what i learned about light painting

A few years ago, I was introduced to the work of Jeff Newsom, a portrait and wedding photographer out of Southern California. One of the aspects of his work that really struck me was how incredible his night portraits are. Typically, night is a tough time for photographers because, you know, light is kind of important to photography (from Greek, meaning “writing with light”). The kinds of things Jeff does with his wedding couples and portrait subjects amazes me. Here’s the post that really got my attention. I’ll hang on a second until you get back. In particular, check out the last shot of the post.

The way he combines the light trails of light painting with traditional (I should have put that in quotes) portraiture astounds me. Light painting is pretty darn cool to begin with, but when you mix that with people, it starts to get downright epic.

So, on Saturday, I thought I’d give it a try. A handful of photographers and I got together in Wamego to check out the 4th of July carnival and see what sort of trouble we could get ourselves into. It seemed like exactly the kind of crowd to try out light painting with.

I knew the basic principles: Put your camera on a tripod. Use a slow shutter speed, a low ISO, and a small aperture. Use a hand-held light-emitting device to either create trails of light or to illuminate the subject.

What I didn’t know was how tricky it was, exactly, to get things to work out the way you want them to.

And so, I present to you, what I learned about how not to paint with light.

First, make sure your light is bright enough.

Here, my iPod Touch, which is pretty darn bright in a dark room, wasn’t nearly bright enough to leave a light trail.

Second, to leave a thick trail, the light must be not only bright, but large.

Here, I was using the super bright LED flash on my friend’s smartphone. It left a great, crisp, bright trail, but wasn’t nearly as big as I was looking for.

That’s about the time we realized that my friend Terry, who had lent me his phone, had also brought what he called a “very cheap ring light,” which consisted of 20 or so super bright LEDs arranged in a ring that attaches to the front of the camera’s lens. It has its own battery pack, so they’re really bright and can stay on easily for a long time.


Which leads to my third lesson learned: Don’t wave your super bright light in front of where your face will be, or else your face won’t be there at the end.

The green lights in this came from the ring light’s battery pack indicator lights. I really love how each light on the ring light leaves its own trail, which crosses and twists around the trails left by the other lights. There’s such depth and texture to it!

So, the next thing we realized was that, no matter how bright the flash on the subject is, if you’re not standing there for the whole exposure, you’re going to appear as a ghost because the background will already have been partially exposed. You have to have the subject stand in place the whole time the shutter is open.

For this one, I opened the shutter, walked out to our straw spot, triggered the flash, and walked out of the frame. Notice how I’m nearly transparent? That’s because when I wasn’t there, the floodlights for the basketball court continued to illuminate the background and expose the sensor.

So, that meant we needed someone other than the photographer to be the subject. For that, we coerced forced gently persuaded Julie, one of the photographers who came out for the fun, to stand in as our subject.

For this frame, I attempted to draw angel wings and a halo around her. Besides the fact that I drew the wings upside down, I also learned that you have to get out of the frame before you trigger the flash on the subject.

Once we figured all that out, good things started happening. The good stuff is right after the jump.

Here’s Julie and her husband, Dusty. Terry was doing the painting on this one.

And here’s Beka, another photographer who came out to play, and her husband, Jared. I was painting on this one.

After a few successful portraits, someone wanted to try writing people’s names with the lights. This presented its own set of challenges and lessons to learn.

First, you have to write backwards in the air. I don’t have any illustrative images of this because some of the attendees, who are a lot smarter than me, figured it out on their own.

Also, handwriting matters. A lot.

Here, Beka was trying to write my name, but didn’t turn the light off and on between letters, so it ended up a bit funky and hard to read.

She got it on the next one, though.

I think we decided it’s much easier to write in all capital letters. That’s just a theory, though.

Next up was Julie. In trying to write her name, I learned that screen real estate is very, very tight.

Terry also learned that you have to wait until the painter is out of the frame before you trigger the flash.

Eventually, I got it, too.

Pardon the ghost legs–apparently I wasn’t writing each letter fast enough.

Last, but not least, Beka.

We were old pros by then.

So, that’s what I learned Saturday night. I’m looking forward to seeing what else we can do together, now that we’ve gotten some of the tricky technical bits all figured out.

If you’d like to see some of the other images I made that night, hop on over to the full album on my facebook page, here.

Have you ever done any light painting? Any tips to pass on? Feel free to post images or links to images below. I’d love to see what you’ve done!


3 Responses to “what i learned about light painting”

  1. Rob

    Rik, Thanks for this post. I am actually hoping to experiment with light painting this weekend. Just curious, what were you using as flash to light your subject and what settings did you find to be best? front or rear curtain?

    • rik

      Hey Rob, I used a Canon 430 exII off-camera to light them with. We had a pretty small aperture and ISO 100, so I think we were at full power for most of the images. I didn’t use an E-TTL cord for these, so we were actually triggering them manually with a cybersync transmitter held in the hand of the camera operator. Once the person painting the image was clear, they triggered the flash. Otherwise, if the flash was connected to the camera, I’d say rear curtain. Hope that helps!


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