Light painting featured

Try This: Light Painting

So I’ve created a new category for my blog: “Try This“. Here I’m going to post occasional articles about projects for you to try, with tips and ideas. Make it a weekend project, or a day project, whatever you like. Tonight I’m going to suggest you try Light Painting. There are a number of different interpretations to this, but the easiest thing to do is essentially to get a torch, put the camera on a tripod with a long exposure, and move the torch around in front of the camera. How easy is it?

If you’re comfortable with manual camera controls, then it should be easy (and why haven’t you tried it already?), if not it may take a bit of practice, so here goes with a bit of a guide…

What do you need?

You will need a camera that enables you to manually control the exposure and aperture (ideally an SLR, although many compact cameras do give you these controls), a tripod to hold the camera still, and a small torch of some sort. You will also need darkness, ideally outside because if you’re in a small room then you may get unintended results with reflected light.

What do you do?

Get started by setting yourself a scene in a dark garden or very dark room. You will need to get the camera focused which can be tricky in the dark. one way to do this is to point both the camera and the torch at an object that is the same distance away to which you are going to stand, and depressing the shutter button half way. Using the torch like this helps the camera to see what it needs to focus on. Once this is done, you can switch the lens to manual focus so that the camera does not try and refocus while it can’t see anything. From now on, ensure you don’t adjust the focus ring on the lens, and ensure that you and your torch are the same distance away from the camera as the object you previously focused on.

Next, we need to set the exposure and aperture setting. If you’re not sure about these, I won’t go into detail here; there are plenty of books and online tutorials that will be able to explain this much better than me. basically, though, the smaller the aperture, or larger the ‘ƒ stop’ number, the longer the exposure time needs to be to let the same amount of light in. If it’s too low and the exposure is too short, you won’t get time to do the painting with your torch. With my images I used a 10 second exposure, with an aperture of ƒ22. This meant that the lightbulb of the torch showed up nicely, and gave me enough time to paint. You will need to experiment, because these settings will vary depending on the lens type, zoom and all sorts of other factors (including the brightness of the torch). Make sure the camera’s flash is switched off, the shot will not work.

First attempt: drawing lines, lines going out of picture
First attempt: drawing lines, lines going out of picture

Now we can try taking a picture: use the camera’s self timer function to take a picture, get into position with your torch, and while the camera is taking the picture, point the torch at it and move it around.


Now, let’s look at the results. You may find it’s worked perfectly first time, but if it hasn’t, change the settings and try again. You may want a completely dark background, so if you do and some of it is still visible, try setting the ƒ-stop number to a higher number, keeping the exposure time the same. You can also reduce the ISO setting, the camera’s film speed equivalent, to the lowest you can set it to, for example ISO 100. This is essentially reducing the camera’s sensitivity to light. If your torchlight is too dull, increase the ISO or reduce the ƒ-stop number. Always experiment with single-step adjustments so you can see how it’s affecting your results. Remember also you can change the speed you move the torch.

This doesn’t need any special equipment, if you have a camera, check the user manual for manual exposure and aperture settings, if you can do that, then that’s all you really need. If you haven’t got a tripod, rest the camera on a pile of books on a table so it’s at the right height (I’m not taking responsibility if it falls off!). Tripods are very cheap, and it’s worth investing in one if you haven’t got one, even if only so you can be in your own group shots.

Taking it further

"I love u" light painting, I used a dry erase marker to colour in the torch lens
“I love u” light painting, I used a dry erase marker to colour in the torch lens

Now you’ve mastered this, try a bit more experimenting. Control the light by turning the torch on and off while you’re drawing, in the same way as you’d lift a pen off the paper when writing. Get coloured sweet wrappers that let some light through to stick or hold over the torch so you can colour your lines.

Light painted heart, the torch lens was coloured with a red pen
Light painted heart, the torch lens was coloured with a red pen

In my coloured examples, I simply used a drywipe marker and coloured over the lens of the torch. Use two torches, or use even more torches with more people. Practice this now, and then use sparklers on Bonfire Night.

Why not position the camera further away, and get a several people to help. Position several people side by side, each with a torch, and get each person to draw a letter so you can make longer words. If you’re drawing letters or writing words remember to draw them backwards, or you will need to mirror the image afterwards, and if there is more than one person, make sure you’re all doing it the same way!

Have fun, I’d love to see your results; share them on the Facebook page. Need advice? Post a comment here and I’ll see how I can help.

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