Light Painting Techniques

Joshua Tree Light Painting

Night photography is one of the more challenging genres of photography but mastery of the long exposure will really change your photography game.  On a completely dark night, there may be a tree or a person that you want to highlight.  This is where the technique of light painting comes in.  

What is light painting? 

Light painting is a photography technique that uses a moving light source to add light to an under-illuminated subject while taking a long-exposure photograph. A scene or object can be brought to life by painting with a beam of light.

There are a few ways you can do this.  The most important thing in an object, light painted shot is stillness so be sure your tripod and subject are sturdy and still the entire duration of the shot.

  • Flashlight/headlamp use- Depending on how far away your object is, you can flash on your headlamp or a flashlight for a few seconds.  A good rule of thumb is one second for every 10 feet away your subject is.

    Light Painting Technique - Flashlights/Headlamp Use

  • Car headlights or fog lights-   If you are wanting to light up something larger like a mountain or a canyon wall, headlights of cars can be used however it will dilute your picture minimally. Don’t be afraid of this though as you can still capture the milky way and shooting stars if your headlights are on. 

    Light Painting Technique - Car Headlights or Fog Lights

  • Backlight your subject-  You can also backlight the object you are shooting by getting a LED light up candle or a glow stick.  Place your light behind your object if it is bright, or beside your object if the light is soft like a tea light or yellow light. I personally like the dollar store battery powered tea lights.

    Light Painting Technique - Backlight your subject

  • Colored light filters for flashlight- You can also use these filters in front of your flashlight to give your landscape a different hue.  I’m a fan of using a brown light filter as it gives the right amount of light to the object of interest.  You can find these on amazon for pretty cheap.

    Light Painting Technique - Colored Light Filters for Flashlight

  • Lasers or light movement- You can also use laser lights or small keychain lights to write during the exposure.  This is tricky and requires some practice but it adds a different style to light painting.

    Light Painting Technique - Lasers or Light Movement

  • Fire- Fire of all types shows in pictures very bright.  Campfires or fireworks can be too bright at times for longer exposures so it’s important to increase your f stop if there is that much fire.  You can use a lower f stop with a longer exposure time if you use smaller elements of fire like sparklers or candles.  One new interesting technique called fire spinning is done by spinning an egg whisk filled with steel wool lit on fire.  The in person experience of this is anticlimactic- just single sparks flying and burning out, but the pictures are capturing.

    Light Painting Technique -Fire
    It can be intimidating to learn a new photography skill like light painting. If you’d like to get some hands on experience with this technique, consider booking an 
    astrophotography experience and we can light paint the Rocky Mountains together.
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