Light Painting - Techniques and Style

Last week Tony reminded you to not forget to have fun with your photography and the example he had was an antique camera that was light painted. Now light painting is really a lot of fun but there seems to be some confusion as to exactly how it’s done.

First, what is Light Painting? If you look at the etymology of the term “photography” it is loosely defined as painting or drawing with light. So, one could argue that all photography is “light painting”. But for our purposes, we’re talking about a photography technique in which the light on a subject is modified while the shutter is open.

As you can imagine, there are a lot of light painting techniques that each provide differing results. No one way of doing it is the right way. Let’s boil it down - light painting uses various tools and techniques resulting in images that take on a unique style. 

105 Seconds, f/16, ISO 400 - Shot as a class demonstration using a single mini Maglite. There was no ambient light.

The Basics

Let’s start small. As a demonstration in Tony’s Texas School class, we took the Texas Flag camera bag and set it on a draped background.  The light is simply a small mini Maglite. The light was held just a couple feet from the subject and while the shutter was open he “painted” the bag with the light. The whole process took a little less than two minutes. 

So what about the warm accent lights on either side of the bag? They were produced by holding an amber gel over the light while that part of the bag was painted. There was no gel on the lights while the front of the bag was painted. 

Remember, every light source has a color temperature and the light that is created in a mini Maglite has an amber cast - it’s an incandescent light. If you set your camera’s white balance to incandescent, then all the colors will render properly - except, of course, when you place a gel over the light. 

Mixed Light

I like to light paint subjects outdoors, usually shortly after sunset or just before sunrise. At such times, you’ll be mixing the light from your light source with the ambient light. If the light on your main subject is from an incandescent light, and you set your camera’s white balance to compensate for that, remember that all colors in your scene are shifted. 

25 Seconds, f/18, ISO 100 - For this shot, I used a 5 million candlepower flashlight to illuminate the airplane. 

That’s not a bad thing. In the shot of the airplane, I’ve set my white balance to incandescent to compensate for the amber hue of the flashlight that I was using. Notice then how blue it makes the sky. I love it, but if you don’t want that much of a shift in the color of the sky, then you need to have a light source that is closer to daylight color temperature. You can gel an incandescent light or use a light that is closer to daylight. Most LED lights today are pretty close to daylight.

Tools & Techniques

I like to use incandescent flashlights to light paint subjects. I also like to try and capture a final shot in a single frame. But, there are many variations on a theme. 

60 Seconds, f/10, ISO 100 - This was shot as a class project in a workshop in the Smoky Mountains. I believe we had 8 people using high powered flashlights to "paint" the scene.

I’ve worked with lots of folks who prefer light painting with camera flash units. They simply walk around the subject and pop the flash until they’ve built up enough light on the subject. 

Others use LED lights - they like the color temperature. I’ve even heard of folks light painting with fire but there are horror stories about when that gets out of control. 


By using flashlights and trying to capture a final single image, I produce photographs that I’ve described as very organic. I can shoot 4 or 5 of the same subject and no two are alike. 

Our good friend, John Hartman, has really studied and refined light painting tools and techniques. His light painting images are much more polished but they hide the complexity and work that goes into each one. On any light painting project, John may use a wide variety of light sources, each one tailored to the specific task at hand. And, John does not try to capture a final image in one frame. In fact, in the image of a car, there were five exposures just to capture the five inside spokes on the front wheel. The final image was created by layering upwards of 80 separate images in Photoshop. 

©John Hartman - The result of John's unique light painting technique.  

The bottom line is that there is no one way to light paint. Instead, consider it a sandbox that you hop into and just start playing with all the toys. And, don't try to do the most complex scene first. Start with a small flashlight and a table top scene. Then grow from there. I can assure you that you'll love the results.