A Formula for Light Painting in the World Around You

Being a fan of finding new creative outlets, this past year I’ve taken up a new hobby; photography. It’s been interesting to explore the ways you can leverage a camera to go beyond the every day subject matter of landscapes and people, and light painting is a way to use the real world as a canvas to draw on. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, light painting is a unique way of capturing shapes, expressions, or drawn pictures using light as a paintbrush and your camera as the canvas.

light1Light painting done on an idle streetcar in San Francisco. Taken with the Fuji X-E1 | Fujinon 14mm f2.8 | 30s exposure

This technique is easier than you might think. In this tutorial I’ll show you how you can get started creating your own light paintings using the world around you, with an overview of the tools and some tricks to get started.

What you’ll need

  • A DSLR, or any camera with a manual “bulb” setting
  • A sturdy tripod (this is essential, hand-holding the camera for long exposures is a futile effort)
  • A shutter release remote
  • A flashlight
  • The night
  • Good scenery

Step 1: Get Lit

Before heading out into the night, you’ll need a decent torch. I picked up a set of mini-flashlights from a drugstore for about $10. You don’t want something too big or bright, as too much light will cause flares in your painting.

A tiny flashlight to fit in the palm of my hand. Perfect.
A tiny flashlight to fit in the palm of my hand. Perfect.

Adding Color

You’ll do just fine with the light provided by your torch, but if you want to kick up the fidelity of your painting, you can try playing with multiple colored torches – the camera will pick up the color of the lens. A simple trick is to paint over your light with a Sharpie.

raw
sharpie
Protip: Only coat the torch once to make a solid colored lens. The tip of your pen will scrape off the ink beneath with multiple coats.

Now that you’re armed with a light (or a few) and a camera, it’s time to go outside.

Step 2: Choosing your scene

It’s key to draw your light paintings in the dark. Too much light, even during twilight, will overexpose your photos since you need to leave the aperture open long enough to capture your tracing. A good time to venture outside is just before dusk; this will give you enough time to choose a scene and set up your camera equipment while it’s still light out.

Scouting

You’ll want to find an area that has little light intrusion as to not interfere with your painting. Some good night locations are piers, barns, fields… essentially anywhere without pedestrian traffic or bright lights. When scouting a scene, look for opportunities to use props as part of your light painting. Sure you can start by drawing hearts in the air or whatever, but your image will become more intriguing when it becomes a part of the elements. You can run your torch behind objects to easily achieve this effect.

Light painting of a San Francisco streetcarPainting on an out-of-service streetcar in San Francisco.

Step 3: Setting up your camera

You’re going to want to spend some time adjusting your camera settings depending on where you plant your tripod to account for light, reflections, objects, etcetera. To start:

  1. Set up your tripod – Make sure to have enough distance between the camera and you to have a good amount of scenery to paint in.
  2. ISO – How low can you go? Your instinct might be telling you to jack up the ISO since you’ll be shooting in the dark, but since you’re using longer exposure times you’re safe to lower this as much as possible to reduce the overall noise in your image.
  3. Aperture – Here you have a bit of wiggle room to play with. I prefer to shoot mid-range at about f/5.6; you can adjust this higher or lower depending how much time you spend drawing vs. how much light you want to capture. Lower f-stop = more light on your scenery, higher f-stop = darker scenery and amplified torch light.
  4. Shutter speed –  Start around 30-60s with your camera set on “Bulb” mode. You can play with the time depending on how intricate your drawing is.

The above aren’t golden rules. Play with the settings as you go to fit with the scenery you choose.

Step 4: Painting (this is the good part)

Before you set off your shutter and get started, now is the time to have a conversation with yourself that you’re going to fail, multiple times… however this is arguably the fun part. For each shot you take, you’ll want to take a few test exposures for lighting and shutter speed. The end result is worth it when you finally paint the perfect image.

My first light painting attempt… 30 tries to get it “just right”

Once you’ve set the timer on your shutter, try your first light painting. This part is relatively straight forward; simply “draw” with your torch in the air. The light will be recorded as lines in the camera as it picks up the light trails.

You will get better with practice. Sometimes your test shots will lend themselves well to inspiration, and don’t be afraid to try something new even if you have a shot in mind. You might be pleasantly surprised with the result.

Using points of reference

One of the first things I quickly learned when trying to light paint is that it’s friggin’ hard to draw without a reference to what you’ve already created; kind of like trying to draw with invisible ink. This can be challenging when trying to create joints, curves, or anything beyond a basic shape. You need need to develop a mental model where you’re tracking where you’ve already painted in your mind, and using points of reference in the world around you (combined with practice shots) will help in plotting your painting.

For example, in the below painting I used a few different focal points for the head, arm, hip joint (for the leg) and foot to ensure scale and proportion.

barrel

Here’s a perspective from the opposite side of the lens on how this painting was achieved:

perspective

  1. After hitting your timer, run to the position you want to paint in. Try and move around… the longer you stay still, the more of your body will be captured in the exposure.
  2. Choose a few focal points to use as a reference for your painting. For example, I chose a few rungs on the barrel for the arm and hip joint, an intersection on the fence of the pier for the head, and a wood board for the foot. I would guide my light between these difference points to get the right scale and perspective of my image.
  3. Use your focal points to help guide your torch. Remember it’ll take a few tries, and that’s okay!

Other Protips

The above are some basics to get your started. Here’s some tips to keep in mind as you start creating your own light paintings:

  • To create disconnects in your painting (for example, drawing two separate objects) turn your torch off for the pieces you don’t want “drawn”
  • Try not to point your torch directly at the camera. The intensity of the direct light will be amplified in the final image
  • Keep moving. Moving around keeps your body from being picked up by the camera in the dark
  • Bring an extra battery. The long exposures, combined with the amount of test shots you’ll want to make, eats into your charge pretty quickly
  • Use Lightroom or Photoshop for some post-production work to brighten your painting and darken out subjects you don’t want seen

For more images in the series used for this tutorial, check out the gallery on Behance. Happy painting!


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Posted on October 20, 2014 by Sarah · 2 comments

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