So you want to get into light painting? AWESOME. I’m so stoked for you! But like what do you need? No worries fam I got you covered.
Let’s define what light painting is. Light painting is simply a long exposure photography where you used some kind of light source to enhance the scene. It’s similar to low light photography but we are using a light that we put into motion to manipulate the photograph. Along side this there are two major types of light painting. Those are light painting a subject and light painting your environment. In my opinion learning to light paint the environment will make your subject light painting better as often times you will include the environment in the photo, however both come with their own challenges but we will get to that another time.
The first item we are going to want is a camera. Honestly any DSLR will do (and yes you can do this on a phone but that’s another blog post) most have the ability to change your shutter speed to Bulb mode and while this isn’t necessary it can be very useful in the future as you become more experienced.
Secondly, you have to have a tripod. For all the light paintings I do I always have my camera on a tripod because during a long exposure your camera can’t move otherwise it becomes blurry with light streaks everywhere and you no longer have a clear picture. Of course I recommend buying a decent tripod as cheap small tripods or plastic lightweight ones can be bumped easily and ruin your exposure or can be knocked over and potentially destroy your camera. We don’t want that.
Lastly, you need some kind of light source! This can range from a variety of things whether it’s your cell phone to car lights, to any custom light painting tool you might use. You have so many options out there that you’ll want to try everything.
The three things I listed here are the bare minimums when it comes to light painting. I don’t what to delve to far into recommendations because I don’t want to overwhelm you. Next let’s get to the 3 major settings on your camera that your light paintings will deal with. That’s your ISO, F-Stop, and Shutter Speed. Our Exposure Triangle.
First we have our ISO. (Located at the bottom of this card) Basically this is fake light that your camera creates in order to help you take a picture. The lower the ISO the less “grain” you’ll have in your picture but also potentially the darker it will be. ISO is mainly used to help in low light situations and higher end cameras allow for higher ISO without grain thus allowing for more flexibility. Thankfully with most light paintings you’ll probably be doing when starting out you can keep a low ISO and be just fine. The only times you’ll really want to increase your ISO realistically is whether you have a weak light source and want to make sure you can expose your subject or environment in the right amount of time or if you want to catch the stars if shooting outside when light painting.
Note: On most cameras Noise Reduction or NR is turned on, this is to help remove grain in low light situations if your ISO is high. When this is activated on your camera it will take longer to process the image and because we are shooting at a low ISO I recommend turning it off as it’s not really necessary.
Next up we have our F-Stop or Aperture.
There is a lot that you can affect with this so we will go one piece at a time. This is in at the top of the chart and will be our reference. Our aperture is an iris that opens or closes and lets in more light or less light. the higher the number the less light is let in the camera and the lower the number the more light is let in to the camera. In tandem with this this when we have a higher number the more in focus the background, foreground and subject (if you have one) will and the lower the number the less in focus the all of the foreground, background and or subject will be. When it comes to light painting your aperture will be your biggest variable in not only the focus of your image but also how much your image is exposed with the light you are using. With a weaker light you will want a lower F-stop and with a stronger light you will want a higher F-stop. Of course the brightness of your light could also be changed instead of changing your F-stop but that all depends on the situation so play with your option and see what works best for you! This can apply to both subject and environment light painting
Lastly we have our shutter speed, which is in the middle of the chart. This mainly applies with subject light painting. When light painting a subject you want to make sure that subject is as still as possible other wise it could potentially become blurry. When you look at the chart on the right hand side you can see that the shutter speed is set to 1/2 second and shows a very blurry person moving. That’s because in order to take the picture it took the camera a whole 1/2 a second to close the shutter and take the image. Since the camera took the image much slower than the person was moving it became blurry. In light painting we are often dealing with very slow shutter speeds which can range from 2 seconds to half and hour. It all depends on what you are trying to create. In most DSLR’s if you don’t have a remote (which we will talk about in a later blog post) the longest you can go is 30 seconds. For the time being set your exposure anywhere between 2 seconds to 30 seconds and see what you can come up with whether it’s with a subject, the environment, or the light painting itself.
Now that we have a basic understanding of the tools needed and how your camera will relate in it’s most basic functions to light paint with we have a few extra tips to make your first attempt more successful.
1. Wear black clothing – Black absorbs light and white reflects it. Unless you want to show up in your photo wearing black will help hide your from the camera and any potential light spill that may fall onto you. However this isn’t perfect but can only help prevent exposing you.
2. Constant movement – Don’t stand still in one spot for too long. If you do it doesn’t matter how much black clothing you are wearing you will eventually show up or at the very least a black ghostly apparition of you. Which most likely isn’t what you are going for. This can be effected for better or worse with your F-stop too.
3. Your Cell Phone – Don’t have any tools to light paint with? Trying just using the flashlight on your cell phone! You can create awesome lines with just your cell phone and make a killer light painting all in themselves. This is a great tool to start with and master in the beginning.
4. Done Is Better Than Perfect – With anything in life you’re not gonna nail it your first time. This is especially true in light painting. Learn to enjoy just seeing what you can create and see what the possibilities are. More often then not you’ll create something that is amazing while just having fun and it will have you keep coming back to try more and more ideas.
Just to be on the safe side I’m going to do a quick run down on how light painting works. First set up your camera on a tripod and set your desired settings. You could do your lowest f-stop like 2.8 or 3.5, your ISO at 200 your shutter speed on 10 seconds. Whether you are using a model or just yourself it doesn’t matter! As soon as you press the shutter run out in front of your camera and wave some lights around to create your first light painting.
That’s it! I know that was A LOT of information to learn just the basics of light painting, but light painting is best experienced by just doing it. Before too long you’ll have a much stronger grasp on what it entails and how you can manipulate your camera to make some of the coolest light paintings yet!