How to Paint with Light on the Cheap

How to Paint with Light on the Cheap 1

Light painting or painting with light is as old as photography itself. Taking a long exposure while moving a light source around in the frame, creating very artistic and dramatic results should be a trick in every photographer’s arsenal. From Picasso to modern Instagram images – all utilize this technique to great effect and the bonus is that it doesn’t cost much to get fantastic results.

Light painting is something we all naturally gravitate toward. Watch children write in the air with sparklers on bonfire night and you’ll get the idea. Basically, anything that creates some sort of light trail is fascinating to our eyes. The idea is to capture these light trails in the most creative way, either on their own or as composites with other images. In this post, we’ll go over some tips and techniques which you can use to create your own light painting with possible gear you already own.



Capturing a quality light trail involves long exposures, so you will need a tripod, ideally a wireless trigger and a camera with manual settings. Shutter speeds are usually around 1 to 60 seconds, ISO values keep low so the exposure is not too grainy. Aperture around f/5.6 depending on your lens to make sure everything is sharp. It’s also best to shoot in raw for the most leeway in postprocessing.

Focusing in dark conditions will invariably make your camera hunt for focus. You can either use back button focusing, temporarily lighting around a subject area with a flashlight to gain focus or switch to manual focusing. Manual mode is usually the best option of the time, but if you’re getting into exposures longer than 30 seconds, then BULB mode is the way to go. It’s also an idea to take a few test shots to get the correct exposure before you start light painting.


If you’re wanting to capture images outside, then you have to be conscious of other sources of light contaminating your scene and subject. This may mean you need to travel to your location. Ideally, start with small areas to light which is especially true if you’re wanting to light up objects.

As with everything in life, a little bit of practice goes a long way. A good starting point is to set up your camera in a completely dark room, then use a small pan light or key fob with an LED to create shapes in front of the camera during the exposure. You can simply make shapes or move the light source across whatever is in front of the camera. Briefly lighting a subject when in total darkness with a very small light is one way to fully appreciate how your camera captures light in the first place. You can just dab small dots of light on the subject to get some quite dramatic effects and even use different colors to produce your image. This is all about experimentation and building on the results. This is a simple and effective trick which can produce some very abstract and creative results.

Light sources

You can break up the different light sources to use into small spots or strips of light. Small, colored LED lights work very well. These can include very small torches, key fob lights or anything that gives off a reasonable amount of lumens. You can also use your smartphone to great effect. Search for images with washes of color, display them on your phone, which can then be moved around in front of the camera lens to create some great swirly effects. Always remember to check your phone’s timeout settings as there is nothing more irritating than it switching off halfway through a light trail.

One trick to create strips of light is to use a T8 or T12 Fluorescent tube protector which can be easily found at places like Home Depot for just a few dollars. Fit a reasonably powerful flashlight inside the tube and when you wave the whole thing around, it can create some great lengths of light trails. Think along the lines of a home-made Star Wars light sabre and you’ll get the idea. It’s also an idea to keep the light moving otherwise you may get some burnt in spots of light.

Lots of other light sources can be used which will give different effects depending on how much you move them around. These can include fireworks, matches, glowsticks, candles, lasers, waving around some fire poi or even using some colored gels over a basic flashlight. First use what you have lying around before you start buying into any extra light sources.

Composite or Not

Compositing images made with light painting will really depend on the final results you want to achieve. As we have the software tools to blend any amount of images together, bunching images together is clearly an option with light painting. For example, if you wanted to create a light painting look behind a product shot, you could firstly capture the product image, then choose your light source to create some cool light trails behind your subject, then composite both images together. You can also light very small areas of a subject to build up a final image, along with some light trails swirled around the frame. Imagine a car where you selectively light small parts with different degrees of light intensity until you build up a final image.

With techniques such as the fluorescent tube idea above, one single image may be all that’s needed to create the best results. This is especially true if you are using a subject in a scene and want to create some light painting around them.

Painting with light can produce endless possibilities if you’re willing to experiment and put in the time. Try some of the tips above and hopefully you will produce some fantastic images.

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