Looking to add some oomph! to your travel photography? One way to do that is painting with light. While glancing at the above photo, for example, may have you thinking, okay, wow, that’s too complicated for me, the truth is it’s a very simple concept. Read on to follow my step-by-step guide to painting with light, including equipment recommendations and advice for incorporating the technique into travel.
Here is a list of the gear I use when painting with light. While some of the following may be affiliate links, meaning I get a small commission to help keep Jessie on a Journey running if any gear is purchased through the link, these pieces are indeed my real gear. If this makes you uncomfortable, I recommend the B&H Store, where you can also purchase all the gear listed here without using my affiliate links. As usual, all opinions are 100% my own.
*For something that offers great value and quality, I recommend this one.
Gel Filters (Optional)
Gel Filters add a bit of colorful to your project, as you can affix these to the light of your flashlight. Click here for a great guide from DIY Photography on how to affix the gel filters to different shaped surfaces.
I like the Induro brand, which I’ve found to be super stable and easy to use.
I use this when traveling instead of the heavier tripod. It’s super portable, and flexible allowing for interesting shots. I love this whether I’m doing regular, night or painting with light photography.
I actually use a Nikon D5100, but that’s because my DSLR is a few years old. If you’re just investing in a DSLR, I would go with the newer model, shown below.
How To Do It, Step-By-Step [Practice Round]
1. Adjust your setting in Manual Mode. For those who are nervous about going off automatic, check out my article, Travel Photography: Mastering Your Camera’s Manual Mode. You’ll want to put your ISO on 100 to reduce any noise and visual distortion — as well as have cleaner colors — as the lower the ISO the less grainy the photo. While typically the rule of thumb is the darker the scene, the higher the ISO must be set — and in this situation, you’ll be going in darkness — the steadiness of the tripod allows for the low ISO.
Your shutter speed should be slow — try 30 seconds, but it should be at least 1 second — in order to allow the large amount of light into the camera.
2. Adjust your white balance to “incandescent” or “tungsten” to match the lighting of the flashlight.
3. Change your camera’s settings from single frame to self timer, which allows you to step back and let the camera work without disturbing it, minimizing camera shake.
4. Half press the shutter with the lights on to set the exposure of the scene. If someone else will be holding the flashlight and painting with the light, have them stand in front of the camera with the flashlight (off).
If you’re outside and its dark out, the camera will have trouble focusing on something if all there is is darkness. You can either put your camera on manual focus, or shine your flashlight on the subject and focus on that.
5. Start the self timer. If your indoors experimenting, beginning with the lights on, this gives you or the person with the flashlight 10 seconds to then go turn off the lights. If you’re using another person, have them leave the flashlight where they were standing to let them know when the camera had aimed and exposed for.
If you’re outside, you won’t need to shut the lights off.
6. Turn the flashlight on and begin “painting.” I like to do quick rapid motions over and over to really paint the light dark in a spot. For example, if I were drawing a circle with my flashlight I wouldn’t just do a quick circle and move on, I would go over the circle shape with the light numerous times.
6. Note you do not need the room/scene to be pitch black to do this (as you can see in the test shots above). What’s interesting is for these I had a partner painting with the flashlight, who is technically in the photo; however, you can’t see her because the shutter speed was so slow.
7. Optional: For some fun color effects, try adding the gel filters to your flashlight.
8. Once you’ve mastered the technique indoors, you’ll be able to incorporate it into your travel photos, whether indoors and outdoors. Just make sure you understand the technique, including how and why it works. To put it plainly, photography is all about reflective light, which reflects off of the mirrors in your camera and creates an image. When painting with light, you’re doing long exposure photography while creating your own exposures with the flashlight.
Why Is Painting With Light Good For Travel?
Because it’s fun! Painting with light with your travel photography allows for interesting, evocative and creative shots. While that hold-your-camera-in-front-your-face-and-snap landscape shot might be pretty, but glanced over by viewers, adding some painting with light adds a feeling of unpredictability. It provokes thought, not only about the meaning of the photo, but also how the (talented) photographer created it.
I don’t know about you, but when I take a photograph, my main goal is to evoke some kind of response from my viewers. Painting with light almost guarantees a reaction. For example, look at the photos above. What do you feel? Did you take a few extra moments to mull the picture over? What would the photograph be like without the light painting?
One painting with light photography tip to remember is that having a stationary object as the subject and then painting around that can lead to some truly interesting shots. You may want to practice with an apple or mug at home before taking the concept out into the wilderness.
Another idea is to illuminate a stationary object in the dark, such as a tree, bench or garden, using the LED light. Against the dark of night, it will lead to a very eye catching shot. Remember, the subject must be stationary, as anything moving around in front of the slow shutter speed camera won’t be captured. The below National Geographic video demonstrates this technique clearly.
Note: A tripod is a must for long exposure and night photography, as well as painting with light. Even if you think you’re holding the camera still, natural body movements, even the tiniest ones, will lead to camera shake and blurry photos.