Photography: How to draw with light

LightArt / March 6, 2021

Lightpainting is a technique that has – in some ways – more in common with drawing than with photography itself.

In a dark room, or outdoors at night, the lightpainter uses portable light sources – flashlights, flames, and LEDs, for example – to draw in the air, and the camera sensor registers every movement. The image itself is not exactly a photo, but a mix between photographic capture and painting.

To better understand this, some time ago you saw here on Baixaki a tutorial about night photography that talked about long exposure. It showed two images exhibiting the movement of light sources as effects of photography as a whole.

The lights from the cars and juggernauts form trails on the scenery, colored lines that complement the rest of the image. In lighpainting, on the other hand, the scenery – most of the time – is secondary to the lights, making the lines and optical effect much more important to the composition as a whole.

Light as paint

There are endless possibilities to use light sources as a tool for lightpainting. But the first choice needed to explore these options is precisely which source to use: flashlights, cell phones, and lighters are just the most obvious and easily obtainable possibilities.

Besides the choice of source, the technique allows the exploration of light modifiers – such as cellophane paper to color a lantern, for example – to further increase the impact of the effects on the final image. The photo above, for example, was made using a cell phone and an application that allows you to select the color of the screen at every instant.

On the shoulders of giants

The first recognized lightpainting image in history is the work of Man Ray, the American multimedia artist who, in 1935, generated the work “Space Writing. Another famous name that also experimented with lightpainting using small lanterns in a dark room was the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso, who claimed to be “drawing with light.

Next to Man Ray’s work you can see the most famous result of the Spaniard: the image “Picasso draws a centaur in the air”.

How to proceed?

Anyone who decides to venture into lightpainting should keep in mind that practice is the most guaranteed way to get good images. Testing different designs, light sources, and environments is essential to find the best way to explore your creativity with your flashlight.

The photographic equipment

The technique of painting with light requires slightly more advanced equipment. Cameras with long exposure capabilities are essential, since drawing is not done in fractions of a second. Thus, multi-second exposure modes or even “Bulb” (when the camera maintains the exposure as long as the shutter button is not released) make life much easier for the light painter.

Two accessories are also great allies of the lightpainter: the tripod and the remote trigger. The first has the function of keeping the camera static and in the correct position during the entire exposure time, while the trigger – by cable or infrared – helps to reduce camera vibrations and makes it easier to take images even when you are alone.

Another highly recommended manual setting is the aperture. Since this value influences the depth of field, and in the dark it is very difficult to focus, choosing the open space in the camera’s diaphragm can guarantee that you get the expected result (or end up with an image).

If the lines you want should be fine and precise, set the aperture to high values (f/16 or more), thus obtaining enough depth of field to maintain focus at varying distances from the camera.

If diffuse glows and blurs of light better complete the desired painting, lower aperture values (f/4 or smaller) are more appropriate. Remember that smaller aperture values mean more light enters the camera and therefore also influence exposure time.

The light sources

Candles, lanterns, and even the cell phone, as mentioned earlier, can be used as tools for lightpainting. Regardless of the lighting used, it is important to pay attention to two factors before you start drawing: the size and color of the light.

To obtain fine drawings, with details and precise lines, the ideal is to use small and stable light sources, such as small lanterns with single LEDs. On the other hand, if trace instability can add excitement and movement to the drawing, sources such as candles and lighters – or even torches, if available and safe – deserve a chance in front of the camera.

When the light comes from fire, there is not much you can do about the coloring, since red, orange, and yellow tones will always predominate. But in the case of electric light sources – LEDs, cell phones, and lamps – it is possible to explore different colors according to the theme of the planned image. For this, cellophane or other colored plastics, various papers, fabrics, or even the body can serve as modifiers, changing the color or intensity of the light.

The photo above, for example, was taken with a flashlight equipped with nine white LEDs one and a blue plastic body. By placing the hand over the light output, the red shades are obtained, while the plastic is responsible for most of the strokes. The white streaks are derived from moments when the LEDs were exposed to the camera.

Nothing prevents different light sources from being used in the same image. It is the creativity and the feeling that one wants to include in the design that should force the choice of the nature, quantity and coloration of the light.

The result

The clearer the result is in the imagination of the lightpainter, the more likely it is that the image will come out as expected. Planning, training, and patience can often serve as a guarantee that the lightpainting will achieve the goals set by its creator.

Summarizing the process

In a dark environment – a room with the lights off, or at night elsewhere – place the camera on a tripod or other stable surface;
Set the camera to long exposure (10 seconds or longer, and if your camera allows, bulb mode);
Start the exposure and draw the desired picture in front of the camera with the chosen light source;
When the exposure time is up, or the drawing is done, check in the camera if the image was really captured.
Repeat until you get the desired result.

Whether it is a specific drawing or a seemingly random pile of scratches, light painting will always be of higher quality when it is not done “on the fly”. Choosing well the light sources, determining movement, and setting up the capture correctly allow the photographer-painter-drawer the ideal condition to express himself with the technique.