Beginner’s Guide to Light Painting

How to create amazing light-painted photos

I absolutely love light painting. It’s a photographic technique that allows you to achieve an array of creative effects, ranging from subtle fill lighting to eye-popping swirls and circles. In fact, if you can master light painting, then you can revolutionize your approach to photography in practically any genre – it really is that powerful.

What’s especially cool about light painting – and what separates it from a lot of other creative techniques – is that it’s extremely accessible. All you need is a camera, some basic accessories, and a space to spread out and have fun.

In this article, I’m going to tackle the ins and outs of light painting photography. As you’ll see from the many examples I share below, I’ve put in the time and effort to master this creative technique (in fact, one of my light painting images netted me a major prize in a photo contest!). Therefore, drawing on many nights spent outside with my camera and my lights, I share all the essentials, including gear recommendations, key camera settings, and the painting techniques I encourage you to try.

And here’s my guarantee:

By the time you’re done reading, you’ll be able to light-paint your images with ease!

What is light painting?

Light painting is a photography technique that uses a moving light source (e.g., a flashlight) to add light to a scene while taking a long-exposure photograph.

light painting for beginners
Mill Falls in Logan, Ohio. The main source of light for this scene was the street lights on the bridge over the river, but I used light painting to take the image to the next level. I light-painted the bridge with a high-powered spotlight. I also added light to the rocks in the foreground. The exposure was 69 seconds, and I set the aperture to f/14 to maximize the starburst on the street lights. This image won me a Photographer’s Choice award in the 2014 Shoot the Hills photo contest.

In other words, every light-painted image includes at least one moving light source that the photographer paints over the scene. That way, you can selectively boost the illumination or even add interesting colors to different portions of the shot.

When light painting, you, the photographer, become an entirely different kind of artist. Instead of just capturing an image as it’s presented, you create the image that the camera is capturing. For me, a scene or object can be brought to life by painting with a beam of light.

Now, light painting may take lots of patience and practice to perfect, but the results can be very rewarding. And it’s important to recognize the simplicity of lighting painting – it’s a lot like any form of low-light photography, except you are putting an external light source in motion to enhance an image.

The two types of light painting

In photography, light painting is an umbrella that includes two different – but highly related – techniques. And before we get into the details of how to create light-painted photos, it’s worth highlighting these different approaches.

First, you can do light painting from a distance. In other words, you shine your moving light on the scene similar to the way you’d use a flash – to illuminate the subject, but without the light itself actually appearing in the shot. The result is often very subtle, and the viewer won’t always know that light painting took place. (Note that you can – and often should! – use this approach while walking through the frame, the light should never point back directly at the camera.)

I captured the next image using that approach:

school house in snow
Schoolhouse in the snow. This was a long, 170-second exposure, shot at f/8 (for depth of field) and ISO 100. Notice the light coming from inside the schoolhouse, added from the outside by shining a flashlight through windows at the back of the building.

Second, you can do light painting in front of the camera. This type of light-painted photo tends to be a lot more obvious and eye-catching, because the handheld flashlight, light stick, or other light source adds directly to the shot. You’ve undoubtedly seen images that feature words written with a sparkler or a flashlight across the frame – those are examples of this second type of light painting.

You can also apply this second technique to create swirls of light within the frame, to circle different subjects, to add cool patterns and streaks, and more.

Note that both types of light painting are completely valid! I favor the first, more subtle approach, but the advice I share in this article applies to both techniques.

Before you start doing light painting, you’ll need to make sure you have the proper tools:

  1. Camera – Any digital camera capable of manual settings (including Bulb mode). These days, even smartphones can work for light-painted shots, provided that you download an app with long-exposure capabilities.
  2. Tripod – This is one of the most important tools to produce light paintings. In most cases, you’ll need to keep your camera’s shutter open for several seconds, or even minutes. Therefore, it’s very important that your camera does not move during the exposure. (That said, you don’t need to spend tons of money on a pro-level tripod; as long as the tripod is relatively sturdy and you’re not dealing with windy conditions, even a budget tripod can do the trick.)
  3. A remote shutter release – Either use a cable release or a remote shutter release to begin your exposure. If you don’t have either of these, you can use your camera’s self-timer function to initiate the shot, or you can try connecting your camera to an app for remote control. (It is very important that you never touch your camera or tripod during the exposure.)
  4. A stopwatch – A stopwatch or some other way of timing your exposures is helpful, since most light-painting exposures will use Bulb mode. Your phone undoubtedly has plenty of stopwatch apps to choose from, or you can do a quick search to find a stopwatch program online.
  5. A light source – Many different types of lights can be used for light painting. These light sources are your “brushes” and can include flashlights, torch lights, lasers, glow sticks, flashes, cell phones, and even candles. Just about anything that can produce light can be used for light painting. Note that different light sources will produce different colors of light. For example, an LED light source will produce a cooler (blue) colored light, while a halogen source will produce a much warmer (orange) colored light.
  6. Color gels – Color gels are translucent materials that go over your light source; they’re designed to alter the tint of your light and add color to your painting.

