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Five Useful Light Painting Tips

Passing on light painting knowledge is an important part of the light painting scene. These are 5 tips that I have either learnt through experience, or have been passed down to me from pioneering light painters such as Patrick Rochon. I hope you find these tips useful!


1. Glow in the dark pebbles as ground reference points


When creating structured light trails, such as orbs or light plants, you ideally need a reference point on the ground. This reference point needs to be visible in the dark. The best solution to this problem, is to use a glow in the dark (GITD) pebble that can be purchased cheaply online, usually in bags of at least 10. Using a GITD pebble is easy, you shine a bright light at it for around 10 seconds, which should be enough for at least 30 minutes of 'glow'. Then you place it on the ground where you need your reference point to be. Usually the pebble is hidden in the resulting photo by the light from the light painting, but a quick use of the spot healing brush can get rid of it in Lightroom if required.


GITD pebbles or GITD tape can also be useful for marking where a tripods legs are, so that you don't trip over, or knock over a tripod. They can also be useful to mark a location for a model to stand for consistency between attempts at light painting portraits or backlit still-houettes.


Glow in the dark pebbles can be used as a ground reference point.
Glow in the dark pebbles can be used as a ground reference point.

Light painting using a single ground reference point.
Light painting using a single ground reference point.

2. Eliminating tool hotspots with white masking tape


Due to the nature of flashlight/torch beams, long light painting tools such as light swords, sabers, tubes, or rods, tend to have more light at the torch/input end, then the far end. This is more of a problem with 'floodier' beam profiles than 'throwier' beam profiles. There can often be a severe light gradient between the input end and far end of the light painting tools. Fiber optic whip and brush tools can also suffer from a similar issue where the concentrated fibers at the input end result in an overexposed "hotspot".


Correctly adjusting your exposure to avoid highlight clipping at the input end will help, but this may result in most of the tool being under exposed. If highlight clipping at the input end is an issue, then a simple solution is to wrap white masking tape around the input end of the tool. This decreases the light being emitted at the input end "hotspot" and makes it easier to correctly expose the entire light painting tool.


Hotspots/over exposure at the input end can be a problem with fiber optic tools.
Hotspots/over exposure at the light input end can be a problem with fiber optic tools.

White masking tape can reduce overexposed parts of light painting tools
White masking tape can reduce overexposed parts of light painting tools


3. Decorating light tubes


Getting bored of your light saber? Is the force no longer with you? A good way to make an old tool more interesting is to add black electrical tape to the tool. This can be taped as a spiral around the tube, hoops, or even a different pattern on each side. The result will create interesting new light trail effects. Electrical tape is also easy to remove when you want to change things around.

Electrical tape on light tubes creates interesting effects.
Electrical tape on light tubes creates interesting effects.

Light trails created by adding electrical tape around a plexi tube.
Light trails with electrical tape stripes around a plexi tube.

4. Decorating light blades


Light blades (also known as plexiglass shapes) can create cool mid-air effects, and there are many modifications that can be done to create eye-catching light trails. Experimentation is fun, and quite addictive. Examples include:

  • Using Sharpie or gel pen ink on the blade edges. This can be removed with a Magic Eraser (easier if the edges are sanded more finely).

  • Using coloured cellophane on the edges or flat side. This can be taped down with clear sellotape.

  • Using various tape patterns on the edges or flat side. Washi tape works well.

  • Course or fine sanding of the edges will create different effects. Fine sanding will have a more "glassy/polished" appearance. Course sanding will create a more "solid" appearance.

  • Sanding the flat side - this will create a more solid light trail, but is not reversible!

Adding sharpy ink on light blade edges.
Sharpy ink on light blade edges.

Sharpie ink stripes on the light blade helped create this effect
Sharpie ink stripes on a circular light blade helped create this effect

5. LED Tea Lights for locating the camera lens


When light painting in very dark conditions, it is easy to loose track of where the camera is. This may be a problem if the light source to camera position is critical, for example walking towards the camera with a backlight scanner, creating "fairy dust" effects where the torch/flashlight hotspot needs to be aimed at the lens, or creating light trails/shapes at the correct angle. The solution to this is simple. Place an LED Tea Light (which can usually be purchased in bulk at low prices) on top of the camera - easy! Of course, if you have now bought a 20 pack of LED Tea Lights, consider using the other 19 as static lights in your light painting photo. As LED Tea Lights are not very bright, the light emitted from the one placed on top of the camera will not add noticeable light to the resulting photo. An additional tip for "seeing in the dark" is to use as dim a light as possible (for example a headlamp on "moonlight" mode) when setting up and in-between each photo (noting you will need more light for camera focusing). This will allow your eyes to adjust to the dark.


The LED Tea Light has multiple uses.
The LED Tea Light has multiple uses.

Knowing where the camera is, is critical for using a backlight scanner.
Knowing where the camera is positioned, is critical for using a backlight scanner.

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