Photography / Tips and Solutions

Light Painting 101

         

People gravitate to photography for a wide range of reasons—for some it’s primarily a vehicle for artistic expression, while others are drawn to photography as a science and are engrossed by its technical aspects. One increasingly popular photographic discipline that requires a careful mix of both artistic inspiration and scientific precision is night and low-light photography. While this was once a tenuous undertaking with little guarantee of predictable results, the powerful sensors, advanced low-light capabilities and immediate feedback of current generation DSLRs has made this area of practice more fun and gratifying than ever before. One particular technique in this realm that holds a cult-like status among initiates is Light Painting.

Photo above © Matt Hill

What is Light Painting?

As a general practice, light painting (or light drawing) can be defined as a long exposure technique whereby an image is captured while adding detail or interest to a scene using a handheld light source, either to illuminate an object or a part of the image from outside the frame, or to move a light around in front of the camera. Light painting can also describe the process where the camera itself (or the lens), rather than lights, is moved during exposure.

Rhyolite © Lance Keimig 

Two notable pioneers of light painting were French scientist, photographer, and cinematographer Étienne-Jules Marey and American efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth, both of whom attached small lights to human subjects to record otherwise hard-to-perceive movements over time. As these experiments prove, light painting is by no means limited to a nocturnal setting; however, it’s generally most successful when practiced in an environment with limited light and lots of shadow area. Similar to the Sgraffito drawings of childhood, which reveal colorful lines and shapes when scratching through a black surface, at its most basic, light painting can be described as involving relationships between light and dark; figure and ground.

Optimal Conditions for Light Painting

To test the waters of light painting, find a setting with enough room and sufficient variety to inspire you to play around with the various accessories in your tool kit (more on that below). You’ll need a camera capable of making long exposures, ideally something with manual shutter/aperture controls and a bulb setting. A sturdy tripod and remote shutter release are the other prerequisites for getting the most from a light-painting session.

Created with the Pixelstick
 

If you’ve come to a location with other photographers, allow sufficient space and direct your work so that your lights don’t bleed into other people’s pictures, or vice versa. Another option in a group setting is to join forces and make your light painting experiments a combined effort. Spend a few minutes in discussion and come up with a collaborative plan to light and photograph a central object from multiple vantage points.

Light-Painting Tools

Tools for contemporary light painting range from the most basic, easily accessible lighting accessories to the latest in high tech. To break things down, it can be helpful to categorize the tools by the effects they produce.

Pixelstick LED Lightpainting Tool
 

  • Point light sources such as small flashlights, spotlights, penlights, laser pointers, fiber optic lighting and the like can be used to draw with light inside the image area. If you are facing the camera when writing, keep in mind that any text or numbers will appear backwards in the resulting photograph.
  • Flat or shaped lighting surfaces such as iPhones/iPads, larger flashlights, spotlights, or lanterns; strobes; video LED lights; accessories such as glow sticks, mirrors or reflective devices can be used for broader mark making or blocks of light inside an image, as well as for adding light in an image from outside the frame.
  • Combustible lighting sources such as sparklers, emergency flares, Tiki torches, Poi balls, light painting orbs (a metal container filled with steel wool) can add both light and excitement to your images, but one should exercise caution in not working with these items in fire-prone locations. A sandy beach, rocky precipice or snow-laden landscape can make safe—and very dramatic—settings for working with such tools.
  • Camera-generated light sources, which occur when camera movement or lens zooming is aimed toward existing light sources in a scene. Using the camera movement as a light-painting tool often emphasizes fluid abstraction
  • Specialty lighting sources created by photographers, such as the Hosemaster, a patented light-painting device from the 1990s that utilizes a fiber optic light source; LED lights such as Lowel’s GL-1 light, Westcott’s Ice Light, and most recently, the Pixel Stick, which uses RGB LEDs in an aluminum housing for lighting effects emphasizing vibrant color and dynamic movement.
  • Other essential accessories for light painting include a sturdy tripod to keep the camera in place while you are busy lighting the scene and an intervalometer or cable release to hold the shutter open during long exposures (as mentioned above). A set of colored gels can also be useful to apply color to your lighting. When gelling your light source, keep in mind that this cuts down on the strength of the light and will require a longer exposure time. Lastly, make sure to bring plenty of fully charged batteries (both for your lighting devices and your camera) to fuel your efforts throughout your shoot.

Light is a Many-Colored Thing

While many people consider light to be the absence of color, those with a solid photography background understand that any given light source has an inherent color temperature, measured in degrees Kelvin. It’s therefore very helpful to know the color temperature of the lighting devices you work with, as well as the ambient light sources in the image or on the periphery, so that you can anticipate the potential for color casts in your pictures in advance. While nailing the color temperature with a color meter is both highly impractical and cost prohibitive for most people, it’s helpful to know that color casts range from warm red/orange to cool blues as you go up the Kelvin scale from 1500K (candlelight) to 3200K (interior lighting) to 5500K (daylight) to 10000 + (a clear blue sky or shade).


