Light Painting: A Complete Guide
Light painting has become a popular technique in the age of digital photography. If you have always wondered how to do light painting photography yourself, you’ve come to the right place.
In this complete, in-depth guide, I am going to explain everything you need to know to jump into the art form of light painting. During our journey into the world of light painting, I will share a brief history with you, explain what light painting is, share some techniques and go over the gear that you will need to start creating your own magical works of art.
One thing that I would like for you to keep in mind is that all my light paintings that you will see in this article are created in real-time and captured to the camera in one single photographic frame, there is no photo editing used to create anything you see!
Table of Contents
What is Light Painting?
Light painting can be defined as the manual movement of light through space, over time, during a long exposure photograph.
I often hear light painting called a “photographic technique”, I believe that light painting is its own art form separate from photography. The camera is simply the instrument that records the light painting art form, just as a canvas captures the brushstrokes of a traditional painter with oils or acrylics. The movement of light, through space and over time is the light painting art form.
The photographic technique used to record the light painting art form is long-exposure photography. I always say that calling light painting a photographic technique would be the same thing as calling painting a canvas technique.
The broader art form of light painting can be broken down into three distinct categories or techniques:
- Light Drawing: The light source is seen by the camera and the traces of light create the color and design within the frame.
- Light Painting: The light source is not seen by the camera, only the projected light is recorded by the camera.
- Kinetic Light Painting: The light source stays stationary in the scene. The camera is moved during the exposure to create the color and design within the frame.
A light painting can be any one or combination of these three techniques but the common denominator in all of these light painting categories is that the artist is using a camera and the photographic technique of long exposure photography to record the light painting art form.
Light Painting History
The origins of light painting can be traced back to 1889 when Etienne-Jules Marey and Georges Demeny fixed some lights to their lab assistant and had them move in front of a camera to create the first known light painting photograph titled Pathological Walk From in Front.
Pathological Walk From in Front, like many of the early light paintings, was created not as an artistic pursuit but as a scientific experiment to study motion. The first person documented to explore light painting as an artistic endeavor was Man Ray with his series called Space Writings, as seen below.
Pablo Picasso even created some light paintings, though credit for these images should also go to Gjon Mili. Gjon was the person that introduced Picasso to the light painting art form and was the man that recorded the images using his camera while he was on assignment to photograph Picasso for LIFE Magazine in 1949. Below is the image titled Picasso Draws a Centaur, which was drawn with light by Picasso and recorded by Gjon Mili’s camera.
Everything up to this point in light painting history I would consider to be “light drawing”, again that is the light source is seen by the camera. In 1977 Dean Chamberlain, who I consider to be the father of light painting, created his first light painting called Polyethylene Bag on Chaise Lounge.
Dean Chamberlain is the first artist to dedicate his entire body of work to the light painting art form.
To create and capture a light painting you will need two things; a light source and a camera capable of capturing a long exposure photograph. Those are really the only two pieces of gear that are essential. There are a few other pieces of equipment that can make creating light paintings much easier and below I’ll break down each piece of gear a bit further.
To capture a light painting you will need a camera that is capable of capturing a long exposure. Just about every mirrorless or DSLR camera has the capability to capture a long exposure photograph. 35mm cameras like the Canon AE1 have the ability to capture long exposures.
Newer Bluetooth-enabled Polaroid cameras are easier than ever to capture a long exposure when paired with the Polaroid app. Even our cell phones are becoming more and more capable. Many cell phones have the ability to capture long exposures right out of the box and for those that don’t have long exposure capabilities there are 3rd party apps like “Slow Shutter”. The point is that the camera that you already own is more than likely a great camera to capture your light painting work!
An important step in capturing a light painting is making sure the camera doesn’t move (unless you are intentionally moving the camera to create a kinetic light painting, but we will get into that later in the guide). For most light paintings it will be important to keep your camera stable. The best way to keep your camera stable is to use a tripod.
There are a bunch of different options for tripods. Some things to consider when selecting a tripod for your light painting work are things like size and weight. First, you want to make sure the tripod you select will support your camera system. If you have a heavier DSLR you will want to consider a more robust tripod. If you are using a point-and-shoot or your cell phone you can go with something much less robust.
