Painting With Light

This tutorial aims to show you how to create lighting effects using analog/ traditional “in camera” techniques.

Thankfully there is so much you can do within Photoshop that sometimes it feels easier to add filters and layer masks digitally than using simple traditional techniques “in camera”. Understanding how exposure works will enable you to take your photography further and help you discover the art of taking images at a whole new level. ‘Painting With Light’ or ‘Light Painting’ is a phrase commonly used to describe a method of moving a hand-held light source over a subject during a long exposure.

However “Painting With Light” does in fact, describe the very method of exposure. Digital or film images are made by exposing light on to a light-sensitive area, where that image becomes recorded via reflecting/ bouncing light from a subjects surface.

All Photographs in their very essence are Light Paintings.

I’ve briefly explained “Painting With Light” is a technique used to create interesting lighting effects during a single exposure. This method is captured by holding the cameras shutter open for a longer than average amount of time and then moving a light source about as the camera is recording (exposing) the image. The result is a swirl of light tracing the route taken by the light source until the shutter is closed. Using a long exposure does require low or zero ambient light, such as night-time or in a blacked-out room, a tripod to reduce camera shake and a Shutter Release Cable if you have one (or you can use a digital remote or the cameras own self timer).

Equipment Needed

The gear you’ll need to paint with light

You might be able to use a slower shutter speed with your smaller less manual camera however, you’re unlikely to get the same level of control when it comes to exposure as you would with an SLR. Choosing the right lens depends entirely on your subject, if you’re shooting from a distance then use a long lens 100mm – 200mm, if you’re close, use a wider lens 24 – 70mm… simples!

Hand held light source

This can be absolutely anything from a small mag light to a giant spotlight, you can even use a cigarette lighter, sparkler, fireworks, glow sticks, torches and so on… basically anything that gives off a good beam or spread of continuous light.

Flash Gun

You may or may not use this but its good to have it in your kit bag, I recommend using a flash gun that can deliver a powerful burst of light. In some cases you may want to illuminate a large area or subject in low to zero ambient light, so go with the notion, bigger is better.


Essential piece of kit, because you’re typically using a long exposure and you’ll want to reduce camera shake. However, sometimes incorporating camera shake might add to your own technique, but I prefer to use a tripod, experimenting is a the best method here, it’s also a lot of fun.

Shutter Release Cable or Remote Control

Using a Shutter Release Cable will reduce camera shake once again and allow you to make adjustments to exposure without touching the camera. Why use one? well imagine your camera is set up just the way you want it on your tripod, millimeter perfect composition and then you go fiddling with the settings, this may cause the camera to shift a little each time you touch it. Also, due to the nature of long exposure, the camera will start recording (exposing) the very fraction-of-a-second you open the shutter, so even the depression of the shutter release (with your finger) can cause slight camera sake to occur. Using a remote control or cable will fire the shutter without shake becoming a factor. However you don’t have to use a cable if you don’t have one, just flip the camera on to its own Self Timer and shoot away.

Types of light painting

Techniques to paint with light
Light Trails

Painting with light, examples of light trails

This technique is both really simple and loads of fun, you’ll need a hand held light source, a tripod, your SLR and plenty of time and space to experiment. Illustrating with a light source is best done in near darkness (pitch black) however you can get the same results in just very low light (dusk). Set your SLR to a small aperture (f-stop), something like f/16 – f/22 and choose the longest shutter speed you have, most SLRs have an exposure of 30 seconds, if you have the Bulb setting and a shutter release cable or remote you can use that too, you’ll also get far better results if you choose an ISO of 100 or lower. The principle here is to keep the shutter open long enough to expose the brightest light only and underexpose the everything else.

Compose and focus your shot by shining a light on an object in the center of your frame, then switch off your cameras Auto Focus, we do this because the camera will attempt to focus on its nearest object when you fire the shutter but, you’ll be in near darkness, thus the camera wont be able to focus on something it cant see. Fire the shutter. You’ll hear the shutter open, now during your 30 second exposure you can draw shapes in the air with your light within the frame you have composed, go crazy, use different coloured lights, I’ve found LEDs to be the best. After 30 seconds you’ll hear the shutter close, check to see what you have recored and marvel in the magic! If you’re seeing a too darker picture then open your aperture by a couple of f-stops, if it’s too bright then stop it down a little more if you can.

