Anything from cheap fairy lights to paint rollers can be used as a light painting tool, says Andrew Whyte, and the results are quite dazzling. We look into a step-by-step guide to light painting
How to get started with light painting: Equipment
Choose your equipment
Whichever style you opt for, your approach is likely to be very similar. A camera and tripod are obvious requirements while a cable release is strongly recommended, even if you don’t plan to shoot beyond the 30 seconds that most cameras can manage without one.
Ultra-wideangle lenses are the most popular choice among light-painting photographers, with their wide field of view and minimal issues with depth of field. More on how to actually focus in a moment.
In theory, you can create a light tool from almost anything that illuminates or glows: fairy lights are versatile and even if you can only find white lights, their colour can be changed with lighting gels or tinted cellophane.
Light sabers dug out from a child’s bedroom can be pretty handy, along with finger lights and glowsticks (at the cheaper end of the scale). If you feel like busting the budget, try specialist tools like the Pixelstick, Light Painting Brushes or the Ball of Light tool. Click here to check out our three top products for light painting.
In reality, practical considerations will lead you to match your light source to the local conditions – bright LEDs in urban areas versus dimmer lights out of town (or, at least, weaker batteries).
It’s best to use tools of similar intensity within the same exposure otherwise you’ll run the risk of overwhelming your camera’s dynamic range and end up with either blown highlights from the brighter light or no visual impact from the dimmer light.
Experience helps, but judging the suitability of a light tool in any scenario is often a matter of trial and error.
A robust tripod provides a stable platform for long exposures. Attach a small LED or glowstick so that you can locate your camera in the dark. Alternatively buy a model with a built-in light.
Ultra-wide lenses bring the frame to life. They also help minimise depth-of-field worries, making them ideal for those times you require super-sharp results.
A remote release is essential for preventing camera shake when you’re starting/ending your exposures, or executing bulb-time exposures. There are plenty of models available.
Torchlight is live and therefore easy to see and control where your light is falling. However, flash is quicker and more powerful, and freezes people if you want crisp silhouettes. Where possible, try to keep both in your kit bag.
Lights, gels etc
Fairy lights are cheap and versatile: they can be strung out, bunched up or swung in either state – with effective results. Look for light-up toys, finger lights and anything else that illuminates, and don’t forget the batteries.
Hat/boots, socks, tea/cake
Avoid an early bath by preparing well for late nights and cold weather. Dress to keep your extremities warm and take some feel-good sustenance with you.