Finding Locations for Light Painting Photography
Updated: Oct 6
One of the best things about light painting photography is getting out of the house at night and creating art in fantastic locations. I often see light painting photographers on social media looking for inspiration on finding locations. Hopefully this article will help provide some ideas on places to light paint, and how to find them without having to travel too far.
Tunnels are some of the best places to light paint, but some are better than others. Ease of access, no lighting in the tunnel, minimal or no lighting at the tunnel end, legal access, and flat surfaces are all major plus points. Places to look out for include:
Pedestrian subways/underpasses - most are illuminated, but not always.
Wildlife tunnels - to allow wild animals underneath roads.
Cattle tunnels - to allow cattle or tractors to pass under roads.
Culverts - to allow water courses and/or flood water to pass under roads.
Disused railway tunnels - some are legal to access, for example turned into paths or rail trails.
Canal tunnels with towpaths - one for the British!
Elevated and (partially) enclosed bridges - most are illuminated, but not always.
Storm water drains - read risks (below).
Most light painters should have some decent tunnels within 30 minutes of their home. You just need to know where to look. Do some research using maps and Google Maps (or other aerial mapping) satellite view!
Whilst on the subject of tunnels, I do need to issue a paragraph of warning about storm water drains. Storm water drains can appear to be great places to light paint and illuminate. However, extreme care needs to be taken for multiple reasons. In some locations they are illegal to access, and access itself can be dangerous. Water can rise to dangerous levels after less than a minute of rain - multiple photographers have drowned in storm water drains, please don't be the next one. Burst water mains, drain flushes, air conditioning dumps, or other water discharges can cause scary rises in water level even on dry days. Always check the latest weather forecast from more than one source, and the rain radar before entering. You will require non-slip shoes, a headlamp with more runtime than your worse case entry to exit time, plus back-up lights, batteries, snacks, and fresh water. In countries with water-borne diseases such as leptospirosis, you should consider wearing waterproof footwear. Combined storm water/sewers add the risk of low oxygen levels, and infections risk through wounds, eyes, or mucous membranes. Never entering fully segregated sewers unless you have a death wish. Tidal drains add an extra risk, as well as slippery mud. Entering tunnels with upstream sluice gates or valves (such as Eli's Tomb in Adelaide) is like playing Russian roulette with your life. Make sure you have someone with you, or someone knows where you are - there is no phone signal deep underground if you slip and break your leg!
Forests and Woodland
Forests and woodlands are excellent places to light paint. Most cities have urban woodlands, usually with no lighting at night. Of course, away from cities there are usually plenty of forests and woodlands. I recommend sticking to the beaten path where possible, and visiting first during the day to find suitable photographic compositions. I keep finding some amazing and unique urban woodland locations in my own city of Brisbane, Australia, despite living here for over 15 years!
Most towns and cities have parks. Some are considerably better than others for light painting. For starters, they need to be open and unlocked at night. Secondly, some are illuminated at night, whilst others aren't. There may be park features such as fountains, lakes, statues, tree tunnels, follies, and sculptures that may be great places to light paint.
Children's playgrounds and skate parks are popular places to light paint at night after the kids have gone home. Just be careful if you are using steel-wool, that you don't damage surfaces, or leave metal filing debris (as sharp metal filing debris on kids slides is not cool). Also, these places tend to attract anti-social people after dark.
Some cemeteries may be accessible at night, and have interesting structures to illuminate. But obviously be very respectful of the location. Access rules may also vary.
Escape to the Country
Get away from the city, and there are plenty of natural and built landscapes to light paint. Lakes, beaches, mountains, waterfalls, gorges, castles, abbeys, ruins, follies, bunkers, forts, rivers, creeks, bridges, dams, geological features, and more. The world is your oyster! A look around on Google Maps (or suitable alternative) will often find lots of locations with potential. For example when I was heading to the UK to see my parents a few years ago, an area search on Google Maps found 3 ruined abbeys/castles, a canal tunnel with pathway, abandoned (and dry) canal locks, a very low headroom pedestrian tunnel, and multiple other interesting locations within 30 minutes drive. It also helps that the UK has legally accessible paths all over the place. Many other countries have much more limited land access. Looking at other photographers work on social media (for example searching by geotag) may also uncover some great locations for light painting.
