Intro to Light Painting

As photographers we know that our craft is all about light. We long for the golden hours of morning and evening, the blue hour of twilight, and some of us make our own with strobes and Speedlights. But there is a subset of photographers out there who choose not use light to highlight our subjects but, rather, to make light the subject itself.

This is what happens when light becomes the scene.

©2013 Jamie A. MacDonald

The Time Machine ©Jamie A MacDonald. Taken with the Olympus E-M5 and the 60mm f/2.8 lens. 10 minute exposure on f/14 with ISO 200.

What does it take to start light painting? It really takes nothing more than your camera, a source of light, and your imagination. Let’s start off with the gear. Below is a general recommendation for the gear needed to begin light painting:

  1. A camera capable of shooting in manual mode. If you’re an extreme beginner, don’t worry – shooting in manual is easy for this!
  2. A tripod or some other way to make sure your camera is stable during the exposure.
  3. A cable release for your camera. If you do NOT have one, don’t worry. I have a trick for you to use that will work just fine.
  4. A light source. What kind? Pretty much anything that makes light can be used! Some examples of what I have used are LED flashlights, iPhone, sparklers, glow sticks and bracelets, and one of my favorites is a set of battery powered holiday lights. You can also rent the Pixelstick LED Lightpainting Tool, which lets you upload your own images to paint with.

Jamie MacDonald made his own light painting tool to make the job easier but this is just one of many tools one can use for a successful light painted photograph.

Now that we have the gear ready, let’s go shoot!

The first thing we need to do find a good location, preferably away from any other light sources. The reason we prefer a location without too much ambient light is because, as our long exposure happens, this ambient light starts to overexpose our scene. So while we are looking for a dark location, let’s try to find one that maybe adds interest to the photo we’ll be creating. While shooting against a wide open field may be fun, we can use interesting locations to our advantage when light painting.

©2012 Jamie A. MacDonald

© Jamie A. MacDonald. Taken with the Olympus E-M5 and the 12mm f/2.0 lens. 8 second exposure on f/5 with ISO 200.

We are at our cool location now, what’s next?

Let’s start by putting our camera on the tripod and getting the camera into manual mode. I will give you some settings to start with and will offer some suggestions on adjustments you can make if need be. We will also need to put your camera into manual focus. This is important because autofocus in the dark is just not going to cut it.

With the camera in manual mode we can set the ISO to 100-200, aperture to f/8, and your exposure time should be controlled by using your camera’s bulb mode. If you do not have bulb mode I suggest setting the camera to a 30 or 60 second exposure and using the camera’s timer function to trigger the shutter. The length of the exposure will depend on how much time is needed to perform the painting. Some images I have created lasted for 15 minutes – others only 30 seconds or so.

Another thing we need to do is make sure we turn off any type of anti vibration system your camera or lens has. If left on when mounted to a tripod you can get some not-so-sharp results.

Finally, the last thing we have to do is focus our camera on the location where the light painting will happen. The easiest way to do this is to have a friend stand in the location you’ll be photographing and have them shine a flashlight upon themselves. When they are illuminated you can then more easily fine tune your focus on them.

Ready to do this? Let’s go!

Get the person who is going to be doing the light painting out in position with their tools and tell them that on a count of three to start moving and waving their flashlight, LED light, or whatever you are using, around. One…Two…THREE! Now trigger your shutter and let the long exposure begin.

When the shutter closes the light painter can stop dancing around and come see what was created. However, what if you are alone? No problem! Trigger the shutter and run out to position to paint! It is admittedly more of an aerobic activity this way but, hey, it is a blast.

©2013 Jamie A. MacDonald

Phase Change © Jamie A. MacDonald. Taken with the Olympus E-M1 and the 12-40mm f/2.8 lens. 16 second exposure on f/8 with ISO 200.

So it seems random right? Just waving lights around? Sure it is definitely a more “organic” free-flowing process this way and, for many, the results are so cool that it is enough for them. But there is so much more that can be done if one is more deliberate in their painting. For example, if you take your LED flashlight and attach it to a rope or heavy string and twirl it in a vertical loop while you turn your body in a circle you will end up with a floating orb like in the image below.

©2013 Jamie A. MacDonald

Landing © Jamie A. MacDonald. Taken with the Olympus E-M1 and a 12mm f.2.0 lens. 17 second exposure on f/2.5 with ISO 640.

Want to do a cool product shoot? Use a tool like the Litebrush LED Bar or the Pixelstick LED Lightpainting Tool to bring some flair to an otherwise boring product shot. The shot below was done by simply holding the Litebrush in a vertical orientation and moving it in a semicircle behind this camera, then bringing it down to create the mesh pattern. No other lights were used in this shot. Once the semicircle was created, I simply brought the Litebrush above the camera to “paint it” with some more light and fill in shadows.


© Jamie A MacDonald. Taken with the Olympus E-M5 and the 45mm f/1.8 lens. 30 second exposure on f/14 with ISO 200.

Now, I said I’d give you some other settings to adjust in case things weren’t working out. I suggested f/8 so you’d have a deeper depth-of-field but if you are having trouble keeping your subject in focus because of their movements, try stopping down further to maybe f/14. But if we do this we need to remember that a bump in ISO will probably be necessary. Or, if our image is overexposed, the stopping down may help as well.

So there you have it – light painting in a nutshell. The biggest piece of advice I can offer you is the same piece of advice given to me by the guy who got me into this type of photography. Simply ask yourself,”What if I tried this?” So many of my photos started of with that very question. So go out and paint the night and always ask,”What if I tried this?”

Jamie MacDonald is an Olympus Visionary brand ambassador, educator, and Vanguard Professional. He is also the founder and one of the hosts of the Mirrorless Minutes webshow and podcast with fellow Olympus Visionary Mike Boeing.

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BorrowLenses is an online camera gear rental service that started in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2007. We offer a wide selection of camera gear ranging from camera bodies, lenses, lighting and accessories. We make it easy to rent gear by shipping your order straight to you.