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Create incredible, dancing photographic images with the art of light painting. By combining moving light sources with long exposure times, you can shoot these impressive images yourself.
We’re joined by Kris Foot and Andrew Chin, two experienced light photographers, as we dive into the art of painting with light. Below you’ll find out how to get started, light painting techniques, ideas and top tips.
Find out how to master this stunning visual style with help from our experts.
Light painting is a photographic style that uses long exposure times to capture moving images of lights. Captured as a stationary visual, the lights can be used to ‘paint’ vibrant and dynamic scenes that blur the boundaries between drawings and photographs.
Multi-coloured lights appear to dance across the scene and tools like flashlights and smartphone torches can be used to add a sense of movement to still photography.
In kinetic light painting, you move the camera rather than the lights. All your lights – whether candles or street lights – are stationary.
There are many styles of painting with light, with bright colours often used to highlight areas of focus or characters within an image. Get inspired with these common light painting ideas.
Using light to add silhouettes to focus areas on a photo can draw the eye to elements within your photo, frame characters, or highlight areas of the composition you want to brighten without the use of key lighting.
Spiral and circular light effects add depth to images, focus the eye on particular points within the frame and can be used to outline characters and silhouettes.
Circular light effects can also be used to create 3D-style orbs within your photos. These often form the main focus of a photograph and can be used to alter perceptions of depth.
Create immersive and stylised portrait photography using fine-point laser and light effects to add shape and structure to facial features and elements of your model’s look.
Enhance your nature shots with added light effects and strobe painting to add dynamism and an ethereal beauty to your landscapes.
The sky at night makes for an incredible subject. Some photographers use light painting to add diverse effects and vibrancy to their photos of the cosmos.
Our experts break down the basics of light painting and offer up their top tips for creating stunning artwork below.
You’ll need to open your camera shutter as wide as you feel comfortable and keep it open. The shutter is the entry point for light into your camera. While the camera is open, use light sources such as a torch or LED display to ‘paint’ in the air.
The extended exposure time will capture the image as you craft your desired visuals, with the final image a representation of the path your lights have taken through the air.
“It’s long exposure photography. You’re opening the shutter for a longer period of time and using either lights that are already there or controlling your own lights.”
Light Painter Kris Foot
The lights you use don’t have to only be the ones you ‘paint’ with. Many photographers in the field take advantage of off-camera key and fill lighting, as well as utilising natural light sources such as dappled moonlight.
In general, your light sources are likely to be:
As for the light sources, you can use almost any handheld light-emitting device. However, torches, LED tubes, and glow sticks are the most commonly used. It’s better that the sources you choose aren’t too bright, as you don’t want harsh, hard, or direct lighting.
The best light paintings utilise dappled effects and soft sources. If you’ve only got access to bright torches, you could wrap them in translucent materials, like muslin cloth, to create the desired effect.
You may also encounter some photographers using fire or sparklers in their works, though it might be best to practice with less dangerous lighting yourself before moving on to ‘live’ lights. Just remember to adhere to local laws and restrictions and make sure you are shooting your photos in a wide, open area before transitioning into fire photography.
One light painting tip to always keep in mind is ensuring you or your models don’t stand out too much from the photo. You want to frame your models with an illuminated outline, not have your model be the main draw of the eye.
Stick to non-reflective and dark clothing when shooting your shots as brighter materials will draw the eye away from your created light effects.
Though front-facing shots can be impressive, experimenting with different angles can change the story and style of your photographs. Capturing an image from above, below or side on can really change the perception and emotion your audience may feel.
Shots from below can make a target appear stronger, larger or bolder. Conversely, shooting a model from above might have the opposite effect. Change your angles to add different textures and depth to your images.
Taking care of your eyes is important. After all, they’re your most important photography tool. Keep your eyes acclimated to low-light settings when shooting at night by putting red filters and diffusers over all your key and test lights.
Practice makes perfect. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to get your desired look in a single take. Have a few test runs to see what your shots might look like when they’re finished. This is a good chance to play around with your off-camera lighting and camera settings, too.
Incorporate different surfaces into your backgrounds. Shooting against reflective metals or glass can add a whole new element to your light painting. If you’re a nature photographer, try shooting over water for a similarly impressive style.
The last thing you want to capture in your long exposure image is you running back to switch the camera off. Use a remote shutter release to operate your camera from afar. With long exposure photography, it’s good practice to keep your camera as stable as possible – so a tripod and remote release are essential.
The blue hour arrives just after sunset. As the sun disappears below the horizon, everything is cast in a purple-blue hue. This is the perfect natural ambience for light painting.
“Time of day is very key in your light painting. You probably want to start shooting in the blue hour. That’s when it starts getting dark enough for you to start painting with light. Unlike photography where normally the light is consistent throughout your shoot, if you shoot at blue hour, that light changes five or ten minutes at a time.”
Photographer Andrew Chin
Find inspiration across the web by following light painters and other photographers on their social media pages. Many photographers regularly upload their works to their social media platforms and these can be a good way of keeping an eye on new developments. Search light painting on Behance.
When learning how to do light painting, you’ll need to experiment with your camera’s settings to find a look that you like.
Below are some of the light painting photography settings to try out.
Getting started with light painting is easy. However, it still helps to have a handy kit of light painting tools. Your kitbag might include:
Today’s smartphones are almost as good as many budget cameras. It’s possible to use your phone as a light source, or your camera. As with your DSLR setup, you’ll need a tripod and an external shutter release compatible with your smartphone device.
You may also need to download an app that offers long exposure settings, as not all smartphone cameras are capable of this or feature long enough exposure times to capture light painting in all its glory.
How many lumens you use for light photography will depend on how bright you want your images to be. Many light painting specific lights are 900–1200 lumens. You can always lessen the brightness of your lights be apply diffusors or translucent cloth wrapping.
Some smartphones and DSLR cameras now feature specific settings for light painting. This is often called light painting mode, though the name may differ on your device.
The following experts helped create this guide to light painting photography.
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