Special thanks to Kara Wahlgren of Kiwi Photography for writing this photography tutorial on everything you need to know about painting (or drawing) with light in photos today.
The word photography comes from the Greek words for “draw with light,” and light painting takes the origin of the word literally. Nerdy etymology trivia aside, light painting is a way to add a wow factor to your images and a good excuse to experiment with off-camera flash.
Items Needed for Light Painting
Here’s what you need for a successful light painting portrait:
- A photographer. (This is you.)
- A “painter.” This is the person who will do the drawing; it can be an assistant, a bribed sibling, or even the subject himself.
- A light source for the subject. You can use ambient light, an off-camera flash, or even an on-camera flash with a reflector or bounce card.
- A light source for the “painting.” Anything with a small, focused point of light will work, so get creative. You can use laser pointers, sparklers, glow sticks, or even the flashlight on your iPhone.
- Darkness. If it’s pitch-black out, you may need to use manual focus (more on that later), but you’ll have a much larger margin of error with your timing and painting. If there’s still a hint of light, your autofocus will cooperate, but you’ll have to be wily to avoid seeing the “painter” in the photo.
- Tripod. (Or surface to place camera on so it is steady and not moving.)
5 Steps for Light Painting
In a nutshell, this is the order of operations:
- Set your camera to the Bulb function. You’ll be holding the shutter open for several seconds.
- Press and hold the shutter button.
- Fire a flash, if applicable.
- After the flash has fired, your painter can run into the frame and draw a quick design with the light source.
- Release the shutter button.
There’s no one “right” way to paint with light — every situation presents different resources and different challenges. I’m sharing three different light painting examples, with my setup and my settings for each, so you can see a few different approaches.
EXAMPLE 1: Darkness + OCF + iPhone (Camera Settings: 6 seconds (bulb setting), f/6.3)
For this shot, I set up a Speedlite on a tripod (camera left) and fired it at full power. After the flash fired, my assistant ran into the frame, drew a big heart with her iPhone flashlight, and ran back out. (She covered the flashlight with her hand before and after drawing the heart to avoid light trails.) This was a fairly easy one — it was dark enough that I could keep my shutter open for a long time, giving my assistant ample time to draw. Plus there was just enough ambient light from a nearby building for my camera to autofocus, but not enough to cause a “ghost” of my assistant in the final image.
Example 2: Pitch Black + OCF + Sparklers (Camera Settings: 2 seconds (bulb setting), f/6.3)
This was a bit more difficult than the previous shot for three reasons:
1. It was pitch black, so my camera couldn’t autofocus. To get around this, I used a fairly narrow aperture (to give myself some wiggle room) and manually focused using the light of an iPhone.
2. My triggers stopped working, so I needed someone to manually fire the flash.
3. Sparklers are a bit more difficult to draw with, because you can’t turn them on and off. They also have a time limit — once you light them, you have about 20 seconds to get the shot.
After setting the manual focus, we lit the sparklers and I opened the shutter. While the subject held the sparklers at her waist, my assistant fired the flash from camera left. Then my subject drew a quick up-and-down arc to frame herself.
There’s always some trial and error involved in light painting. This is what happened when I accidentally left the iPhone light on after focusing. The extra little bit of light was enough to light the smoke from the sparklers and turn my subject into a blur. Oops.
EXAMPLE 3: Dusk + Sparklers (Camera Settings: 6 seconds (bulb setting), f/16)
This one was trickier — we needed to shoot before dark for timing reasons, but that made it harder to get the long shutter time we needed for a really dramatic swirl. So I closed down the aperture to f/16, which was enough to compensate for the 6-second shutter time. My assistant ran in circles around the couple, keeping the sparklers between her body and the camera. Because there was so much natural light, the couple had to hold perfectly still to avoid motion blur; on the flip side, my assistant had to move as fast as she could to avoid being “seen” by the camera. This took a few tries, but when it worked, it was an instant favorite.
Light painting can be an imperfect science, but that’s what makes it fun. Experiment and see what you can create!
Be sure to share your light painting photos with us on Instagram using #IHFPhoto!