By Rick Doble

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Time-Flow Photography: Experimental Imagery with Continuous Motion and Long Shutter Speeds
Time-Flow Photography:
Experimental Imagery with Continuous Motion
and Long Shutter Speeds

light painting, digital photography, lights through autombile windshield in the rain
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Definition, Explanation, How To Instructions, Techniques, Technical Details, Examples, Tips

light painting, digital photography, ferris wheel
A 'light painting' digital photograph is created by the movement of a light or lights, using a slow camera shutter speed, to create a image. Because this type of photography requires a long exposure (typically from one second to ten seconds), it is usually done at night or in an unlighted room.
While light painting effects can be simulated with Adobe PhotoShop or other image editing program, light painting is an in-camera photography effect and not achieved through computer manipulation of the image. The effects possible with this purely photographic technique are unlimited and a new area for experimentation now that they are much easier to work with in digital photography.

With the immediate feedback of the digital photography LCD screen, light painting photography has come of age. The photographer can quickly adjust exposure, color balance and focus along with adjusting the movement of lights to make a better composition.
Light painting has always been possible with film based cameras and color or black and white film. However, because the exposure and the resulting image were so hard to judge (and the photographer could never be sure until the film was developed), this type of photography was very hard to work with until the advent of digital photography.

thumbnail light painting page from the book Experimental Digital Photography
Click to see pages about light painting from Doble's book
Experimental Digital Photography

From a moving car at night | Ferris wheel | Self portraits | Lights reflected in water at night #1
Rain on the road at night Lights reflected in water at night #2 | Fireworks | Christmas lights at night

Advanced Light Painting Tutorial
-- For Camera Movement Effects --

Distinctly different effects can be created with this technique. Effects are created with light movement, camera movement or a combination.

light painting, digital photography, self portrait with light pen
Line Drawing Effect: A light source such as a flashlight can be used to draw clear, crisp lines against a dark background. This is usually achieved with a camera that is mounted on a tripod or is secured and stationary. The faster the light is moved, the sharper the line will be.
light painting, digital photography, self portrait lit by flashlight
Area Lighting Effect: The flashlight can be turned toward the subject and the light can be moved across a subject or an environment, lighting selective areas. As the light crosses the same area the exposure increases with each overlap. Like the line drawing effect, this is usually done with a camera that is secured.
light painting, digital photography, lights smeared by car movement
Paint Smearing Effect: To achieve a smearing effect, camera movement is often used. In this case the camera is moved across a light source or light sources. Camera movement can be very simple such as a smooth sweeping horizontal movement or quite intricate such as a spiraling circular movement or quite subtle such as a spiraling movement with considerable hand vibration at the same time the camera is moved in a set pattern. The patterns and effects you get will vary considerably depending on the camera movement and the length of the shutter speed. Photographers should experiment to find what works.

Combination Effects: A photographer can use both camera and subject movement to create interesting effects. Obviously the more types of movement, the more variables and the greater the uncertainty. Moving the camera with a moving light or against a moving light, for example, can create an unusual and often unpredictable effect. Experiment.

light painting, digital photography, automobile driver and street lights
Combining Regular Photography With Light Painting Photography: A photographer can record light painting effects in a photograph combined with regular photographic subject matter. For example, outside at night where it is very dark, the photographer could set the camera on B or T to leave the shutter open and then take a flash photograph of an individual followed by that person writing with a light pen in other areas that will be in the photograph. The resulting picture would be a sharp clear photo of the person plus whatever was drawn with the flash light.
Or the photographer can take photos of someone driving while the lights on the street sweep past outside the car (see photo above). In this case the camera is relatively stationary in relation to the driver, but moving very fast in relation to the outside. The photo of the driver will be somewhat blurred, but with the streaked lights behind her, a stunning photo that is full of action and movement can be created.

light painting, digital photography, ferris wheel
Types Of Movement: There is no limit to the type of movement, the intensity or rapidity of that movement, the rhythm of the movement and also add-on movements such as vibrating the camera while the camera is being moved in a wider motion. Experiment!

