Painting with light!

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Hi all!

This post is a follow-up to our recent post on ‘Creativity with LEDs’, and is for those who are wondering how to get results like those. Contained in the following paragraphs is the ‘secret recipe’ to becoming a pro light painter!  Man that sounds awesome… “I’m a painter… I paint with light..!” Enough bad jokes.. on to the recipe then..


1. A camera that enables you to expose for a long time i.e. allows you to change the shutter speed. Most compacts will do fine, and SLRs will be even better because the ‘Bulb’ mode is a useful little tool here.

2. A tripod or a beanbag or a flat surface if nothing else, to hold your camera still during the long exposure.

3. Darkness.. muhahaha! You need to turn to the darkside and summon all darkness from within. Basically you just need absolute darkness so that there is no stray ambient light apart from the one coming from your paintbrush. This could be inside a room, or outside. Inside is easier because you can cut off the light easily. If going outside, try and be away from street lamps and little backyard lights and so on.

4. A self inking light-paintbrush, or in lay man terms – a source of light. Now this could be anything.. like a small LED glow stick, an LED flashlight, an LED light-saber (yes, they’re real and available cheap on ebay!) or even your iPhone (there are certain applications available that turn your iPhone or iPod touch into a coloured flashlight, and there are some that even display patterns as  you swish them through the air!).

5. A remote shutter release if possible.

6. A pinch of cyanide.. no.. sorry.. I meant patience.. But the emotionally weak may use the former ;) no offense!

7. Practice to taste :D

Photo by gnackgnackgnack

There. Those are all the ingredients you need. Once you have them, here’s how you make the recipe:

1.       Set up your camera on the tripod (or whatever similar solution you have) with the lights on if you’re indoors and frame your shot.

2.       Set your aperture as low as you need according to the exposure time that you choose (usually nothing shorter than 10-15 seconds and can be as long as 10 minutes!). f/8-f/16 should be fine. Don’t use a wide aperture or you’ll end up burning out the colour and overexposing the light source. Also keep ISO as low as possible to minimize noise.

3.       Set your camera to manual focus, and pre-focus to the approximate position of your light source plane i.e. where you’ll be standing with the light. If you don’t have manual focus, then get someone to hold the light source (ON) at the position you plan to hold it, then half press the shutter to focus there, and keep the shutter half pressed. Note that in this case if you plan to do the painting yourself, you’ll need to set the camera on timer, focus by half pressing, press the shutter fully, and rush to your position before exposure starts. Then proceed to step 4.

4.       Once the exposure and the focus is set, if you have a remote shutter release, take your position, release the shutter, and go wild – use your brush and paint the air with whatever you wish – write your name, make some random doodle, outline an object or whatever else you can think of. Refer to our recent post on Creativity with LEDs for ideas. If you don’t have a remote shutter release, simply put a timer and click, and take your position before exposure starts.

5.       When the exposure is done, simply head to your camera and check out the result! You will have a nice looking light-painting waiting for you on the camera LCD. Be careful not to run to the camera before the shutter closes, or in any case make sure you’re out of the frame when you do, and also switch off/cover the light source so as to avoid accidental light streaks.

That’s all there is to it! The rest is all about using different light sources in different ways. Many people also use flash very effectively. Of course you’ll need an off camera flash here, and preferably one where you can adjust the output power. As the shutter is open, you can ‘light up’ specific parts of the frame using the flash so that you get a result which shows something like 3 heads in the middle of nothing. You can also use a torch, but it’ll take some practice to get the result you want.

Note that it is advisable to wear dark (preferably all black) clothing while doing this so that you yourself are not highlighted. Also, move quickly, for the same reason. The rest is all experiment and practice! Use different coloured lights, different sources of light, different subjects to outline, light them from the front, light them from the back, or just make something in mid air!

Give this a shot, and see how your pictures turn out. If you need any further help, just leave your query in the comments and we’ll try our best to resolve it!

Photo by burnblue

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