Novice Photographers: 4 Tips to Up Your Light Painting Photography Game

Have you ever marveled at surreal nighttime pictures featuring wild lighting effects and wondered, “How did they do that?” Chances are, the photographer used a fun night photography technique called light painting photography (also known as light drawing photography).

By using a variety of light sources and exposure settings, the photographer literally ‘paints’ streaks or patterns of light into a composition to create images that seem magical and out-of-this-world.

...the photographer literally ‘paints’ streaks or patterns of light.

Broadening your creative horizons with light painting photography can be both exhilarating and daunting for a beginner as it requires you to pick up new skills and techniques, master new equipment, and observe proper safety precautions when using volatile light sources.

Listed below are my top 4 tips light painting novice photographers need to have success with this cool photography technique.

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Tip #1 - Use a camera with the correct settings and capabilities.

You can’t paint with light properly unless you’re armed with the right equipment. Your most basic equipment will, of course, be your camera, and while many opt to use a DSLR, a film camera can get the job done just as well.

In fact, some of the world’s most iconic light painting images—such as Picasso drawing a centaur and Man Ray scribbling his signature with a penlight—were created using analog cameras and printing processes.

Long Exposure Light Trails - Downtown Orlando
Don't be afraid of manual mode for light painting photography.

The downside of using film is that there is no way to determine if any of your exposures are correct or not. With digital, you can test and see your shots on the spot, which enables you to make adjustments and take the shot over and over again to get the desired effect.

What’s most important is that your camera has manual settings that allow the following ranges for shutter speed, aperture, and ISO (check your owner’s manual):

  • Shutter speed between 11 to 30 seconds to facilitate longer exposures
  • Aperture between f/8 and f/32
  • ISO ranging from 100 to 200

Though not mandatory, it is also highly recommended that you use a camera that shoots RAW format images as they are easier to edit.

Light painting photography isn't easy. Some of the really great shots you see take skilled photographers weeks to perfect. Don't be afraid to fail, but make sure you have the right camera before you get started.

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Tip #2 - Start with the essential equipment.

Aside from the camera, a successful light painting shoot requires the support of additional essential equipment. Listed below are the essentials you’ll need:

  • A sturdy tripod
  • An electric cable release or remote trigger with a locking mechanism or timer
  • At least one extra battery for your camera
  • A lens hood or shade for your lens
  • Creative light sources such as flashlights, smartphones, penlights, colored glow sticks, laser pointers, sparklers, and LEDs

Without a sturdy tripod, you won’t have a steady surface for your long exposure and the unwanted camera shake could ruin your image. Tripods can also help you capture images from difficult angles. In the same vein, triggering the shutter without an electric cable release or remote trigger will result in camera shake and a blurry image.

Long exposures consume batteries quickly, and without at least one extra, fully-charged battery, you won’t be able to shoot throughout the night. Meanwhile, a lens hood or shade for your lens will reduce lens flare and protect the lens from damage.

And just like artists need a variety of paints and paintbrushes to realize their creative vision, you’ll need a wide range of creative light sources to help you paint versatile and creative images.

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Tip #3 - Check your composition and focal point before pushing that button.

As noted in a tutorial about light painting photography in Adorama Learning Center (ALC), it is important to check the composition and experiment with different angles before starting on the actual shoot.

While some light painting photography projects (like writing in the air with a penlight) thrive on spontaneity, other projects (such as shooting a still life or the façade of a shed) will require you to take a couple of test shots to ensure that the focal point and composition are to your satisfaction.

You can start by positioning your camera or subject exactly where you want it. Try experimenting with a variety of perspectives to see which one works best. Once you’ve nailed your composition and perspective, you can attach your camera to your tripod and set it to the right height.

It’s important to focus manually on your subject with the lights on if you’re indoors, or use a flashlight to illuminate your surroundings if you’re shooting outdoors. Once the focus has been set, you may adjust the shutter speed, turn off the lights, release the shutter, and begin light painting.

Perfecting the composition and focal point before you begin light painting will prevent you from creating haphazard images.

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Tip #4 - Observe proper safety precautions when using steel wool and other combustible light sources.

While creative light sources such as steel wool can help you capture stunning light painting photographs, they also need to be handled with care to prevent burns and damage to property.

When using steel wool to create beautiful sparkler photos, observe the following safety precautions:

  • Wear a hoodie or a hat to protect your face and to prevent your hair from catching fire.
  • Wear a long sleeved shirt and pants that cover as much of your body as possible to prevent burns.
  • Wear goggles and gloves to protect your eyes and hands.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher nearby in case you need to put down flames.
  • Have a first aid kit nearby to treat any burns.
  • Avoid igniting the steel wool in flammable environments, especially on or near dry grass.

Similar safety precautions should be observed for volatile light sources such as fireworks and fire. It is also advisable for beginners to be accompanied by more experienced light painting novice photographers who have worked with volatile light sources to guide the shoot and keep the light painting project safe.

What tips do you have that you can share about light painting photography? Be sure to leave a comment below!

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