Light paintings are one of the more stunning examples of long exposure trick photography. You’re literally painting with light. You use a camera to take a long exposure photograph, and then move a bright light source around it. Also, just like a magic trick, consider this a spoiler warning if you want to continue to be baffled by how light paintings are made.
The trick is that the bright light acts as your brush, so you have the freedom to move it around and create interesting shapes or even form words in front of the camera. Or you could move the camera instead. If you’re feeling particularly brave you could actually toss and spin your camera in the air. You could get very beautiful light paintings with a bit of patience and creative uses of light and colors. There are people dedicated to taking light paintings by tossing their cameras, and the results are often spectacular.
When you use long exposure (also known as time exposure) photography, stationary objects appear still and in sharp focus while moving objects creates blurring and smearing. Long exposures are easier to do in low-light conditions otherwise you’ll need very bright lights or specially designed equipment and cameras.
Because of this, light paintings are often done in the dark. The other side effect of low-light conditions is that fast moving objects can literally disappear from the image. This leads to interesting situations where you can photograph a still object in long exposure mode, and then run in front of the camera with a bright light to do your light painting. If you move fast enough and your clothes doesn’t reflect much light, you will not be seen in the photo. You will only see the still object and a trail of the bright light. This explains why you can only see headlight and taillight trails but not the individual cars in pictures of highways or roads during night-time.
This is actually very important for light paintings because you don’t want to see the “painter” in the photo. The illusion of light trails appearing or hovering around your subject without any clues as to what made it just make the picture that bit more magical.
During the daytime long exposure photography are less commonly used. The most familiar pictures of daytime long exposure pictures are those of waterfalls. Long exposures blur the moving water so it has mist-like qualities while keeping stationary objects like the trees and rocks in sharp focus.
Now that you know the secret behind the magical light paintings, you can still admire the creativity of the people who created them. But the truth is that anyone with a camera and a flashlight can use long exposure trick photography to create beautiful and fun light paintings.
By the way, I also wrote a fun post about what snipers can teach us when it comes to shooting steady. Just in case you find yourself without a tripod.
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