Introduction: IPad Light Painting

About: I like to make things for the internets. I also sell a pretty cool calendar at You'll like it.

The handiness of the iPad with the touch screen and all the apps may make it a killer device for email and Angry Birds, but it's also pretty sweet for light painting. Paint messages and images in the air by sweeping the iPad in front of a camera with a sloooow shutter speed.

Sound good? Let's do it.

Step 1: What You Need

OK, let's get to light painting with an iPad. Here's what you need:
  • iPad. An iPhone or iPod Touch will also work.
  • Camera with shutter speeds of 10 seconds or longer and a manual mode. Bulb mode is handy.
  • Tripod
  • An app or two
  • A friend to help out. Optional.
If you have a DSLR, you're all set. If you have a compact digital camera you'll need to dig around in your camera's manual to see if you can choose a long shutter speed in manual mode. This can be tricky, but you'd be surprised how many little cameras have lots of hidden features.

Note: I'm sure cool stuff can be done with an Android device as well, but I don't have one. Feel free to post about any relevant Android apps in the comments.

Step 2: About Light Painting

Light painting is quite literally painting with light while a camera captures the scene with a long exposure. Take a picture in a dark area for 10 seconds while you wave a flashlight around and the whole path of the flashlight will be caught in the image as one big light trail. At its most basic, light painting looks like neon signs hovering in the air. You can get more complicated with flashes, lasers, lighters, lots of LEDs, and whatever else you feel like playing with. If it makes light it can be used for light painting.

With handheld devices like the iPad it's much easier to have some kind of structured light that can be used for different effects. Most of these apps focus on writing text messages in the air and that can be done with different colors, fonts, and even 2D or 3D.

The 2D messages are displayed on the iPad by scrolling across the message and only showing one slice of it at a time.

The 3D messages are done a little differently. Instead of showing the letters from the front, these show cross-sections of the letters. By moving these through the air the results have a 3D feel. They're trickier to pull off, but have a feeling of volume which is pretty cool.

The video below shows the two different styles and how they would be done in the shoot.

To be honest, that's pretty much it in terms of the regular techniques. Over the next few steps I'll go over the different apps that are out there for iPad light painting and what the pros and cons are. Some are great and some should never be touched again, but fortunately they're all pretty cheap at just one or two dollars.

Step 3: Text Paint Pro

Text Paint Pro
($0.99, iPad/iPhone)

Text Paint Pro is a fantastic app that lets you write 2D messages. In fact, for 2D text light-painting, this is all you need. Full stop. Type in your message, choose a color and a font, maybe tweak a couple of the settings and you're good to go.

What makes it absolutely THE ONE to go with is that once its ready to show the message the screen goes dark and the message only starts scrolling when you tap the screen. This makes it so that the person who is light writing can get in position and as soon as the camera starts taking a picture, she can start moving when she's ready. This also means that it's easy to get the timing right for when you're doing it solo and are relying on a timer.

Text Paint Pro and its sibling Photo Paint Pro HD both do this, but no other apps do. What this means is that on the other apps instead of working with the app, you need to be working around the app. Turning the iPad away from the camera until the message goes away, for example.

- Dark screen when ready to start displaying is fantastic.
- Easy menu with just the options you need

- Not free. This is really a stretch, though. It's well worth a dollar.

Step 4: 8bit App

8bit app

OK, time to turn down the fun with 8bit app. This is a light-painting app whose only appeal is that it has Space Invaders characters in it. If that desire short circuits your logic center, then go for it. But where Text Paint Pro felt like it was made by people who used it often, 8bit app is by someone who has no clue what they're doing.

How bad? Instead of showing the special characters in the preview, they're represented with a greater than symbol, caret, or something else. It's easy to set the timing for 1 minute (WTH?), but not for 5 seconds. Once you start the animation you have a brief second to tap the screen again to pause it. You then need to hold your finger down until you want it to start. Finally, only capital letters are allowed. WHY YOU DO THIS!?

Another key problem is that this app has a fundamental misunderstanding of light-painting. Where every other light-painting app scrolls through the image, 8bit app just shows each column at a time along with its background color. This results in blurry edges and mixed colors.

I really feel sorry for anyone who ever buys this.

- Space Invader characters
- Emits light
- Can pause the animation for multi-line

- Space Invader characters not shown in preview
- Timing settings are ridiculously bad
- Just shows each column at a time instead of scrolling. Dumb
- Brief time between hitting Make holograph and actual action

Step 5: Holo-Paint


Holo-Paint is the original 3D light-painting app. It has a boatload of features, too many features. Many of them are redundant and the menu is just far more confusing than it should be. It does work with a little bit of patience to figure out its many quirks, but even then it’s still pretty frustrating. One cool feature is that it saves different messages. When I play around with light-painting, though, I change the messages often and didn’t use this at all.

- Preview gives idea of result (it’s not exact)
- Can select angle of text
- Can save messages

- Sliders for options such as color and font make it a pain to choose the same settings again.
- Can’t just choose total time. Time is affected by other choices so lots of trial and error.

Step 6: Holographium

($2.99, but it changes often)

Where Holo-Paint swamps you with choices, Holographium strips it down to the essentials so you can start making pictures faster. You choose text, a color (9 choices), text depth, total time, and you're good to go.

- Easy to use
- Beeps when message starts appearing

- Number countdown can get caught on camera.
- Can be expensive. The price changes ridiculously often with 23 changes in last 4 months since release so wait for a $1.99 price or lower.

Step 7: Photo Paint Pro HD

Photo Paint Pro HD

Instead of painting text in the air, it's also fun to paint a picture in the air. Photo Paint Pro HD has all the features that make Text Paint Pro, by the same developer, so great. All the control you need and the right interface for the job. Just load up a picture, resize it to what you want, and you're good to go. About the only feature that's missing is the option to make the image brighter so there's more contrast with the rest of the screen.

- All the good stuff from Text Paint Pro
- Easy to add pictures

- No brightness control
- When zooming in on a portrait-oriented picture, black space is added to the left and right, creating a delay to the image start.

Note: the last image is the source image for the "I heart Robot" if you want to use it yourself.

Step 8: Spawn Illuminati HD

Spawn Illuminati HD

Spawn Illuminati HD is not meant to be a light-painting app, but can be used to good effect anyway. It’s mostly for fun playing with brightly lit particles as they move around the screen. It has a lot of options for tweaking the action as well. Trails can be short or long, color-cycling can be rapid or static, and, best of all, you can make it a kaleidoscope.

With a bit of experimentation you can play with Spawn Illuminati HD to create colorful swirls and vortexes in the picture by controlling the visuals as you move it around the space. Start with the iPad up close to the camera and then move it away for a zooming effect. Move it in circles. Just keep playing with it because it can do quite a lot. It’s also unpredictable so it’s fun to see just what it did when the picture shows up on the camera.

- Tons of options
- Nice option system
- Can partially control particles by tapping on the screen
- Very colorful
- Unpredictable

- Unpredictable

Step 9: Other Apps

These were the apps that popped up when I did a search in the iTunes Store for iPad. If there's another cool app that I missed please let me know in the comments.