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Painting with Light


At blue hour [after sunset], camera set on a tripod with exposure at 30 secs and the aperture on F7.

The sand sculptures were lit up at selective points using a single standard torchlight [flashlight], one element at a time (approximately 10 secs for each element).

For each element, there was more focus on selected spots to highlight key areas.

Some available light coming from the right helped to fill part of it.

Not a HDR.

Light painting with Equalize and Multiply blending on clouds.

Unwanted barricade cloned off.

Finished off with light sharpening and contrast, and cropping.

William Cho

1 – What You Do

Here's a summary of the workflow.

1) Your camera is on a tripod.

2) It's dark—a dark room, late dusk, or night.

3) If you're not at home, photograph in a safe area.

Evaluate the site for safety in daylight as well as night.

Bring a friend to assist and to watch out for you and your gear.

4) If you'll be walking in the scene, wear dark clothing.

5) You open the shutter for a long time.

6) You use a light source.

The light source could be a flash light, sparklers, glow sticks, flash, and so forth.

7) The light source is used in one of two ways.

Way #1

The light source itself is not visible in the scene.

Let's say you're photographing a sculpture.

You use a flashlight.

You open the shutter—point the flashlight at the sculpture—and move the flashlight to "paint" the sculpture with light.


Ambient Light Only


Painted with Light

In the photograph below, you can see the photographer popping off his flash repeatedly to paint the structure with light.

You can see through the photographer because he moved during the exposure.

q q

The long tunnel below was illuminated with a light source in the scene.

But it's hidden from the camera, perhaps behind black cardboard.


Way #2

The light source itself appears in the scene.

You use it to draw lines, shapes, and letters.

Let's say you're photographing a kid waving a sparkler—the light source is in the scene.


Or, you're photographing a bike—the light source is in the scene.


2 – Getting Started

Beginner Experiment #1

Start with:

1) A dark room.

2) A camera on a table or tripod, set to P (Program).

3) An object in front of your camera.

4) While waving the flashlight at the object, press the shutter release.

Beginner Experiment #2

After playing with the above situation, paint part of a room.

1) Your camera is still on a table or tripod.

2) The flashlight will be further away from the subject, making the light dimmer.

Use a longer shutter speed.

Set your camera to S or Tv.

Twirl the knob to an 8 second exposure.

On your LCD screen the shutter speed will be an 8 with quote marks: 8".

3) Wave the flashlight around the room while pressing the shutter release.

4) If the photograph doesn't look good, increase or decrease the shutter speed.


Even darker








Even Brighter

After doing the above two experiments, you can set your camera tools more precisely.

3 – ISO

Set the ISO manually to 100.

If you use Auto ISO, the camera may set a high ISO.

Your photographs will have more noise.

4 – Exposure Mode Dial

Set the exposure mode dial to M—manual exposure.

You set both the aperture and shutter speed.

Confusing M's

There are two M's on your camera.

M #1 is on your lens—for manual focus.

M #2 is on your exposure mode dial—for manual exposure.

Look for M #2 here.

Set the Aperture

Start with the aperture at f/5.6 or thereabouts.

Camera Has Two Knobs

Some cameras have a two knobs—one for aperture—and a second for shutter speed.

Camera Has One Knob

If your camera has only one knob, it sets the shutter speed.

To set the aperture, hold down the aperture button and twirl the knob.

The aperture button may be designated by A, Av, or an aperture icon.

Set the Shutter Speed

Set the the shutter speed to eight seconds or longer.

Full-second shutter speeds are most often designated by quote marks.

Eight seconds is 8".

The bulb setting allows you to open the shutter for as long as you want.

Remote Release

A remote release allows you to trip the shutter from a distance.

If you're using the bulb shutter setting, a remote release may allow you to open the shutter by pressing once.

You close the shutter by pressing the remote release again.

This may be referred as a time exposure.

5 – Changing the Shutter Speed

Before you paint with light, experiment with different shutter speeds to determine a pretty-good exposure for the scene.

Then, paint with light, and refine the shutter speed as needed.

Long Story Short

If you need to adjust the exposure, change the shutter speed by more seconds than you expect.

Long Story

Let's say you set the shutter speed to 15 seconds.

Your photograph is too bright.

