Light painting tips and tricks: best techniques, settings, and examples for beginners.

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. 

What is light painting?

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.

 

What is kinetic light painting?

In kinetic light painting, you move the camera rather than the lights. All your lights – whether candles or street lights – are stationary.

 

Examples of light painting.

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.

 

Silhouettes.

Silhouettes.

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.

 

Light spirals.

Light spirals.

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.

 

Light orbs.

Light orbs.

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.

 

Portraiture and light painting.

Portraiture and light painting.

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.

 

Light painting in nature.

Light painting in nature.

Enhance your nature shots with added light effects and strobe painting to add dynamism and an ethereal beauty to your landscapes.

 

Astrophotography and light painting.

Astrophotography and light painting.

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.

 

How to do light painting: techniques used by the experts.

Our experts break down the basics of light painting and offer up their top tips for creating stunning artwork below.

 

Understand basics of light painting.

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

Light painting.

Use different light sources.

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:

 

  • On-camera – the lights you are using to ‘paint’ your scene.
  • Off-camera – additional lighting, such as a key or backlight, which you might have out of shot.

 

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. 

Light painting.

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.

 

Wear the right clothing.

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.

 

Experiment with different angles.

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.

 

Use red filter.

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. 

Light painting.

Take test shots.

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.

 

Work with a range of surfaces.

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.

 

Use a remote shutter release.

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. 

Light painting.

Go out in blue hour or full dark.

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

 

Stay inspired.

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.

 

Best light painting photography settings.

When learning how to do light painting, you’ll need to experiment with your camera’s settings to find a look that you like.

Light painting.

Below are some of the light painting photography settings to try out.

 

  • ISO this is the measurement for how sensitive your camera is to light. The higher the ISO, the more light is let in. Low ISOs of 100 – 250 are ideal for any kind of night photography.
  • Shutter speedshutter speed is how long you leave your camera’s shutter open. Longer exposure times will give you more time to create detailed paintings. You’ll want a shutter speed of 10 to 30 seconds for light painting.
  • Aperture measured in f-stops, the aperture is how much light you let into your camera. As you’ll mostly be shooting at night, higher f-stops of eight to 10 are commonly used for light painting.
  • Mode – you might want to select a particular mode or feature pre-set for shooting your pictures. Some DSLRs come ready-made with a light painting mode.
  • White balance (auto) – white balance is the colour temperature of your images. You might want to run with a lower colour temperature (below 4000) to make the most of your blue hour.
  • Base exposure – the exposure is the amount of light that meets your camera’s sensor. You’ll likely need to manually focus your photos to get around shooting in the dark.
  • Histogram – the histogram is a graph that shows how light is spread across your frame. Some cameras can show a live histogram, but not all. Where you want the light spread will depend on the final look you’re after for your images.
  • Long exposure noise reduction – an automated setting that creates a second, dark frame immediately after you snap your photograph. Use your camera’s built-in noise reduction settings.
  • Shoot in RAW – most light painters shoot in RAW format as it gives them the most control over your images.
  •  

Light painting.

Essential light painting tools.

Getting started with light painting is easy. However, it still helps to have a handy kit of light painting tools. Your kitbag might include:

 

  • DSLR – a good camera is your most important piece of kit. You might want to experiment with your camera’s features, settings, and shutter speed while you set up your shots.
  • Tripod – your camera will be stationary for long periods of time, so a stable tripod is essential.
  • Lens – a selection of zoom lenses will enable you to change the focus and depth of your photos.
  • Remote shutter – you’ll need a remote to open and close your camera shutter from afar.
  • Torches – torches are your paintbrushes. Having torches with a range of lumens (the measurement of visible light) will enable you to create different effects and visuals.
  • Stopwatch – you’ll need to time your long exposures so you know when to close the shutter. A stopwatch can help you count.
  • Colour gels – add different colours to your paintings by adding coloured gels and translucent cloths to your scenes.
Light painting.

Light painting: frequently asked questions.

 

How do I take light paint pictures on my phone?

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 do you need for light painting?

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. 

 

What is light painting mode?

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.

 

Adobe’s light painting partners.

The following experts helped create this guide to light painting photography.

 

  • Kris Foot is a light painting photography expert and skilled fire artist, creating incredible visuals with both manmade lighting and fire.
     
  • Andrew Chin is an experienced and skilled photography expert who covers a range of styles, from impressive landscapes to dynamic light paintings. 

Contributors

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