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  • Stephen Knight

How to Create Fairy Dust Effects in Light Painting

Updated: Apr 23

This tutorial article explains how to create "fairy dust" effects in long exposure light painting photographs.

What is fairy dust?

Fairy dust is what I call tiny sparkly sunstar or starburst effects, which can be used to enhance a light painting photo. Here are a couple of examples.

Light trail fairy dust.
Light trail fairy dust from a Noctigon KR1 flashlight.

Individual fairy dust
Individual fairy dust from Olight i5R EOS flashlight.

How do you create fairy dust?

Fairy dust is created by pointing a flashlight/torch, with a single LED emitter directly at the camera lens and sensor during a long exposure photo. This works better when the hotspot of the light beam is shining at the lens instead of the spill beam. It also helps if the lens has a low and/or even number of aperture blades, and a smaller aperture is used (typically f/8 or higher). Some lenses are considerably better than others for creating starbursts. There are two main methods of creating fairy dust - either as part of a light trail, or individually.

  1. Light trail fairy dust - this is created by setting a flashlight to a slow strobe frequency, with a very short on-time pulse of <5ms, and holding down the momentary tail switch whilst you create the light trail. Momentary mode is when the light only emits light when the switch is held down. This may be a half-press or full press depending on the light's switch design. The light is then moved around creating a light trail of fairy dust stars. The most recommended flashlight is the Noctigon KR1 SST-40 6500k (slowest party strobe frequency - 1.3ms at 3.5Hz). The discontinued Light Painting Paradise LightPainter - Ryu's Lightworks, and Lumintop FW1A are also excellent choices. The KR1 has a fixed strobe brightness and are best used in the f/8, ISO100-250 equivalent range so as to avoid over-exposure (which may cause lens flare and reduced image contrast). You should always be aiming the flashlight's hotspot at the camera lens. It can be tricky to get this accuracy with light trail fairy dust, particularly at close range. An "hotspot hit" fairy dust flash will be much brighter than a "hotspot miss" fairy dust flash - this explains the variation in brightness in fairy dust light trails in the sample photos.

  2. Individual fairy dust - this is created by creating each fairy dust flash one by one. This is preferably created using a flashlight with momentary mode, even better if you can use momentary mode at any brightness level. Again, you need to aim to get the flashlight's hotspot to hit the camera lens, which gets easier as you increase range. Whilst the light trail fairy dust has a fixed on-time of each flash, with individual fairy dust you control the on-time using the momentary switch. You will get more consistency with on-times of 3 seconds or more, than with on-times of 1sec, as the percentage margin of error is less. The downside of longer on-times, is that there is an increase in risk of light source movement which may blur the fairy dust. Due to the longer on-time with individual fairy dust creation, it is recommended to use a relatively flashlight brightness setting. For example one of my favourite flashlights to use for individual fairy dust is the Olight i5R EOS (or i5R EOS HCRI) which has momentary functionality (with a half-press) on 15 lumen low mode. A 3 to 5 second on-time works well at f/8, ISO100. All of the flashlights mentioned in the previous section, as well as any flashlight where you can use momentary on any brightness setting (e.g. Sofirn SP31 V2.0, Fenix PD36R) can also be used for individual fairy dust by using lower brightness modes with momentary mode. The LightPainter flashlight also has a side switch trigger mode which creates a single 5ms burst of light after each side switch press. The Ants On A Melon RGB Critter has 39 colour options, 10 brightness levels, and a momentary mode for creating coloured fairy dust. This has great creative potential, for example if used with a slow colour fade.

Light trail fairy dust
Light trail fairy dust from the LightPainter flashlight.

Be aware that flashlights with white LEDs have different colour temperature (warm to cool white) and tint (green to magenta) which can be quite noticeable in fairy dust. If you adjust the white balance (colour temperature and/or tint ) in post processing, it may affect how the fairy dust appears. For example is shift to a warmer white balance may make the fairy dust look more golden.

Like any element of light painting photography, there is some trail and error involved with creating fairy dust effects, and many attempts may be required to get perfection. I hope this article has provided some clarity around how to create fairy dust effects. Links to some of the torches I use to create fairy dust are below:

Olight i5R at Olight USA (affiliate link) - 10% off with code: OLIGHTSTORE10


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