Modern Light Painting

By Jeffery Jay Luhn Back to


Light painting is the common term for a technique that uses a single light, which is moved during the exposure, or through a series of exposures, to simulate a more complex lighting scheme. Most often, a small lamp is moved around to seem as though the shot was taken with a larger light source, or multiple sources.

Back in the film era light painting was always fun, but often unpredictable unless extensive testing was done. Camera LCD review features and the ability to blend multiple exposures in Photoshop elevates this age-old technique from a technical chore to an adventure.

For the purpose of this article, let’s divide light painting into three categories:

1. “Artistic” Long exposures that use a moving light, or series of lights, some of which may appear as trails in the finished photo. This includes combinations of continuous or strobe lights, and endless creative variations.

2. “Practical” Multiple exposures of the same scene with different lighting schemes. This approach is best suited to static subjects including product, architecture, scientific and other needs that require methodical lighting solutions.

3. “Hybrid” Combining a static light with a moving one in a single exposure to create a result that looks like it was shot with a complicated setup. This is a great way to get dramatic shots on location with very little gear.

Lighting Equipment: The fun starts right away when you consider that any light source can be used for light painting. Obvious tools include flashlights, battery powered strobes, and laser pointers. But candles, sparklers, matches, iPhones, car headlamps and blow- torches are just the beginning of an endless list of unlikely sources. In general, lights that focus the beam into a column of light are best for painting onto the subject because they can be easily directed and shielded from the camera. Sources that have no modifier, like bare bulbs or sparklers, are best for creating light trails. Flashlights and laser pointers are useful for both techniques when modified by attaching frosted Scotch TapeTM to their lenses.

Camera Equipment:Any camera that allows for exposures up to 10 seconds will be enough to get you started. More elaborate schemes require at least 30 seconds, because you’ll need to move your lamp around in the dark. Longer exposures may be needed if you plan to switch lights in process or have assistants do other tasks. Note that repeated exposures longer than 30 seconds can overheat a camera sensor and damage it. If you’re planning exposures of more than 30 seconds, use a digital camera for your tests and shoot film for your final frames.

Basic Approach: The first rule is that there aren’t any rules. The more exact you try to make the process, the less serendipitous it will be. The second rule is that there’s no need to get the final image onto one frame. Shooting multiple frames, using parts of outtakes and enhancing the image with post-processing techniques is fair game. My suggestions are just starting points. Let the process develop on its own terms and take you to unexpected places.

Exposure: In a very dark environment, like a country road or dark room lit with a single candle, start with ISO 200 at f/11 at 20 seconds. Fire off some test shots and adjust the settings so the background of the scene is about 4 stops underexposed. You only want the faintest detail of the scene to register on the film/ sensor, otherwise your light painting won’t stand out from the background.

Set the self-timer with a long enough delay for you to get into place and be ready with your light. The first test will be rubbish because you’ll trip over a chair, create unwanted trails or drop the light. No worries. By test #3 you’ll be ready to rock.

Even short pauses can create hot spots of overexposure, so you need to get a feel for how to keep the light moving. Talking your way through the process can help synchronize movements with your assistants and models. See a short video of my test and the creation of the image in Figure. 1.

Figure 2 is a good example of how effective a green laser from Radio Shack ($50) can be for painting a static subject. Virginia Scott, my collaborator on this session, supplied the guitar and amp, and we took turns drawing with the laser. We tried painting the guitar from a few different angles, but the best results were achieved with the laser positioned just above the camera. Total set up and shooting time: 8 minutes. Canon D-5 at 30 sec. @ f/22, ISO 1200. 24-105 lens set at 73mm.

Figure 3 was done with a single 150-watt focusing spotlight. I did the shots on film because I needed at least three minutes to paint the whole scene, adjust the lamp from flood to spot, and hit the areas again where I wanted brighter highlights. I wanted some frames with a selectively softened image too, so I had my assistant hold a crumpled cellophane cigarette package wrapper in front of the lens for portions of the exposure. A hole was cut into the cellophane so the center of the image remained relatively sharp. Rotating the cellophane made smears of light. I did some Photoshop sweetening to even out the blurring and darken the edges.

In the series Figures 4-8, the assignment was to photograph a life size clay sculpture by artist Carol Gaab. Photographer Paul Henri called me for advice on how to shoot it in a room that was too small to set up multiple lights. There were many surfaces in the piece that demanded their own special treatment; cut glass (softbox), wire (direct light), clay (slightly diffused light), etc. Using studio strobes, we locked the camera down and shot a series of frames, each with one part of the sculpture lit the way we wanted. In some cases, the light and light stand encroached onto the scene, but they posed no problems because those areas of the shot were removed in post.

Note: Very little frontal light was used in the light painting sequence. This choice contributed to a rendering with much more depth and dramatic color than the ‘before’ shot on the left, taken with matching softboxes on each side of the piece. (Figure 8 )

The best frames were loaded onto their own Photoshop layers, and the unwanted portions of each layer were erased, leaving the properly lit image in place. Opacity of the layers were adjusted to taste. The final result appears to have been lit by a complex scheme.

Figure 10 is an example of the ‘hybrid’ technique. “Val” Valerio is a legendary welder in Salinas, CA., specializing in hot rods, choppers and farm machinery repair. In short, he’s a talented eccentric. While I was at his shop he took a break and lit a cigar with his blowtorch. I had to get that shot, but attempts to light it with strobes killed the mood. I needed to make it appear as if the flame was making his face glow, and that had to be done in the dark. It was a dangerous stunt. To achieve the effect, we locked the torch down to a light stand and had him walk forward and hold his position. While he was in place, two assistants flashed him, each holding a strobe with a snoot. One strobe had a yellow gel and the other a red. The result is a time exposure of 1 sec, punctuated with two strobe pops.


After reading this brief treatise on light painting, I hope you’ll be encouraged to give it a try. If you’re like me, spending a lot of my week doing commercial shooting, you’ll find the freedom and serendipity of this technique to be a re- freshing reminder of why photography is so damn fun.

About the Author

Jeffery Jay Luhn
Jeff wizard cropped sm
Jeffery Jay Luhn began his career as a small town newspaper photographer while attending the photo program at Laney College, Oakland, CA. He later graduated from Brooks Institute of Photography and shot for United Press International in Asia and Latin America. Jeffery founded a studio in San Francisco and for 30 years did studio and editorial shooting. Client list and photo galleries can be viewed at