Introduction: Create a Light Painting Animation

About: I'm an engineering student who loves to disassemble and create things, especially electronics. I also love to do projects that are easy for someone on a college budget to accomplish, though hopefully that will…
A couple months ago I created a light painting animation for my schools annual film festival. Unfortunately after several mishaps it was not able to be played that night, so I put it on facebook and it got good reception. I have decided to publicize how I've created this animation, because I find that people can do incredible things, and while I was rushed while making this (it could've been tons better)  I believe others can do 50x better jobs, which i'd love to watch.

I have a true love for light painting and other niche types of photography and cinematography, so hopefully my video will inspire others to share in my passion and create works for others to enjoy.

Step 1: What You Need

There are many ways to create light painting photographs and also many ways to create stop motion animations on a computer. Because of this people may be able to do this with very little equipment, and others will want to use luxurious and expensive gear. I will tell what equipment I had at my disposal, as I believe this to be the recommended gear for this type of photography/cinematography.

You Will Need:

- Friend to lightpaint with
- DSLR (or point and shoot that supports full manual shooting, bulb mode, and manual focus)
- Tripod (the sturdier the better)
- Remote shutter release
- Strong Flashlights
- LED Lights
- Plenty of water (for late night adventures)
- Fairly modern computer
- Video editing software (I will explain process on adobe after effects)

Things That Help:

- External flash
- Head lamp (or other handless flashlight)
- Fireworks (sparklers mostly)
- Food
- Your rights as a photographer (in case you're stopped by the man)

Step 2: Manual Photography Background

The first step in creating a light painting animation is to learn about taking pictures and how to control a camera in manual mode.

There is very much to learn in this subject and one could spend weeks learning about camera shutter speed, iso settings and aperture width, so for those who want some serious info here it is:

For everyone else I will give a quick run down of these basics. Exposure is how light or dark your photograph is, you want to be able to expose the subject of your picture to the right brightness, so it isn't to bright or dark (and loses detail). This is controleed with shutter speed, iso setting and aperture.

Shutter speed is how long the shutter is open for, more time = more light = brighter picture. For light painting you need really long exposures to capture the movement of the light source. Usually this would overexpose a picture but it will be fine for light painting because all photographs will be taken in the dark. 30 seconds or higher (bulb mode) will be usual for what we need (1/100 of a second is common for regular photography).

Iso setting is how sensitive the image sensor is on your camera. Higher iso = brighter picture. High iso settings also create digital noise on a picture, so it is common to use as low of an iso as possible to improve the quality of pictures. Often times ISO 400 is common in daylight photography, for our purposes (because we have very long shutter speeds) we can have our iso down to 100, to improve picture quality.

Aperture is how wide the opening in the lens is, measured by whats known as f/stops. Lower f/stop = larger aperture = wider opening = brighter picture. Aperture also controls depth of field (how much of the picture is in focus). Large apertures mean very little of the picture is in focus, small apertures mean lots of the picture is in focus, and usually smaller apertures make sharper pictures. We will be using a wide range of apertures, from f/5.6 to f/18. This is what will mainly be adjusted to get the exposure right.

Step 3: Light Painting Camera Setup

The basics for setting up light painting exposure is easy. First set your camera's iso to 100, and shutter speed to bulb. You will need to keep the shutter open for as long as you need to draw your picture with the lights, so all your exposure control will be done with aperture. This will take some experimenting, but you can always delete bad pictures. A good place to start for aperture is f/8, and go up or down from there if need be.

Mount your camera to the tripod and make sure it is on sturdy ground. If you wish to include a cool background in your photograph make sure it is in the frame. Connect a remote shutter to your camera (if your remote shutter does not have a shutter lock someone will have to hold the button down for the length of the exposure).

The next step can be quite difficult. You can either use manual focus or auto focus, but in such a dark light auto focus is usually not reliable unless you trick it. Have someone walk to where the drawing will be done and point a strong flashlight at the camera. Then either manually focus or try to see if auto focus can lock onto the light. Either way you MUST put the camera back to manual focus before shooting. Otherwise your camera will try and and auto focus when you go to take your picture.

Once your camera is on top of its tripod, with a remote shutter control connected, the desired background is in the frame, and your subject is in focus, you are ready to start light painting!

