How to Paint with Light

A Quick and Easy Guide to Light Painting.

Bat(man) on Fire
("Bat(Man) on Fire" by Mina Mikhael)

Light Painting is all the rage these days. Or, more specifically, has been all the rage for the last few years. But here's a fun fact: did you know that Picasso did light painting as far back as 1949? Check it out right here.

What is a Light Painting exactly?

Well, friends, Light Painting is the process of using a bright, often colorful light source to draw in mid air while your camera's shutter is left open in a dark environment. The resulting long exposure captures the moving light as an often solid 3D image floating in the space of your composition.

It's fun, creative, and best of all, mashes the best parts of art and photography together into one colorful medium. Mom's supervising light painting children will especially will love the fact that there's no mess to clean up afterwards.

How do I get started?

First you'll need to assemble all of your tools:
  • one digital camera with Manual settings (a dSLR is recommended, but as long as your digicam has "BULB" or "B" mode, you're good to go).
  • one tripod (or any solid surface). It's vital the camera NEVER move.
  • at least one bright light source (LED, flash light, camera strobe, glow sticks, sparklers, and one guy, as seen below, even used a rocket).
  • one darkened location (don't try this during the day!)
  • optional: one remote shutter release
Now what?

We put it all together in 5 EASY STEPS. Ready?
  1. Set your dSLR (or digicam) on a tripod or any solid surface where it can't move and frame your composition in an dark area.
  2. Switch to Manual Mode and set your exposure to BULB or B mode (this should be one click past 30 seconds or whatever your longest exposure setting happens to be).
  3. Then set your aperture to something along the lines of an f/8 or f/11 (feel free to experiment here) and your ISO to 100 or 200 to minimize noise.
  4. You'll probably want to use that optional remote shutter release to start and finish your shot, but remember, your camera can't move at all. The slightest vibration, such as pressing the shutter button, may ruin your shot. If you don't have a remote shutter release, consider using your camera's self-timer delay.
  5. Open your shutter, move your light around in the frame creating objects and/or letters, and close your shutter.
There you have it. You're all done. You should now have your first Light Painting, ala:

("Light Painting" by Steve Jurvetson)

Is that all it takes?

Yes, but if you'd like to tweak more, feel free to import your raw Light Painting shots into any common photo editing software to play with contrast, colors, light levels, etc. Oh, and if you ever get tired of making Light Painting still shots, some people have gone on to make Stop Action Light Painting films, like this:

Fun, right? Try it out and then post your Light Paintings on Steve's Facebook page!