The Art of Light Drawing
Updated: Jan 4
Light drawing is a genre of light painting photography where light trails of various kinds are created in front of the camera during a long exposure. These light trails could be freestyle light trails, orbs, half-orbs, light calligraphy, light plants, intricate light drawing, fiber optic brush effects, light tunnels, and much more. There are so many possibilities in light painting that it is difficult to get bored!
So what do you need to get started? Ideally you need an interchangeable lens camera (DSLR or Mirrorless) that can do Bulb (>30second long) exposures. You do not need a high end camera, as modern entry level APS-C cameras have sufficient image quality for the vast majority of light painting scenes (I personally use an APS-C camera as I prefer a lightweight kit). One of the most important camera features to me is either an IR remote control, or the ability to plug in a RF remote control. Be careful, some entry level and even a few mid-range cameras do not have these options, relying on Bluetooth control from mobile phones which are more of an annoyance than assistance.
You also don't need expensive lenses. Most of my light drawings are performed between f/5.6 and f/11, so ultra-fast lens are rarely required, and most kit lenses will easily suffice (in fact many kit lenses from the last 5 years are optically very good). Lens features that I do look for are good flare resistance, and ability to produce sunstars/starbursts. I prefer to use wide angle focal lengths between 13mm to 27mm (9mm to 18mm APS-C).
Other photography equipment that is required includes a tripod, remote control, and a glow-in-the-dark pebble. Tripods should have good range of height and have adjustable legs to allow stability on sloping or uneven ground. You need either a Infra-Red (IR) or Radio-frequency (RF) remote control. I personally use an IR remote control, but you do need line of sight with the camera and range may be limited to around 10m. RF remote controls may allow for more distant control depending on the model. Most remotes should be able to start a Bulb exposure with one press, and stop the exposure with the second press. However, there are a few that need to be held down during the exposure, and are only really useful for Eric Pare style light painting portraits (discussed in more detail in a future article). The glow-in-the-dark pebble will be discussed later.
You also need to be wearing black clothes, and have as much skin covered as possible to make you more invisible whilst you are light painting.
Light Painting Equipment
There are lots of options for how you create the light trails including lightsabers, plexiglass rods and tubes, light blades, fiber optic brushes, fiber optic whips, orb lights, LED light bars, torch light alone, and more. These can be purchased from a selection of light painting manufacturers, including Light Painting Paradise, Light Painting Brushes, Light Painting Tubes, and Lumenman, amongst others. Alternatively you can make your own. I won't discuss each tool in detail, as this article would turn into PhD, but I always list equipment used for my photos on my instagram. Most light painting tool manufacturers show sample photos in the product descriptions.
Setting the Scene
There are so many different types of light trails that can be created. Freestyle light trails, orbs, half-orbs, light calligraphy, light plants, intricate light drawing, fiber optic brush effects, light tunnels. There are plenty of YouTube tutorials on how to create each of these, and in the next section I'll describe how I create a light plant. First you need to plan your scene, with questions 1) Where is it? (a studio, outdoor location, etc) 2) What are you going to create? 3) What tools and flashlight/torches do you need to get the desired effect? The light drawing may be pre-planned (I often draw out my light plants before hand), or the idea might come into your head mid-session. If you are light painting outdoors, I recommend trying to get your light painting the fit the environment, so you need to consider the overall composition.
Exposure and Tool Brightness
Ambient light and matching tool brightness are major considerations. If you are light painting in the dark, you have free reign of exposure and flashlight (or light source) brightness settings. Your light painting tool brightness (and resulting light trail) needs to be correctly exposed. This may require adjusting your flashlight/torch brightness, and/or camera exposure. I always recommend using flashlights where you can turn on the flashlight with the last memorised mode/brightness setting. Whilst most flashlights have strobe at a fixed brightness, the Light Painting Paradise LightPainter has adjustable strobe brightness which is incredibly useful as it allow more flexibility - for example you can increase or decrease the strobe brightness to match another flashlight/tool combination that you are using in the same light painting.
If you are using more than one tool then you need to match the brightness of each flashlight or light source, so that you don't up with bright and dim light trails in the same photo (unless that is what you want). This may take some experimentation, and again, flashlights with multiple brightness steps and last mode memory will be very useful! Single LED flashlights with the Anduril user interface are fantastic for creating "fairy dust" effects on the slowest party mode setting. LED Tea Lights are also useful for adding ambience to scenes. My Flashlight Buying Guide may come in useful when purchasing flashlights/torches for light painting.
If you want to illuminate the scene with moonlight, or Milky Way "astro" background you will need to use an exposure that lets in more light (e.g. wider aperture, higher ISO, longer exposure) and relatively low flashlight / torch brightness.