Step 4: Light Painting

Now you are finally ready to start light painting! This is definitely the most fun part of this project, and its a great activity to enjoy at 2 in the morning with a bunch of close friends, exploring your city or town after dark. At this point I will say I DO NOT condone trespassing to find good locations to shoot, and that you should do so at your own risk.

At this point I will also offer the superior teachings of diyphotography once again, and give my own explanation further down.

The general idea behind light painting is fairly simple. In order to get light to "paint" onto the photograph you must keep the shutter open while you draw with bright lights. In other words your process will go like this (very simply): open shutter, draw with lights, close shutter. The rest truly comes with whatever ideas your mind can think of for different kinds of effects, and how skilled you are with a flashlight. It might be cliched but practice truly does make perfect, and it will take A LOT of practice to become halfway decent at any complex drawings, unless you're unnaturally talented.

I strongly suggest you spend a couple weeks practicing light painting before trying an animation. You will get a lot better at the art, get a lot of really cool pictures, and most importantly find out if you have the heart and patience to make an animation, which will be important because it could easily take 20-30 hours and hundreds of individual frames for a simple short animation.

Now it is time to learn how stop motion works, and taking light paintings for an animation of this type.

Step 5: Stop Motion and Light Painting

For the sake of this instructable I'm going to assume a lot of people don't understand what stop motion is, though I'm sure they've witnessed it before. Stop motion animation is when a picture is taken then the object moved slightly and another picture taken, to form the illusion of movement. It is exactly the same in principal to a flipbook, and I'm sure most people have seen a claymation animation such as Wallace and Gromit, which is stop motion.

This is where light painting comes in, and the process can get tedious. You have to draw every frame of your animation just like you were making a flip book. Basically you would draw an object (the flower from my video for example) then change it slightly (make the flower grow, give it another petal, etc.) every single frame you take, so that when they're put together it should look (roughly) like theres movement.

This often involves having one person work the camera while someone else does the actual light painting, because it will be impossible to find your location again after you have left to set up the next shot. This is why it is necessary to have a friend helping with the process.

Step 6: Brainstorm Ideas for Scenes

This is perhaps one of the largest mistakes I made. Every night I filmed I went outside with my friends and had no clue of what we were going to try and draw, we decided we could always figure it out when we got there. This was not the best of ideas on our part.

Please go ahead and spend a day or two thinking of scenes that would be easy to draw in stop motion, it will save you a lot of time when you're trying to photograph and you only have so much time before either the sun rises again or your help has to leave.

I easily wasted 2-3 hours a night roaming around the woods thinking of what to do, and even though it was still very fun it was definitely time better spent actually doing the light paintings.

Good places to look are flickr, and search for websites dedicated to light painting. is a good example

Step 7: Lightpaint for the Animation

By now all the steps to do this have been explained, so all thats left is to go out and have fun with a bunch of friends. Most likely you will be spending more than one night photographing, so after each night I would empty your SD card, charge your batteries and prepare for the next night of photographing.

My filming took about 20 hours over 3 very long nights, and I wish I had put more time in at this stage. You can never spend enough time getting the amount of frames you want, and if you're like me you will never want to stop.

Step 8: Organizing Your Photos

This is something I would suggest doing after each time you go out and take pictures, instead of once at the end, because it can also be very tedious. Unless you are perfect at lightpainting you're going to have some mistake pictures (I had many), so step one is to go through all the pictures you took and delete the mistakes.

The second step is to go through all the pictures and put them in the order they will be in for the picture. Since this should be the order you took them in there shouldn't be very many changes but you should still check all the picutres. Once all the pictures are in order for the animation put each scene into its own seperate folder, to make things easier later on.

Step 9: Editing the Video

For this part of the guide I will explain the process on Adobe After Effects, which I found easiest for creating stop motion animations. For others trying to use different software I'll try and add in as much generic advice as possible.

Open up Adobe After Effects. If you have never used this program before you will probably be surprised by its complexity, so I will write this part of the guide in great detail, so that regardless of experience you can follow through this powerful but sometimes confusing program.

Each step after this will be done again for every different scene you will have in your video, up until the step of putting the final video together.

Step 10: Create a New Project and Composition

After opening up After Effects click on File > New > New Project. If you have never used After Effects on your computer the screen you see may not change.

