Light Painting Photography: A Basic Beginner’s Guide

Light painting is a technique photographers use to make art with light. They use a dark room or outdoors as a canvas to paint with a light source like a flashlight, glow stick, or even a mobile phone.

So, how exactly does this work? It is the magic of long exposure. When the shutter speed is low, say 30 seconds or more, the camera captures the movement of the light as a streak that resembles a painting.

All photography is art, but to be successful at light painting, you must especially have an artistic eye and loads of patience. Curious? Let’s get started.

What You Need for Light Painting

With respect to gear, you don’t have to go out of the way to do light painting. You just need these few items that you may already have if you’re an intermediate photographer.

Choose the Right Camera

You need a mirrorless or DSLR camera. Other types of cameras will work, provided they have the option to change the shutter speed.

If you’re using a smartphone, there are third-party apps that you can use for long exposure. Here’s a guide to shooting long exposure with an iPhone.

A Sturdy Tripod Is a Must

Since you will be working with a slow shutter speed, it is essential to have a good quality tripod. Plus, having a tripod will leave your hands free, and you can concentrate on light painting instead of handling your camera.

You will be working in the dark, so having make-shift stabilizers like a table or stacked books is not a good idea. If you don’t own one yet, here’s what to look for before getting a tripod.

Opt for a Cable Release

When you use your camera for long exposure, any slight shake can ruin the look of your final image. So, manually clicking the shutter button is a no-no when working with slow shutter speeds. Your photo will end up blurry.

You can avoid this by having a shutter release for your camera. You can either choose a wired or a remote one.

If you don’t have a cable release, a quick workaround is to use the timer option in your camera. This will let you work without touching the camera.

Pick a Light Painting Tool

A light painting tool is the light source you will use to paint your art. It can be a small flashlight, a mobile phone, glow sticks, or a candle. Some manufacturers also sell special light brushes that produce different effects. There are also color gels available for painting light in different colors.

Know How to Shoot in Manual Mode

You should be comfortable working with the manual mode on your camera. If you’re not familiar, check our guide on the exposure triangle and do some experimentation on your own before delving into light painting.

Also, remember that your first few attempts will probably not get you the beautiful light paintings you see on the internet. You need to practice just like any other artist to get perfect results.

How to Paint With Light

Making your first light painting can be exciting, so let’s get right into the steps.

1. Find Your Canvas

You don’t have to go to an art shop to find a canvas. With light painting, any dark area is your canvas. You can choose a dark room or go outdoors after dark.

If you want details in the background, choose the blue hour for light painting. Want your light painting to stand out? Then, try nighttime. You can also have fun combining astrophotography with light painting—the universe, full of stars, planets, and galaxies, can be your canvas!

2. Set Up Your Gear

Light up your scene with a flashlight or your mobile phone. Take time to set up your tripod and ensure it is leveled and sturdy on the ground. Double-check the background and foreground to ensure the composition is exactly how you want it.

3. Adjust Your Camera Settings

For light painting, you need complete control of the settings. So, manual mode is the way to go. The same goes for shooting in RAW mode too. When working in the dark with artificial lighting, you need complete control over the white balance settings.

You want a sharp image with an excellent depth of field, so go for an aperture value greater than f/8. But don’t go too high, or you’ll end up with unwanted artifacts.

If your shutter speed is less than 30 seconds, your camera’s inbuilt light meter will be pretty accurate in balancing the aperture and ISO. But for speeds greater than 30 seconds, your camera will not be helpful. So, how to find the correct values?

Photographers use a small trick to find the correct exposure. Follow these steps:

  1. Choose an ISO that is six stops more than the ISO you plan to shoot with. For instance, if you’re planning to shoot at ISO 100, then choose 6400 as your ISO and adjust your exposure settings.
  2. Your shutter speed may come in seconds. Note it down.
  3. Set your ISO to 100, and add the same shutter speed, but in minutes.
  4. One second at ISO 6400 is equal to one minute at ISO 100.

When you’re using a shutter speed over 30 seconds, you have to use Bulb mode on your camera. That is the mode where your camera will open the shutter as long as the shutter release button is pressed.

4. Prepare to Paint

Press the shutter release button, and start painting your scene. You can do random shapes or write a message or highlight an object. This is your canvas and your art, so the choice is entirely up to you.

If you’re in the frame, try wearing black or any dark color so that all the attention is on your painting. Remember to try different compositions.

5. Edit and Enjoy Your Painting

Load the images from the session into your favorite post-production software and tweak the colors however you’d like. And, your first light painting is ready.

Bring Out the Artist in You With Light Painting

When you’re a photographer for a while, it’s easy to get into a rut. Light painting is the perfect project to break out of it. Plus, trying different techniques will push you out of your comfort zone and make you a better photographer.

Light painting, especially, will help you improve your artistic side of photography. Use our tips here to make your masterpiece.

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