5 Toys and Tricks to Improve Your Light Painting


It’s easy to plateau when you’re experimenting with light painting photography, and as a result, this fun genre can often turn into a flash in the pan hobby.

And so, in order to help sustain your interest in what I think is a worthwhile endeavor and an under appreciated form of photography, I’ve decided to provide a few of the toys and tricks I’ve picked up in my experiences. These are things that have helped respire my interest in the past. Hopefully they’ll motivate you to continue experimenting as well.


Industrial Grade Glow Sticks

So you’ve experimented with glow sticks to the point where the guy at Party City thinks you’re a raver, and while you had a pretty good time, you’ve worn tired of these rather weak flat streaks of light.

But then you see something like the vibrant glowing waterfalls by Sean Lenz and Kristoffer Abildgaard, featured here a while back, and you wonder why your results are so dull and theirs are so visually striking. How do you get results as stunning as that?


Well, first off, let’s be clear: these weren’t two guys playing around in a pond. A lot of time and planning went into those photos and you’re only going to achieve something like that if you’re willing to invest more than casual experimentation. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still have fun.

Thus, I suggest upgrading your glow stick game to industrial grade glow sticks. As you might imagine, their glow is a lot more intense and longer lasting, and this added power will greatly increase your options when shooting, as well as provide richer streaks of light for you to bend and contort.


Sustain Pedal Foot Switch

One of the many hindrances of light painting is that it can be hard to do solo. I’ve always had the most fun working with at least one other person who can assist and get in on the fun, but it can be difficult to find and organize people that want to get involved. For some reason a lot of people don’t like fun.

But worry not, if you’re itching to experiment but are on your own, a good cheap and easy hack is to use a keyboard/piano sustain pedal as a foot switch for your camera.

I first came across this idea through an Instructables tutorial that gives instructions for soldering a stereo cable to a the proper plug for your camera; however, I was able to find plug adapters that allowed me to do it without any soldering needed, making this already easy alteration, even easier.

LP (7 of 9)

Once you have it set up, you just set your camera to Bulb mode, run the pedal to wherever you want to light paint, and hold the pedal down until you’re done with your photo. No need to invest in an expensive remote or resort to the hit-the-button-and-run method.


Phone Apps

Yes, as tired as it is, the saying “there’s an app for that” is just as true with light painting as it is with everything else. I’ve personally experimented with some of the apps available for the iPhone with very mixed results, but if you’re bored and want to perform some quick experiments they can be very useful tools.

There are some like Holographium or Penki that will help you spell out words, while others will help you actually allow you to take light painting photos using you phone’s camera. Still, I think the best results I’ve had with apps is misusing ones that happen to display interesting patterns or interesting/changing hues of light as a quick way to paint when short on tools.


Other Methods

I’ve already discussed some of the fun times found in combining twixtor and light painting in my previous posts, and others far more skilled than I have gone in depth on the wonders of Adobe After Effects and the beautiful photos and even animations that can be created therein. But lately, inspired by a post on our own site, I’ve started experimenting with time stacking and light painting, and have felt reinvigorated to start light painting again.



The possibilities to use this as a stop motion animation tool (given the right Photoshop scripts to reduce the tedious labor) or just build different light pattern/swatch libraries and stack them later has given me a whole new way of looking at light painting.

This isn’t to say that this is some sort of revelation, just that you should try to think about the different ways certain types of photography can compliment and blend with each other. Luckily, light painting is an incredibly tasty mixer.


Buy More Toys

And then there’s of course always buying more toys to play with. Don’t worry, I won’t judge.

Image credits: Lens-cap by Chris Nielsen, five six pick-up sticks by Robert Couse-Baker, Neon Luminance Photos by Sean Lenz/Kristoffer Abildgaard/From the Lenz, Piano digital Yamaha P-155 by ligia diniz, Light painting with Penki by Adam, Lightpainting Tools by Thor.

  • James de Luna

    no mention of EL wire, Lens cap tricks, Lens swaps, Rotation tools, Digital light wands …. need i go on ..?! missed every current trend

  • James de Luna

    no mention of flash gels or a big torch either – kind of essential those … ;)

  • Ian Hobson

    Hate to sound snarky, but much though I always like to see articles raising the profile of light painting as a genre, these tips won’t really help anyone improve their light painting shots. A hacked foot pedal isn’t going to be anywhere near as useful as a remote switch, or even a cable release on a timer. Like standard glowsticks, Industrial glowsticks don’t have off switches, Phone apps are just another light source, and like any lightsource used in a light painting, will only make the shot better is used creatively. And as for the post processing in AE or PS, well, I view the need for such as an admission that the light painting wasn’t too hot to start off with if it needs post processed that badly ;) Timelapse/stopframes can be made quite easily from sequenced sooc jegs with no need for post processing each individual image. Again, it’s not what you use, it’s how you use it.

    So to avoid sounding like a total sneery curmudgeon, could I suggest 5 things that might help anyone improve their light painting?

    1) Use a bright torch (Flashlight) to frame your shot before you start waving lights about. It helps massively if you know where the frame starts and ends, so you don’t end up waving your lights in a space that the camera can’t really see.

    2) Use the highest ISO you can without causing noise, so you can use a higher F stop, and thus get more DoF for sharper images light trails.

    3) For complex shots with really long exposure times and more than one light source, think about temporarily replacing the cap on your lens whilst you get the next light source switched on.

    4) Make your own light tools or adapt existing ones, so you can position the switch where you want it to reduce the chances of fumbling about and wrecking the shot.

    5) Hang a small dim light from your tripod, so whilst you’re waving the lights, you always know where your camera is, helping with composition, and also avoiding banging into the tripod in the dark and potentially knocking your camera over.

    I’m sure there are many light painters out there who could come up with a vast array of additions to this, even without going into ‘This tool is cool’ sort of stuff. Even if it’s the obvious advice to beginners, such as ”remember to switch your headtorch off’ :)

  • Marc van der Veen

    Not Snarky at all Hob, I’ve been following you for a while now and while you’re coming up with great stuff all the time, no snarkyness ensued. And I can say that about most lightpainters tbh.
    Anyways, to make some contributions as well:

    6) Use a sustain pedal for a piano and buy a remote. They may be expensive if you buy original stuff, do a search on Ebay and you’ll find one for a couple of bucks, works like a charm.

    7) One of my bigger problems is finding locations. If you’re into Urban Exploring, hook up with some of these guys, do some urban exploring at awesome locations and stay long enough for it to grow dark and go crazy at night as well. Win-win. For the record, don’t ‘abuse’ these locations or spread em around too much, most Urbexers are careful too keep it neat and tidy: “Take only pictures, leave only footprints.”

    8) Stay long enough (or start later) for the morning fog to come, makes for some interesting effects. Just remember that fog is wet and you don’t want to leave stuff on the ground/grass or leave your bag(s) open.

    9) Take someone with you, for multiple reasons. Depending on the location, it might make you (feel) safer at night. Two people know more than one, use each other for tips and exchanging ideas. An assistant is really, really handy, especially if you’re lightpainting far away from your camera, out of range of your remote and out of range to keep someone from taking it away. And of course, it’s nice to chat around at night instead of being alone for hours at a time at night, although this varies this with me.

  • kotaro_14

    Just get a pixelstick people.