Grab some lights
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Find a dark place
Set your camera on a tripod
Stop down your aperture and ISO
Focus in the light, then set to manual
Press the shutter and start painting
Use flash to light subjects (optional)
Wash, rinse, repeat
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If you've ever tried to take a long exposure along the highway at night, you'll know that car's headlights and taillights always leave light streaks across the photo. This is the basic concept behind light painting, except for it is under controllable conditions. To paint with light, you basically set a long exposure time on your camera, find a dark place, and shine your lights toward the camera. The resulting streaks of light will appear as a drawing or painting. Light painting is a unique technique because it allows you to combine the art of painting and photography into one. Plus, it's also a ton of fun to experiment with. So if you've ever wanted to try light painting, just follow these steps:
Any lights will do: flashlight, strobe light, glow sticks, your cell phone's LCD screen. You can even try it with fire if you're bold enough, but please be very cautious if doing so. Every light will look different so don't be afraid to experiment with anything you can find.
Shooting outside at night or in a dark room in your house will work best. It doesn't need to be pitch black, just as long as you can get your shutter speed down to a couple seconds you'll be good.
You need a tripod for two reasons: First, you'll need a long exposure time which means you won't be able to hand hold the camera without getting any camera shake. Second, if you're the one doing the painting, you'll need to be in front of the camera instead of behind it for a change.
With a small aperture like f/16 or f/22 and a low ISO setting such as 100 or 50, you should be able to get a long exposure time (at least a few seconds). The longer your shutter speed, the longer you will have to “paint” you scene. You will also want to put your camera in Manual mode so that it doesn't try to properly expose the scene. In Auto mode, the shutter speed would be extremely long in an attempt to bring out detail in the shadows which would result in a noisy, low-quality photo. There are much better ways to light up the background of your photo which are discussed in Step 7.
If your scene is too dark, your camera will not be able to focus. The best thing to do is turn the lights on and focus, or if your outside, shine a flashlight on a subject where you will be doing your painting. After you've set your focus, switch it to manual so that you will always focus in that same spot.
This is the fun part. Press the shutter button (or better yet, use a remote) and start drawing with whatever light you have. Try drawing shapes or spelling words or whatever you want to do. The possibilities are endless.
If you don't want the rest of your photo to be completely black, for instance, you want to see the background or a certain person, you can use a quick burst of flash to do this. If you're inside and don't have a flash, try turning the light on and off quickly.
Look at your photo and make any adjustments that you need. You may need to change the shutter speed or re-frame the photo. Experiment with different exposure times, lights, subjects, etc. Light painting has a lot of creative potential, so don't let it go to waste.
A few tips:
Pointing your light directly at the lens of the camera will create a bright star-burst effect.
If you're standing still while painting, you may notice a faint ghost of yourself in the photo. To avoid this move around as you're painting.
Try painting on things. For example, place a lamp on a table and shine the a blue light on one side of the lamp and a red light on the other.
Written by Spencer Seastrom
Image credit: roob9 / 123RF Stock Photo