What you’ll need:
- A dark area to work
- A flashlight or other light source
- A camera with a “B” or Bulb setting
- A sturdy tripod or stable surface for your camera
- An external flash if you want to put a solid object in your light painting as in the example above
One word of caution: Do NOT use lasers or laser pointers as a light source for light photography. Those will almost certainly damage your camera’s image sensor, making it a very expensive paperweight. I have seen some people use laser pointers by shining them on a wall or surface (not pointing them at the camera) but I don’t recommend you try that until you’ve been doing it a while. Grab a pen light, leave the laser pointer at home.
Start by locating an area that’s almost completely dark. Street lights or passing car lights will almost certainly spoil the shot.
Set up your tripod and mount the camera. On the “B” setting your camera shutter will stay open as long as you have the shutter release pressed. If your tripod is solid and your touch steady, you can manually open and close the shutter while someone else paints. I prefer to use an electronic shutter release to do that job as it’s easier and then I can join in the light painting fun.
I generally use a flash unit or the camera flash to take a picture of the work area to check for level. Sometimes I’ll use the background shot and superimpose the light painting on the scene. The fun thing about light painting is there are no rules.
While the shutter is open, take your light source and “paint”, write or draw in the darkness in front of the camera.
If you know the f-stop you’re using, you can manually fire a hand-held flash unit to add a subject or the painter to picture. I prefer taking a second picture of the subject and inserting them in the light painting digitally.
Once you get the hang of the technique you’ll discover that it’s possible to paint dimly lit scenes, using the long exposure time to do your drawing. That can be fun if you’re mixing light sources of different color temperatures, the effect can be quite surreal.
So grab your camera and the kids and head out for some nighttime fun that everyone can enjoy.