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How to do light painting photography

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Light painting is a fun photography technique that can put a unique spin on your images. It is the art of using handheld light sources to draw or selectively illuminate parts of a scene while the shutter of your camera is left opened. This technique dates back to 1889 when Étienne-Jules Marey and Georges Demeny attached incandescent bulbs to the joints of an assistant to trace human motion and created the first known light painting photograph, “Pathological Walk from in Front”.

Nikon D3100, f/8, 88 seconds, ISO 200, AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR

Nikon D3100, f/8, 88 seconds, ISO 200, AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR | Photo credit: Boro LR

MASTER THE BASICS

If you are new to photography, experimenting with light painting can be a great way to learn how to shoot in manual mode. By shooting in a dark environment during a long exposure, the light trails or streaks of the light source will be captured in your image. Light painting requires a slow shutter speed, such as one second or more. A variety of light sources can also be used, from simple flashlights to glow sticks, candles, and even fireworks.

Nikon D810, f/9, 45 seconds, ISO 100, AF-S NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4G ED VR

Nikon D810, f/9, 45 seconds, ISO 100, AF-S NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4G ED VR | Photo credit: Gunnar Heilmann

TAKE PRECAUTIONS

When dealing with flammable equipment, please ensure that you stay clear of anything that can easily catch fire. Wear protective clothing, cover your hair, and keep your camera gear away from the flames. Always remember to extinguish the flame once you’re done.

500px Photo ID: 100188507 - Dinosaur Light Painting in front of prehistoric rocks at Pa Hin Ngam national park, Chaiyaphum province, Thailand.

Nikon D810, f/4, 63 seconds, ISO 2000, AF-S NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4G ED VR | Photo credit: Jkboy Jatenipat

RECOMMENDED EQUIPMENT AND SETTINGS

To experiment with light painting, you will need a camera with manual controls capabilities, a tripod, and a light source. First, decide on how you want to illuminate your scene. Find a location or simply start out in a completely dark room. If you are shooting outdoors, ensure that you are not doing this near any other light sources such as street lights.

  • Mount your camera on a tripod. You should try to keep your camera as still as possible to avoid any unwanted light streaks.
  • If you do not have a tripod, simply place your camera on a steady surface.
  • Set it to manual or bulb mode and use a long shutter speed such as 5 to 10 seconds. However, the duration of your shutter speed will also depend on how long you need to capture all the movements.
  • Adjust your aperture settings to how bright your light source is. The brighter the light source, the smaller the aperture setting should be. If you are alone, switch on timer mode on your camera.
  • As you will be shooting in a dark environment, you should set your ISO to the lowest possible, such as 100. Take some sample shots and see how they turn out.
  • Next, you will need to focus your image. Set your lens to manual focus and focus on where you will be light painting.
  • Once you are ready, press the shutter button and start painting!

While you are painting, always remember to place the light source in front of you and never step in front of it. If you are spelling out letters, always spell them backwards, as if you were writing them on a mirror. Whatever you do, remember to get creative and have fun!

If you want a more hands-on approach, make sure you book for our Painting with Light Workshop in Cape Town, Durban, P.E, Centurion or Bloemfontein – click here

A 62 second long exposure to create a glowing orb. Great fun to create.

Nikon D5200, f/8, 62 seconds, ISO 250, AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR | Photo credit: Thomas Kendall