Light photography has become something of an art-form in recent times and there is a growing number of photographers dedicating their attention to painting with light. Light painting or light graffiti involves taking photos in the dark or extremely low lighting by delaying the shutter speed of the camera and filling the frame with designs created by light. The effect can be used to created designs or text in the air or on a wall or even around a subject and all it requires is a decent camera, a simple light source like a torch or a camera strobe and a lot of creativity. Light photography can also be used if you wish to light up a subject in a unique or unorthodox manner, creating sharp shadows at odd angles or even lighting your subject differently when you cannot change or move the natural light.
One thing to keep in mind when taking light painting photos is that your primary subject, if any, will be required to stay still during the entire exposure time or he/she will appear blurry in the photo, which is why the best light painting photos either use inanimate stationary objects as the subject or have the models in a comfortable and often seated position.
What you will need
The camera, quite obviously, is the most important tool. You will need a mid to high range camera that offers manual mode in which you can adjust the shutter speed. The longer the exposure time, the longer you have to create vivid designs with your light source. Some cameras also have a feature called ‘bulb’ mode, which lets you keep the shutter open for as long as you have the capture button pressed so you can have a prolonged exposure time. Professionals also use remote shutter release cables or wireless remote controls so that they can open and close the shutter without any delay as soon as they are done with their light designing.
What you need
Apart from the camera, you will need a tripod or a mount to keep your camera steady, as shooting handheld with such long exposure periods will most definitely give you a blurry result. If you do not want to use a tripod, you can simply place your camera on a table or shelf, depending on where you are shooting, to keep it steady, but this will restrict your framing. Finally, for the graffiti itself, you will need a light source; something portable and bright. Torches, camera strobes, LED lights and glow-sticks have all been used to get good results. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even try and use a mobile phone’s bright display.
The camera settings
The camera settings for light photography will differ from camera to camera and depend on the location and situation you are shooting in. You will definitely have to take a few test shots with your camera in different light, ranging from pitch black to dimly lit, and also using different light sources for your light painting. The general rule when it comes to painting with light is to have a long exposure, with delayed shutter speed and a low ISO to avoid having any noise in your photo.
Check the settings
The aperture will vary based on the lighting and brightness of the light you are using. You can start at f5.6 and take a few test shots. If your image is too dark or underexposed, open up the aperture to f4, and if your image is overexposed, try closing the aperture further to f8. You will need to experiment with the aperture to get the ideal setting for your photo. You will also need to set the camera to manual focus as it will try to refocus in auto mode when you press the shutter button and it will struggle to get the focus correct as you will be shooting in little or no light.
Framing your shot
With the camera settings in place, you now have to set up your shot. Photographing light trails is not hard but framing your photo and creating the right setting can enhance your image a lot more. Although you will get best results for your drawing in pitch dark conditions, a dimly lit background can add texture and depth to your image. If you look at the best light graffiti shots, you will notice that they are taken from perspectives rather than normal standing height. Find a terrace with a view of a busy street or set up your camera close to the ground to get unique angles and patterns in your photos.
If you intend to do your own light painting, then you should have a fair idea of the confines of your frame so that you do not end up writing or doodling off the frame. You should also frame your shot in such a way that none of the light you intend to capture is blocked by any foreign object, yourself or your subject. So having a relatively clear space to work in is a plus.
Other tips to keep in mind
The timing of your shutter speed will vary depending on the amount of exposure you want and the amount of time you will need to capture the light patterns. Either way, it is best to time your shot so that the shutter opens as soon as the light source enters the frame or you begin drawing, and the shutter closes as soon as the light leaves the frame or you are done drawing. The longer there is no light while your shutter is open, the dimmer your photo will get.
Blast of light
You will also notice that at a low ISO, a subject that you are lighting up will have blurred edges. If you wish to get sharper edges on your subject, you can increase the ISO, but keep in mind that the higher your ISO setting, the more noise you will get. You can also try and add texture to your photo with varying the intensity of your light source. If you have a torch with different brightness settings, you can use the varying intensities to get brighter patches in your photo. If you are drawing using an LED light or a strobe, then the closer it is to the camera, the brighter it will appear. Similarly, the slower the light source moves, the brighter it will appear in the photo.