If you’ve ever taken shaky handheld pictures with a digital camera at night you’ve probably already been exposed to the concept of “light panting” where lines, shapes and patterns appear to take form in strings of light across your photograph. Using this concept and taking it an intentional step further with a little inspiration from Freddy W’s Light Warfare, it’s easy to “paint” your own words, designs, and images with light.
For this next tutorial, all you’ll need is a tripod, a camera with a variable extended exposure (anywhere from 20 seconds to 1 min should be fine) and an LED flashlight or comparable light source.
Step 1 – The Set Up: The set-up is fairly straightforward and simple. Find a scene at night where you want your “light painting” to take place and set up your camera & tripod. It’s best to find a place with an artificial light source such as a street lamp, flood light, lit up building window, etc. This will give you a point on which to focus your lens as well as create a dynamic shot.
If you’re shooting a scene with no artificial light source, you’ll find it nearly impossible to set your auto-focus. To remedy this, set up a temporary light source or have a friend hold a light (a basic cell phone screen will do) at the point where your painting will take place and focus your lens on that point. Hold the focus here and remove the artificial light before shooting. Alternatively you can use a manual focus, but this might be a challenge given the lack of light to actually see where your lens is focused.
*For those of you still learning the basics in the DSLR realm, note that a low-light lens (f1.4 – f1.8) is not required for this concept.
Step 2 – Adjusting Your Settings: Now that your picture is framed and the focus set, it’s time to take a few test shots to get your settings dialed-in. Normally, when shooting moving subjects in low light with no flash, a low aperture with a higher ISO is recommended to utilize a higher shutter speed and produce a crisp photograph. However, when taking these types of long exposures with a fixed camera, you’ll want to open your aperture to around f6-f10+ and drop the ISO to 100 to avoid overexposure.
Depending on how much time you wish to have to “light paint,” your aperture settings and shutter speed will vary, but as a general rule of thumb, shorter exposures require a lower aperture setting and longer exposures require a higher aperture setting.
When adjusting your settings, most modern DSLR cameras will give you a visible exposure readout to help guide you. If you’re exposure readout is low, try lowering the shutter speed (i.e. increasing the exposure time) and/or lower the aperture. If the exposure readout is high, increase the shutter speed (shorter exposure) and /or increase the aperture.
Check if your settings are adjusted correctly by taking a test shot, review to see if the image is under or overexposed and tweak your settings accordingly. Once everything is set we are ready for step 3.
*Settings used: F10 / ISO 100 / 25″ exposure
Step 3 - Light Painting: This is where your creativity comes in to play. Any number of light sources can be used as each will produce its own unique effect (as demonstrated in the behind the scenes video of Hennessy’s 2009 “Blended with Talent” campaign shot by Atton Conrad, London). Brighter light sources such as LEDs will paint much sharper, crisper lines, whereas standard flashlights will create a more washed out, broad stroke look and feel. For this project I used a simple LED flashlight on the back of my phone.
When ready, start the camera exposure and walk to where you wish to start painting (make sure your “light brush” is covered or off until you are ready to paint). When you’re in place, switch on your light source and begin drawing with your light faced towards the camera. To create line breaks, switch your light source off/on and begin a new line segment. From here it’s a lot of trial and error. If your lines are undefined, try “painting” slower or using a brighter light source (as stated above, LED’s work best for rapid motions and clear, crisp lines).
If you stood in place, you’ll notice a ghost-like image around your feet and lower legs. To eliminate this if you so desire, try moving around more.
You can do this by yourself or add in a group of friends to paint larger, more elaborate pictures. Play around with different light sources, colors, sizes and shapes until you find something you like and you’re all set to start creating your own “light paintings.”
Today I had the opportunity to design a new logo and album artwork for an up and coming Indy-Pop band Carraway. They’ll be performing live at The Roxy next month in support of their new EP “Bright Lights” soon to be available on iTunes.
Tentative Show Flier subject to change: