Painting With Light




About: I'm just another person out there trying to get the most out of life. I love to expole the world around me and try to have a good time doing so.

Simply put 'Painting with Light' is a technique used in photography to create lighting effects in-camera. It can be used to highlight subjects in an image, create ghost images, and make some other pretty cool effects.

This is a basic tutorial meant to give you an introduction to this technique. The instruction will be simple and brief in hopes that you will take it and run, experimenting and producing new and exciting images!

This instructable will present the technique then give examples with descriptions of how they were made.

Most importantly, go out and have some fun! Feel free to post your images in the comments.

My respect and admiration go out to John Hill, who is an amazing photographer, and who originally introduced me to this technique and continually encourages me.

All photographs in this insructable are unaltered. THERE HAS BEEN NO PHOTOSHOPING.

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Step 1: What You'll Need

Light Source
A Dark Location

A note on light sources: In this instructable I'll be using an LED flashlight, halogen spotlight, and green laser. These are just what I decided to play with tonight. Be inventive when choosing a light source. Consider LED and incandescent lights, glow-sticks, sparklers, etc. Be inventive and most important HAVE FUN!

A note on dark places: While shooting for this instructable I was outside under a full moon. This is why my background is so illuminated and detailed. Had I shot during a new moon (no moon) you would only see the tree. Again, play around with the level of ambient light. Be aware though that too much will over-expose your image.

Step 2: Find a Subject

For this instructable I chose to shoot a wonderful tree native to my area, the Joshua TreeJoshua Tree.

When selecting a subject consider what is around and behind it. The more isolated your subject the better. When you 'paint with light' everything your light touches will be illuminated. If the light spills onto other objects around or behind your subject they will be illuminated as well, distracting from the subject.

Also consider movement. When using the log exposures required for this technique any movement will blur, even slight ones you may not immediately notice.

Take note of this image as it represents the tree 'unpainted'. This image features the same 30 second exposure as most of the following examples

Step 3: Set Up Your Camera

First off, you must use a tripod or other stable base. Like mentioned in the last step, any movement will blur in a long exposure, be it the subject moving, or the camera.

Set your camera for a long exposure. How long depends on what you are trying to accomplish. I like to give myself plenty of time to play and usually use a 20 or 30 second exposure.

Many 'point and shoot' cameras do not have an adjustable exposure. However, you can trick your camera into a longer exposure by setting you camera to its lowest ISO and turning off the flash. This will probably only give you a few seconds, but that's plenty of time to play. Consult your camera's instruction manual or your get your kid to figure out how to adjust these settings

A note on focusing: When focusing on your subject illuminate it with a bright light. It will make you focusing that much easier, and that much more precise. I learned this the hard way by trying to focus in low light. Many times I've been disappointed in a great shot that turned out to be out of focus.

Step 4: Paint!

Once you have everything set up we can finally have some fun.

Press the button on your camera and start tracing and 'painting' your subject with your light source.

Literally think of your light as a brush that adds detail, brightness, and color.

The longer you illuminate and area the brighter it becomes. The same goes for areas that are illuminated more than once. Each pass of the light with cause that area to be brighter.

Play with the direction you paint from, strokes, turning your light on and off, etc.

Feel free to walk out into the frame of the image. As long as you are not directly illuminated you won't show up in the image.

For the image below I used a 30 second exposure and 'painted' with an LED flashlight. I 'painted' each side of the tree by standing about 10 feet from the tree on each side

Step 5: Example: Blue Spot

For this image I used my spotlight with a blue lens. Instead of using strokes I would 'pop' the light on for just a second on different parts of the tree.

Step 6: Example: Red Spot

I used the same technique as in the previous example, but used a red filter instead of blue.

Step 7: Example: Red and Blue Spot

Again I 'popped' the tree with light for a second from my spot light, but switched between the red and blue filters.

Step 8: Example: Green Laser

For this image I used an 86 second exposure and traced/scribbled on the tree with a green laser pointer.

Notice how much brighter the background is in this image because the exposure was 56 seconds longer than the others.

Camera was set to 'Bulb' exposure at ISO 400 and f/6.3.

See the photo larger here

Step 9: Example: Ghost Images

This image took a bit more planning than the tree.

To get this shot I started with the flash to capture the detail in the ground. Then I stood my model in front of the camera and 'painted' her from the sides with my light. then I had her move back and traced her once again.

Camera was set to a 30 sec exposure at ISO 800 and f/9

Special thanks to Amanda for being my lovely model.

See the photo larger here

Step 10: Example: Drawing With Light

To achieve this effect you use the same set up as though you were going to 'paint' wit the light, but sand in front of the camera and point you light at the camera instead.

For this image I set up two of my models as though they were holding an imaginary rope. I then had the third model stand between them and jump. When she was mid air I snapped the flash. Then I had her step out of the image and I 'drew' in the rope with the flashlight.

Camera was set to a 10 sec exposure at ISO800 and f/5.6

Special thanks to Matt, Leah, and Kim for being my models

See the photo larger here

Step 11: Example: Highlighting

This is a much more subtle example of painting with light. For this image I 'painted' only the wooden power pole. I painted it from three different angles. This is what causes the pole to pop out at you.

I specifically did not 'paint' the shoes with light, as they are white they were bright enough o their own and I really like the contrast their motion blur added to the image.

Camera was set to a 30 sec exposure at ISO800 and f/6.3

See the photo larger here

Step 12: Example: Highlighting 2

This image uses the the same idea as the last example in that the 'painting' done here is to highlight the subject of the image. In this case it was the stop sign. I turned the white balance on my camera as low as it would go to make the yellow streetlights seem white and to suck the colors out of the background. I then used my flashlight to illuminate the stop sign for about two seconds. Note the texture of the reflection from the sign having graffiti scrubbed off of it.

Camera was set to a 15 sec exposure at ISO 200 and f/5.6

See the photo larger here

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    34 Discussions


    2 years ago for the most awesome images. He's really advanced this artform.


    6 years ago on Introduction

    Painting with light is really an art. There are lots of techniques for creating this kind of art. I think photography means knowledge and creativity. You can take excellent photo if you have knowledge about the technique and if you are creative. You need to learn and practice a lot if you want to take breathtaking photographs and amaze people with your skills. This is actually how I improved myself. If you want learn this technique more, you can read this article about photography techniques.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Good work. Joshua trees are a great subject in themselves. The laser painting really pops. I'm looking for plants to paint myself. Here's one from my backyard. .

    1 reply

    Why not stacking the pictures? Make completely different pictures with different light and stack the into one picture like this:

    1 reply

    That's a very neat technique.

    What draws me to painting with light is you become very much involved with the creation of the image, not just the capture of it. You are able to interact with it in real time.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    this guy came to my school a year or 2 ago and showed us his works and how he does it too..... he's huge down under....

    also for the record in no way does a phone substitute a torch for this type of photography.... no matter how close the subject is.... :P i tried.....

    1 reply

    7 years ago on Introduction

    Now i didn't read every coment, so I hope that I didn't repeat this, However does anyone else see the red dragon head towards the botom of the tree? Not the trunk of the tree, just the botom branches.

    Cool 'ible! I am going to give this a try.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    ok, this is what I miss, awesome pics.

    I have to know from someone who knows more then me. I do extended exposure like you, but I hit 8 to 20 minutes. but film is to hard to have developed anymore, and haven't found a digital that can handle this. if anyone knows, please let me in on the models. TIA


    9 years ago on Introduction

    I would like to introduce you all to a totally different form of "Painting with Light" photography as described in Wikipedia.

    Discovered by John N. Cohen amazing pictures without a computer, darkroom, or any expensive equipment.

    John won many top international awards and had over 20 one-man exhibitions in USA and in Europe.

    Please have a look at: -

    Reference: -


    10 years ago on Introduction

    I really like the thoroughness of this instructable. Way to present a lot of information to be digested at ones own pace. My friend and I ended up in a dark tunnel, and though I didn't have a tripod, we made it work pretty well. These are just a few of the pictures. Most of them revolve around the idea of the same person in the shot repeated many times.

    Pasadena Tunnel_DSC5132.jpgPasadena Tunnel_DSC5128.jpgPasadena Tunnel_DSC5138.jpg
    1 reply

    10 years ago on Introduction

    Long exposure on a dashboard...on a rainy night.

    paint with lite.jpg

    10 years ago on Introduction

    My favorite photographer who uses this technique would be Chuen-Li Chan:


    10 years ago on Introduction

    A hand held flash works great for this too. It takes a little more visualization. A flash is directional just like a flashlight, the only difference is it is brighter and a closer to white light.


    10 years ago on Step 3

    I would like to make the suggestion that you remove the strap from your camera while on the tripod. Leaving the neck strap on your camera for this process could leave your pictures susceptible to motion if any wind catches the strap. Plus, it could get caught on your hands or your clothes.