Painting with light can produce images that range from ethereal and beautiful to funky and fun, but how do you paint with light? What are you painting with? What are you painting on? Is expensive equipment required? Why does this technique sound so mysterious? These questions and more came to mind when I initially heard about “painting with light.” But I’m here to tell you that it’s not mysterious, difficult, or pricey. Painting with light is easy, fun, inexpensive and produces amazing results.
PAINTING WITH LIGHT: WHAT IS IT?
Every photograph we take could be considered “painting or drawing with light.” The very word “photography” is derived from the two Greek words “phos” meaning light, and “graphis” meaning “to draw.” How illuminating! But the contemporary technique I’m using is achieved by shooting images in a dark environment with a very slow shutter speed and using a light source, such as a flashlight, to creatively “paint” your subject or the air with light.
The camera’s long exposure time captures light and movement in a creative way so that each picture is truly unique.
WHAT YOU NEED
The following checklist includes everything you need to create these magical images.
- A digital SLR camera or a compact digital camera capable of long exposures. You can take good photos with the right compact camera, but a dSLR camera has a higher quality sensor and offers longer exposure times. I’m using the Canon EOS Rebel T1i for this demonstration.
- A cable release or electronic remote. When using a long exposure, even a slight movement from pressing the shutter button can result in blurry images. A cable release or wireless remote lets you concentrate on capturing the image, wiggle free. Simply attach the release to the camera and start shooting.
- A tripod, or other stable surface. Reduce camera shake and the resulting blurred images by using a tripod during long exposure times (depending on your lens focal length, anywhere from about 1/60 sec all the way to BULB). A general rule of thumb in photography is to use a tripod if your shutter speed is slower than the focal length of your lens. For example, if you’re using a 50mm lens and your shutter speed is set to anything below 1/50 sec., you need a tripod or other solid surface to steady your camera.
- One or more “painting” light sources. A variety of light sources can be used, ranging from simple flashlights to fiber optic light pens. Other sources of light include candles, matches, glow sticks, and holiday lights. Look around your house or the local hardware store, you may find some interesting “light painting” devices.
- A very dark location. Avoid any ambient light that may enter the scene from open windows, computer monitors, or streetlights.
Painting your images with light requires a few basic camera settings to ensure a successful image.
IMAGE QUALITY: Since high-capacity memory cards are available now at relatively low prices, I recommend setting your camera image quality at the highest resolution possible. A high-resolution image gives you creative freedom to adjust and crop without losing the pixel count and resolution necessary to produce sharp prints. You never know when you’re going to capture that magical shot.
The IMAGE QUALITY setting is located in the MENU.
All digital cameras offer a high-resolution JPEG setting denoted by a large L, or FINE. Some digital cameras offer a RAW setting that allows you to shoot uncompressed images with greater capacity for adjustment and enhancement. Keep in mind that a RAW image file requires additional processing with proprietary camera software or a third party application. Unless I’m shooting in a situation with varying light, I often set my camera to the highest quality JPEG setting. Digital cameras vary so check your owner’s manual for specifics.
ISO: Long exposure times and high ISO settings can introduce discolored pixels in your image, also known as “noise.” A good way to reduce the potential noise in your image is to set your ISO to a low setting, such as 100.
FOCUS: I often take a test shot with my on-camera flash and the Focus Mode Switch set to Auto Focus (AF). These settings enable me to see the composition and set the focus in a dark environment. Then I turn off the flash and set my Focus Mode Switch to Manual Focus (MF). This prevents the camera’s auto focus system from searching for focus in a dark scene. Alternatively, you could leave your Focus Mode Switch set to MF and light your subject with a flashlight to adjust the focus manually.
EXPOSURE: Set the Mode Dial to Manual (M). This setting allows you to set both the shutter speed and aperture as desired, and it’s the only setting that enables the BULB exposure. Most digital SLR cameras offer a maximum shutter speed of 30 seconds, but a BULB exposure keeps the shutter open for as long as you hold down the shutter button.
