao Yang, which combine light painting with abandoned buildings and monuments.
Think about patterns and symmetry.
If you hit a creative block while shooting light painting photographs, try going back to the foundation of good photography: composition. For example, you can work with patterns or symmetry to create a well-composed photo.
Experiment with abstract photography.
Still stuck for ideas? Try letting go of perfection, and have fun with abstract photography. It might look chaotic at first, but those chaotic photos can help you flex your creativity and discover what kind of light painting you like the best.