Most people will change the shutter speed by only a few seconds, such as from 15 to 12 seconds.

The photograph will only be slightly darker.

8 seconds, 1/2 of the 15-second shutter speed, will create a more noticeable change.

Halving a shutter speed is like changing the exposure compensation from 0 to minus 1.

What if your photograph is too dark at 15 seconds?

If you only add a few seconds to the shutter speed, the change will be slight.

If you double the shutter speed to 30 seconds, the change will be noticeable.

Doubling a shutter speed is like changing the exposure compensation from 0 to plus 1.

6 – Limiting the Variables

Try to keep the ISO and aperture constant.

Vary the shutter speed to correct the exposure.


Constant at 100


Constant at f/5.6

Shutter Speed


We had to limit the above three variables to one because the light source has three more variables.

Light Source Variables

Your light source has three variables.

Let's say you're using a flashlight.

Variable #1 – Brightness

Use the same flashlight for your photography so its brightness is constant.

Variable #2 – Distance to Subject

Let's say you're photographing a garden gnome at night.

For each photograph, remember about how far away your flashlight is from the gnome.

If the gnome is too bright, increase the gnome-flashlight distance.

If the gnome is too dark, decrease the gnome-flashlight distance.

Variable #3 – Waving

If you wave your flashlight slowly, the light is brighter.

If you wave your flashlight quickly, the light is darker.

Remember your waving speed from photograph to photograph so you can increase or decrease it.

7 – White Balance

Use auto white balance (AWB) to keep this variable constant.

After you've become more experienced, try to match the white balance setting to the color of the light source.

If you're saving your photographs as raw files, you can experiment with different white balance settings when processing.

8 – Lens


Set your lens to manual focus.

There's a A/M switch on your lens.

Set it to M.

You have an obvious ring on your lens for its zoom.

Usually, at the front of the lens, there's a small ring for manual focus.

Aim your flashlight at the subject and focus.

If you're not photographing a subject, place something in the scene with a flashlight aimed at it.

Focus and remove the object.

Check the focus periodically to make sure it hasn't shifted.

Image Stabilization

You may have a switch for image stabilization on your lens or in the camera menu.

You're camera is on a tripod so there's no need for image stabilization.

Turn it off for sharper photographs.

Some cameras can sense the lack-of-movement due to the tripod.

These cameras will turn off image stabilization automatically.

9 – Batteries

Keeping the shutter open and sensor on requires lots of power.

Have extra batteries on hand for your camera and light sources.

10 – Noise Reduction

The sensor heats up during long exposures creating noise.

Check your camera menu or manual for long exposure noise reduction.

Let's say your shutter speed is 30 seconds.

You press the shutter release and two things are recorded:

1) The scene

2) Noise

The camera then keeps the shutter closed and turns the sensor on for 30 seconds.

No light is reaching the sensor.

Only the noise is recorded.

Your camera then subtracts the noise from the scene.

In the equation below, the:

• First photograph is red.

• The second noise-only photograph is green.

• The final photograph is blue.

Scene + Noise Noise = Scene w/o Noise

11 – Stage Size

How big is the "stage"—the area seen in the viewfinder.

On a table top, mark it with tape placed off camera.

Outside, mark it with stakes placed off camera.

12 – Difficult Situation

If there's a light source in the scene that you can't change, such as the Aurora Borealis, establish the shutter speed for that light source.

Then, adjust the brightness of your light source.

Position it closer (brighter) or further away (dimmer).

Move it more slowly (brighter) or faster (dimmer) on the subject.

And of course, turn it on for less or more time.

A LED light panel may have a dimmer.

13 – Tips

Most examples of painting with light are of outdoor scenes.

You can photograph still lifes and interiors using light painting.

In cold weather keep your breath away from your lens and viewfinder.

Have a small flashlight, perhaps dimmed in some way, for setting your camera controls.

If you're photographing with other photographers nearby, red-colored flashlights and head lamps can interfere with their photographs.

If you're in the scene:

• Wear dark clothing.

• Keep moving.

• Don't get between the camera and a subject that has got light on it.

If you accidently aim your flashlight at your lens, you'll get flare.

When drawing letters, they must be backwards.

Turn your flashlight on and off by covering it with your hand.

14 – Restore Settings

Be sure to switch autofocus and image stabilization back on.