How to “paint” photos with light

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[This article is an excerpt from the book, "Photojojo!: Insanely Great Photo Projects and DIY Ideas" (2009), reprinted with permission from Potter Craft.]

Normally, when you take a photo, the shutter opens for a fraction of a second, light hits the image sensor, and the moment is frozen as a photograph. Light painting is different. With light painting, you take your photographs in darkness, leaving the shutter open for long periods, and then manipulate points or beams of light in front of the lens. Each light painting can take minutes or even hours, depending on the effect you want. Such a long exposure allows you to use flashlights and other sources of light to “paint” in midair and pick out objects that you want to appear in the photograph.

This technique will open up a whole new avenue of artistry in your photography, and the effect is surreal.

What you’ll need

Before you begin, gather your gear:

  • Lights (this could be anything including flashlights, sparklers, glow sticks, mobile phones, external flash units, laser pointers, or children’s toys)
  • Dark, nonreflective clothing (preferably all black)
  • Camera with long exposure capability (5 seconds or longer)
  • Tripod
  • Shutter release cable with lock or remote release (optional)
  • Stopwatch
  • Very dark neutral density filter (optional, for light painting in daylight)
  • Perky assistant (optional but always helpful)

Step 1

Gather up all the lights you can get your grubby little mitts on.

Step 2

Suit up in stealthy black and head out into the long, dark night. Find an empty area with very little light. If necessary, set up the camera and tripod against a wall to block background light.

Step 3

With the camera and tripod in position, zoom out as far as possible and set the ISO to the lowest setting possible (usually ISO 50 or 100) and the aperture to the highest setting possible (usually f/22). This will ensure that as little light as possible will be captured by your camera sensor, decreasing interference from background or unwanted light sources.

Step 4

Next you need to figure out an appropriate shutter speed. This will vary depending on the brightness of the lights you’ll use, how dark it is outside, and your ISO and aperture settings.

First, turn on your flashlight and stuff it in your pocket—it’ll be too hard to find the on switch in the dark once the exposure starts. Then start by setting your shutter speed somewhere between 2 and 4 seconds and clicking your shutter. Quickly get about 5 feet (1.5 meters) in front of your camera, turn around to face the lens, and use the flashlight to sign your name in midair as if the flashlight were a pen. Repeat, retracing your signature in the same spot, until the shutter closes. Be sure to sign your name backwards (or reverse the image later on). Check out the result on your camera’s LCD, then repeat at longer and longer shutter speeds until you get the effect you want.

For longer shutter speeds, see if your camera has a bulb setting (with some point-and-shoot cameras, you may only have the option of using the night setting). Bulb mode means the shutter will stay open as long as you have the shutter button pressed (or until you press it again). A remote shutter trigger is useful in this case.

Step 5

To focus the camera, use the manual setting. Your camera will have a tough time auto-focusing in pitch-black conditions. If you’re using auto-focus, shine a flashlight on the object you want to focus on, half-press your shutter to lock in the focus, and then switch to manual focus so the focus will not change.

If it’s really dark, tape a tiny light to the top of your camera so that you can always see where it is in relation to where you’re standing.

Step 6

Make a mental note of the edges of your scene so your paintings won’t get cut off. Activate the shutter, get in front of the lens, and paint!

By the way, don’t be afraid to get close to the camera. Some interesting effects can be achieved by waving a light quickly right in front of the lens. If you can get your hands on a powerful spotlight, use it to light up larger and more distant objects (a portion of a building or even a bridge).

Remember, it’s all experimentation. You can use a long shutter speed (minutes or hours) with your maximum aperture and lowest-of-low ISO to create longer, more intricate paintings. If you use a neutral density filter, you can keep the shutter open even longer, or for a short time during the day. (For shorter paintings, reduce your shutter time and drop your aperture or raise your ISO to compensate.)

Different methods to try

Need help getting started? Here are some ideas:

Light writing or drawing Use a light as a pen to spell out a message while facing your camera. Or draw shapes (animals, happy little families standing in front of their home, mushroom clouds). It’s like an invisible whiteboard!

Selective lighting Pick out people, objects, or terrain in your scene and selectively light ‘em up with a flashlight or a flash. You can use light to “paint” the surface of a car or even create the appearance of smoke or mist! Since the camera will only record what’s lit up, you can create some ghostly effects with floating disembodied faces or people who appear more than once in the frame.

Create a halo Recruit a model. You can paint a person by having him stand still while the camera shutter is open. Move around him, painting with the light source. Then with a big bright light or flash unit, flash him to bake his image brightly into the photo. The end result will be a clear photo of the person with a bunch of light painted on or around him.

Stencil into thin air Create a stencil design on flat cardboard, cut it out, and attach it to the front of a simple opaque box. Cut out a hole from the back of the box, through which you’ll shine the light source. It helps to add a piece of translucent paper or sheer fabric between the stencil and the light source to diffuse the light and give you even lighting on the entire stencil. If you want to add some color, use a piece of colored plastic wrap.

Be abstract Wave electroluminescent wire around wildly. The wire is so thin that it will create a very ethereal, electric, smokelike effect.

Alternately, use an off-camera flash unit that has a modeling mode. This mode emits a series of extremely bright flashes very quickly. Move around while holding the button down. The quicker you move, the farther apart the light bursts will be. Keep in mind the angle of the flash. Think of this technique as calligraphy; you can vary the thickness of the light, depending on how the flash is angled toward the camera. This angling will allow some nice smooth taper.

This story, "How to “paint” photos with light" was originally published by Book Excerpt.

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