Light Painting: How to Transform your Photography into Breathtaking Paintings of Light

shadow of a man standing in front of light painting made of red line lights.

What is Light Painting?

Light Painting in Photography refers to the use of a luminescent Light Source to mark, draw, or shine light onto a dark scene. In essence, your photographic plane becomes your canvas and light literally becomes the medium of expression.

This technique can require a lot of experimentation and trial and error before perfecting your exposure and painting times, but this learning curve and process of experimentation are also part of the fun! In this article, we will delve into the origins of lighting painting, explore how to create light painting photography, list some useful techniques and tips, and examine examples of Light Painting in Photography.

The earliest known light painting was produced in 1889 by Étienne-Jules Marey and Georges Demeny in their photograph, Pathological Walk From in Front, seen below.

Lightpainting Etienne Jules Marey et George Demeny. Pathological Walk from the Front
Étienne-Jules Marey and Georges Demeny: Light Painting 1889

Over time, renowned artists like Man Ray began incorporating this photographic record of light movement through his “Space Writing,” where he drew shapes, lines, and text over his own self-portrait.

space writing self portrait
Space Writing (Self-Portrait), 1935 by Man Ray

Another early example of influential light painting photography came about in 1940 with the photography work, Pure Energy and Neurotic Man, by Barbara Morgan. Morgan experimented extensively with light painting techniques in her photography studio, capturing the movement of dancers holding lights to record their dynamic light streaks.

Pure Energy and Neurotic Man 1940
Pure Energy and Neurotic Man, a light painting by Barbara Morgan (1940).

Barbara Morgen describes her creative journey with light painting as she, “began to feel the pervasive, vibratory character of light energy as a partner of the physical and spiritual energy of the dance, and as the prime mover of the photographic process.”

In the modern age, with the proliferation of digital photography and LED light technology, light painting has come a long way since its discovery.

SuperNaturalBreakdancer
Light art performance photography: Natural Breakdancer.

For some more amazing early examples of light painting pioneers and modern light painting photographers, check out this site.

Light Painting Photography Techniques: How to Paint with Light

There are two primary ways in which to incorporate light painting in your photography. One involves an application of additional light which is off-camera onto your scene, the other captures the movement of a light source, often handheld, found on-camera from within your scene.

Off-Camera Light Painting

One way to paint light onto your image is to use an external light source to selectively highlight a dark and otherwise unlit scene. In this instance, the photographer chooses exactly which elements to show and which to leave in shadow.

In this method, your light source is used off-camera and shined from the outside of your image frame onto your scene. Also, the light source’s direction faces the subject to be exposed, not the camera lens. The photographer then determines which elements are to be lit and how much exposure will be needed to achieve the desired effect.

In the example below, you can see by the rich presence of the stars in the sky that the exposure was very long. A light source, off-camera but in the foreground, was careful to highlight the mountain texture and even the tree growing from the rock formation in the center of the image. The sharp focus of the foreground to the background also reveals a very small aperture.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CmZNHmKuXvc/?hl=en

If, however, your exposure is long enough, a person could momentarily enter the frame and apply direct light to select areas, leaving little to no visual footprint of their presence.

Check out this example below. Often used for night architectural photography, the exposures of certain hidden lighting sources with additional off-camera highlights are used to highlight some areas and achieve balance in an otherwise underlit and overly contrasted lighting environment.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CmV_z6_MjPR/?hl=en

Another way in which you can apply off-camera light painting is to use a flash of light to temporarily expose objects or people in your frame, creating a multiple-exposure effect. You can even double-expose the same subject in more than one place in the scene by shining your light on it more than once in multiple positions.

This image below is a fun example of a momentary exposure using a flash, essentially photo-bombing her own scene! These flash exposures of light record brief moments which happen during the longer exposure of the entire scene. Also notice that two different colors of flash lighting are experimented with in this image.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CmZiZ3lsF6R/?hl=en

On-Camera Light Painting

The other primary mode of light painting involves directly drawing, painting, and making marks on your images directly with a light source on-camera. In this method, your light source is visible on the image plane. Here, a light source is aimed toward the camera lens, although not necessarily directly into the camera.

