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Painting with Light

Matt Schwarz
December 22, 2010 by Matt Schwarz Staff

Ever notice those commercials where beams of light dance around people or objects to spell out words or make shapes? The ones that look like stop motion, but have cool light streaks around them? Many people refer to it as light painting, and it looks a lot like this:

There are tons of different ways you can incorporate this technique. You could make a music video where the band’s members have ribbons of light beaming around them. Or you could give your video life by adding light painting to show character movement. Light painting can produce some amazing visual results, and with some preparation it may not be as hard as you think.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Stills Camera with manual settings
  • Tripod
  • Dark clothing
  • A light source, preferably a flashlight, LED, glowsticks work pretty well
  • A friend or partner to help (not necessary but guaranteed to increase the number of laughs)
  • A dark environment
  • A fun idea!Our friends at PhotoJoJo pieced together an awesome guide to the basics. 

The process of creating light paintings varies based on what you want to capture. You can make a video card for someone where the words are spelled out, outline objects like in the examples above, or do something really elaborate, like ask someone to marry you in light writing over a couple of city blocks. That’s what Derick Childress did here when he proposed to his now wife, Emily. Derick was kind enough to explain at length exactly how he accomplished such an awesome video.

Here are some technical details to keep in mind-

  • Turn off your cameras’ auto focus
  • Set the ISO low (under 400) so the sensor can pick up your light source easily
  • Adjust your f/stop or aperture to as high as you can get it (e.g. f/18 or f/22). This will prevent other sources, like background street lamps, from showing up in your images
  • If you want to capture long streaks of light, just take a photo with a long exposure, this means using a slower shutter speed and have some fun dancing around in frame with your light source.
  • You’ll want to experiment with different shutter speeds, a longer exposure= longer light streaks
  • If you want to capture a subject along with light streaks, fire the flash on your subject at the beginning of the shot, then enter the frame while you subject remains still and draw away!Finally, making a video out of these pictures mirrors the steps to create stop motion almost exactly. You can refer to our timelapse lesson for reference. After you’re done shooting your images, you’ll want to choose the best ones, weed out the rest, and then bring all those images into a video editing program. By placing your images in order you can animate movement, spell out words, or make all sorts of interesting light based shapes. It will take some practice with your camera and location to get the best results, but done right, you can make some amazing visual works of art!

Ready for a challenge?

Write your name or draw a picture of something with light! Try using more than one type of light or different color light, then edit them together to animate the photos into a video!

Accept this challenge


Megan Sweeney Plus

I understand the concept of painting with light in a still photo but how do we do that in a video? Like the first example with light in the trees? Thanks!

Olivia Wilkes Plus

The first example is actually a series of still images sequenced together to create a video, instead of motion film. As far as I know you are not able to capture light that way using video.

Joel Sharpe Plus

I'd like to know more about the post processing. Like, how do you maintain elements across multiple frames?

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