- ISO used to measure film sensitivity, but now it measures how sensitive a DSLR camera is to light. The higher the ISO, the more light a camera can pick up. Despite being all about light, light painting often happens at a fairly low sensitivity number, between ISO 100 to 250. You don’t want to set up your camera so it’s overly sensitive, otherwise you’ll get a saturated, blown-out image.
Camera presets are generally not made with light painting in mind. Successful light photographers have to learn how to shoot in manual mode and exert fine-grain control over their settings. “Learning how to shoot in manual is key,” says light painter Andrew Chin. “When you understand your exposure triangle, you will understand how the light is being affected and how each of your settings affects the end image.”
Setting up a light painting shoot.
Getting the shot you want involves more than just knowing your camera settings and exposure time. Light painting takes planning and practice. You must have an eye for ambient light and know how the environment is going to affect your shot.
It’s possible to do light painting in a dark indoor setting. However, many light painters want to juxtapose their illuminated images with the natural world or outdoor environment. If you’re going to shoot outside, you need to plan carefully. “Time of day is very key in your light painting,” says Chin. “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.”
Blue hour is the time just after sunset when there’s still some sunlight and the sky takes on a blue or purple hue. It’s a well-loved time for photographers because it offers the atmospherics of night photography, but with some natural light in the sky so details of the scene aren’t yet covered in darkness. Blue hour is a great time for light painting, provided you keep track of the ambient light.