A beginner’s guide to light painting photography

A beginner’s guide to light painting photography

First published:
March 6, 2023
January 31, 2024

Limekiln Orb by Nigel Eve

6 top tips for taking creative photos of spirals, shapes and star-trails

Although all photography is the art of painting with light beams – in modern times using electronic sensors – there are myriad ways of creating special effects using extra lights. From torches and LED panels to laser pens and glow sticks, almost any standalone source of light, when activated during a long exposure and moved within a composition, can be used to create all kinds of weird static and motion effects. All you need is a manual camera, tripod, darkness and limitless imagination.

Here are some top tips to get you started … 

1 The basic technique 

Silhouette of the photographer. Photo by Jaromir Chalabala - f/2.8 | ISO 400 | 1/8s

Painting with light means opening the shutter on your camera for a few seconds or even a few minutes. It’s easy to do, but you do need to have the right equipment. The most important thing you need is a manual camera that allows you to change the ISO, aperture and shutter speed. This is most easily done in manual (M) mode or bulb (B) mode. Since you need to keep your camera completely steel, you must use a tripod at all times. A shutter release cable, a wireless intervalometer or a smartphone app that offers remote control is handy, too, so you don’t introduce vibrations to your camera when opening and closing the shutter.

Once you’ve decided on your composition – whether it’s a wide-angle night-time scene or an indoor shot with no specific backdrop – you need to focus your lens on the point that your light painting will take place.

Author tip:

Focus is best done by illuminating an object in that place and auto-focusing on it with your camera (your camera backpack works well for this). Now lock that focus in place by switching to manual focus – and don’t touch your lens. You’re now ready to begin the fun! Take some test shots to figure out what ISO, aperture and shutter speed to use, beginning with mid-range settings – ISO100-400, f-4-f/8 and 10 seconds. 

2 Awesome orbs

Circle. Photo by Beatriz - f/4.5 | ISO 100 | 30s

Super-simple yet looking like a high-end professional skill, all it takes to create mesmerizing orbs in the dark is a piece of string and any torch. Get a friend to stand in your composition and twirl the torch around to create a circular pattern, then get them to slowly turn in one direction until they've gone through 3650º. That’s it!

A long exposure image of this rather simple action will result in an awesome orb. Now try it with two people, then three or more!

Author tip:

If your camera has a long exposure noise reduction mode then it goes without saying that you leave it switched on while shooting in the dark, right? You certainly can, though if you take an exposure of, say, 30 seconds, your camera will then take another exposure for 30 seconds to cancel-out image noise created on your camera’s sensor during the initial long exposure. Using long exposure noise reduction effectively doubles the length of your shoot and on most modern cameras it won't be hugely beneficial.

3 Creating spirals 

Colourful spirograph. Photo by Rich Renton - f/22 | ISO 100 | 19s

For something more geometrically precise you need to harness gravity. If you tie a piece of string to a torch then tie the other to a light fitting on the ceiling and give it a nudge the torch will draw circles in the darkness when in motion as seen from beneath.

The effect depends upon the position of your camera. Dial in ISO 100, f/13 and an exposure time of around 25 to 30 seconds and hit go on a shutter delay of 10 seconds. Now put your camera on its back below the light fitting with the lens pointing upwards. Just before the 10 seconds is up give the torch a push and it will start tracing ever-decreasing circles as its momentum slows.

Author tip:

Is your go-to setting for white balance ‘auto’? Although you can change the color temperature in post-processing, if you want to do as little computer work as possible (who doesn’t?) then it’s worth experimenting with your camera’s custom white balance settings – though whether you go for or ‘incandescent’ (2700K), ‘tungsten’ (3200K) or ‘daylight’ (5600K) will depend on the color temperatures of the light sources you’re going to use.

4 Writing with light

Love. Photo by Claudia Kanders

A long-exposure photograph is essentially a canvas on which you can paint on using light. One way of doing that is to write or draw using a glow stick or a laser pen. Choose some words that are short and sweet or perhaps think of a symbol you can draw. The aperture and ISO will depend on whether you are inside with the lights off or outside at night trying to write into a more complex composition. If you are inside, try IS0 100, f/8, and a shutter speed of between 10 and 15 seconds. If you are outside at night, try ISO 800, f/4 for 25 seconds.

These settings are just a starting point, but they will give you plenty of time to either get into the image and wave a glow stick around (in which case you’ll have to write backward) or project a laser pen light onto a surface within the frame from behind the camera. The effect can look a little naff at first, but it's a good learning experience, and with a little practice a more refined look is possible.

Author tip:

A good tool for light writing is a laser pen. Most often these kinds of pens are used in presentations and by astronomers to point out distant galaxies and other objects. Commonly-found weak laser pens are perfectly safe and legal to own if used responsibly, but it's important not to switch them on if you see or hear airplanes because they are known to distract pilots. It's for this reason that high-power laser pens are often illegal with tough penalties for their misuse in many countries.

5 Going for glow

Creepy pumpkin. Photo by Ross Matthews

One effortless and easy way to create an unusual look is to leave a small colored LED light inside something, then take a long exposure photograph of it. It works well in abandoned buildings, vehicles and Halloween pumpkins. What you’re doing is allowing a small amount of light to be hugely exaggerated by a long exposure, with the end result being a subject that appears to be glowing – or even on fire – in your composition. Using a red LED light can look particularly spooky, though any color will do.

Author tip:

Whatever light source you use, and whatever special effects you try to create, think about angles, your position and your surroundings. Light painting can be done indoors or outdoors. Try creating symmetrical and/or reflected shapes using light sources around bodies of water, windows or mirrors. Always be careful not to shine bright lights directly at your camera and don’t ever get between the camera and the light source.

6 Shooting the stars 

When The Stars Fall From The Sky. Photo by Greg Koltz - f/2.8 | ISO 800 | 30s

Perhaps the most simple and obvious way to paint with light is to use the stars above. They may look static, but stars appear to move constantly through the night sky thanks to our rotating planet. They actually rotate around Polaris, the North Star, as seen from the northern hemisphere. So if you orient your camera towards the northern sky (using a stargazing app to put Polaris roughly in the center of your composition) you can create circular trails.

Point west or east for straight lines to the horizon. If you want the stars to trail the basic technique is really easy. With your camera on a tripod and wearing a wide-angle lens in infinity focus, try long exposures in ‘bulb’ mode of over 30 seconds (f/2.8-f/4, ISO 800) or so and you’ll get some trailing. To get something more substantial – such as curves of trailing stars behind a building or mountain – take lots of the same 30-second image without moving your camera for as long as you can stand it (two hours looks great!) then drag all the images into the free StarStaX software to stack them into one image.

Author tip:

Don’t confuse star photography with astrophotography. The latter is a complex and fiddly procedure that typically now involves using a motorized tripod head that moves in sync with the Earth’s rotation. It’s also largely about taking close-up images of galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters.
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