 Dogwood and Color Spiral, Marblehead, MA © Jill Waterman, 2015     

 

Your camera should have preset white balances for these settings, as well as a number of other options, such as Auto White Balance, which is what you can use to keep things simple and to minimize color casts from the ambient light in the scene. The other camera settings that will allow you to best record the effects of your light painting include setting your ISO to a lower value to reduce noise and keeping the aperture of your lens fairly open (f/5.6 or wider). Experienced light painters often keep one exposure variable, such as aperture, as a constant in order to establish a firm baseline. Once you start shooting, jotting down your exposure, as well as procedural notes about each capture, can go a long way in helping you to understand the finer points of the process and analyze your results after the fact.

Light Painting Techniques

Now comes the fun part. After identifying a good location, gathering your gear, and adjusting camera settings, you’re ready to get creative!

If you’re new to this process, start simple and concentrate on exploring the effects of a single light source on a solid object at a medium distance from the camera, and then systematically change your camera settings and light-painting tools to gauge the results.

Broken Trail © Gabriel Biderman
 

One important tenet of light painting is to move away from your camera when adding light. Shining a light straight into a scene from directly beside or behind your camera will result in a flat, harsh lighting effect (think deer in the headlights). For optimal lighting, aim your light at 90-degree angles to the camera lens, from a safe distance outside the frame (similar to a standard studio lighting setup). If you want to emphasize a more sculptural effect, consider using a high or low vantage point with your lights, which will cast subtle shadows behind surfaces such as leaves or blades of grass.

Keep in mind that the closer your lights are to the foreground in an image, the quicker they will render brightness in the picture. Inversely, you’ll need to spend much more time adding light to objects that are at a distance from the camera for a lighting effect to show up.

Another factor to consider is that light painting will have a more pronounced effect when applied to shadow areas and darker surfaces than to objects that are lighter in tonality or image highlights. As an example, picture a scene with a window on the side of a house. Applying light to a darkened window will bring out sculptural detail in the mullions and reflections in the window glass, whereas, if the window is lit from inside and already a highlight in the scene, light painting this area will have little visible effect (although it could cause the area to become overexposed if lit for an extended period).

Sand Dunes, Mendocino, CA © Steve Harper 

 

With reflective surfaces, you may want to add light from directly behind or beside your camera, for maximum effect. While this can apply to all reflective surfaces—from glass to bodies of water—it can be especially rewarding when including objects in a scene such as reflective signage, road surface markings, or other objects with a reflective finish.

Stepping into the Frame

So far, this discussion has been focused on adding light to a scene from outside the image. If you plan to paint with light from within the frame, there are a few additional points to consider. First, it’s advisable to dress in black or dark clothing and to keep moving within the frame to limit the chances of you showing up in the image—unless you’re seeking this effect, which is known as “ghosting.” Once you open the camera’s shutter, it’s equally important to keep your light source moving to avoid uneven lighting, creating a hot spot or burning out a section of the image.

Ink Mist Vortex © Troy Paiva

As mentioned earlier, if you’re painting with light when facing the camera, you’ll need to be aware that written text or numbers will appear backwards in the resulting photograph. While one easy solution to this would be to flip the image file in post, photography purists may prefer to master the art of writing backwards in the image itself. In this case, it can be helpful to write your message out on a piece of paper in advance for use as a visual guide on site.

Some of the most exciting visual effects of light painting can be created by light emanating from behind an object in the frame, such as the silhouetting of a darkened figure or light rays radiating from a mysterious source. The easiest way to create a silhouette is to stand behind a stationary figure (or object) and run a small pen light or light stick (white, colored or even both) along its edge, steadily tracing a line of light.


Great Bear Merak © Vicki DaSilva 

Radiating light rays are best created by aiming a strobe from behind an object at an oblique angle towards the camera and giving it a few pops. Another option would be to stand out of view of the camera and bounce the flash off another object in the scene. Or, use your body as a flag to hide the source of the light, while emphasizing the magic of its effects. These suggestions can be particularly effective when the atmosphere is heavy with humidity, mist, or fog.

With these guidelines in mind, you can set out with a basic roadmap for directed exploration of this complex and visually rich technique. In the process, keep in mind that all rules and every suggestion can be easily broken with creative intent.

To view more work from the photographers who contributed to this article, click on any name.

Vicki DaSilva

Steve Harper

Matt Hill

Jill Waterman

Gabriel Biderman

Lance Keimig

Troy Paiva

Discussion 20

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Dosn't give setting or lenses you use and kind of camera.  The pictures are very interesting and I like the idea, but don't understand how this was totaly done.  I think maybe someone was teasing us readers. 

