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Light painting


Not long ago I participated on a photo-challenge where we had to create a shot using light painting technique. I put hands at work and came up with a composite shot which obtained the 1st prize in the challenge.

I then decided to write an article on how I prepared, shoot and post produced the photo. And here it is!

The Technique

Let’s start with the technique being the center of the challenge, light painting. As the name indicates we use a light source as we would use a brush. With strokes of the brush we paint the subject, only we use light instead of ink or paint. Because light is no paint (duh!) we have to set up the shot in a particular way. To start we have to darken the room to remove any “light noise”. The goal is to have a dark room where the only light we have is the one we control, a.k.a. the “brush”.

When you’re first starting with this technique there will be a lot of trial and error. A lot. So don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t work like you expect on the first tries. Keep practicing and I’ll promise you’ll get impressive results.

We will be working blind and based purely on previous experiences. There are no two light painting shots that will the same.

So, we got our room dark, triggered a long exposure shot and started painting our subject with light. As you start doing this think as if you are actually painting, move away for a diffuse wider stroke and get closer for a narrow stronger one. Pay attention of what you did and try remember the movements and the amount of light you used. This is crucial because as I mentioned we will work on trial and error. So after evaluating the shot you want to repeat the parts that were fine and improve the ones that weren’t. Some people have a methodical approach, always painting in the same order and memorizing the amount of strokes.

The goal is not to have an evenly illuminated subject but to create drama, use shadows and light to highlight parts of the subject. Another thing to remember is not to point the light into the lens direction. Although we can do post production editing it helps if we avoid trailing lights.



To paint we use any type of light source as long as it’s small enough so we don’t blast the subject with light all at once. Imagine Van Gog painting with a 6″ brush 🙂 Similarly we want to have a small and more controllable light. Flashlights are the ideal tool but nothing stops us from adapting any other light source to our needs (more about this later on).

In my experience I found that the smaller the light beam the better. But this doesn’t mean a smaller flash light, doing this will also reduce the amount of light and you’ll have to spend longer to illuminate the subject. Use a powerful flash light and build snoots, diffusers, or any other modifier to concentrate the flash light beam. Nowadays we have many flash lights that comes with a focusing ring that allows to modify the beam.

We have to set up the camera for this task. Because we’ll work on a dark room and will have to paint the subject with strokes of light we will have to work with long exposure. Depending on the size of the subject and how much we want to paint at once we will use from 15″ to 30″ or set it to Bulb mode. On the example I’m including in this post I was using between 20″ and 30″ on each shot.

Needles to say, your camera must be on a tripod, a very steady tripod. Mine is good but I hang a heavy  object to the center piece to add extra stability. Remember you’ll be walking around so be careful not to trip the tripod. If your room has wooden floor check if it will move as you walk around so you don’t end up with camera shake.

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The Challenge

I have an old telephone from late 1800s. I immediately saw this as a perfect subject for this challenge. One problem solved, onto the next one.

From the start I decided I will take multiple shots and do a composite in post production using Photoshop. I felt it will allow me to isolate the different parts of the phone more easily, including lightning the background. I knew doing a composite meant manually aligning each shot and this could be an extra burden. But you don’t learn if you don’t try, right?

here are some of the original photos. You can see how I worked on separate parts of the phone and the background. These are direct from the camera with no post processing.

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I imported all photos into Photoshop and started working on the final composite. I used masks manually painting with white or black to hide/reveal different parts of the photo. Although
I use a heavy weight to make my tripod more stable I had to manually align a couple of shots taken towards the end of the session. The best way for doing this is to turn the upper layer (photo to align) blending mode to Overlay and the opacity around 50%. This will highlight the edges of the layer and by setting a lower opacity you can manually drag it to align with the lower layer.


The final result is this one:



If you have questions about how I made this, need help with this technique just leave a comment below!


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