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Light Painting Tutorial

Posted By Alupa Creative
03.13.2010

Article by Mike Oliva, Photographer

Over the last couple of years of taking pictures, I’ve always found that light painting is one of those things that is simply just “cool”.  There are so many possibilities with it that you can really experiment and come up with some great ideas and make some great images.

At it’s very basics, light painting photography is using a long exposure to capture some light source over time.  It can be done with a direct drawing with light or using that light to “paint” an object to make it pop in an image.  I’ve written up a brief explanation of what you need and how to get started.

Step 1:  What you need

A. A camera with manual controls and/or bulb shutter settings.  Most DSLRs have this feature and will allow you to have the shutter open for as long as you desire.  If you don’t have this available you’ll need to find your camera’s longest shutter setting and you’ll just have to move EXTREMELY FAST to paint in the allowable time.  just get a camera w/ bulb setting, it will be TONs easier.
B. LED flashlights, wands, etc.  Really any light source can be used but you want to make sure to choose something that will work for what you are drawing and for ease of use.  I typically use an LED flashlight with easy on/off operation which allows my to draw like I’m holding a giant pen.
C. Tripod to steady your camera.  Since this will be a long exposure you want to make sure that the camera stays put.  You can use any steady surface but a tripod really helps to make things easier when composing your shot and reviewing your tries.
D. Probably most important is a room that you can make VERY dark or someplace outside that does not have a lot of contamination from other light sources i.e. street lights or cars, etc.  This is somewhat dependent on how long you need to “paint” your image and whether or not you want some of that ambient light to show your scene or surroundings.  The more ambient light the more you will appear as a ghost in the drawn image.
Some Optional Items:
E. Gels for producing different colors, rosco makes a pack of gels for stage lighting that can be used.
F. On Camera or external flash for including a subject, maybe yourself in the final image.  this allows you to be “frozen” rather than trying to stand still for as long as the shutter is open.
G. Wire templates for helping to draw a detailed image rather than relying on drawing freehand.  For the image of the logo above I used a wire dry cleaner hanger, I might try wire solder since it’s easy to bend and make your designs or even a cardboard cutout.
H. Camera remote for tripping the shutter.

Step 2:  Setting up and Camera Settings

Find a suitable location and set up your camera on a tripod or other sturdy surface.  Compose your shot, visualizing the drawing that you have in mind and the elements in the frame.  Set your camera on manual control and set the shutter to BULB setting.  For some cameras in bulb mode you need to press and hold the shutter for the entire exposure.  To get around this you can use a camera remote that allows you to press once to open the shutter and start the exposure and then a second time to close the shutter and finish the exposure.  If no remote is available you can get a friend to help hold down the shutter release while you draw.

You’ll also want to set your Aperture to an appropriate f-stop for what you are looking to achieve.  For a pure black scene you may be in the range of f16, for more ambient light to show in the image you may want to go with a larger aperture of around f8-f11.  If using an external flash you’ll want to tweak flash power settings and aperture to get the best balance of flash exposure and ambient light levels.  Check out the exposure triangle of SHUTTER – APERTURE – ISO if unfamiliar with exposure basics for help with getting familiar with the camera settings.

Step 3:

Turn off all lights and get your drawing tools at the ready.

Step 4:


Start the exposure and go nuts with your drawing.  It is very helpful to have a drawing plan prior to getting started with making exposures, and I find it useful to do a sort of “dry” run to get a game plan down before I start.  To draw just get your led flashlight or whichever tool you are using, into position (off) and then turn on.  I typically point the light source directly at the camera to avoid having some part of my body or some other object obscure what I am drawing.  Depending on what you determine is a long enough exposure duration will determine how long you have to draw.  If you are in a pitch black room you should have almost infinite time to work on your drawing.  If working outside you’ll probably have less time if trying to capture some ambient light of the scene in your image.  Season to taste.

With DSLRs you have the ability to get that instant feedback w/ what you are doing and make changes where things are not looking exactly as you’d like.  It may take a few tries, just keep working at it until you get something you like.

Check out the flickr light painting group for some other drawing ideas. Good luck!!

Guest contributor Mike Oliva is a Kansas City area photographer. Additional images in this post can be found at his picassa page.

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