Want something fun to do when the electricity goes out? Something a little more interesting than making shadow puppets or watching the candles flicker? Try light painting. It’s really not hard to do and, with practice, you can have dazzling results. All you need is a camera, a tripod, and a hand-held light source or three (glow sticks, flashlights, sparklers, cell phone flashlight, a strobe unit, neon signs, etc.). The best light sources are colorful and bright, so think LED. And your camera need not be anything special.
Here’s the setup:
- Switch your camera to manual mode and set your shutter speed to its lowest setting. You want a loooong exposure. If your camera has a bulb mode (often marked as “B” on the settings), use that. It allows you to leave the shutter open for as long as you want: Click it once to open, and click it again to close it. If you don’t have a bulb mode, use the self-timer and the lowest shutter speed you’ve got. (When you have limited time to leave the shutter open, you’re light painting will be limited, too, but it can still be done!)
- Because the shutter will be open for so long, it’s obviously important that the camera stay steady. But you don’t have a tripod handy, you can always just put the camera on something flat and stable. Try a table, a stair, a countertop—you know the drill.
- Light painting must be done in dark conditions. The darker, the better. It doesn’t have to be pitch black, but it sure can’t be lunch hour. Once you’ve got your dark place, grab those light sources. You’re ready to light paint!
Here’s what you do:
- To outline a person or object, you really do just that. With your light source pointed toward the camera—not directly at it, if possible, to reduce bursts/glare—trace your subject. Keep your body behind the light source.
- You can also experiment with silhouetting by using backlighting. Just shine the light source from a distance behind your subject so that, from the front where the camera is situated, the light rays can be seen but the actual light source can’t.
- You can sometimes make mandala-like patterns if you use long and rigid lighted objects that hold a distinct shape (such as a neon sign or light saber). Move these objects in small, incremental steps in a circle around your subject, pausing for just a second at equidistant points along the way.
- If you just move your light source around without focusing on rhythmic timing or distinct pattern, you can still create beautiful effects – the impression of fog, for example. You can even write words or draw shapes!
- Try using your flash. A momentary burst of light on the whole scene can give you a cleaner effect—if you can get your other settings to cooperate. This is also a good way to illuminate a subject before you light paint around it, so that the subject and light painting can both be seen in the photograph.
- If you want colors in your light painting, you can put colored cellophane over the light source or try fiber-optic toys that come in multi-colors. Color effects can also be added later, using photo editing software.
As you can see, a big part of light painting is just trying out different movements, spacing, timing, color, direction of light source, spacing between light source and subject, and well, just about everything. You can also get great results by trying different things after your photo session, using photo-editing software or apps. These allow you to do things like increase the glow, dim the background, and apply color effects. The key to light painting is to experiment and have fun!