Another thing to consider is the weight of your tripod. I personally like to shoot out in desolate locations that require a lot of hiking to access, so a lightweight carbon fiber tripod is important for me. If you like to shoot in the studio then a less expensive metal tripod might be best for you. When selecting a tripod consider the weight of your camera system and where you will be using it and that should help you select the tripod that will work best for you!
A cable release can be really helpful in starting the exposure to record your light painting. Cable Releases come in a variety of different levels of complexity, from the very basic single button to intervalometers with multiple features. A cable release makes it easier to keep your shutter open for a long exposure and they can also help to avoid any unwanted camera shake.
Remote Shutter Release
Another, slightly fancier, version of the cable release is a remote shutter release. A Remote Shutter Release is great if you are working a long way off from your camera.
The Light Source
To create a light painting you can use just about anything that emits light, but a flashlight or torch is probably going to be your best bet.
Here are things to consider when selecting a flashlight:
Brightness: A general rule for light painting is the brighter the flashlight the better. Most bright flashlights have various lumen output settings that will allow you to step down in brightness from the maximum setting. The various lumen output options in a flashlight can be important as you will see when we get to the settings section of this guide. I prefer my flashlights to be around 1000 lumens with at least 3 step-down output options.
Color Temperature: White flashlights can be warm or cool in color. The color of the white light is rated in degrees of Kelvin. The lower the degree Kelvin the more red the light will be and the higher the degree Kelvin the bluer the light will be.
I prefer to have a clean white light around 5000K. A light around 5000K gives you a nice base to work with. A clean white light will also give you the best results when working with off-the-shelf light modifiers like gels or the Light Painting Brushes tools.
Multicolor Lights: There are flashlights out there that have multiple color options however it’s important to keep in mind the lumen output of these lights as they are usually not very bright. I find that it is often better to have a bright white light that you can add color to using a gel or filter. Having a brighter light that you can add colors to using gels or other light modifiers will give you far more flexibility in your light painting work.
Strobe: Many tactical flashlights have a strobe function. I find flashlights that have a constant strobe function will give you the best light painting results. Many tactical flashlights have an SOS strobe, rather than a constant strobe. The SOS strobe can still give you good results but be aware the SOS strobe is a series of short and long flashes that is not a consistent strobe.
Light Painting Tools
I’ll say it again here, you can create a light painting with ANYTHING that emits, reflects, or modifies light! With that being said there are companies that have ready-made light painting tools that can give you a big headstart to creating some epic light paintings if you lack the time, space, or ability to make your own tools!
Fiber optics and plexiglass are some of the more popular off-the-shelf light modifiers that create some awesome light painting Effects.
What to Wear
When you are light painting it is best to wear dark clothing. Wearing dark clothing will help to keep you hidden in your images. Dark clothing helps any unwanted light that hits you while you are creating your light painting to absorb into your clothing instead of being reflected back and unintentionally recorded by the camera.
Where to Shoot
To create a light painting you need a dark environment. If you are inside a studio where you have total control of the ambient light this is no problem.
Finding a completely dark environment can be a bit more challenging when you are outside, especially if you live in the city. A general rule for light painting is the darker the environment the better. You can create some cool light paintings in urban environments but you will be more limited in the amount of time you have to create. If you scout a location during the day make sure to watch out for street lights that might flood your scene with unwanted light at night!
Light paintings are created in the dark so safety can be a real concern. The lack of light making things less safe can apply to anything from tripping and falling in the dark to running into dangerous animals out in the wild. If you are going to be out in the woods or some other outdoor environment it’s a good idea to scout your location during the daylight hours to watch out for trip hazards or anything else that might cause you some trouble when the sun goes down.
I personally think the most dangerous thing you can run into at night is other people. This is especially true if you are light painting in an urban environment. Here are a few other things to consider to help keep yourself safe:
Safety in numbers: If you are going out into the wild to create your light paintings it is a good idea to go out with a photo buddy or group if you can. As the old saying goes, there is safety in numbers.