Although not an example of photographic light painting, this video of Picasso’s painting on glass illustrates the idea and technique of drawing in front of a camera.

Similarily, when drawing in with a light source facing the camera, broad strokes are recorded while the light is turned on. One can either make a drawing in one fluid line, or break up a drawing into separate parts by turning the light source off and on selectively.

To illustrate this technique, check out this foxy drawing using a laser pen. Here, the drawing was done quickly enough and long enough that the presence of the person doing the drawing was essentially erased by the ambient exposure of the landscape surrounding the fox. The precision in the drawing is impressive to capture the animal likeness in one fluid line.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CmY-IrbpEh6/?hl=en

While the light painting example above erases the figure creating the light, other techniques incorporate the light painter into its composition. In this image, below, the light painter can barely still be detected behind the wheel of light.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CmDmhictGCF/?hl=en

Whereas in the following image, the light painter is fully exposed and almost becomes the subject.

https://www.instagram.com/p/Cma1TI3ONiq/?hl=en

Another form of light painting with an on-camera light source takes a less active and more passive approach. This includes capturing movements of light trails and streaks of a moving light source using a slow or open shutter, or moving the camera itself to invoke a light streak.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CmZVwRnsj_W/?hl=en

The last interesting on-camera light painting approach I will touch upon is the use of zoom in conjunction with a light source. In this case, light rays are stretched using a zoom effect during the exposure, where the lens is actively zoomed in or out to synthetically create a trail of light. A lens with a manually adjustable zoom is required to produce such images.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CmRdXfeo0py/?hl=en

In this Instagram post above, in contrast to other examples we observed, daylight is used as the light source for the light painting. Here, daylight is filtered through the leaves and projected through the windows. The combination of prolonged exposure and with the stark contrast between the dark space and the light through the window provides a ‘God light’ shine. The zoom effect is likely done by zooming out during the exposure, enhancing the trail of the natural light shining through the windows.

For more inspiring light painting works on Instagram, check out the #lightpaintingphotography.

Light Painting Photography Equipment

So what do you need to get started? Learning how to master light painting photography techniques requires some photographic gear, time, patience, and trial and error, but the results will be worth the effort!

First, You need a camera with a manual Exposure Mode. This could be an old film SLR, a digital DSLR, or a camera phone with advanced camera app settings which allow you to take long exposures.

Second, you need a tripod. if you don’t have a tripod you will need to get creative with setting up your camera on a flat surface and keeping it still in this position.

Third, you will either need a shutter release cable or a timer function on your camera. This will prevent camera shake as you press the shutter release button. 

To improve image sharpness even further, some DSLR and SLR cameras may also have a mirror-up function, this will reduce any shake during the shutter release. Using it involves planning your shot and then pressing the mirror up button which raises the mirror reflex inside the camera before the shutter opens reducing additional camera vibration from the mechanical camera movement.

Next, and importantly, you need a light source. Experiment with different light sources, as some may work better than others. You can also experiment with lights of different color temperatures. Optionally, you can also use colored gels to get some variation of light color and temperature.

example of light painting in photography and the various light colors and textures that can be created.

A few examples of common light sources are flashlights, cellphones, glowsticks, light wands, sparkle fireworks, or a laser pen. You can use these different emitters of light to write a word or a message, draw a symbol, create a pattern, or simply makes streaks of light across your image. 

Check out this example below where a cigarette is used as a light painting pen.

light painting photography how to

Lastly, I also recommended having a Stop Watch at hand to track your exposure times.

Once you have these materials in place, find a nice dark space you would like to work in. Ideally, it should be dark enough that you can control and isolate which lights come into the scene. 

Photographic Exposure and Camera Settings

So, now let’s talk about technique.

Once you have your gear in check, knowing how to use your camera settings is key in learning how to create light painting photography. Adjustments in the ISO, Aperture, Shutter Speed, Framing, and Focus will ensure a sharp and properly exposed image.

