Light photography, also called light painting, is using long exposures on your camera to pick up patterns and colors on a picture that are made as the light source moves. Done first in the late 1800s and brought to the public eye by LIFE magazine when Gjon Mili photographed Pablo Picasso’s “light drawings”. Using a flashlight he “sketched” profiles and figures in the air, multiples of himself appearing as a ghost in some frames.
Since light photography usually takes place at night, the course, Night Photography Unlocked – Beginner’s Course walks you through every kind of camera, including smartphones, and the methods you use to produce perfect pictures in low light.
If you’d like to read on, this simple introduction will cover the different things you can do with light photography.
For some stellar examples, the following pictures illustrate creative capture of light photography. All of them are shared under the Creative Commons license and attributed accordingly. There are other great pictures over on Designer Daily’s blog and Digital Photography School.
Pointing a camera skyward (or out the window of the International Space Station, if you’re lucky enough to catch that ride, like astronaut Don Pettit) will capture the trails of stars as they move across the night sky.
These pictures are all great examples. But how do you get that cool luminous effect?
There are three things you really need to make great light photos.
- A camera. This is obvious, but you also need a way to control the shutter speed, which is how long the camera stays open. A full blown SLR or DSLR isn’t necessary, but at least one that has a way to keep the shutter open for a set time. iPhones, Android phones and Windows phones have apps that allow you to take long-exposure photos, too.
- Some kind of tripod to keep your camera steady. When the shutter of the camera is left open, any movement will become blurred, not just the light. Kind of like accidentally moving your camera when a picture is taken. Everything is out of focus. This makes a tripod necessary.
- Light sources. These can be handheld for intentional “painting” or “drawing” with the light, or they can be things that are moving by in the background, like car headlights, lamps on bikes, stars, etc.
This is the key to successful light photography. Without it, you may get some interesting short trails of light, but without the right length of time, you won’t be able to create anything more substantial like graffiti or spirographic patterns.
For a digital camera, you will need to make some manual adjustments, away from the auto settings. Even in low light, if the camera changes these settings itself, they often aren’t enough for the cool effects you need.
For most DSLR’s you’ll need to adjust a whole list of things in order to get the settings you need for light photography, but for now, the shutter speed and ISO are the easiest to look at. These are hidden away under the Manual menu on your camera.
Essentially the shutter speed is how fast or long the camera opens to capture the image. In a setting with a lot of light, a fast shutter speed is fine. Most off-the-shelf cameras have one speed, ideal for outdoor settings. The longer the shutter stays open, the more light hits the sensor (or film) at the back of the camera. So, for low-light situations, such as the ones needed for light photography, longer is better.
ISO is how fast a film (or sensor) will capture light. As the light from an image moves through the lens into the camera, the sensitivity allows the camera to gather as much (or as little) light as needed. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the film or sensor. This means, a higher ISO can capture more light faster in a low-light setting.
This means a higher ISO and a longer shutter setting for longer exposure will capture the kind of image you want for light photography.
For a long list of settings to change, particularly for astrophotography, you can check out this long list.
The class offered here, Ditch Auto – Start Shooting in Manual, will teach you the basics of getting into the technical areas of your camera, instead of treating it like a point-and-shoot. With this class you can learn how to adjust your exposure times by changing the shutter speed, among other things.
The Art of Mobile Photography has great lessons regarding phography basics. Even though it uses an iPhone for the hardware, the photography instructions can be carried over to many formats.
For an in depth iPhone course, you can also take iPhone Photography Secrets. It has instructions on successfully using the hardware, as well as detailed app recommendations and tutorials.
Speaking of apps, Slow Shutter Cam is highly rated and reviewed on the App Store for the quality of the long exposure pictures it delivers on the iPhone. For Android users, an app that’s highly rated on Google Play because of its many options, including long exposures, is Camera FV-5 Lite.
For light graffiti or writing, a handheld light source is, of course, necessary. A flashlight or glow stick would work for this. If the light of the flashlight is too bright, it may create a glare or lens flare as you move it around so experiment a little to see how well it achieves the effect you would like. If the light is too bright, there are ways to make it diffuse (not so intense).
When you set up your camera, use a 30 second exposure. It’s probably also a good idea to have a timer set up for the release so you can get into place before it clicks. Practice some. If it’s a word you’re writing, make sure you know what it should look like. Also remember to write backwards, since you’ll need to be behind your words, facing the lens. Practice so that you won’t waste motion or just “freehand” it. If it’s a picture you’re trying to draw, practice the lines and how big. Like the pictures above, follow the lines and structure.
Once you’re comfortable and confident you have the motions down, push that button and do your thing. The great thing about living in this digital age is the immediate feedback. No sending off film or developing it yourself and waiting around to see if that picture looks the way we wanted! Even a master like Picasso didn’t have that luxury when he did his light writing in 1949!
So if you need to redraw/rewrite your graffiti, try again. Maybe even mess with exposure times of different lengths or light balance while you’re at it. See what you come up with.
This is a neat way to create a “ball” of light in a dark photo, like in this picture by Ian Hobson.
All you need is a string of lights, like Christmas lights. Battery operated ones are best, since you’ll need freedom of movement. You won’t want all of them to show, so cover the ones you want to hide individually with duct tape. Gather the ones you do want to be the light source together like a bouquet of flowers and tape them so the lights are all pointing in the same direction.
Once you have them set up and taped, completely covering the ones you want to hide (check for light bleed!) then you can twirl them in a circle. That’s it. Stand in one spot and swing them around and around, moving the angle they spin in to create that 3D globe effect.
There are some great eerie photographs of light orbs just floating in dark forests or landscapes. You can use gels or cellophane to color the bulbs too, making for cool multicolor lines on the orb.
This is more advanced and requires a bit more effort and supplies to create, but there are some spectacular effects to be made by rigging a wheel with lights.
This effect comes from the lights affixed to the rim or the spokes of the wheel. You can use the same kind of string of lights you use to make the swinging orb effect.
In order to make a light wheel, you (obviously) need a wheel of some kind. This can be a bicycle wheel, hula hoop, a barrel hoop, something that you can affix the lights to and turn.
Use tape to stick the lights to the wheel, along the spokes or the inside of the rim. Make sure you space them out at regular intervals, evenly along the circle’s circumference.
If you are using some kind of wheel with spokes, like a bicycle wheel or maybe a spare jogging stroller wheel, you can add an axle to hold and spin. Make sure to tape the batteries inside the spokes, not on the handle, or else you’ll tangle your wires and there will be no more lights.
When you’re ready to take the picture, you can spin the wheel an move it. The lights will create cool patterns as they get captured by the camera. Like this photo:
Or you can hold the wheel still and move it away from the camera, creating a sci-fi light tunnel effect a la 2001: A Space Odyssey. Run around the landscape making spirographic light, outlining your path. There are so many unique ideas out there to create and otherworldly scene of disembodied light trails and shapes.
Once you get a basic understanding of the methods behind these techniques, as well as others, it’s up to your imagination what you will make. Outline figures, bodies as they move, make a neon light animal, write a message to a loved one. The pictures are like magic, but are quite simple to create.
To jump right into the techniques talked about here involving long exposures, you can check out this class, Long Exposure Photography. Step-by-step instructions on setup and also photo editing after capturing that shot, this class is deep and covers it all.