thumbnail light painting page from the book Experimental Digital Photography
Click to see pages about light painting from Doble's book
Experimental Digital Photography


Most photographers work with a one second to ten second exposure but any exposure that shows the movement of light in front of the camera will work. The amount of 'painting' that can be achieved depends on the movement of the lights and also the movement of the camera. When a good deal of camera movement is used, for example, a much shorter shutter speed often works better, shutter speeds as short at one-eighth of a second.
On the other hand, a very long exposure of several minutes (or more -- there really is no limit) can also work in very dark environments. For example, in a totally dark room, a subject could draw with light for many seconds, turn off the light, move to a different part of the room and start drawing again. Also in a totally dark room a person could selectively light areas with a flashlight over many minutes or even hours.

A dark environment or background is usually essential for this kind of digital photography. It is as though the photographer is painting against a black canvas, since with photography you can add light to a dark scene but once exposed you cannot take it away.
Tip: In most cases the photographer should avoid significant ambient or available light as it will cause the scene to quickly overexpose.

If you want a 'white' light you should set the color balance to match the principle light source in your photograph. If you just want colorful effects, you can set the color balance to a 'wrong' setting -- such as sunlight or tungsten or other setting -- as long as you are pleased with the colors you are getting.
Tip: At night or with a flashlight, the house bulb setting or tungsten lighting setting often works best, at least for starters.

light painting, digital photography, colored lights
Different light sources have different colors. A house bulb is reddish, for example, when the color balance is set to daylight. You can adjust the white balance for one light source but for multiple light sources you will have to pick the best white balance setting for that mix.
For example, each of the following light sources has a very different color: tungsten, sodium, mercury, fluorescent, sunlight, metal halide, candle, oil lamp, LED flashlight, neon.
Tip: If you are creating abstract images, these different light source colors can add a very unusual coloring and flavor to your photograph. Again you should experiment.

If you want to draw with light, a flashlight with an LED bulb works quite well and (in my experience) gives out a clear white light. A mini-mag flashlight will have a light that is more orange, but by setting your camera to tungsten (house bulb) or by setting the white balance to that particular light source, you should be able to record a white light. A mini-mag also has the advantage of allowing you to use a wider more diffuse light or a more pointed sharper light source with its adjustable setting. There are also small portable neon lights. I suggest you go to Wal-Mart or Target and pick a number of flashlights that have different light bulbs and thus will display different colors in a digital photography. Experiment!

thumbnail light painting page from the book Experimental Digital Photography
Click to see pages about light painting from Doble's book
Experimental Digital Photography
As with all light painting, exposure must be determined by trial and error.
light painting, digital photography, lights in water Exposure can be very difficult with this type of photography. Overlapping passes of a light will create brighter and brighter areas, leading to overexposure.
For example, if a person moves a bright light slowly to draw lines in the photograph, this can lead to overexposure; while if a person moves a bright light quickly, this could lead to underexposure. A dim flashlight will have to be moved more slowly than a bright one or the dim light will require a higher ISO. Pointing a light toward a subject and lighting different areas will require much longer exposures than pointing the light toward the camera.
Use the digital camera's LED monitor to judge and adjust exposure and learn how to move the light so that it exposes properly.

If you find that you would like to work in a certain lighting condition (especially during the day) but your light painting photographs overexpose, you can knock down the amount of light coming into your camera with 'neutral density filters'. These are typically bought in 2x, 4x and 8x increments. 2x = 1 stop decrease; 4x = 2 stop decrease; 8x = 3 stop decrease. If you bought all three, you could also screw them together for a total of a 6 stop decrease.

Because overexposure is often a severe problem with light painting, it is often best to start with the lowest ISO such as 50. With many digital cameras, the ISO can be changed so that if an ISO of 50 creates a photograph that is too dark, the ISO can be increased until the exposure is correct.
TIP: Keeping the ISO as low as possible will also reduce the amount of noise in the image.

