How to get started with light painting: Introduction
Known by many names, light painting (or light graffiti, light art, painting with light) is a well-established photographic process with roots that can be traced back to the early days of photography.
The practice of using light to trace a path into an image began with time-in-motion studies and subsequently evolved creatively in the hands of artists like Man Ray, Picasso, and photographer Eric Staller.
Pre-digital, the technique was hugely experimental, given both the characteristics of film during long exposures and the fact that you had to wait for visual feedback on your results.
But as camera technology has improved, along with that of small, battery-powered lights (and the batteries themselves), light painting has become infinitely more accessible, and is commonly seen as a photographic rite of passage – with good reason.
The processes of light painting encourages experimentation and rewards creativity, not to mention demanding that practitioners break out of their comfort zones into the world of full manual camera operation.
Why? Simply put, using Shutter Priority or Aperture Priority means that you are asking the camera to make decisions on your behalf. Any stray light or shadow detected by the camera while it’s metering will affect the settings used.
Oncoming headlights, for instance, may trick the camera into thinking that the scene is brighter than it is, leading to underexposure. While you may end up with a great shot, relying on the camera’s choices means that you are removing the guarantee of consistency.
Far better to take control, let your light painting tools determine the aperture you set, and adjust the shutter speed to influence the amount of ambient light gathered by the camera. Use the slower pace of night to reflect on results and changes to settings to get the image you’re after.
There is no shortage of styles to pursue. From abstract frames of light movement against a black backdrop to geometric patterns that brighten architectural spaces, or moonlit landscapes with added flourishes of light, there’s no strict rules about right and wrong.
Arguably it’s least complicated to shoot light painting on a black background, particularly as it’s likely you’ll be able to create something within the confines of your home, garage or garden.
But that’s not to say it’s easy; in fact, with nothing else in the frame, you’ll be opening up the aesthetic of your light painting to the most scrutiny. Nonetheless, it’s a great starting point, and in a technical sense it acts as a gateway to more adventurous concepts
On the other hand, if you’re prepared to take on the further challenges of light painting on location, doing so opens up a whole world of storytelling opportunities as you integrate dynamic trails of light into the landscape.
There’s even a further, less-discussed, variant of light painting where you add illumination to a subject or scene but keep the light source out of frame.
It’s a technique with a range of uses: automotive photographers will use top-end LED arrays to meticulously highlight the gleaming form of prestige cars while, at the other end of the scale, urban explorers commonly showcase the textures of decay using nothing more than a torch.