Painting with light

Channel your inner artist into your next photo

With a long exposure shot and a torch, you can perform impossible effects.

Until a few years ago, light painting represented only a tiny niche of photography styles, but as the possibilities have been extensively explored and showcased, more and more people have started to get in on the act. It’s easy to see why. With vivid streaks of light, you can make dramatic and impactful shots that you’d never be able to see with the naked eye. And since you never know what the shot will look like until the shutter has closed, the element of unpredictability means even the most meticulously planned image is always a surprise.


Start small

One of the best examples of light painting (and an easy way to entertain little ones) is drawing with a sparkler after dark. With, say, a five-second exposure, you can spell out your words with a vivid trail of orange light. It doesn’t look much when you watch it happening, but the end result can be very dramatic.

Sparklers and long exposure photography are a match made in heaven.

If you’re painting in near-complete darkness, the camera settings won’t matter too much – using ISO 100 and f/8 should work fine. Finding the correct focus point is slightly harder. Before you start, shine a torch on the sparkler and adjust your focus to bring the sparkler (or alternative light source) into focus. If you do this using your camera’s autofocus, make sure you switch over to manual before taking your shot. If you plan on writing words or numbers, then remember to write them in reverse (practise in front of a mirror beforehand).


The sky’s the limit

With a bit of imagination, you can do much more than this. Instead of a sparkler, you can use a torch or coloured light to add vivid light streams to your shot. Since sparklers are very bright, you can move them quickly through the air, but LED glow sticks and even a torch don’t light up anywhere near as bright. This means you’ll want to move your light source more slowly so the colour stands out more.  

There’s a way around this conundrum, though. It’s possible to shoot your light trails in complete darkness then, at the end of the shot, fire a flash so it lights up the space around you. This means you could draw the shapes yourself, then position yourself in the shot ready for when the flash fires at the end. If you’re interested in trying it out, you want to set your camera to use a ‘rear curtain’ flash – this means it will fire at the end of the shot.

Light painting works in other ways, too. Let’s imagine you’re shooting a tree. During a long exposure, you could illuminate different areas with different coloured lights or use a torch to highlight those portions you want to stand out. Some photographers have shot models like this – getting them to pose perfectly still while they use a torch to add unusual lighting effects. Or you could shoot a close-up of a face with open eyes, switch the lights out then, when they come back on, the eyes are closed. Your shot would include both open and closed eyes.


Getting the settings right

You want to work out how long it takes to perform your light painting magic and then adjust your ISO and F-stop so it takes this long to correctly expose the background. For example, if it takes eight seconds to draw this scene, then you want to drop your ISO to its lowest setting and narrow the aperture until it takes eight seconds to correctly expose the background. You might need an ND filter if the background is bright. Take a test shot before you start, to make sure you’ve got the settings spot on.

Light painting is easy when you’re doing it in near-darkness. You can leave the shutter open as long as you like, without having to worry about over-exposing certain areas. If your camera includes a ‘Bulb’ mode (under Shutter Speed settings), this option enables you to press the shutter button to start the exposure, then press it again when you’re finished.  This is just what you need when you don’t know how long your exposure might last – for example, how long it takes to write the words.


Magic light

If you have a few hours to kill and fancy pushing this art form to its limits, take a look at the work of Jason D Page. His YouTube video below demonstrates the man’s super-human patience as he adds angel wings to a shot of his wife.
Jason Page knows how to go to town.

One of the great things about light painting is that any light source will do. In fact, trying out different types of light is part of the fun. Coloured lasers can look particularly impressive.


What you’ll need

Any camera that enables you to control the shutter speed will work just fine for light painting. If you own an Olympus, look out for its handy Live Composite mode, where the camera shoots a series of images and combines them into a single composite shot.

Apart from darkness and a light source, the other essential ingredient for successful long exposure shots is a decent tripod. You need the camera to be completely steady throughout the length of the exposure. Even tiny vibrations on the ground could be enough to create blurring, so stability is vital. That means you don’t want to touch the camera to trigger the shutter, either. Your camera’s inbuilt timer can do the job but a remote trigger is even easier. If you’re planning to shoot your creation with a background, you may need an ND filter as well.

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