Light painting requires that you take a lot of photos to get one or two that work well. In the beginning you may need to take fifty or a hundred to get one that is a strong image. After some experience, probably one in twenty or thirty will be high quality.

Initial Starting Exposure: Try starting with an ISO of 50, a shutter speed of 4 seconds and an f/stop of f/8. If the picture is underexposed increase the ISO and/or lower the f/number and/or increase the shutter speed. If the picture is overexposed, shorten the shutter speed and/or increase the f/number of the lens opening (aperture).
Focus: If possible, manually set the focus to infinity for street lights or lights that are more than fifteen feet away at the wide angle setting. If a subject is closer, set the camera to the distance of the person who is standing with the light.
White Balance: Start with the house bulb (interior or tungsten) setting. If you don't like the colors switch to another setting.
Tip: Shut off automatic exposures and do this type of photography entirely on manual settings. Automatic (exposure, focus, white balance) usually does not work with this kind of photography.

thumbnail light painting page from the book Experimental Digital Photography
Click to see pages about light painting from Doble's book
Experimental Digital Photography

Digital photography has several disadvantages that film photography does not have when it comes to long exposures in dark areas.
Noise: At low and long exposures, 'noise' is often introduced into the image. Noise is a random graininess that often occurs both in low light and as a result of long exposures. Some algorithms have been developed to remove noise but unfortunately image information is often removed as well. Some image editing programs can perform a blurring effect (e.g. a Gaussian function) which results in noise within dark areas being removed, as the blurring effect changes the noise pixels to be more in line with the dominant black background pixels.
Tip: If you are creating abstract images, the problems with noise can be tolerated as the final abstract image does not require the same level of sharpness that a normal photograph requires. For example, you might blur (e.g. using a Gaussian function) the image a bit to remove noise in the darkest areas and then sharpen the image to come close to restoring the original sharpness.
Blooming: When light enters a digital camera directly, the light often flares in a characteristically digital way, sometimes creating star patterns that send out streaks of light from the principle light source. This is called 'blooming'. Different cameras will bloom in different ways.
Tip: Learn to use blooming as a creative effect, since with digital there is nothing you can do to eliminate it, other than to avoid direct light coming into the camera.


#1. Take you time. Don't be in a hurry. Take lots of photos. Give yourself up to half an hour to get up to speed to get a good exposure and create a good composition in a new situation.

#2. Find a very dark area with different colored light sources and also reflections of those same light sources. Reflections of the main lights in water is often ideal. The reflected light will be much dimmer and allow you to fill in some of the background with a softer darker color.

light painting, digital photography, rain on highway

#3. Rainy nights are often perfect for light painting photography as you now have colored lights from the street, shops and other sources along with reflected light in the water on the road.

light painting, digital photography, Christmas tree lights

#4. Dim Christmas lights are very good to work with as they have many colors and will not overexpose.
example of using neon lights for light painting effects

#5. Neon lights can be really fun to play with. Because they are very bright, they may require fast movement.

thumbnail light painting page from the book Experimental Digital Photography
Click to see pages about light painting from Doble's book
Experimental Digital Photography

light painting, digital photography, composition example
Like all photography, it is important to create an interesting composition. This means that you should fill the frame, have a full range of tones from black to white with many middle tones, have a number of colors that you work with and also a sense of an overall pattern that holds the picture together.

Light painting often creates an abstract pattern. If you look at the work of abstract painters and gain an understanding of how they fill the frame of the canvas and work with color, you can apply that to light painting images.

From my perspective (Rick Doble, owner of this site), 'light painting' is a special case of 'painting with light' photography which involves taking pictures of just about anything at very slow shutter speeds. See my web page for 'painting with light'.

Rick Doble is author of The Everything Digital Photography Book (Adams Media) and Career Building Through Digital Photography (Rosen Publishing). He has been a professional and exhibiting art photographer for almost 40 years. This Light Painting section is part of Doble's 10 year old digital photography website which includes traditional and experimental photographic subjects and extensive essays on contemporary art:
Also see Rick's resume

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© Copyright 2003-2011 by Richard deGaris Doble
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