Lightpainting in Photography
What is Lightpainting?
I define light painting as an imaging technique that uses a moving or static light source to add light to an under-illuminated subject while taking a long-exposure photograph. A scene or object can be brought to life by painting with a beam of light!
What Sources of Light Work?
I’ve light-painted with huge sources like the moon, and I’ve light-painted with my iPhone. When I do a planned trip for the purpose of lightpainting I usually use a Lume cube, a camera flash, a flashlight or even a candle.
The image on the right was taken for 45 seconds at f2.8 at ISO 1600. I used a 10 foot high light stand with a flash on it. The flash was connected to a PocketWizard. The light stand was fully extended because the area I was shooting was at a lower elevation than the schoolhouse.
How do you do Lightpainting?
My best answer is experienced, educated trial and error. Sorry if that sounds a bit vague, but that’s the way it is.
The Basics of All Photography Still Hold True
As with anything in photography you EXPOSE FOR THE BACKGROUND & LIGHT THE FOREGROUND. So in both of the shots here, the one above and the one to the right, I exposed for the stars. So, what's the best setting I need to get great stars? Usually it's a higher ISO, from 1000 up to 6400 and my aperture is set at 2.8 for X amount of seconds.
Settings Can Vary
In the image on the left, I exposed for the sky at ISO 100, f2.8 for 20 seconds. That gave me that dark, Colbalt blue sky that we all try for. Since my subject (the Aspen trees) was Yellow, and thus very bright by nature, it didn't take much painting from the flashlight to gain the desired effect.
- Camera – Any digital camera capable of manual settings (Bulb).
- Tripod – One of the most important tools to produce light paintings is a sturdy tripod. In most cases your shutter is going to be open for several minutes and it is very important that your camera does not move during the exposure.
- Shutter release/Intervalometer – Either use a cable release or a remote shutter release to begin your exposure. If you don’t have either of these, use your camera’s timer function to initiate the shot. To light paint, it is very important that you never touch your camera or tripod to prevent vibrations during the exposure.
- Stop watch/Intervalometer– A stop watch or some other way of timing your exposures is helpful, since most of these exposures are going to require your camera set to Bulb.
- Light source – Many different types of lights can be used to do light painting. These light sources are your brushes and may include: flashlights, torch lights, lasers, glow sticks, flash or strobes, cell phones, or even candles. Just about anything that can produce light can be used as a brush to do light painting. Different light sources will produce different colors of light. For example, a LED light source will produce a cooler (blue) colored light, while a halogen source will produce a much warmer (orange) colored light.
- Color gels – Color gels can be used over your lights to alter the tint of your light and add color to your painting.
- Mode – Use the Manual mode setting, which allows you to set your shutter speed and aperture.
Image quality – Set your image quality to RAW, which allows you to capture as much information about your image as possible. (This is not a necessity if you are uncomfortable with shooting RAW, but is a recommendation.)
- White Balance – If you are shooting in RAW, I think Auto White Balance is acceptable. My class and workshop attendees know that I always recommend carrying an ExpoDisc.
- ISO – This REALLY varies and this is where you REALLY have to let your experience shine. If you are lightpainting something rather reflective, luminescence and bright (like Aspen leaves) then start out small like ISO 100 or 400. If you are lightpainting something dark like a building, a tree, a rock, then you may need to crank it up to 1000 to 2000 or even higher. In the shot above with the tent and the Milky Way we really muffled a flashlight inside the tent, and then set the ISO to 6400 to get maximum light from the Milky Way.
- F-stop or aperture – This can vary also, but really depends on two things, Stars and Depth of Field. If you are shooting stars, and want them tack sharp (you do), then you use you wides open setting, somewhere between f1.8 to f4 depending on your lens capability. If you need a sharp foreground, depth of field AND Stars, then you'll most likely need to composite the image.
- Shutter speed – Here you enter the world of longer exposures. Star exposures should not be longer than 20 seconds to avoid star trails. So, based on your subject and setting, you are probably shooting at somewhere between 1 second to 20.
- LCD brightness – Lower the brightness of your LCD preview, because the normal setting is too bright at night and will make your image look bright when it is really under-exposed.
- Histogram – Here the old axiom of expose to the right still holds true. Read this article.
- Blinkies/Zebras – Turn on your blinkies or Zebras (highlight warning) to help you determine if your highlights are exposed properly. It is perfectly acceptable for your brightest highlights to have the blinkies if the rest of your image is properly exposed.
- Image Stabilization – Set to Off. With your camera on a tripod, having image stabilization turned on can actually fool your camera or lens and cause blurring in your image.
- Long exposure noise reduction – Recommended setting is Off. This setting can be set to On, but will cause your exposures to double while the camera takes a second black exposure to help remove noise. If your camera is set to a low ISO, the noise level will be low enough in most cases to make this setting unnecessary. Still, it is a good idea to check your noise level before you start, and some older cameras may require this setting to be On to get usable noise levels.
To create the image above I had multiple lights going. A full moon rising over my left shoulder and two flash units, one to my right, one to my left. The exposure was ISO 800, f8 (for depth of field), 20 second exposure.