The best light camera settings for light painting

light painting farmhouse
A light-painted photo of a barn. Note how I used the light source to keep the building, the tree, and a strip of foreground grasses well-lit. However, I avoided lighting other portions of the frame – and as a result, the image is a lot more dramatic!
30 seconds | f/8

Once you’ve prepared your light-painting gear, it’s time to think about the best camera settings for light painting. While there’s certainly room for experimentation, these are the settings that I regularly use for my own shots, and they’ll serve you well on your nighttime photoshoots, too.

  • Camera mode – If possible, shoot in Manual mode, which allows you to set your shutter speed and aperture independently. That way, you’ll have maximum control over your image exposures, and you’ll be able to make adjustments to achieve the exact effects you’re after.
  • Image quality – Set your camera’s image quality to RAW, which allows you to capture as much information as possible, and will give you a bit of extra leeway; for instance, if you underexpose your files, shooting in RAW will often allow you to recover missing shadow detail. (This is not a necessity, but it is an important recommendation.) These days, even smartphones offer the option to switch to RAW!
  • White balance – If your frame includes artificial light sources and you want to balance them out, choose either the Incandescent or Tungsten white balance setting. However, sometimes experimenting with other white balance settings can produce some interesting light effects. Daylight white balance is a good starting point if you want to maintain the original colors of your artificial light sources. I don’t recommend using Auto White balance because it’ll sometimes fail to give you natural colors – however, as long as you shoot in RAW (see above!) you’ll have complete flexibility to make white balance adjustments in post-processing, so you don’t need to stress too much.
  • ISO – Use a low ISO, such as 100, in order to ensure minimal noise (and the highest possible image quality!).
  • F-stop or aperture – Stop down to f/8 and beyond for more depth of field; using a narrow aperture also enables you to use a longer shutter speed, which comes in handy when doing more complicated light painting photos.
  • Shutter speed – Set your shutter speed to Bulb mode, then choose your final shutter speed based on the amount of ambient light in the scene.
  • LCD brightness – Lower the brightness of your LCD preview. The normal setting is too bright at night and will make your image look nice when it’s actually underexposed.
  • HistogramUse your histogram to check your exposure, either before you’ve captured the image or after you’ve taken the shot. If the histogram skews heavily to the left, your image is likely too dark.
  • Blinkies – Turn on your blinkies (a highlight warning) to help you determine if your highlights are exposed properly. It is perfectly acceptable for your brightest highlights to be slightly clipped if the rest of your image is properly exposed.
  • Image stabilization – Set this to Off. With your camera on a tripod, having image stabilization turned on can actually cause blurring in your image.
  • Long exposure noise reduction – My recommended setting is Off. This can be set to On, but it will cause your exposure time to double (because the camera takes a second black exposure to help remove noise). If your camera is set to a reasonable ISO, the noise level will be low enough in most cases that in-camera noise reduction is unnecessary. Still, it is a good idea to check your noise levels in advance, and some older cameras may require this setting to be On to get acceptable noise levels.
still life flowers
This vase was backlit with a candle, and I painted the flowers with a small penlight.
30 seconds | f/16 | ISO 100.

Whew! That was a long list of settings, but I wanted it to be comprehensive and leave no room for doubt. Like I said, you don’t have to copy my light-painting settings exactly, but if you just want to get started taking great images, they’ll definitely serve you well.

How to create amazing light painting photography: the basics

Once you have your gear and a good understanding of your camera settings, it’s time to delve into the fun stuff: actually creating a light-painted photo. This will vary slightly depending on the type of image you want to produce, but here is the general workflow I recommend:

Step 1: Set up your camera, then expose for the ambient light

The first step – before the actual light painting – is to compose your shot, then lock your camera down on the tripod.

Next, determine the correct exposure for any ambient light in your scene. You can start by checking your camera’s exposure bar and aiming for an image that is well-exposed (or slightly underexposed, depending on the look you want to create). However, you’ll also probably want to take some test shots, because your camera’s meter can be unreliable.

