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Light Painting

Module by: Children's Museum of Houston. E-mail the author

Summary: Light painting, also known as light drawing or light graffiti, is a photographic technique in which you manipulate the shutter speed on your camera to 10-30 seconds to allow more light to be captured in your picture. The exposures are made usually at night or in a darkened room by moving a hand-held light source or by moving the camera.

Light Painting

What is light painting?

Light Painting Example
Light painting, also known as light drawing or light graffiti, is a photographic technique in which you manipulate the shutter speed on your camera to allow more light to be captured in your picture. The exposures are made usually at night or in a darkened room by moving a hand-held light source or by moving the camera.

Here are some suggested materials:

  • Digital camera with a long exposure shutter setting
  • Light sources such as flashlights, light pens, LED circuits, toys with lights, glowsticks, etc.
  • Dark area for taking pictures (outside at night or a dark room)
  • Tripod
  • A partner to help you
  • Optional: props or objects that create a scene for your picture such as a bike, chair, drinking glass or vase

How to paint with light:

  1. Find a dark location to take your light painting pictures.
    1. If you are going to shoot inside – make sure that this is a space that is relatively dark. Set up everything first, then when ready turn off lights to take photo.
    2. If you are going to shoot outside - make sure that you are not doing this under a street light, or where a car can come by and "paint” its headlight all over your shot.
  2. Set up a scene for the light painting pictures.
    1. Literal representation - In a dark location, place prop(s) on a table and paint it's contour. You can use several colors to make a strong effect or to draw different parts or even imaginary parts of your object(s).
    2. Abstract representation – Using an outside location, find a prop such as a car or telephone booth that is less lit by ambient light. Use the ambient light to capture the background, while painting the object and surrounding area with light. This is a great way to create a surreal scene.
    3. Environmental Graffiti – Using a wall or thin air, you can write a message to a certain someone or a general statement to a given audience.
  3. Set up your camera for a long exposure shutter setting.
    1. For the best results, you should use a tripod when taking pictures. Set your camera on the tripod and take a sample shot with a flash or lights on. This will help you verify that your composition is good.
    2. Set the exposure to a relatively long value. The exposure on your camera should be set somewhere between 10 and 30 seconds, but can be as long as you need to get the effect you want. Many digital cameras are capable of taking a ten-second or longer exposure. This is called “Shutter Priority” or “tv” setting. Your camera’s manual should explain how it works.
    3. Set the camera to iso100 and close the aperture as much as you can.
  4. Take your light painting picture.
    1. Once the shutter is open, use your light sources to "paint" your light picture. Use flashlights as a brush and "smear" the light, or use the light as a pen and do precise work. Areas where you go slowly will be more lit than others. Be careful not to linger too much over the same spot.
  5. Inspect your image and make corrections.
  6. Print your light painting picture.

Other resources:

Check out these Light Painters:

  • Gjon Mili’s Picasso Light Painting
  • Julien Breton
  • Sola
  • Toby Keller
  • Taylor Pemberton
  • Joerg Miedza & JanLeonardo Woellert (Lapp Pro)
  • Twin Cities Brightest (TCB)
  • Cenci Goepel & Jens Warnecke (Lightmark Light Painting)

Websites to check out:

http://www.thecoolist.com/light-graffiti-10-masters-of-light-painting-photography/

http://digital-photography-school.com/tips-on-how-to-light-paint-video-tutorial

Check out youtube videos for examples of chain reactions others have created. Search: “light painting” or "light graffiti” or any of the artists listed above.
Light Painting

Copyright ©2010 Children’s Museum of Houston. All rights reserved.

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