ISO

For best results, a good place to start is with a low ISO. Try keeping it as low as possible, at either ISO 100 or 200 to ensure that you don’t have noise in your dark areas. It will also help isolate your light in the parts of the image you expose without overexposing those areas. 

Aperture

As far as Aperture goes, staying between an F8 or F11 will give you enough depth of field so that your focus area will be wider and possibly more forgiving in your experiments. Also, a smaller aperture can help keep your shutter speed longer, giving you more time to paint your scene.

Shutter Speed

Finally, your shutter speed will probably vary depending on the kind of light source you are using and on the amount of ambient light you already have in your scene. You can, however, begin by figuring out the exposure for the ambient light you want to include.

If you are using film, you may need the help of a light meter to determine the exact exposure time.

If you have a digital camera, you can determine your ambient light exposure through trial and error by using your low ISO and with a fixed aperture then simply testing out various times, for instance taking 10-second, 20-second, and 30-second test shots for ambient light.

Likewise, you can approximate your exposure time by setting your ISO momentarily 6 stops higher than your intended ISO. This will save time, rather than repeating 20 and 30-second exposures! Each stop will equal a doubling or halving of your shutter speed.

For instance, if you calculate a 1-second exposure at ISO 6400, then at ISO 3200 you will need 2 seconds, and at 1600 you will need 4 seconds, and at 800 you will need 8 seconds, at 400 you will need 16 seconds, at 200 you will need 32 seconds and if your camera is set to IS0 100, you will need roughly a minute.

So once your ambient exposure is determined, you will keep your exposure constant and execute your light painting around it. In other words, this becomes your base exposure, and the other variables will then be, how fast should you move and how much time should you spend in one location.

Framing

Once you have calculated your ambient light, you can then frame your scene and secure your camera position.

Be aware of the limits of your image frame within your scene. Try to measure where your borders are so you can position your off-camera lighting or your on-camera placement. If you plan to write or draw on camera, you will need to know both horizontally and vertically where your limits are.

Focus

The final step is to set your focus manually. You may need to briefly increase the lighting to set your focus manually and to keep your subject within your focused area. Remember, that the higher your aperture is, the wider your depth of field will be, giving you a larger range of sharpness.

12 Additional Light Painting Photography Tips

  • If you are lighting a scene off-camera, make sure you change your angles frequently to prevent obvious beams of light from revealing your position.
  • Experiment with different sizes of flashlights or light beams. Some may be very focused and while others may be more diffused. This can affect how exact your light markings will be. Think about the difference, for instance, between a flood light and a pen light.
  • Keep the light source moving to avoid overexposure in one area. Take test shots while measuring the time of light application to avoid overexposure and determine your ideal light painting time.
  • If writing or drawing, try to maintain a consistent distance to the subject, or to the camera lens, staying on an even, imaginary drawing plane.
light painting image plane
  • If you are working with a light source on camera, the longer you, or the light painter, stay still in the scene, the more visible you, or this figure, will be in the picture. Likewise, the more rapidly you move around, the more invisible you become.
  • What you wear will also influence how visible or invisible you will be. If you are wearing a bright color you will be easier to spot, if you want to disappear, where dark-colored clothing. 
  • Also necessary, when lighting a subject or writing on camera, standing with your back to the lens while shining the light may create a silhouette of the person shining the light in the frame.
  • For writing or drawing with light on-camera, try not to point the light directly at the lens as it can create lens flares in your image.
  • If you are writing text, it’s best to draw each letter individually turning the light off and on in between or in some cases, covering the light with your hand when you don’t want a line to show.
  • Remember that when drawing facing the camera, your image or text will be reversed. 
  • Have a buddy assist you while light painting, allowing one to be in charge of the camera and one to do the painting. This will save you a lot of time and failed attempts. If you are going solo, set up as much as you can beforehand and use a timer function.
  • Lastly, have fun with it. There is so much room for creativity and happy accidents to happen here.

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