The comprehensive light painting guide
Light painting is a fantastically fun photography technique that produces brilliant images. It’s actually pretty simple, but we’ve put together this guide to help you make the most out of light painting. So if you want to know anything from where to light paint to which settings to use, read on. We’ve got it covered.
Table of contents
Light painting is a long-exposure (or slow shutter speed) photography technique where you add light to a scene to either create patterns across the image or to illuminate objects in the frame. You might also have heard light painting called light graffiti or light drawing. Light painting is mostly associated with moving light sources, but the lights don’t always have to be on the move. Sometimes you might move your camera, and sometimes you might choose to beam light into the scene to illuminate specific objects within it.
What is light painting?
Light painting techniques
There are three main light painting techniques: off-camera, on-camera, and kinetic. They differ by where the lights are positioned and whether or not the camera is moving, but all of them use a slow shutter speed.
On-camera light source
Light painting with an on-camera light source is what you probably most associate with light-painted images. You keep your camera in a fixed position and capture the trails made by a moving light source within the frame.
Off-camera light source
When you light paint with an off-camera light source, the light source isn’t visible within the shot. Instead, it’s positioned out of sight, but so that its beam is illuminating something in the scene. You might use it to highlight features on a building, for example. You can also use it to give a mood to a shot with particular colours, or create unusual effects with combined with smoke. Like on-camera light painting, your camera is on a tripod.
Kinetic light painting
With kinetic light painting, it’s your camera that moves during the long exposure. You might twist or turn it, or move it steadily closer to or further from a light source.
Gear you need for light painting
If you want to try light painting, you will need the following gear.
You do not have to use a dSLR camera for light painting, but ligth painting does require a fully manual mode to allow you to control the shutter speed. It’s best if it has bulb mode, which enables you to make your exposures as long as you want.
Keeping your camera steady for both on-camera and off-camera light painting is vital, so you will need a tripod. You move your camera with kinetic light painting, in which case you won’t need a tripod.
Remote shutter release
There are two reasons why a remote shutter release is helpful when it comes to light painting. First, if you are using your tripod, the slightest jog can show up as camera shake, even from depressing the shutter button. With a remote release, you don’t touch the camera so you can’t move it. Second, you might want to have an exposure time longer than 30 seconds, which is typically the slowest shutter speed on most cameras unless you use bulb mode. To control your shutter in bulb mode, you need a remote release. It doesn’t matter if you use a cable release, which attaches to your camera by a cord, or a remote release, which is wireless. They both do the job.
If you’re shooting in bulb mode, a stop watch or other timer is useful so that you can measure your exposure times.
Gels aren’t essential for light painting, but they do allow you to play around a bit more by changing the colours of your light sources. You can buy them from any photography store, whether online or bricks and mortar.
Part of what makes light painting so much fun, and so accessible, is that you can use hundreds, maybe even thousands, of different light sources to do it. It doesn’t matter if they are artificial light sources or natural ones, like the moon. If it’s light, you can use it.
Examples of light sources for light painting include: flashlights and torches, glow sticks and sparklers, LED lights, and even candles (although do be careful with those). We think that Spekular KYU-6 light bracelets are excellent for light painting. You can also use car head and rear lights, as well as make use of ambient light, for example street lights.
Best camera settings for light painting
Long exposures are key to light painting, which means that your shutter speed is the critical variable here. If you don’t think you’ll need an exposure time longer than 30 seconds, use manual mode. This will allow you control your shutter speed, ISO, and aperture independently of each other for the best exposure. For exposures longer than 30 seconds, you will have to set your camera to bulb mode and control the shutter using a remote shutter release.
It is best to keep your ISO as low as it will possibly go.
Your aperture will vary depending on your preferred depth of field. Remember, a shallow depth of field requires a large aperture, which lets in lots of light. It’s probably best to start with an aperture around ƒ/8 and work from there.
Shoot in Raw. This will give you optimal control of your final image. When you shoot in JPEG, your camera makes too many processing decisions for you.
The white balance setting you choose will alter the tone of the lights in your image. You can experiment to see what works best for your vision. Shooting Raw will ensure that you can tinker and adjust it in the editing suite to produce the final image you want.
Set your lens to manual focus. Auto focus will struggle to identify a focal point in the dark.
Choosing your location
Where you go to do your light painting is going to depend on what type of photo you want to create. If you just want to have fun writing words into the darkness with an LED wand or sparklers, then a dark outside space such as a park is perfect. For light trails think about a (safe) overpass with a road beneath it that has sufficient traffic flow. Is there a fair in town? Illuminated fairground rides at night make great photos.
You might have found some kind of feature that you would like to highlight using light painting. Maybe it’s an abandoned barn or shed that would look amazing under off-camera lights. Perhaps you want to use a statue as part of a story with on-camera lights. There are so many ways to have fun with light painting.
While light painting is done in the dark and the obvious focus are the streaks, splashes, and puddles of light, other features and objects in your scene will show up. It’s important to think about how to compose your shot around them, either to make the most of them or so that they don’t detract from your focal point.
