How to Paint with Light in a Photograph

If you are interested in experimenting with low or no-light photographic techniques you may be interested in painting with light. This is a system that allows the photographer to set their camera on a very long exposure and use a flashlight, sparkler, or LED light to “paint” images on the scene.

There are many professional photographers who use this technique to create truly unique images, but amateur photographers can use it effectively, too. Besides your camera, all you need is a source of light, a tripod, and someone/something to hold the light.

Carlos Navarro – 252/365 I’m still here
Carlos Navarro light painting

We’ll first look at the approach that uses human movement to paint the image. Besides the basic equipment, you’ll need a secure setting for this method. In other words, you need to be someplace where additional light sources cannot interfere with the photographic process, and through which the individual can move freely. This could be a backyard, beach, darkroom, or anywhere suitable to the photographer’s message, but the key is to keep additional light from entering the view.

To set up the photograph, it is necessary to place the camera and do a test shot for compositional issues. Once this is done the exposure should be set to the amount of time the photographer feels is necessary for their “drawing” and then the aperture should be stopped down accordingly. This is often where people get confused – stopping down the aperture does NOT mean low numeric settings as this opens the lens as wide as possible. It means limiting the amount of light that enters the camera by setting the f/stop or aperture to a higher number instead.

Stephen Humpleby – Kwinana Sparkles
Stephen Humpleby light painting

The photographer can then gently trigger the camera shutter and step into the scene to begin the drawing and painting process. They should keep a good idea of the time that has passed and try to be in an appropriate position when the shutter clicks closed.

If a more automated painting is desired, the photographer can use the same equipment with the addition of a ceiling hook and piece of strong twine. They can tie the twine to their flashlight, secure this to the ceiling, and lay the camera on the floor pointing up at the light. Once they shut off any overhead lighting they can then trigger the shutter and manually set the light spinning and twirling through the air as it is tied to the end of the string. This often creates very complex patterns that look machine-made.

Share your Work

For those who would like to share their light painting photography please feel free to join our flickr group and add your images to the pool. Then, your images could inspire photographers from around the world!