Painting With Light

Photography light pianting examples

This is a fantastic effect to get a dreamy quality to your photos, its totally adaptable, only your imagination is the limitation here. In the same way as creating light trails, you’ll need to set your camera on a tripod and compose (and focus) your shot in the light, remember to turn off your Auto Focus when you’re done. Choose an aperture that isn’t as small as last time, something like f/8 – f/11 but, again use a shutter speed of 30 seconds, this will give you plenty of time to paint in your subject, also use an ISO of 100 or lower. The reason we use a larger aperture this time is because our light source will be, bouncing back towards the camera (from the subject) instead of shining directly in to the lens, hence the light will not be as strong/ bright.

Switch off any ambient light, fire you’re shutter and begin to shine your torch over areas of your subject, as you do so you’re literally “painting in with light” those areas that you want to be exposed. I recommend using a small mag-light or a torch that has a focused beam, this way you have more control over the areas you’re painting in and reduce any unwanted light spill.

After 30 seconds, check your exposure and adjust your aperture to allow more or less light in to your camera. This effect works great with static objects, however there is no reason you can’t use a living subject, it may move during the exposure but, this may add to the overall effect!

Rear Curtain Sync / Second Curtain Sync

Rear sync, light trails and long exposure

What we have here is a nifty little setting on most SRLs, it’s a flash compensation method to allow blur and freezing motion in one shot. Your camera is automatically set to 1st curtain sync or Front Curtain Sync (depending on how you want to describe it, they both mean the same thing), which mens the flash will fire in low light when the shutter is released. Doing so, as I’m sure you’ll know, freezes any motion in the frame however, if you use a slow shutter speed with Front Curtain Sync, you’ll get ambient light being recorded along with your frozen subject to boot. Choosing between Front (FCS) and Rear (RCS) Curtain Sync depends on what your looking for. FCS will cause a motion of light to be recorded in front of a frozen subject because the flash fires first as the photo is being exposed. RCS will cause a motion of light to be recorded behind the subject because the flash is firing after the shutter has been released (the flash fires just before the shutter closes), a visual example may help here…

The ball is rolled away from the camera each time.

The ball is rolled away from the camera each time.

Using a combination of the Light Trails technique and RCS will give you fantastic effects. With a little organisation and plenty of experimentation, you can fire the flash gun hand held at your subject along with creating dramatic light trails in front and behind your subject. The great part of RCS and FCS is the ability to shoot both with a tripod and handheld, depending on your style, camera shake might add to the final image.



This technique is almost exactly the same as recording Light Trails. You’ll need a tripod for the best results here, use a low ISO (100 – 800 as a guide), and expose for the brightest available ambient light. For a good composition point the camera at the firework launch- site, compose some interesting static lighting at the bottom of the frame and allow enough space in the top two thirds for exploding fireworks. With a slow shutter speed you’ll be able to record many fireworks going off within one shot, hopefully the display will go on long enough to allow you to try many different compositions.

Star Trails

Image of star trails and tree, a long exposure

Star trails or Star Trail Photography is another method of long exposure during the dark hours but, this time the only available light source are stars. The camera is typically set up in a fixed position pointing at the North Star (if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere) or Pole Star (Sigma Octantis / South Star if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere) mounted on a sturdy tripod. The Camera is best set to an aperture of f/9 – f/16 and focused on the brightest stars, you’ll have to use the Bulb setting for exposure along with a shutter release cable or remote control, to allow for an exposure of 15 minutes to several hours. As the Earth rotates on its axis the stars continue to expose, creating lines in the nights sky.

I suggest using a lens that can allow for some foreground interest such as a 28mm – 70mm at the same time as giving you plenty of room for some night sky. It might sound obvious but, you’ll get better shots during a totally clear night, any cloud cover can spoil your shot. Also, get as far as you can from any light pollution (street, town, city lights), as this can spill over in to your exposure and might cause flare during your long exposure.