Painting with Light

Star Trails, Mesquite DunesBy definition, Light Painting is the process of photographing at night while illuminating your subject with a handheld device such as a flashlight or camera flash.  The use of a moving hand held light creates a look that is nearly impossible to replicate during daylight hours.

You can also mix in the ambient light of the scene for a more layered affect.  Your scenes can be partially lit by moonlight, street lights, house lights or entirely lit by your own flashlight!  You can use different flashlights for a slight change in color or place colored gels over them for striking changes.  Rotating the front bezel of your flashlight spreads or focuses the beam light creating a variety looks to your image.  The possibilities are endless!

RH, Neon Graveyard

Unlike many forms of photography, there are very few hard and fast rules that apply to this discipline.  Proper exposure is largely based on a trial and error approach.  Subject reflectivity, ambient light, flashlight power and  distance from flashlight to the subject all influence the resulting exposure.

Begin by taking some test exposures.  In many cases, the longest shutter of 30 seconds on your camera will not provide enough time to paint.  This means you will need a camera that goes to a shutter speed of “B”, which stands for bulb.  To use the B setting you must have a cable release with a lock.  Plug in your cable release, set your camera to B and press and lock the cable release.  The shutter will now stay open until you unlock the cable release.  Exposures can range from 1 second to hours.  Typically most cameras will start to exhibit too much noise after the 3 minute mark, however.

I usually start with my aperture at about f8.  This is typically the sharpest part of any lens and also allows more time to paint.  Keep your ISO at a lower setting such as 100, 200 or 400.

Blue House, Grafton Ghost Town, UtahIf the scene is completely dark with no ambient light, then only your flash light will illuminate the scene.  In cases like this, you can leave your shutter open for a very long time.  1 minute, two minutes or even three or four minutes.

If you are mixing ambient light, such as the full moon or street lights, you shutter time may anywhere from 30 seconds to a couple of minutes.  My recommendation here is to take some test shots with out painting. Get your ambient light to a brightness that doesn’t overwhelm your scene.  Perhaps something a little darker than you might normally use.  Set your shutter speed for this exposure and then begin to experiment with different amounts of light painting.


Starting Points


In Complete Darkness

In Mixed Ambient Light

  1. ISO 200 @ ƒ8
  2. Add Light with Flashlight
  3. Check Histogram for good exposure
  4. Add or subtract time or distance of flashlight as needed


  1. Find Base Exposure first using high ISO at ƒ8
  2. Extrapolate back to longer exposure for painting
  3. Add Light with Flashlight
  4. Check Histogram for Exposure
  5. Add or subtract time or distance of flashlight as needed


Extrapolating ISOs and Exposure

ISO 6400

ISO 3200

ISO 1600

ISO 800

ISO 400

ISO 200

ISO 100

4”@ ƒ8

8”@ ƒ8



1 min ƒ8

2 min ƒ8

4 min ƒ8



High ISO Noise           

  1. Some cameras produce more noise than others.  Run a simple test to determine:
  2. Set up a test in your house at night.  Use any common room in your house.
  3. Make a series of exposures from 2 second to 2 or 4 minutes.
  4. View your images on your computer at 100% (full size) to determine where the noise become unacceptable.
  5. If using that time is needed.  Use your Long Exposure Noise Reduction.


Lower your LCD Brightness to its lowest Setting for more accurate viewing

10 Helpful Hints:

  1. Wear dark clothes so as you walk through the scene you will appear invisible to the camera
  2. Keep your body in between the flashlight and camera to alleviate recording the flashlight in the scene.
  3. Don’t keep your body in between what you are painting and the camera.  This will negate the painting.
  4. Paint your subjects from the side rather than from the camera.  Painting directly from the camera will flatten out the scene while painting from the side adds texture.
  5. Spend more time painting the areas you want to highlight.
  6. Use a broad beam for illuminating a general area, a focused beam to highlight.
  7. Use the cardboard core of a paper towel roll over the front of your flashlight to achieve a very narrow beam.
  8. Move the position of the flashlight to create a softer light.  Try to refrain from painting from one position.
  9. Before going out to make masterpieces, test your camera at home.  Set up your camera in your home at night and make a series of exposures at 30 seconds, 1 minute, 2 minutes, 3 minutes and 4 minutes.  Check your images out on your computer and see where the noise starts to become a problem.  Most cameras will look ok up to the 2 or 3 minute mark.
  10. The hotter it is, the more noise you will see over long exposures.  Below 60 degrees is optimal!
  11. Practice, experiment and have fun!