Let someone know where you are: I personally like to light paint alone and I am often in very desolate locations. When I go out at night I always let someone know where I am going to be and when I should be back. At the very least if I don’t show back up, hopefully someone will come looking for me. If you are going with a group or alone I think it’s always a good idea to let someone know where you are going to be and what time to expect you back!
Wild animals: When I am out light painting in the woods I always carry bear spray with me. Bear spray is not only good in case you run into some sort of not-so-friendly animal it can also offer some protection from the not-so-friendly human as well. One more thing about bear spray is to keep it on you where you can get to it quickly. You can get bear spray that comes with a holster, I recommend using the holster. Chances are if you need to use your bear spray, you won’t have time to go get it out of your bag!
Finding the “right” camera settings to capture your light painting work can be slightly more complicated than simply taking a picture at night. When you are finding the proper camera settings for your light painting work there are factors to consider besides just the ambient light that you are working with.
Some of the additional factors to consider when adjusting your camera settings to capture your light painting work are things like the brightness of the light source you are working with, the speed at which you are moving your light source throughout the frame, and even how you are holding the light.
Here is the two-step process that I use for finding the “right” camera settings to record my light painting work.
If I am shooting outside the first thing that I do is find a proper exposure for the amount of ambient light that I am working with. For example, let’s say I am light painting on a full moon night and my settings are ISO 100 at f/8. I open the shutter and let the exposure run. Let’s say I get proper exposure for the amount of ambient light at 60 seconds.
That means I will have 60 seconds to create my light painting work in the scene at those settings. If I think I need more time to create the light painting work I intend to do, I can cut the amount of light that is getting into the camera by stopping down on the aperture, therefore giving myself more time to create the light painting work. Likewise, if I only need a few seconds to create the light painting work because I am just doing something simple like a ribbon of light behind a model then I can open up to f/2.8 or boost the ISO, to allow more light into the camera.
If I am shooting inside, where I have total control of the ambient light, then I can move on to step two. One other note on settings, if you have a camera that only allows you to shoot a long exposure of 15-30 seconds then you will have to work within those parameters and you will have to adjust your ISO and F-Stop accordingly.
Once I have established a proper exposure for the amount of ambient light that I am working with now I can begin to work out the light painting part of the image. Again the main factors to consider here are the brightness of the light source I am working with and the speed at which I move the light through the frame. Using the first example of ISO 100 at f/8 for 60 seconds, I know that I have 60 seconds to create the light painting I intend to add to this scene.
If I am creating a shape like an orb I will do a test exposure to find the appropriate brightness and speed at which I need to move the light through the scene. Let’s say that I take my test shot and the orb is not bright enough, I have two options. The first option is to increase the brightness of the light source I am working with or I can slow down my movement with the light. If I am at the maximum brightness of the light source I am working with then the only option I have is to slow down my movements.
Every light painting is like a recipe and it’s just a matter of finding the proper ingredients needed to get the light painting that you are after. The basic ingredients that you have to work with when you are creating a light painting are the camera settings (ISO, f-stop, and exposure time), the brightness of the light source you are working with, and the speed at which you move the light through the frame.
Here is a simplified version of all that and a good place to start:
Start at ISO 100, f/8, and Bulb or Manual Mode. If you need more time to create the light painting you are after, let less light into your camera by upping the F-stop. If your light painting work looks dim, use a brighter light and/or slow down your movements.
How to Focus in the Dark
One of the most common questions I get about light painting is how do you focus in the dark? The simple answer is you can’t focus in the dark. To focus your camera you will need some sort of light. There are two techniques that I use to pull focus, both involve using light! The most important setting to keep in mind is that when you are creating your light painting work you always want to have your camera set on manual focus.
You can use autofocus to get the focus first but if you use autofocus to get your focus with the lights on you want to make sure you switch back to manual focus right after you pull focus. If you try to light paint with your camera set on auto focus as soon as the lights go out your camera will be searching for focus, leaving you with a camera that won’t fire or a blurry light painting. Below are the two techniques I use to focus in the dark.
