How To Make Killer Light Painting Photos Today!

Please click on the photo to view it larger and more clearly!  Thanks!

M-Class Planet

Light Painting
First, let’s get this out of the way.  I love light painting.  It’s a creative, active, experimental sort of photography.  And a lot of fun.  The hours melt away.  But what is it?  It’s a long exposure photographic technique in which the photographer moves a light source, – or sometimes the camera itself – to create the exposure. I like to use light painting to illuminate objects at night, lighting from outside the frame, although I also sometimes like to “paint” light into the lens as well.  Since we’re just gonna show you one photo, I’ll select one that shows both!

Stuff We Need
– We need a camera.  But you knew that, didn’t you?  And ideally, one that allows you to determine how long to keep the shutter open, and preferably, one with Bulb Mode, and accepts a remote shutter release.  I use a DSLR, but I’ve had friends use a compact digital camera or film cameras to do this.  What matters is that you can determine the length you wish to keep the shutter open.

– A remote shutter release.  Why?  To avoid any movement of the camera.  Even minuscule movement can ruin your photo.

– A stable surface.   If you’re gonna leave your shutter open for several minutes, you’re need a rock solid surface.  Out in the field, ideally, you’ll want to use a good tripod.  Giotto, Manfrotto, Gitzo, and others make good tripods.  I use a Feisol.  I like lightweight carbon fiber tripods because I do a lot of walking around and hiking.  As always, your mileage may vary, yes it may.  Now, if you’re gonna move the camera around, that’s a ‘nother thing, but today, I’m discussing techniques involving keeping the camera perfectly still.  If it’s windy and your tripod has a center hook, hang your camera bag or some such thing in the middle to further stabilize it so that camera that someone purchased for your previous birthday doesn’t fall on the ground and shatter.  That would suck.

– A light source or three.  Flashlights, headlamps, car headlights, glow sticks, matches, candles, LED lights, stuff like that.

One of my flashlights is an absurdly bright flashlight, a Dorcy spotlight.  I can light paint stuff from 10, 20 meters away. The Dorcy is almost like holding a car headlight in your hand.  Whazaaaaaaahhhhhhh!!!  Fun!!  And another thing I like to use is El Wire.  El Wire?  Yeah, El Wire.  This is not Spanish for wire, no it isn’t.  It’s short for electroluminescent wire.  El wire is a copper wire coated in a phosphor, you see, and when you add juice from batteries, voila, it starts to glow!  And in different colors!  If you don’t get one for light painting, you could go to a rave or tie it around as part of a costume!!  Oh, the fun!  And this stuff is easily available online, including  And it’s cheap. Cheap.  Fun. Artistic.  Whaddaya waitin’ for?

Camera Settings:  
As mentioned, I use a DSLR.  You’ll want to use Manual Mode so you can control the exposure time.  Flip that to whatever you want.  For this particular photo, I used Bulb Mode.  This means that if I lock my remote shutter release, my shutter will stay open until I unlock the remote shutter release.  Cool, eh?  But you can also set your camera to 15, 20, 25, 30 seconds, whatever it has.

 How The Heck Do You Focus In The Dark?
Well, look, if you’re one of those persnickety photographers who actually wishes to have their subject in focus, then read on!!  The easiest way to do this is to use your camera’s auto focus.  I know you’re thinking, “Buh-buh-but it’s dark!  And my camera’s gonna hunt!  It can’t focus when it’s really dark!!!”  And you’d be right!  But no worries.  Since you’re all ready to light paint anyway, take one of those really bright lights you have, shine it at the subject, and let your camera’s AF do its thing.  When it has focused, carefully carefully switch your camera’s auto focus off, switching it instead to Manual Focus, so that it’s pre-focused.  Voila.  Done.  See, wasn’t that easy?

Look how much you’ve learned already!  You know how to set your camera, how to focus, you know how to light up your subject in the dark!!  So next, let’s check out a photo that shows both light painting outside the frame – illuminating the subject – as well as shining not one but two kinds of light into the lens directly.  I used several light sources.  Let’s discuss how I used each one!