This is a nice option if you’re photographing the celestial heavens, fireworks, or anything else where a longer exposure is needed. I use BULB exposure because I like the freedom of deciding the duration of my exposure time while I’m in the midst of painting with light. If you are working in an area with some ambient light, or have a very bright light source you're painting with, you may want to set speeds slower than 30 full seconds. Experiment with faster shutter speeds, such as 4, 8, or 15 seconds. You also have to set your lens aperture, or lens opening. A good starting point, if you're on a tripod, is an aperture such as f/8 or f/11. This will give you good sharpness, although it will require the shutter to stay open longer than if you used your widest aperture (that is, lowest f-number). If your light source looks too bright, consider a smaller aperture (higher f-number, such as f/16).
WHITE BALANCE: There are many different types of light, and each light source has its own color temperature. This translates to color casts in your images. For example, when I use a “standard bulb” or tungsten flashlight the light is golden, but when I use a LED flashlight the light has a bright white, almost blue color cast. You can adjust this color cast by adjusting your camera’s White Balance (WB). Scroll through the white balance options and choose one that matches your specific light condition. If you aren’t sure, then just experiment and see what looks best to you. It doesn’t have to be perfect, or look “normal.” Another way to alter the colorcast is to tape a colored acetate “gel” on the front of your light source.
HOW IT’S DONE
Attach your camera to a tripod or stabilize it on a steady surface, then take a shot with your on-camera flash to check your composition and focus. Now set your lens Focus Mode Switch to manual focus (MF). Your prior test shot should have set your focus correctly, if not, you can manually focus by illuminating your subject with a flashlight.
PAINTING YOUR SUBJECT: If you’re using a long exposure setting, for example, 1 to 30 seconds, press the shutter once. If you’re using BULB exposure, hold the shutter until you decide to end the exposure, then release. The advantage of using the BULB exposure is the freedom to expose your subject for as long as you want. Once the shutter is open, use your flashlight or other creative light source to paint on your subjects, illuminating them in the darkness. Just like a paintbrush, a larger light source creates broad strokes of light, while a smaller light source allows you to paint or draw more precisely. Experiment with fast strokes or slow methodical movements. The areas you paint slowly will be brighter than areas you paint fast. Be careful not to linger too long over the same area or it may become overexposed. Review your images on your LCD viewfinder to find the technique that gives you the desired results.
AIR GRAFFITI: This is a fun technique! No muss, no fuss, and no cleanup involved. Drawing in the air with a flashlight or other light source can create some very entertaining and unique images. Just like writing with a pen, you can use a penlight to create drawings in the air and photograph them. It helps to have friends or family members dressed in dark clothing assist you in your “painting with light” adventure. Experiment exposure settings. When drawing with light, the shutter stays open as long as it takes to record the light writing. The aperture controls the brightness of the image. You may need to take a few shots before perfecting these adjustments, although an ISO setting of 100 and f/8 aperture is a good place to start.
Photography is all about the use of light and imagination. When you’re painting with light remember to experiment, try different techniques, and be open to what your own creative eye enjoys and appreciates. Get out there and give it a whirl!
To see how an award-winning industrial/fine art photographer uses a variation of this 'Painting with Light' technique on a much larger scale for surreal and incredibly-detailed environmental portraits, check out our interview and making-of video with Eric Curry (click to view)
Erin Manning is a professional photographer, teacher and television personality living in Los Angeles, California. Television viewers know Erin best as the digital photography expert and host of DIY Network’s Telly-award-winning TV series The Whole Picture. She has also appeared as the techno-lifestyle guru on Enable Your Home and is author of Portrait and Candid Photography (published by Wiley). She helps people understand photography and technology by translating technical mumbo-jumbo into everyday words and by facilitating their learning with a clear, friendly teaching style.
The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.
All images are copyright Erin Manning