Focus Technique #1: The first technique is simply to illuminate my subject with either the studio lights on if I am inside, or if I am outside I use a flashlight to illuminate my subject. I light up my subject and focus as I normally would. You can use autofocus or manual focus to get the subject in focus but once you are focused you want to make sure you switch your camera back to manual focus.
Focus Technique #2: The second technique I use when the light painting itself is going to be the subject of my image. When the light painting is going to be the focus I place a light where I intend to be creating my light painting work in the scene. I pull focus on the spot where the light is in the scene. Using this focus technique I know if I stand in that same general area to create my light painting it will be in focus in the resulting image.
Earlier in this guide, I broke light painting down into 3 basic categories: Light drawing where the light source is seen by the camera, light painting where the projected light is what is seen by the camera, and kinetic light painting where the lights in the scene stay stationary but the light painter moves the camera to create the color and design within the frame. I will now break down each of these light painting categories a bit further.
Light drawing, again is where the light source is seen by the camera. Light drawing can take numerous forms within the greater light painting art form. Below I will break down two light paintings that I have created. I would consider each of these images to be light drawings because the light source is seen by the camera.
The orb is one of the most common shapes that you will see in the light painting world. Orbs are pretty easy to create and there are numerous ways to make them. You can make your orbs as complex or as simple as you desire, the exploding orb is a good one to start with!
How it’s created:
To create the Exploding Orb light painting, I start the exposure with my back to the camera. Holding a diamond-shaped plexiglass in one hand I begin to raise my arm that is holding the plexiglass up and down while manually turning the light source on and off. Each time the light source illuminates the plexiglass the flash of light is recorded by the camera because the exposure is running the entire time.
During one single long exposure, I repeat the process of raising my arm up and down while manually turning the light on and off, all while slowly turning my body in a 360° motion. Once I complete the 360º rotation of my body I turn the light off and switch tools. I use the color hood to illuminate the area where I have just created the orb. The illumination of the area gives the illusion that the orb is emitting light.
Illuminating this area will also erase my feet and legs from the image because in light painting and life, light erases darkness. Finally, I walk throughout the frame holding the plexiglass still in various areas of the frame, creating the effect that there are diamonds shooting off toward the camera.
One important thing to remember when creating any light-painted orb is that your shoulder will always be the center of your orb. To create a symmetrical orb try to keep your shoulder in the same general location as you turn your body and keep your arms equidistant from your body as you move up and down. Listed below are the tools that I used, the camera settings, and the total exposure time.
Illuminated being is a light painting technique I like to utilize anytime I visit a new location because this light painting is an actual illuminated imprint of myself in that space and time.
How it’s created:
To create this image the first thing that I do is sit in a comfortable position on the cliff side and begin to trace my body with light using the Opaque Light Writer. I trace my entire body starting at my feet and go up and down my legs in a back-and-forth motion. I trace my torso, neck, head, and left arm.
When I get to the bottom of my left hand I turn the light off and switch hands so that I am able to trace my right arm. I place my right arm in the position I want, then using my left hand I turn the light on and trace my right arm with light. After I completely trace my body with light I then use the color hood to illuminate the scene.
One thing to keep in mind when creating an illuminated being is that it’s important to pick a position that will be easy for you to hold for the entire exposure. Listed below are the tools that I used, the camera settings, and the total exposure time.
Light writing is also a form of light drawing in that again the light source is seen by the camera. If you are like me and want to keep your images straight out of the camera, then light writing can be pretty tricky.
Because the camera reverses the writing to keep your light painting straight out of the camera you will need to write backward. Instead of writing from left to right as you would on a piece of paper, you will need to write right to left AND reverse the letters. For example, if you were to write out the word LOVE you would need to write it backward.
If this is a bit too difficult you can always just write as you normally would and then flip the image in post, but I personally enjoy the challenge. Below I will break down how I create one of my favorite light writing images, titled LIMITLESS.
This light writing was created on the beach with very little moonlight. The waves were breaking on the shore, which is what creates the white in the background. The first thing that I did to create this light painting was the writing itself. I started with a translucent colored light pen on the ground and began to draw the L in the word Limitless. I manually turn the light on and off between each letter. Each of the letters is about 3 feet tall.
