- Light Painting Defined
- Suggested Light Painting Camera Settings
- Light Painting Gear
- Light Painting Tip #1: Get Set Up
- Light Painting Tip #2: Start Small
- Light Painting Tip #3: Mind the Light
- Light Painting Tip #4: Experiment With Light
Photo by Jonatan Pie on Unsplash
Light Painting Photography
When you create gorgeous nighttime long exposures like the one above, having illuminated elements in the foreground and midground elevates the quality of the photo.
Why? Because these points of interest help draw viewers in, grounds the shot, and adds a level of detail to the image that’s missing from the sky above.
When you light paint, all those gorgeous details come to life (and you add contrast to the shot, which makes it even more compelling).
That being the case, in this basic light painting tutorial, we’ll explore a few light painting tips and go over some of the common light painting mistakes that could derail your project.
Table of Contents
Light Painting Defined
photo by ferrantraitevia iStock
Light painting is pretty much what it sounds like - in a night or low-light scene, you use a light source to illuminate something in the shot.
In some cases, you might gently paint a foreground element with light, as was done above.
photo by Bruno Giuliani via iStock
In other cases, your light painting might take on a completely different look.
As shown above, you can create a dramatic, surreal look by using bright, colorful lights and a slow shutter speed to blur the movement of the light.
In either case, you need a basic understanding of manual camera settings to make this type of photography work.
Suggested Light Painting Camera Settings
photo by steved_np3 via iStock
First things first - you’ll need a camera with manual controls, and you’ll need to understand how to shoot in manual mode.
Shooting in manual mode gives you the greatest control over the exposure settings: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
For light painting scenes, a good place to start is an aperture like f/5.6, a shutter speed of 30 seconds, and an ISO of 100.
Note that these are just starting points and that for your particular situation, you might need to adjust these settings to make the image brighter or darker.
If you’re a newbie at this, you might want to explore our guide to aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to get a better understanding of what each setting does and how they interact with one another. You can get a glimpse of that in the graphic below:
In addition to manipulating the exposure settings, light painting requires you to make adjustments to the white balance of the image.
White balance refers to the color temperature of the image, specifically, color casts that make neutral tones like white appear to have a coloration.
Depending on the light you use to paint the scene, you might need to use the tungsten or incandescent white balance setting (but don’t be afraid to try one of the other options too).
This will require some experimentation on your part, but the goal is to create light that is true to color.
photo by NoSystem images via iStock
Since you’ll be shooting at night, your camera might have trouble finding the focus on its own.
To get around this, you can simply illuminate the subject with your light (turned to maximum brightness), that way your camera’s autofocus system has the best chance of acquiring focus.
Once the focus is set, switch your lens to manual focus to lock the focus in place.
So long as you don’t move the camera, the focus will be all set for your photos. Alternatively, you can learn how to manually focus your lens to ensure you get a clear, crisp shot.
Quick Tip: Shoot your light painting images in RAW format. This format retains all the detail the sensor captures, unlike JPEGs, and gives you more details to work with in post-processing.
Light Painting Gear
photo by Chalabala via iStock
In addition to a camera with manual controls, there are a few other goodies you’ll need to pull off the best-quality light painting photos.
Firstly, you’ll need a sturdy tripod that gives your camera a solid base for the long exposure.
You don’t have to spend a mountain of money on the world’s best tripod, either - there are many budget options (like this Manfrotto tripod) that are well built and sturdy, and that will prevent your camera from moving while the shutter is open.
photo by powerbeephoto via iStock
Secondly, a remote shutter release is a must-have, as it allows you to trigger the shutter without actually touching your camera.
This is important because the simple act of pressing the camera’s shutter button can cause enough movement and vibrations to blur the image.
Of course, you’ll need a light source, too.
Though you can use your flashlight or headlamp and get decent results, it’s beneficial to have a more powerful (and customizable) light source for light painting.
I use the Litra Torch LitraPro for a lot of my videography work, and it works like a charm for light painting as well.
It’s a compact light, so it’s easy to carry around, yet it puts out up to 1200 lumens, so you can illuminate a vast swath of the scene with just one light.
Better still, the LitraPro if a full-spectrum bi-color light, so it has an adjustable color temperature (from 3000-6000K) that gives you the ability to customize how warm or cool the light appears to be.
As I explain in my Litra Torch LitraPro review, it’s far and away the best light I’ve purchased, so I highly recommend it for light painting!
You can see how the LitraPro performs in the field in the video above by Litra.
Quick Tip: The best lights for light painting are compact and easy to use, have an adjustable color temperature, and an adjustable intensity so you can truly customize how the light interacts with the scene.
Light Painting Tip #1: Get Set Up
photo by N-sky via iStock
As noted earlier, a good place to start with your camera settings is an aperture of f/5.6, a shutter speed of 30 seconds, and an ISO of 100.
These are just general guidelines, though, and tweaks will almost certainly need to be made based on the specific situation in which you’re shooting.
Get your camera set up on your tripod, ensure that image stabilization is OFF, and turn off long exposure noise reduction if your camera is so equipped.
Illuminate the subject with light and use that brightness to allow your camera’s autofocus system to focus on the subject (or you can do it manually if you like). Once focus is achieved, switch the lens to manual if it isn’t already, that way focus is locked.
Light Painting Tip #2: Start Small
photo by shaunl via iStock
As you foray into light painting, try to keep your excitement in check and start with a small subject instead of immediately going for a grand light painting masterpiece.
By selecting a small subject - an old rusty truck, for example - you can work the shot in one exposure and a single light.
With this simple setup, you can concentrate on ironing out the exposure settings and the light settings to get the photo just right.
Quick Tip: Once you have your gear set up, take a few test shots to key in the best exposure settings. You’ll want to adjust the white balance to your light source as well. You can adjust the white balance in-camera, and if you have a light like the LitraPro that has an adjustable color temperature, you can make changes to it as well. The purpose is to have good, clean light that’s neutral in color.
Light Painting Tip #3: Mind the Light
photo by karenfoleyphotography via iStock
The last thing you want is to illuminate yourself as you paint the scene, so you need to mind the light.
This means keeping the light source aimed at the subject and away from the camera.
This also means that you need to keep the light source moving - since it’s a long exposure, your movements won’t appear in the shot, so as long as you keep moving from one spot to the next with your light, you won’t make an accidental appearance in the shot.
Quick Tip: It’s helpful if you wear dark clothing when light painting. A dark long-sleeved shirt and dark pants will absorb the light and make you that much more invisible.
Light Painting Tip #4: Experiment With Light
photo by shaunl via iStock
You’ll want to create several shots in which you experiment with the light in each one.
If you stand far away from the subject (say, five or more feet away), the light will be quite broad, gentle, and even.
However, if you want to increase the brightness of the light falling onto the subject, you’ll need to get close (less than two feet).
Either way, you can create beautiful light painting looks. And as you master these simple techniques, you can move into more complex light painting techniques, like using multiple lights, colored lights, and taking multiple exposures and stacking them together.
For a more advanced tutorial on light painting, be sure to check out the video above by Hayden Pedersen.