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Light Painting Photography: A Basic Beginner’s Guide

Light painting is a technique that 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 cell phone.

So how exactly does it work? This is the magic of the long exposure. When the shutter speed is slow, say 30 seconds or more, the camera captures the movement of light as a trail that looks like a painting.

All photography is an art, but to succeed in light painting, you must above all have an artistic eye and a lot of patience. Curious? Let’s start.

What you need for Light Painting

When it comes to equipment, you don’t have to travel to do light painting. You just need those few things that you might 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 ability to change the shutter speed.

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

A sturdy tripod is essential

Since you will be working with a slow shutter speed, having a good quality tripod is essential. Also, having a tripod will leave your hands free and you can focus on light painting instead of fiddling with your camera.

You’ll be working in the dark, so having makeshift stabilizers like a table or stacked books isn’t a good idea. If you don’t already have one, here’s what to look for before buying a tripod.

Opt for a cable release

When using your camera for a long exposure, any slight shake can spoil 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 be blurry.

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

If you don’t have a cable release, a quick fix is ​​to use your camera’s timer option. This will allow you to work without touching the camera.

Choose a light painting tool

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

Know how to shoot in manual mode

You should be comfortable with your camera’s manual mode. If you’re unfamiliar, check out our exposure triangle guide and experiment for yourself before diving into light painting.

Also keep in mind that your first few attempts probably won’t get you the beautiful light paintings you see on the internet. You have to practice like any other artist to get perfect results.

how to paint with light

Making your first lightpainting can be exciting, so let’s jump right into the steps.

1. Find your canvas

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

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

2. Configure your equipment

Illuminate your scene with a flashlight or your cell phone. Take the time to set up your tripod and make sure it’s level and solid on the ground. Check the background and foreground again to make sure the composition is exactly what you want.

3. Adjust your camera settings

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

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

If your shutter speed is slower than 30 seconds, your camera’s built-in light meter will be accurate enough to balance aperture and ISO. But for speeds over 30 seconds, your camera won’t help. So how do you find the right values?

Photographers use a little trick to find the right exposure. Follow these steps:

  1. Choose an ISO six values ​​higher than the ISO you plan to shoot with. For example, if you plan to shoot at ISO 100, choose ISO 6400 and adjust your exposure settings.
  2. Your shutter speed can be expressed in seconds. Write it down.
  3. Set your ISO to 100 and add the same shutter speed, but within minutes.
  4. One second at ISO 6400 equals one minute at ISO 100.

When using a shutter speed longer than 30 seconds, you must use Bulb mode on your camera. This is the mode in which your camera will open the shutter as long as the shutter button is pressed.

4. Get ready to paint

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

If you are in frame, try to wear black or any dark color so that all the attention is on your painting. Do not forget to try different compositions.

5. Edit and enjoy your painting

Load session footage into your favorite post-production software and edit colors as desired. There you go, your first light painting is ready.

Bring out the artist in you with Light Painting

When you’ve been a photographer for a while, it’s easy to get carried away. Light painting is the perfect project to get out of it. Plus, trying out different techniques will take you out of your comfort zone and make you a better photographer.

Light painting, in particular, will help you improve your artistic side of photography. Use our tips here to create your masterpiece.