If there is high ambient light (such as from street lamps or a cityscape background), then you may have a race against time to as to avoid the ambient light over-exposing the photo. My plan of attack for light painting in high ambient brightness is to know what exposure you need to correctly expose the tool you are using. For example if I might know that I can correctly expose a specific flashlight/tool combination on 100% brightness at f/11, ISO100. I will then take a test exposure with no light painting at this aperture and ISO setting, and make a guess at an exposure time e.g. 15 seconds. If the resulting scene is overexposed, then I have to reduce the exposure time accordingly, and also consider how this affects what I can light paint within that time limit. If the photo is underexposed, then I can increase the exposure time accordingly, and consider more light painting (don't forget you don't have to be light painting throughout the entire exposure). Also be aware that some flashlights reduce in brightness rapidly due to heat, so only have the light turned on whilst you are actually light painting!
Once you have decided upon your location, tools, and composition, you need to set up your camera and tripod. Set the expected aperture and ISO settings. For most outdoor (non-portrait) light drawings I set the exposure time to Bulb. However, there are some cases where I will set a shorter exposure time, such as when creating light tunnels or light blade trails in a studio, or light painting in high ambient brightness.
If you need a ground reference point for the light drawing, such as for a light plant, or orb, then I would advise using a glow-in-the-dark pebble (or other suitable glow-in-the-dark object) as your reference point. Some light painters also recommend adding glow-in-the-dark tape to their tripod feet so that they don't trip over the legs or knock over the tripod.
You will then need to focus the lens at, or close to the area that needs to be fully in focus. There are a few ways you can do this. Either temporarily illuminate the scene with a flashlight or headlamp, auto-focus on the required location, then switch to manual focus. Alternatively, if you have a mirrorless camera, illuminate the scene, switch to manual focus, and use focus peaking and/or focus magnification to assist with focusing. Some lenses are easier to manually focus than others! You may need to turn on a setting to activate remote shutter control, and if you need to set a delay timer, you will need to set that as well (note: some cameras do not allow a delay timer with Bulb).
Connect the flashlight to the tools, turn on the light, select the required brightness setting to be memorised by the flashlight, and turn it off. If you are using multiple tools (I often use up to 5 flashlight/tool elements in a light painting), I recommend lining them up at a suitable location outside of the camera's field of view, illuminated with very dim lighting (such as from an LED Tea Light or Headlamp on moonlight setting) so that you can locate them in the dark. Also, make sure you can move around the location safely in the dark, use dim lighting (apart from when focusing) so that your eyes can adjust to the dark.
Let's Light Paint!
Now for the fun bit - the actual light painting. There will be lots of variations in workflow depending on what you are creating. I will write this based on the creation of a 3 element light plant (as per the below photo). Light drawing is like real drawing, but just in mid-air. Instead of a pencil touching the paper to create each pencil stroke, the flashlight or light source is turned on and off to create each light trail.
Move to the starting reference point (glow-in-the-dark pebble) with the 1st tool - Plexi Rod and Light Painting Paradise LightPainter Flashlight on Flash Strobe Mode (strobe speed and brightness were preset and memorised when setting up). Trigger the start of the Bulb exposure with the remote.
Create the light plant by turning the light on, drawing the first light trail, and turning the light off. Repeat for each of the three light trails.
Swap over the tools, 2nd tool - Adapter (beam collimator) and KDLITKER E6 Flashlight (preset to Blue High mode, and memorised when setting up). Find the reference point, point the light downward, turn the light on, create the spiral effect, then turn the light off.
Swap over the tools, 3rd tool - Lumintop FW1A Flashlight for "Fairy Dust" (preset to Slowest Party Mode setting, and memorised when setting up). Point the flashlight at the camera above the reference point, hold down the lights momentary switch and move the light around to create the "Fairy Dust" from the short strobe flashes. Release the momentary switch when complete.
Trigger the end of the Bulb exposure with the remote.
Make your way to the camera, and take a look at your photo. If you have long exposure noise reduction turned on (which removes most "hot pixels" from the photo) then you might need to wait a while for the image to appear. It is highly unlikely that the first attempt will be the final attempt, so don't be upset if you need to change the camera exposure, flashlight brightness, or refine your light drawing. I average around 4 attempts until I'm happy, though my worst case scenario was 13 attempts!
You may also may need to add illumination lighting to a scene as well as light drawing/trails. This will be looked at in a future article.
Also, be aware that it takes a lot of practice to get some light drawings to a standard that you may be happy with. Some orb spinners have taken over 100 attempts to create non-wonky orbs. Many of my earlier light plants were pretty terrible compared to some of my latest ones. It helps if you have good 3D spacial awareness, I'm not one of them! As a bonus, here is a video I made of myself (re-)creating a Light Plant last year (with added ambient light so that you can see what I'm doing).
Future tutorials in this series will look at illumination, light painting portraits, and post-processing.