Lightpainting Tutorial

Lightpainting is the technique of using a small hand-held light, usually a flashlight, to light a subject during a long exposure. It gives the photographer enormously subtle control over the way the subject is lit, but does require that the subject remain relatively static during the exposure. This is fine if you’re shooting an inanimate object, but can be a challenge when shooting a model. To get started you need a subject, a camera that can handle long exposures, a tripod, a flashlight, and a room that can be made relatively dark. It doesn’t have to be pitch-black, but if it’s too light you’ll find the unlit portions of your image won’t be completely black.

Click the images that follow to expand.

 Mount your camera on the tripod and get the model into a pose that she (or he) can hold for an extended period without straining. Unsupported standing poses are almost impossible as the model will sway very slightly, blurring the image – reclining is probably the easiest to start with. The background doesn’t need to be black, but keeping it free of clutter that might catch the light does help.

 Before attempting an exposure, use the flashlight to plan the movement of the light – it helps to do this with the room lights off. Decide where you want light, and where you want shadow, and practice the sweep of the flashlight required. As the camera shutter will be locked open, the exposure is controlled by the aperture, the distance of the light to the model and the speed you move it. Holding the light at different distances will vary both the brightness and the effect produced. Move the light at about 6 inches a second to start with – move it too slowly and you’ll catch too much movement – too quickly and the results won’t be bright enough.

 Once you’re happy with the required movement, switch out the room lights and open the camera shutter. If possible, set the camera to “B” and use a locking cable-release to do this – that way you can close the shutter again as soon as you’re finished. If not, set a long exposure time – say, 30 seconds – and make sure you can get your exposure finished within that time. Get into position beside the model, make the exposure, and close the shutter (or wait for it to close). If you’re shooting with a digital camera, check the result of the shot and repeat until you get it right. This will take some time and patience.

 When lighting the model (or background), be aware of your own position relative to the camera. If you get between the two, you’ll block the camera’s view of the light and leave a dark “hole” on the image. Similarly, if you’re in shot during the exposure, as my leg is in the first two shots in this sequence, you should make a point of moving at least once during the exposure. This will reduce the chance of you leaving a dark patch in the image where light reflected from the model was not able to illuminate the floor. The camera only sees the portion of the scene that’s lit, so you can be in front of unlit areas so long as you move before lighting them.

 You also need to be aware of the position of the light. So long as it’s kept pointing away from the camera, the light itself won’t appear in the image. If you allow it to point backwards like this, it will leave a streak in the image, and if shone directly into the lens, will probably cause lens-flare. Lastly, when lighting a model, try not to go over the same area twice with the light. If you do you’ll probably get a double image. Slight movements are inevitable, so the less you emphasise them the better.

 With enough time, and a patient enough model, you should end up with something like this. The main light comes from the right as shown above, but I then switched the light off and moved around to light her face from the other side. Give it a go and see what you come up with. If you do try it out and produce something interesting (or have a question), leave a comment with a link or let me know where it’s posted so that I can have a look.

DaveMc, May 2007.


18 comments on “Lightpainting Tutorial
  1. Sarah says:

    Your image of the lady with what looks like power surging from her fingertips – was that using electroluminescent wire or something else? Thank you

  2. luke ducote says:

    do you have cd on your eork?

  3. Anirban Saha says:

    I have also tried. Do check…. I wish I had seen this tutorial earlier…. wouldnot have wasted so much time figuring things out 😛 Do check and leave for me comments : http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.133724776705062.33126.118243818253158

  4. Daniel Go says:

    I could really use some help here. I’m a frustrated painter, I think. thank you very much for this very well-written article with matching illustrations. I’ll share them with the rest of the world!

    Truly,
    Daniel

  5. Paul says:

    Man, some real talent here, and some good info. Every time I learn something new about light, I realize how much more you can do.

    Very nice, very inspiring!

  6. DaveMc says:

    @Dave
    You need to use a laser leveler to create the lines.

    http://mcaleavy.org/techniques/lights/

  7. Dave says:

    Dave,
    Im trying to get the laser effect on my model. Your lines are nice and straight. How do you get the laser to appear smooth and even flow? Ive tried srings spinning, rubber bands… Not getting a smooth line on my model!!! UGH Would you guide me thru this??

    Thanks,
    Dave B.

  8. DaveMc says:

    @dennis
    I always use a fixed white balance, usually daylight, but that depends on what camera I’m using and what colour the light is.

  9. dennis says:

    What white balance do you use?

  10. Harald says:

    I ‘accidently’ surfed to you website and really like your photos and especially the technique you use… it creates a completely new area to explore in photography for me! Thanks.. 😀

  11. Jinspin says:

    Great tutorial. I took workshop in it and I did my first shoot with light painting the other night in my studio.
    It was fun and the pics came out nice. I have to figure out how to narrow the beam of the light so i can more accurately control what is lit.

    http://www.sweetdreamsstudio.com/photos/main.php?g2_itemId=33113&g2_enterAlbum=1&g2_navId=x4bdff335

  12. DaveMc says:

    Thanks Brenda,

    I look forward to seeing what you come up with. It’s a fun technique.

    Dave

  13. I thought your work was awesome the first time I saw your website! Now you have done this fabulous tutorial that I have been dying to try out! I had heard of painting with light before, and actually have seen some images, but nothing as spectacular as this! Thanks for putting this in writing!

    Brenda 🙂

  14. DaveMc says:

    Bruce,

    Once you start on this stuff, your bin is never empty. There is definitely more failure than success, and a fair degree of pig-headedness can be required to keep at it until an image works. It does help to have a clear idea of the image you’re trying to take before you open the shutter, and to keep moving towards it with each exposure.

    Happy to have a look at anything you shoot. Just drop me a mail.

    Dave

  15. Bruce says:

    I’ve made a few half-hearted attempts at light-painting shots (without really doing any back-ground reading/prep) with results that fall mostly into the “binable at best” category.

    Having read this tutorial I’ll be able to have a more considered try at this intriguing process, although I’m not kidding myself that it’ll be easy. I quite appreciate the time and effort those who are masters of light painting – or even just good at it – have put in to achieve their results.

    Thanks Dave for sharing your skills.

    Might annoy you some time for critical comment – if I ever come up with anything I’d be brave enough to share with the outside world.

  16. DaveMc says:

    Thanks Simon. I’m going to put together some how-to information on the diy electronic gadgets at some point too, particularly the radio shutter release. It makes this sort of work so much easier.

    Dave

  17. Simon Pole says:

    As you know, I was fortunate enough to be present at your light painting mini workshop last year, which I thoroughly enjoyed, especially getting to play with your home made wireless trigger gadget (no tripping over cables) always handy in blackout studio!

    I managed one usable shot (matter of opinion) in an hour, well its passable.
    What we done in the workshop was basic and simple by Dave’s standards he makes this look easy, it is not!

    I would say to anyone that is even remotely interested and has access to a room/location that can be blacked out or made dark enough not to adversely affect the exposure, has the required equipment (and patients) to read this excellent tutorial and try it. Its fun and interesting.

    Simon

3 Pings/Trackbacks for "Lightpainting Tutorial"
  1. NOI Features says:

    […] Original tutorial here […]

  2. […] of light photography, there are professionals out there that do a lot more than I can. Here’s one blog that shows light-painting of figures and nudes, which is just amazing. There’s a Wikipedia […]

  3. […] What is lightpainting? It’s the art of lighting photographs with flashlights and other small, hand-held lights. If you’d like to give it a try you’ll find a tutorial on the technique here: Lightpainting Tutorial […]

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