An introduction to light painting

Introduction to light paintingLight painting is a unique trick photography technique which involves the photographer making some exposures by moving his camera or his hand-held light-source. This technique was first used by Frank Gilbreth and his wife in 1914. Frank Gilbreth used an open camera’s shutter and some small light sources to trace the motion of various clerical and manufacturing employees. However, Man Ray is actually the first art photographer to use light painting in his 1935 series the “Space writing”. The results are so mesmerizing that even today we still find many photographers finding new creative uses for this technique.

Light painting techniques

As mentioned there are two ways to create this trick photography effect, mainly by moving either the camera or the light source. The technique of moving the camera is also known as camera painting.

1. Camera painting

This is actually the opposite of the traditional photography and it involves you taking your camera off it’s tripod and using it as a paintbrush in a dark-room or at night. To create a simple but unique camera painting all you need to do is use the cityscape as your palette, the night-sky and your camera as your brush. Simply put some energy into moving your camera by stroking your light-sources, laying down your background and making some patterns.


2. Moving your light source

This technique involves you selectively illuminating various parts of your subject using your light source or painting an image by shining it into the camera’s lens directly. This trick photography technique needs a slow-shutter-speed of about a second or even more. A good example of this technique is Picasso’s light drawings series which he did after being visited by Mili Gjon, a lighting innovator and photographer in 1949. Milli introduced Picasso to his photographs of various ice skaters who had some light sources attached to the skates. Picasso created this pictures in-the-air using a small flash-light in his dark-room. “Picasso draws a centaur in the air” is one of his famous and most celebrated photographs from his light drawings.


Light painting can also be done by projecting various images onto different irregular surfaces light buildings, bodies or even faces among others and then painting them using a light. Another development in this field is the light-art-performance photography (LAPP), which involves the integration of the scenery and the background of the subject.

Equipment used

Different types of light-sources like a flashlight and a hose-master, which has a fiber-optic light pen, can be used to create these photographs. This is actually the main equipment you need for the job. Other light sources include matches, lighter flints, candles, fireworks, poi and glow sticks.

A tripod can also come in handy, especially when long exposure-times are involved. You can also place your camera on a solid support like a table when you do not have a tripod. Make sure you always have your shutter release cable or a self-timer to help you reduce camera shake. To improve the quality of your trick photography or change the mood in your paintings you can use a color gel to color your light sources as well. Have fun!

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