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 or LED light to “paint” images on the scene.

There are many professional photographers who use this approach to create truly unique images, but some commercial photographers have also used it effectively too. The approach can be done through human effort, or it can be something as simple as a flashlight tied to a string and suspended from a ceiling.

Paint with Light
Photo by @dipek

We’ll first look at the approach that uses human movement to paint the image. This requires some basic equipment, including a camera with long exposure settings, a tripod sized accordingly, a flashlight or LED light, and a secure setting. By secure we mean 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 setup 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.

Paint with Light
Photo by { tcb }

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. Make sure and tag your light painting images with “TPA_LightPaint”. From the pool of images we will be selecting the best examples and showcase them in a future article. This can mean some great exposure and your images will be inspiring photographers from around the world.

Top image by Trevor Williams