Next click on Composition > New Composition. Name the composition so you will remember what it is called, then go to presets and select HDTV 1080 24, and finally change the duration time from 30 seconds to 60 seconds. Click okay or enter once you are done.

You have just created your first composition for this project! now its time to add all of your pictures to the composition and sequence them.

Step 11: Importing and Resizing Pictures

To import your pictures into After Effects click on File > Import > File, a file browser window should appear and allow you to select all your files. Go into whichever folder your images for the current scene are and select them all, then click open.

All of your files should have appeared and be highlighted in the project window in the upper left. From there drag them into the window that stretches across the bottom. An image should appear in the composition window, and you should adjust the zoom to fit the outline of the full photo.

Now you should see your image and a surrounding box for how large the photo actually is. Drag one of the four corners in until the image displayed fits your needs.

Step 12: Changing the Timing and Sequencing Photos

Now that your photos are resized so that they fit the composition borders better you need to adjust the length of them, as each photo is currently the length of the full composition.

First you must decided for how long you want each photo to display for. For our sake I'm going to use each frame for 4 frames, effectively giving us a 6 frame per second animation.

Right click on all of the highlighted pictures in the bottom window, then click on Time > Time Stretch. Adjust the time down from one minute to 4 frames.

Currently all of the frames are displayed in the first 4 frames, but only the top one is shown. We must make it so that they display one after another, we must sequence the photos. To make sure it sequences in the right direction we must now deselect the images and re-select them in the desired direction.

To do this click off the photos, then click on the top one, scroll down to the bottom, and hold shift while clicking on the last photo to select them all.

The sequencing is very simple; right click where you did for the time stretch, then click on Keyframe Assistant > Sequence Layers and click OK on the dialog box. All your photos should now begin where the previous one ended.

At this point if you want to view what's been created so far click on Composition > Preview > Ram Preview and wait while it loads.

Step 13: Rendering Your Scene

Now that you are ready you must add everything to the render queue. To do this you must click on Composition > Add to Render Queue. The bottom section of the screen will now display the render queue.

Before you render the scene you must modify the settings. First you must change the amount of time that the composition will render to match how much material you have, otherwise you will get blank video segments. To do this click on Render Settings at the bottom and adjust the end time to what you want it to be.

Next you must change your output module to a compressed video format, to save time and space. I would suggest H.264 as it has a good size/quality ratio. Go to format and change it to H.264, and click OK. Then select output module and give your video a name and location.

Click render and your video should start to render, which may take a while depending on your computer. You have just created your first animation segment in After Effects!

Step 14: Creating the Other Scenes

Repeat the above process with the images for other scenes until you have created a video file for each different scene that will be in your final animation.

From there the samic basic process applies to making the seperate video files into one, with slight alterations. Start by importing all your video files, and dragging them down to the bottom bar. Sequence them and preview your final video to make sure it all looks good.

Now you have to render just like you did before, but first I'm going to teach how to add music or sound effects to your video.

Step 15: Adding Music or Sounds

First you can import music or sound files just like images or video files, so import them into your final project like you've learned to do, then drag them down to the bottom window, as usual.

For sound effects you can drag them horizontally anywhere you'd like in the video, to cover the parts where that sound effect should come in. Music on the other hand is best suited starting at the beginning and ending at the end of the movie.

Your song may be too long however, so you must cut it to the length of the video. To do this drag the yellow cursor in the bottom window to the end of your video files, make sure the music file is highlighted, and press ctrl + shift + D, then the delete key. This should have adjusted the music length to the end of the video.

Step 16: Final Rendering

You have finally created your light painting animation. You should feel very proud of yourself, because there is a significant amount of learning and talent put into this task.

My one request as creator of this instructable, if anyone decides to follow through this whole guide and complete the process, is to show me the work you've created, because I'd love to see what you came up with. Drop it in the comments if you'd like others to watch, or if not at least maybe send me a link in a pm? please?

Oh and more guides involving light painting and Adobe video editing to be created and links posted on the next step in the near future.

Step 17: More Light Painting and Adobe Video Editing

Other instructables regarding light painting and Adobe video editing to be posted here once complete.

Physiogram Instructable here: make fascinating light painting spirals with materials you have at home.

LED Contest with Elemental LED

Finalist in the
LED Contest with Elemental LED

Hurricane Lasers Contest

Participated in the
Hurricane Lasers Contest