Found a location, but unsure about access? Then politely asking a landowner can sometimes result in a positive reply - at the end of the day the worst they can say is no! Whilst all locations have inherent safety risks, be extra careful when light painting in and around wave and tidal locations, rocks, or water courses where water levels can rapidly change due to rain, valve, or sluice gate discharges.
High ambient light from street lights isn't too helpful for light painting (unless you have a camera with "live composite"). Improving security and modern LED lighting means that dark enough locations are getting less and less in cities. Two of my favourite locations have been recently written off due to installation of very bright security lights nearby. However, it is still possible to find locations in urban environments that are dark enough for at least a few seconds or more of light painting - just use your brightest torch/tool combinations such as torches >1000 lumen or LED light bars. Obviously, undesirables also like dark places as well, so take care! You may also attract a crowd of passers by wondering what you are doing, or the occasional overzealous security guard. Late nights mid-week tend to be the best time in cities if you want less people around.
Urban exploring (Urbex) is visiting, and often photographing places you are not meant to be in. These can include aforementioned Storm Water Drains, Mines, Infrastructure, and Abandoned Buildings. These can be some of the most creative places to light paint. However, in many cases, access is illegal, so acknowledge the risks. These places are also often difficult or dangerous to access, and can be very dangerous inside with risks including uneven ground, mud, dodgy floorboards, asbestos, biohazards, and undesirable humans. If the location is at surface level, using lights at night can draw unwanted attention, including the police.
Many rookie urban explorers make the mistake of asking for locations, and expecting to get a serious answer. Despite a recent trend of sharing locations on social media, urban explorers are usually highly secretive of locations, and will not share spots with someone who has made zero effort at finding places for themselves. This "gatekeeping" is for good reason, as if too many people known about a location, it may get vandalised, burnt down, or entry made inaccessible. Thus you will need to put in considerable time and effort doing your own research to find urbex locations. Likewise, when you do visit a location, try to avoid mentioning the location or access points on social media, as otherwise you may ruin it for others. There is a fine line between showing off your amazing urbex photography, and not giving away locations!
Your Own House
Cold, raining, nothing on TV, wife has a headache, or avoiding a zombie apocalypse? Then just light paint in your own home. Turn off the lights, put up a black backdrop, and light paint away. My Light Tunnel photos were all created in a spare bedroom, with a black cloth from a fabric shop hanging from the window blinds. Some light painters have created a home studio in spare rooms, sheds, and garages.
These safety steps will reduce the risk of your light painting photography resulting in a visit to hospital or the police station:
Legality of accessing locations can be quite variable between countries, states, and even specific locations, so always check legality, and accept risks before heading off to a location.
Check out new locations during the daytime.
Do your research regarding location opening times, accessibility, and personal safety.
If concerned about personal safety, bring along others, or at least make sure someone knows where you are.
Take precautions against dangerous wildlife and other hazards - whether it be tiny Mozzies or gigantic Bears.
If you really have to do steel-wool spins (yawn), don't do it at a flammable location, during fire-bans, or where it may cause damage to property, infrastructure, passers-by, or wildlife.
Wear a headlamp when walking to and from these locations, so that you have both hands free.
There are lots of locations available for light painting, and most light painters have multiple suitable locations within a short driving distance, or even walking distance from their homes. However, you may need to do a reasonable amount of research on Google Maps (or other aerial mapping) to find these places. Further research or daytime visits are highly advisable to assess suitability and safety. Always respect locations, and only leave behind footprints.
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