Light Painting

Light painting is a technique where you take photographs in near-darkness with a long exposure time. Only things that light falls on (and/or the lights themselves) will show up. Some side effects of the long exposure are that moving lights tend to show up with a neon-like effect, while moving non-light objects may appear ghost-like or do not show up at all.

I’ve been experimenting with light painting for a few months now, getting the idea from an Ignite Boulder presentation in March. The camera I use is a Nikon D40 SLR, which allows me to manually set for up to 30 seconds exposure time. After photographing various wearable-LED projects and trying to write everyone’s name in sparklers, I brought my camera to July 4th’s fireworks festivities. One problem: I didn’t bring a tripod, and no matter how still I held the camera, there were always some flaws in the photos. About half way through the show I decided to just give in to experiment and started moving the camera around. The results were pretty abstract and surreal, I want to try more of this! Moving your camera around like this is also called “camera painting”.

Here are some guidelines and tips for doing light painting:

  • The key ingredients are setting a longer exposure time, having enough darkness and “painting” with a light source.
  • A tripod (or tabletop, etc.) is a must for any stationary work, or you can move the camera around for more abstract effects.
  • Zoom out all the way if possible for maximum sharpness (I forgot this with many of the sparklers).
  • If your photos have too much ambient light and you can’t control it, try reducing the exposure time.
  • In addition to setting the time, I also needed to set my lens to manual instead of autofocus.
  • A remote is good to have for self-portraits and/or minimize further camera shake. And/or get to know where your timer setting is.
  • Image processing: spelling names in fireworks or making shapes with camera painting means you’ll want to flip the photos horizontally and/or vertically after you upload them.
  • A little planning goes a long way – for instance with the sparkler painting, make sure you have enough room and enough time to complete a name, and consider how you will dot i’s and cross t’s.
  • Handwriting seems just as good or bad in the air with light as on paper with a pen – I should have had Tina and Sue write more of the sparkler names for me!
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment. That’s how I stumbled on the camera painting!
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