Light Painting Overview
Updated: Jul 4
Light painting is an increasingly popular genre of photography, but what is it? My definition of light painting is that it is "the intentional addition of artificial light to a long exposure photograph". As light is being added during a long exposure, light painting usually occurs at night, or in low ambient brightness. There are 3 main types of light painting photography - light drawing, illumination, and kinetic photography.
Light drawing, is the creation of light trails in the camera's field of view during a long exposure photograph. This is what most people refer to as light painting, and it may also be known as light graffiti, or light trails. The light trails can be created by a variety of methods including torches/flashlights, torches/flashlights connected to light painting tools, LED light bars, spinning steel wool, or even driving a car though the scene. The light trails may be freestyle (e.g. randomly waving a lightsaber around) or structured (such as my light plants). Light drawing is often combined with illumination. I don't personally see car light trails, or fireworks as being light painting (unless they have been intentionally added to the scene), as they fall under the wider genre of long exposure photography.
Illumination is where light is added to the scene to illuminate objects during a long exposure photo. This may be the by-product of light drawing, or the light source may be hidden from the camera so as to not create any light trails. The light source is usually from torches / flashlights, LED panels, headlamps, or even a flash/strobe. The light source may be moving during the long exposure, or may be static. Moving light sources may include using backlight scanners or black sheets to hide the light source from the camera, or the light source being outside of the camera's field of view. Examples of static lighting include backlighting/still-houettes, and urbex photography using torches and diffusers. Intentional motion blur from illuminated models or other objects during a long exposure may also come under this bracket.
Kinetic Light Painting
Kinetic light painting is where the camera or lens is moved during the long exposure. This may include panning the tripod, camera rotation on a rotating jig, moving the camera between tripods, or changing the lens mid-exposure. Kinetic light painting typically involves exposing light to the camera for as long as required for the first scene, putting the lens cap on, moving the camera, taking the lens cap off to expose the second scene, putting the lens cap back on, and repeat until you have the desired effect. Each scene may include light drawing and/or illumination, or even photographing a pre-existing image on a screen. By removing and replacing the lens cap, you are essentially creating multiple "exposures" within a single long exposure. It is also possible to swap the (pre-focussed) lens during the long exposure, though this needs to be done in the dark, and using cameras that don't automatically end the exposure when a lens is removed. If you don't have the equipment do kinetic light painting, similar effects can also be created by using in-camera double exposures, or layering multiple photos in post processing, but please be honest about how you create photos in photo descriptions.
Other methods of kinetic light painting/photography include zoom pulls (zooming the lens during a long exposure), or moving the camera during the long exposure, also known as intentional camera movement.
There are three main types of light painting photography - Light Drawing, Illumination, and Kinetic. Future articles will look in detail at the art of light drawing, light painting portraits, and illumination. These articles will cover technique, and required equipment.
I usually list the photographic exposure, flashlights/torches, and light painting tools used for my photos on my Instagram, so please check that out if you are interested.