Hi Brenda, glad you like the pictures and idea of this article, but sorry you feel like we were teasing you! As I mentioned to Dick and Karl above, we geared this article to be a basic overview of a wide ranging and very individualized area of experimental imagemaking. You might find it helpful to check out the links to each featured photographer’s Website at the bottom of the article, as well as other articles and videos about these subjects on our site (linked below). We’ll try to offer future articles to further expand on this theme but, in the meantime, the easiest way to gain an understanding of the process is to grab your camera, a tripod and some lights and try experimenting a bit. Don’t worry too much about the gear and the settings to start, go out and push the limits!

http://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/8-essential-tools-night-photographers

http://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/magic-light-painting-tim-cooper

I agree with Brenda L. Sterling's comment: the settings, Lens, camera and tips on how it's done is very important, If all these infomation and more is in a book form, then I would purchase the book. Geat Pictures

Anthony L.Campbell

Hi Anthony, thanks for writing in. I don't mean this as a personal plug, but a book I wrote on night photography includes camera and lens settings, as well as extensive tips about each picture featured by 30 night photography specialists. To learn more, just click on my name among the URLs at the end of this article. And thanks, as always, for reading the blog!

When do we cross the line from photography to graphic arts?

Not going to make any long discourse here. 

Thought someone would make the point that we are talking about the term "Photography" which in the Greek means "Drawing with Light," the very definition of what photographers do. Also didn't see any examples of the use of painting techniques in product photography, which I came to use very early in my career. 

Thanks so much for your comment Leon, you bring up a very good point. The use of light painting in commercial product photography has added color, excitement, drama and intrigue to this genre for quite some time, as suggested by my mention of the 1990’s “Hosemaster” craze. Seems like a great topic for a dedicated article as part of an ongoing series on this theme!

Photography long ago lost being interesting on its own, and I don't care which direction people claim to take it, because there's nothing new under the sun, especially as armies of newbies armed with dSLRs every day launch into photography, thinking there is still a paying career there, when there really isn't, unless you like doing weddings. There is nothing worse than purists in a medium which is not distinctive and has zero barrier to entry. New bies will get great shots, and why not, but don't play purist with the medium. It's the least pure medium out there, on par with sampling and hip hop.

There will still be great moments caught photographically, because that's what photography does. And there will be a million shows by a million boring newbies and purists doing the same old schlock over and over and over again.

Photography needs to get closer to the graphic arts or painting to be interesting at all anymore, so don't be dismissive when people head in that direcftion, though, of course, it is also 99.9% dead end because pixels can never have the personality of brush strokes.

Plus, honestly, if you can't figure out how these shots were taken, and need your hands held even through that even, then A. you have no motivation to learn or curiousity to explore and be creative, and B. you really need to learn a lot more about the medium, because difficult these shots are not.

Thanks so much for your comments, and for reading the B&H blog! 

You seem angry.. have a Snickers.

Hi John, thanks for bringing up such a thoughtful question. This is all very subjective but, in some circles, photography is indeed considered a subset of the graphic arts. It seems to me that the lines between various forms of art and media continually blur and morph with advancing technologies and changing tastes, making it an exciting time to push the envelope a bit.

Wow, what a great article. It makes me want to grab a few flashlights and trip the night fantastic with the Greek Godesses Terpsichore and Artemis. I also enjoyed the work of the Magnificent Seven photographers linked at the bottom of the page. I think many of these techniques would be useful for wedding, corporate and of course landscape photographers. Kudos!

Thanks so much for the glowing (pun intended) compliment Cubby! I wholeheartedly agree that applying light painting techniques to professional photo assignments can be incredibly useful. It’s all about creating a distinctive style and offering services and images to wow your clients. Go for it!

The photos are WAY more informative than the text, which seems like "filler" in comparison.  The article really needs to have captions added to the photos, describing the techniques used and anecdotes from the shoot - and maybe even the accompanying "whoops!" photos, where accident happened and things didn't work out as expected. In my experience, there are at least ten duds for every keeper.

I have to agree, discussion of each individual photo would really help.

Dick and Karl, thanks so much for your insightful comments. I definitely agree that image captions and discussion of the techniques behind the work would be informative. I also love the idea of presenting “whoops” photos next to successful results. This article was intended to be a basic overview of a wide ranging and very individualized technique, so the space for discussion about each photo (selected after the article was written) was limited. But perhaps we’ll be able to do a follow up article on this theme that takes your suggested approach!

Would you distinguish between light painting and light drawing (like the famous photo of Picasso drawing a bull with a flashlight)? There are differences in effect, obviously, but are there also significant differences/overlaps of optimal technique?

I personally more equate light painting and drawing.  The process is the same aside from the difference in the actual light tool used. 

Hi Wayne, thanks for your question … and the wonderful Picasso reference! As Yossi notes below, both light painting and light drawing share a similar process of introducing light into a darkened scene over an extended exposure time. But in my experience, the key to successful technique lies in the finer points of an individual photographer’s expressiveness with and control of their tools. Optimal technique (if there is such a thing!) can change with almost any given situation or image, and this definitely varies widely based on the tools that are used. If you’ve ever seen the film footage of Picasso painting with light, there’s no doubt that this process has a lot in common with theatrical performance. It might be helpful to keep that in mind when shooting this type of work. While the technical aspects are not to be underestimated, it’s also important to remember that experimentation and happy accidents can often lead to new horizons. As fellow night photographer Gabe Biderman likes to say … go out and “Seize the Night!”