To help me get the letters the same size I use my body as a guide, drawing from the ground up to about my stomach level. The flares on the ground are created from the light spilling out of the colored light pen. After I created all of the letters in Limitless I then used the Orange Color Hood to add some light to the scene giving the illusion that the letters are emitting light.
This light writing is not flipped, I wrote “limitless” backward in the scene and it took several tries to get it how I wanted it to look. Listed below are the tools that I used, the camera settings, and the total exposure time.
Light painting is where the light source is not seen by the camera, only the projected light is recorded during the long exposure. Light painting allows you to create images unlike anything else!
There are several different ways to light paint a scene. You can stand behind your camera and throw light into your scene or you can stand off to the sides of your frame adding light to your scene from just off camera. I personally like to light-paint my work from within the scene. I want to be a part of the image, rather than standing behind the camera. I hold lights in my hand and physically walk through the environment selectively illuminating parts of the scene.
Below I will show you the same scene that I light-painted in two slightly different ways. The techniques that I will share with you below are how I light paint 99% of my work.
To light paint the image above I start the exposure and then I walk through the scene flooding the environment with light using yellow and orange lights fitted with hoods that block direct light from hitting the camera. As I move through the scene with the color hoods I am moving the lights in a sporadic but controlled way, think of it like blending colors.
My movement with the light is sporadic, but not chaotic. I try to blend the light together making sure to never point the light back at the camera. The hood that covers the light blocks the light source from being seen by the camera, and only the projected light is being recorded. The hood over the light source allows me to walk all throughout the environment without recording any unwanted light streaks.
Once I feel that the scene is illuminated in the way that I like I stop the exposure. Listed below are the tools that I used, the camera settings, and the total exposure time.
To light paint the image above I start the exposure and do the exact same thing that I did in the first image with one extra step. I walk through the scene flooding the environment with light using the yellow and orange lights fitted with hoods.
Once I feel that the scene is illuminated how I desire I then go back through the scene highlighting specific details in the scene. I get very close and nearly touch the areas in the scene that I want to highlight. In this instance, I touched the edges and tops of the posts with yellow light! This is the way that I like to light paint nearly every image that I create.
I lay down what I think of as a base coat of light using the first light painting technique that I discussed and then I come in and physically touch the details with light! I feel this creates the most dynamic light painting image. Listed below are the tools that I used, the camera settings, and the total exposure time.
Here are the two light painting techniques side by side so you can see the difference:
Kinetic Light Painting
Kinetic light painting is where the light in the scene stays stationary and the camera itself is used to create the color and design within the frame. This can be as simple as holding the camera in your hand and using something like the moon to draw a design in the sky like the image below or something much more complex like a camera rotation.
The light painting above is one of the simplest forms of kinetic light painting. To create this image I held my camera in my hand and used the light from the full moon to create a heart shape in the sky. You can also see some heart shapes reflected in the water, these were created from the lights off the buildings. These settings for this light painting were ISO 100 at f/9. The total exposure time was 30 seconds.
Another form of kinetic light painting is the zoom pull technique. A zoom pull is where you are manually zooming your lens during a long exposure. In the light painting below I had my friend, and fellow light painter, Jason Rinehart stand still in a stained glass window at Duke University while I manually zoomed my 24-105mm lens in and out.
The manual zooming of the lens while the exposure is running leaves behind the trails of light. For this image, I also used fiber optic light brushes in which light is only emitted at the ends of each fiber. The settings for this image were ISO 100 at f/14. The total exposure time was 75 seconds.
Camera rotation is a form of kinetic light painting that can take ordinary scenes and turn them into extraordinary geometric works of art. Camera Rotation is where the light painter manually rotates the camera during a single long exposure photograph. In this section of the guide, I will break down a simple camera rotation light painting that I created of a corner liquor store.
This is the liquor store at night without any camera movement.
This is the exact same scene rotated. To create this kinetic light painting I used a camera rotation tool and rotated the camera a full 360°.