An evocative use for light painting is to capture star trails moving across the night sky with an interesting feature, for example an unusual rock formation or old building, illuminated by off-camera light, in the foreground.
How to set up for light painting
When you have gathered your equipment and reached your location, it’s time to set yourself up for your light painting shoot.
Tripod and composition
You don’t need a camera for kinetic light painting. But you should think about how and where you will moving to capture light in motion before adjusting your exposure.
For on-camera or off-camera light sources, you will need to set up your tripod. Make sure that it is secure and place your camera on it. Now compose your shot. Things that you will need to consider when composing your shot include:
- Buildings or fixtures that might appear in the scene
- Light from external sources, for example street lights or shops
- How and where you will position any off-camera lights
- The space you will need to move through the scene to paint it with on-camera lights.
When you have positioned your camera and composed your scene, you will need to set the exposure.
Set and adjust the exposure
You need to determine a base exposure that takes the ambient light into consideration before you start adding your lights.
Assume that you will be using ISO 100 to reduce the noise in the shot and an aperture of ƒ/8 to get a reasonable depth-of-field. Now you need to find your shutter speed.
- Set your ISO to six stops higher than the ISO you will actually use. So if you want to use ISO 100, set it to ISO 6,400.
- Take a shot and adjust the shutter speed until you achieve your desired exposure. Remember, you will need to effectively underexpose your scene according to your camera’s light meter to ensure that it remains dark.
- Note the shutter speed in seconds that gives you your preferred exposure with ambient light.
- Reset your ISO to 100.
- The shutter speed you noted down in seconds for a good exposure? Set that number of seconds as minutes. If it’s over 30 seconds, you will need to use bulb mode and a remote release.
That should be a good exposure for you. Next, focus your lens.
Focus your lens
It’s unlikely your scene will be bright enough for you to use autofocus to set your focal point. Switch to manual and if it helps, shine a light onto your focal point to help you lock onto it. Don’t forget to switch that light off again!
What to do
When everything is set and you’ve worked out where and how you are going to move, get into position, set your timer if you’re using bulb mode, and then release the shutter and start the timer simultaneously. Move around the scene with your light sources, or move your camera for kinetic light painting then when the timer sounds, end your exposure. Take a look at your LCD screen and see what, if anything, you need to adjust. Then go and have fun light painting until you’re cold, tired, or have to be somewhere else. The more that you practise, the more ideas you can try and the better you’ll get.
Apart from applying the standard crop, colour, and contrast edits to your light painting images, you might find that you need to use the noise reduction tool, too. Long exposure images are prone to being noisy, which shows up as a kind of graininess in the photo. Almost all editing suites have a noise reduction tool, which you can use to smooth things out. Just don’t overdo it with the noise reduction or it can look a bit plasticky.
Tips for light painting
After all of that, you might wonder if there’s anything more that we can tell you about light painting. As it happens, we have a few tips.
Wear dark clothing
If you are going to be moving about in your shot, wear dark clothing otherwise you might find that you unwittingly show up in your photos.
Enlist an assistant
Stopping and starting your exposure and racing about with a light or two can get a bit tricky. Try to get some help from a friend. You can direct them with the light and make adjustments to your settings to get the images you want.
Turn off image stabilization
Some lenses or cameras come with image stabilization. Make sure you turn it off if you’re using your tripod. With it on, it can overcompensate for your tripod being steady and introduce camera shake.
Don’t shine your light source directly into your camera
Shining any of your lights directly into the camera can result in a bright blob of light in your photo. You don’t want that.
Keep the light moving
There’s nothing to stop you from experimenting with moving your lights at different speeds, as it will create different effects. But do try to keep your lights in motion as it keeps things interesting.
Watch where you move
Don’t get between the lights and the camera or the sensor won’t be able to pick up the light.
‘Paint’ in strokes
Think about how you would use a paint brush or a pen and translate those movements to your lights.
Use different angles
Painting or projecting light from the same angle can look a bit dull. Mix things about. Move around. Go up. Come down. Slide in from the side. It will add a three-dimensional effect to your images.
Experiment with different surfaces and textures
Some surfaces such as wood absorb light while others reflect it. Use these contrasting properties to add interest to your light paintings.
Use multiple lights
Add different colours, different intensities of light, come from different directions, to create interest.
Light painting FAQs
Light painting is a long exposure photography technique where you move light sources across your scene while taking the shot.
Yes! Some people call it light graffiti or light drawing.
It’s a good idea to use a remote shutter release so that you don’t introduce camera shake into your shots. You will need some light sources like LED wands, too. And a tripod is important.
Yes! There are three main light painting techniques. All of them use long exposures.
1. On-camera light captures light moving through your scene.
2. Off-camera light shines light into your scene from an out-of-shot position.
3. Kinetic light painting is when you move your camera to capture movement, rather than move the light sources.
Daniela Bowker is a writer and editor based in the UK. Since 2010 she has focused on the photography sector. In this time, she has written three books and contributed to many more, served as the editor for two websites, written thousands of articles for numerous publications, both in print and online, and runs the Photocritic Photography School.