Unfortunately, determining base exposures can be time-consuming when you’re experimenting with three- to four-minute shutter speeds. (Do you really want to wait while your camera completes a 360-second exposure, only to find that it’s far too bright and that you need to try again?)

Here’s a little trick that can help expedite this process:

  1. Set your ISO to six stops higher than the ISO you plan to ultimately use. For example, if you are planning to shoot at ISO 100, set your ISO to 6400.
  2. With your camera set to ISO 6400, experiment to find out how many seconds you will need for a nice exposure. Every second of exposure at ISO 6400 is equal to one minute at ISO 100.
  3. Once you’ve determined the proper shutter speed at ISO 6400, set your ISO back to 100 and prepare your exposure in minutes instead of seconds. (Many camera’s lowest ISO is 200, so 6 stops higher would be ISO 12800. And if your camera’s lowest ISO is 50, six stops higher would be ISO 3200.)
person with arms raised to the sky
A 30-second exposure at ISO 800. For this image, I increased the ISO to shorten the exposure to 30 seconds, because a longer exposure would cause a noticeable blur on the stars. Light painting was applied from the front of the subject, without letting the light shine directly back at the camera.

Once you’ve determined a reasonable exposure for your “base” scene (i.e., the scene lit by ambient light), then you can continue:

Step 2: Focus using a light

Correctly focusing your camera is an important step – and in the dark, it can sometimes be difficult to pull off, because your camera won’t know where to set the focus point in a pitch-black scene. 

The simplest way to get perfect focus is to shine a light source at a spot in your scene that you’ve determined must be in focus. Then, using autofocus, focus on the light.

Finally, switch your lens from autofocus to manual focus (so that your focus point won’t change).

But remember: If you move the camera, you must turn your autofocus back on and refocus. So make sure that you definitely like your composition before you proceed with step three:

Step 3: Trigger the camera shutter, and paint the scene with light!

At this point, you should have determined your exposure time, and your camera should be focused on your subject. That means you can begin your exposure and start painting! 

Use your cable release or remote to trigger your shutter button. If your camera is set to Bulb mode – and it generally needs to be, unless you’re doing a relatively short exposure – your shutter will remain open until you press the release again. Use your stopwatch, or the timer on your phone, to time the exposure length.

Then, once the exposure has begun, turn on your lights and use them to paint the scene. You can use the beam to illuminate interesting details that would otherwise be hidden in the shadows, you can use it to paint streaks or words in the frame, or you can use it to bring out bright colors. Here, I painted the bus from the outside, and I put a light inside to make the bus interior glow:

1971 VW bus light painting
This vintage 1971 bus was painted using one LED flashlight on the outside, with a second light inside to illuminate the bus interior.

Light painting is subjective, so you’re free to approach it however you like. But here is some advice for getting the most impressive results:

  • Paint from the sides – Don’t just stand behind your camera and wave the light across your image. Painting flat surfaces from the side will allow you to bring out textures.
  • Use lots of different angles – For instance, when painting the ground, hold the beam low and pan the light along the floor. This will keep the ground from appearing flat, and it’ll bring out all the details of the surface. Also, by adding light from many angles, the resulting image will have an interesting three-dimensional effect.
  • Don’t stand between the camera and your light source – If you do this, you will show up as a silhouetted ghost in the final photo!
  • Wear dark, non-reflective clothing and keep moving – Again, you do not want to appear as a ghost in your image!
  • Use a flashlight with a red filter when you check your camera to make adjustments. The red light will keep you from ruining your night vision.
  • Different surfaces are going to react to light differently – Wood surfaces may require more light than shiny surfaces such as metal or glass, because rougher surfaces absorb more light than smooth surfaces.
  • Keep your light moving – Move the beam in slow strokes to add lots of light and make faster strokes in areas where less light is needed.
  • Paint in up-and-down or side-to-side strokes, just like you’d work with real paint.
  • You probably won’t get the shot you want on the first try – It may take multiple attempts to get an image that you’re satisfied with. For this reason, try to keep track of how much light you add to each surface. Develop a plan so that you can make adjustments to each exposure until you get the image you’ve visualized.

A beginner’s guide to light painting: final words

I’ve shared lots of tips and techniques to get you started with light painting, but there is so much more you can do with the medium! Be creative and fearless about trying new things.

Once you start to get the hang of light painting, there is no limit to the images you can create – all you need is a camera and a few creative light sources. 

Now over to you:

Which of these light painting tips is your favorite? Have you tried light painting before? Do you have any additional tips or tricks for great light painted photos? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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