I start the exposure with the lens cap on the lens of the camera. I removed the lens cap for about 2 seconds and put it right back on the camera. I leave the exposure running. With the lens cap on the camera, I then rotate the camera 30 degrees. Once I get to the 30-degree mark I remove the lens cap for another 2 seconds and put it right back on the camera. I repeat this process stopping every 30 degrees to allow some more light into the camera.
After I complete the full 360-degree rotation I stop the exposure. As the single long exposure runs every time I stop the rotation and allow some light into the camera the light painting builds into a geometric work of art!
Light Painting Portraits
With light painting, you can create magical portraits with lighting effects that most people would think were computer generated. light painting portraits can be something as simple as moving a light quickly behind your model to much more complex and dynamic images.
When you are creating a light painting portrait, all the principles that we already went over in this light painting guide still apply. To get your focus and find your proper settings follow the concepts earlier in the guide. When working with a live model there are some additional factors to consider.
The first thing that you want to do is make your model aware of the light painting process. Make sure they know that you will be creating images in the dark and you will be moving around them with light. Make sure that your model knows that they will need to stay as still as possible for the length of the exposure.
If you are planning to include multiple light painting elements in your image make sure your model selects a comfortable position that will be easy for them to hold for an extended period of time.
You don’t want your model to be standing on their tippy toes if you are going to be creating a 3-minute light painting portrait.
Keeping your model in focus:
One of the main principles to keep in mind when you are creating a light painting portrait is that you only want to illuminate your model one single time during the long exposure. If you illuminate your model multiple times during the exposure, no matter how good your model is at holding still, there is going to be some slight movement and you will end up with a blurry image.
The more important concept to keep in mind to get your model as sharp as possible is to only illuminate them one at a time.
Below I will break down a couple of examples of light painting portraits created in real-time and captured to the camera in one single photographic frame.
This light painting portrait was created for iHeartRadio backstage during the Wango Tango Concert series. My team and I had only a few minutes with each of the artists so we had to get the light painting in one single take. We explained the process to this artist, Fletcher, and asked her to stay as still as possible while we illuminated her.
I illuminated her using the Portrait Light in one single pass, then we went around her with the white fiber optic to create the smoky effect, and then did a quick pass with an orange light sword. Finally, we popped a flash behind Fletcher with a purple gel on it to give a little backlight. Fletcher came out nice and sharp in this light painting because she remained as still as possible and I ONLY illuminated her one single time!
This light painting is a much longer exposure than the first example. I selected this image because I wanted to show it is possible to get a relatively sharp image even shooting very long exposures. This light painting was an 8-minute exposure.
As with the first light painting portrait example, I explained the process to the model and made her very aware of how long this image was going to take to create. I first illuminated the lantern and the tree behind the model. While I am illuminating this area of the frame the model is able to relax a bit because there is no light shining onto her that will be recorded by the camera.
Next, I told the model to hold as still as possible and I illuminated her in one single pass using the Portrait Light. I have her continue to hold the pose as still as she can and I used a feather-shaped plexiglass to create the wings behind her. To create the wings I hold the feather plexiglass still and turn the flashlight on for one second and then turn it off. I moved the plexiglass with the light off to the next position and then I repeated that process to create the entirety of the wings.
I used the same feather plexiglass shape to create the three small orbs of light she is capturing or releasing depending on your interpretation of the image. To create those shapes I held the feather plexiglass in place and twisted it back and forth. Finally, I used a waterproof LED light string to create the sparkles in the water.
I hope that this light painting guide has shown you that light painting is a limitless art form, the only boundary is your own imagination.
Light painting allows you to create images like nothing else and there is no better medium than light to communicate a message. When you are light painting you are participating in the image rather than capturing it.
When creating a light painting you are choosing what parts of the image you want the camera to see by selectively illuminating them. The light painter gets to choose what parts of the scene to show and you get to choose the light in which you present the scene or subject. Each illumination in an image shows where you have been in that image, each trace of light is a recording of yourself in that time and space forever recorded in one single frame.
Light painting is the compression of time, space, and movement of light. Light painting is magic, and I hope this guide inspires you to get out there and create your own works of art!
About the author: Jason D. Page is a light painter and the founder of Light Painting Brushes. You can find more of his work on his website, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Theta.