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Painting With Light...The Impossible Explained!

How to have fun with 'painting' light into an image

By Simon Davies

painting with light
Image copyright: Dazzie D

'Painting with light' is a pretty odd phrase? Obviously, photographs are created with light, when it hits the digital sensor or film. But how, exactly, might you 'paint' with it...?!

Light has no physical property and leaves no residue, but with the power of the camera we can make the impossible possible! This is such a fun trick to learn, and I'm going to show you exactly how it's done.

First up, there are 2 main types of light painting, and the easiest way to describe them is direct and indirect:

Direct: Where the light source (that's being used to 'paint') is aimed directly at the camera.

Indirect: Where the light source illuminates a scene which is in view of the camera.

To give you the best understanding of what's happening in the process, we'll kick off with the direct painting method:


What Will You Need?




How to Get Set Up


You are going to need things to be pretty dark to gain good results with this. So either working in a darkened room or shooting at night time is a good idea.

If you intend to include a 'scene' of some kind in the image - in addition to the light patterns you're about to make - be sure it's not too well lit as this will reduce your 'painting' time (since the exposure time will be reduced).

Right, now set up your camera on a sturdy tripod and switch to manual mode. Using manual focus (auto-focus struggles a lot in low light), focus on a chosen point in your scene. If there's nothing much there, just focus about a third of the way into your field of view. Select an aperture width of around f8.

Now set your ISO to its lowest value (to minimize 'noise') and choose an exposure time of around 10 seconds to start with. Release the shutter and check the LCD screen for the result. If you have little to no ambient light in your image you may be able to push your exposure time higher. But for the purposes of this tutorial, 10 seconds will do nicely.


Taking the Shot


Now, this is where the magic happens! With your camera set up as above, get hold of your chosen light source - say a torch - and, with it switched on, stand in front of the camera.

Fire the shutter, and straight after you do this move the light around in shapes, circles, letters, patterns - whatever you like! Just make sure it's always aimed at the camera.

When the exposure is complete, go and check the result on your LCD... pretty amazing, yeah?

painting with light
Image copyright: philp.bitnar
painting with light
Image copyright: Steven C Luck


Now you've seen the effect that light has on an open sensor, you understand what goes on and you'll soon be looking for more creative ways to create light paintings. Which brings us to the next bit...


The Indirect Method


Here, we will actually be illuminating a scene, or parts of a scene, with with directed light. We now know the effect that moving light has when shone directly on an open sensor. So let's start using this 'trait' to create some stunning and highly dynamic images!


What Will You Need?


All the equipment mentioned above.

An interesting scene, or subject, that is completely static and free of movement.

A light source that projects a strong beam of light, e.g. a torch. (Lasers are not recommended. Apart from the obvious safety reasons, their beam of light is too focused and won't cover the area required)

Another possible light source for this method would be a flashgun, like a Speedlight with a test button.


How to Get Set Up


Again, you will need a dark environment for this to work effectively. So choose your location carefully and scout around beforehand (when there's plenty of light!). Set up your camera as before, but here you'll compose and focus as for a normal scene.


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Taking the Shot


Now it's time to trip the shutter! Decide which area of your scene you want to illuminate and have your light source to hand. You'll be able to walk around in front of the camera during the exposure - provided you don't stop moving (so the sensor won't register you).

Fire the shutter, and immediately begin illuminating your subject with the beam of light. Remember, we're not shining the light directly into the camera this time, as it's just the scene in front we're illuminating.

Try to keep the beam of light moving evenly over the area of your subject you have chosen to illuminate. This way you'll avoid burnt out spots and harsh streaks of light.

When the exposure is over, go back and check the LCD. You can get some very cool effects I think you'll agree! Make any adjustments to the exposure time, focus, composition etc., and take another shot!

painting in the light
Image copyright: Rob Ellis

painting in the light
Image copyright: paul.mcgreevy




This style of shooting definitely requires experimentation and a bit of trial and error to get the results you're looking for. As always, the rules aren't set in stone.

Have fun experimenting with different light sources. It's really fun getting creative with light and soon you'll be using anything and everything that produces a light!

Experimenting will lead to accidental discoveries, or 'happy accidents' as I like to call them! In some ways that's the essence and beauty of photography and why it gives us so much pleasure.


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Where Next?

Taking Long Exposure Photos

What is Shutter Speed

Tripods For Digital Cameras

Return from Painting With Light to Taking Better Pictures

Return from Painting With Light to Photography Art Cafe

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