1.  Rings Around The Stone:  You can see three red rings around the stone, yes you can.  These are from my Energizer headlamp.  I set it to the red light setting, held it up high, and walked around the stone three times!  Wheeee!!  Why three?  Uh, why not?  For representing past, present, and future?

2.  Illuminating The Stone:  I took that big yellow Dorcy spotlight, ran up to some rocks some 10 meters away and to the left, and pointed it at the rock, waving it around to illuminate it evenly.  I think about how I want the stone and so forth to be illuminated, and in this case, since it was a full moon, I wanted to emulate how the moonlight was falling on the rock so it would look very natural.  This giant flashlight is bright, so it doesn’t take much to light up the rock, even from 10 meters away.

3.  Blue Mist:  That’s where the El Wire comes in.  My El Wire 2.75 meters of glowing blue goodness. I activated it at the battery pack, then waved it around the base of the stone, almost as if I were sweeping the sand, waving it up and down.  If you kept the wire still for a while, the shape of the wire would “imprint” on your image.  I wanted more of an otherworldly mist, so I moved it around.

This whole process took 199 seconds.  If you’re bad at math, that’s three minutes and 19 seconds.  And it went by quickly!!!  I ran and moved around a bit.  Active, creative, fun photography.  And moving around was doubly good because this was taken in the high California desert in winter, and the temperature was at about freezing.  But moving around kept me warm.

I hope this inspires you to try your own light painting and long exposure photos.  Take night sky photos, light paint, do long exposures.  Do all three.  Experiment.  Have fun!

Note:  I originally wrote this for Better Photographs!

Title: M- Class Planet
Info: Nikon D7000, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens, Feisol tripod. Exposure time 199 seconds at f/11, ISO 200. Combination of natural lighting from the full moon and light painting with a flashlight, a red headlamp held high, and blue electroluminescent wire.
Photographer: Ken Lee
Location: Joshua Tree National Park, California, USA.

This is Ken Lee’s photography website:  http://www.kenleephotography

This is Ken Lee’s Photography Facebook Page:

This is Ken Lee’s Photography Blog, featuring long exposure, night sky, star trails, light painting photographs:

This is a link Ken Lee’s Virtual Photo Album, featuring more night sky, long exposure, and light painting photos from his trip to Joshua Tree National Park in California in December 2012:

Note:  I originally wrote this for someone across the pond.  They use this system that we Americans call the metric system.  Instead of odd arbitrary things like “12 inches to a foot” and “three feet in a yard”, their system is logically based on ten.  Ten millimeters in a centimeter.  A hundred centimeters in a meter.  See?  Easy!

But anyway, I used the term “meters” here.  Divide by three and you’ll have the approximate amount of feet for the distances discussed.  See?  Easy.  Now you can show off and impress your American, and who knows, maybe impress that friendly European that sits across from you in in your classroom or cubicle.





4 thoughts on “How To Make Killer Light Painting Photos Today!

  1. Very neat, cool and informative. Did you have to mask your body out from running around the rock or was it already transparent enough at 199 seconds?

    1. Todd, thank you very much, and thanks for commenting!

      Great question! I did not have to mask my body out while running around the rock. My movements were not recorded at 199 seconds. Even while walking, as I did when I was “light painting” the bottom with El Wire, I don’t show up in the image.

  2. Todd, I had the same question. It is wild you don’t see Ken’s illuminated head or hands or shadows or something. I can’t wait to try this up here in the Rockies and see what pops.

    1. Scott, thanks! It’s amazing what you can get away with when you are moving around. For this photo in particular, I was doing a lot of moving around, between the three red circles, the “light painted” El Wire at the bottom, which took a while, and running around in the back so I could shine the flashlight on the rock. But things don’t really register if you are walking in front of a camera, particularly at night, unless you have a light source, which will register fairly readily.

      This technique of “making people disappear” is often used in architectural photography. The photographer will use a neutral density filter and make a long exposure photo of a building, rendering passerby invisible.

      I hope your photos in the Rockies come out really well!!!!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s