Light Painting with Basic Equipment

If you want to have a go at light painting without spending a fortune, and have a camera with a manual exposure mode, you may find you have most of what you need already.Currently I shoot my light painted work with a Canon 5D, a Manfrotto 055XPROB tripod and a radio shutter release. Not a particularly affordable setup if you just want to experiment with the technique.

DSLRs do have one major advantage for this sort of work – their larger sensors produce images with lower noise levels than smaller cameras. Because noise increases with exposure time I had always assumed that small-sensor compact cameras would be useless for light painting. It turns out I was wrong.

For my low-end experiments I used my Panasonic Lumix LX2, a Joby Gorillapod plastic tripod and a Mini MagLite flashlight. I used my own hand as the subject because it was, well, handy. Unfortunately, as it was my left hand, I was unable to get it to sign a model release, but you can’t have everything. The settings on the camera are important – you must be able to set it to manual exposure. If your camera can’t do that then it won’t be able to be used for light painting. Once you’ve done that you’ll need the following settings:

ISO: Set this to 100, or as close to 100 as your camera will go (some have a minimum of 200). Don’t set it to auto or the camera will turn it up in the dark and you’ll get increased noise.

Shutter Speed: Set this to at least 10 seconds. The longer you set it the more time you will have to complete the paint, but more noise will accumulate in the image.

Aperture: Start with this at f5.6. If the image is too dark, open it up to f4 and if the image is too bright close it down to f8. Continue to vary it until you get a good exposure. If you run out of f-stops, change the brightness of the light.

White Balance: Set this to a fixed setting if you can – either Daylight on Incandescent. Different settings will give different effects. Auto will be somewhat unpredictable.

Focus: If you can, set this to manual focus. If you don’t do this the camera will attempt to refocus when you press the shutter button, and as the lights will be out it might not get it right unless it has a focus assist lamp. With the LX2 I was able to use the auto focus to get the subject in focus and then switch to manual to stop it refocusing.

Self Timer: If you’re using a slightly wobbly tripod like the Gorillapod, the self timer will give any movement caused by pressing the shutter button time to die down before the shutter opens.

Taking the Image: Put the camera onto the tripod, place it on a firm, level surface and point it at your subject. Set the camera up as outlined above, focus it, turn the room lights out and press the shutter button. Light your subject with your torch, then turn it off and wait for the shutter to close.

Keep the light moving during the exposure and try not to go over the same area twice. You can vary the brightness of your light by changing the speed that you move it (slower = brighter) or how close it is to the subject (closer = brighter).

Check the image, note any errors and keep trying until you get it right. This may take some time.

This is the image that I got with an exposure of 10 seconds at f8 straight from the camera. The nose levels are surprisingly low and there are no ‘hot’ pixels. This is because, unexpectedly, the LX2 does a dark frame subtraction on long exposure images – it takes a second image with the shutter closed immediately after the main exposure and uses this to remove a lot of the noise. Not all cameras will do this, but if you camera pauses for a long time before showing the image this is probably what it is doing.

DaveMc, May 2010.