light painting with flashlight

Learn Light Painting Photography In 4 Super Simple Steps

We’ve all seen those Pinterest photos. You know the ones, a couple is joyfully kissing while a swirl of sparkler lights magically wraps around them. If you are like me, you’ve wondered how they were able to achieve such a creative shot. Well, wonder no longer!  This tutorial will walk you through the fundamentals of light painting photography. Plus, we’re going to be using flashlights for this tutorial, which is safer than sparklers and steel wool light painting methods, so feel free to get the kids involved!

Light Painting - Photo by: Kendra Swalls
Light Painting – Photo by: Kendra Swalls

Gather Your Light Painting Photography Equipment

When doing a Google search for “light painting” I came across light painting kits that included various tools and brushes, however, you don’t need a fancy light kit to get started. All you need are a few basic items: a digital camera that is capable of long exposures, sturdy tripod, flash light and a dark location.

You can also add a remote trigger for your camera if you don’t have an assistant helping. Colored tissue paper or gels if you want to add color to your light source. Lastly, you’ll also want to make sure you are wearing dark clothing as not to show up in the image.

Light painting equipment - Photo by: Kendra Swalls
Light painting equipment – Photo by: Kendra Swalls

Step 1: Set Your Camera on the Tripod and Set it to Live View.

This is the easiest way to make sure your composition and focus points are correct. If you have an assistant, have them stand in the location where you want the light to show up in the image. Use them as your focus point and set your focus. If you don’t have an assistant, find a chair or an object you can use as your focus point. If you’re shooting in a dark location, it’s best to use a light to ensure your focus is sharp. Just remember to cut the light out again when you start your painting.

Step 2: Set Your Camera to Manual Mode

Manual mode will give you control over the settings and exposure length. It’s best to set the ISO around 100-200 to allow for a longer exposure and reduce noise.  Set your Aperture to f/5.6 and then adjust as needed.

From there you should be able to lower the shutter speed to the desired length. The length of the exposure you use will determine how much time you have to create a light design as well as the amount of ambient light that will show up in your image.

You’ll need to make sure your shutter speed is long enough to finish drawing your light painting. Stop down your aperture (to a larger f number) one increment at a time until the desired shutter speed can be achieved with acceptable results. Experiment with various exposure lengths to achieve the finished look you prefer.

Camera Settings - Photo by: Kendra Swalls
These are the settings I used. Your settings may be different depending on your setup, but feel to use these as starting points. Photo by: Kendra Swalls

Step 3: Release The Shutter and Start Painting With Light

Once the camera setting are the way you want them, you’re ready to start playing. Get into position with your flashlight and have your assistant press the shutter or use the remote trigger to release the shutter. I found setting my shutter on a delay allowed me a couple extra seconds once the shutter was released to get ready. Once the shutter is released use the flashlight to draw your design.

The longer the exposure, the more time you have to create a light design. Start with a simple circle or star then work towards more intricate designs or words. You can even play with turning the flashlight on and off to create separate letters or shapes.

Painting with light - Photo by: Kendra Swalls
Painting with light – Photo by: Kendra Swalls

Step 4: Review Your Image and Experiment

This is the beauty of working with digital cameras, you get instant results! Get creative by adding in colored lights (use the colored tissue paper or gels), different light sources, or different locations for added ambient light. The sky is the limit on what kind of light painting photos you can create!

Light painting with colors - Photo by: Kendra Swalls
Light painting with colors – Photo by: Kendra Swalls

Get Inspired

Once you’ve experimented with different settings and practiced painting with the flashlight, the sky is the limit as to what you can create. As we mentioned before, this can also be a fun shoot to get your kids involved in. Show them these photos of Pablo Picasso trying his hand at light painting photography, then give your kids a flashlight and let them paint up the night!

Here’s just a sampling of the kinds of things you can invent, but remember, creativity is key, so be sure to do your own thing, too!

light painting product photogrpahy
Make some creative product photography or add light painted accents to the subject. Photo by Jason Corey
light painting photography
Try tracing an outline around your subject. You can use, people, pets, statues, inanimate objects, just about anything! Photo by Powderruns
14017306767_1a36ec9995_k
Do some location scouting beforehand to find interesting places to create your paintings in. Photo by darkday
light painting photo tutorial
Try using more than one color per frame. You can use multiple flashlights or try multiple exposure photography. Photo by darkday

Share Your Creations

Now, who’s ready to practice their light painting photography skills? This is meant to be a relaxed photography project you can have fun with either on your own or with family and friends. Let’s keep it social by sharing the you sweet light paintings you’ve created. Share your photos or link to your blog in the comments so we can enjoy them, too!

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About the author

Kendra Swalls

Kendra Swalls is the owner of Paisley Layne Photography, a premier boutique portrait and wedding studio in the Dallas/Ft Worth area. With a background in education, Kendra incorporates her love for photography with her passion for teaching others through workshops, e-books and tutorials.

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