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Light Painting Do's and Dont's


Light Painting Do's and Dont's

sean mcclelland

[06]  I love light painting. I'm not afraid to say it. Like HDR photography, however, it can be amazing, or complete garbage. In the interest of creating something decent, I did some research and geared up for an outing of my own, armed with inspiration from guys like tcbLAPP-PROJanLeonardo, and Aurora Crowley. What followed was a photography (mis)adventure unlike any I've had in a long time, and one that involved coyotes, ghosts (boo!), and a few lessons in photography that I'll never forget. I've packaged everything into a list of do's and don'ts below. Hope you like it, and please share your own misadventures in the comments area!

light painting gear

DO: Gear Up.

Good light painters have good tools. I am capable but have limited free time, so I decided to order some gear from

rather than build my own. I knew they was a down-home operation, but did not expect my items to arrive two weeks late and packed sloppily into an unsealed cardboard tube. I love having to reassemble items after delivery! Consider yourself warned. In the image below you can see the full assortment of gear that I ended up bringing. Notable items included a headlamp (it's hard to hold a flashlight and operate your camera at the same time), a Canon 530 EX Speedlight, 16-35mm wide angle lens, orb tool, light writers, light wand, camping chair, a white sheet, and my helper who is shown in the kitchen filling a thermos up with something to keep us warm. We also brought a tarp for keeping everything off the ground and organized... because it's REALLY easy to lose gear in a dark, unfamiliar place.

DON'T: Forget Your Intervalometer.

My dad used to tell me, "You had to learn the hard way, eh?" Well, he was right, because I completely forgot to bring my intervalometer. Without one, it is very difficult to create the long exposures needed for complex light painting shots. Unless you set your camera to bulb mode and keep your finger on the shutter button for the entire exposure, the max shutter time you can get on my 5DMKII is 30 seconds. Which is why you need an intervalometer... to program much longer exposures. It was a pain in the butt, but we improvised and kept our shots short. A quick note about the Canon TC-80N3 that I own - it's way overpriced. I recommend trying a non-name brand intervalometer, unless you plan to do a lot of time lapse or light painting. If you own a Nikon, you might have this functionality built-in (thanks for nothing, Canon).

DO: Scout the Location.

If you want total control over your light, you need to shoot in a very dark place. With too much ambient light, the light painter will be seen in your shots, and you will get light pollution from the environment (unless, of course, that's what you want).

DON'T: Shoot in Dangerous Places.

It's best to bring some friends along, and take the necessary precautions, because you just never know. I don't know which is worse, running into a crackhead in an abandoned building, or running into a bear in the woods! We actually did run into some coyotes, and few packs of dear, but they left us alone (thank goodness). And if you're planning on using sparklers or trying the burning steel wool (sparks everywhere) trick, DO NOT do near grass or anything flammable. Those tools should only be used over concrete where this is zero risk of fire, and you should have a fire extinguisher with you anyway.

Ghosts in the bunker!

Ghosts in the bunker!

DON'T: Plan a Shoot in the Headlands on the Night of the Golden Gate Bridge's 75th Anniversary!

I love cops almost as much as I love light painting. EXCEPT when they hate on photographers. On the night of my trip, they closed the entire Marin Headlands, but didn't tell anyone... and that's exactly where I was going to light paint. There's nothing quite like spending 4hrs in traffic jam in a rented Fiat. This cut our shooting time down considerably. Moral of the story... you may need to exercise patience when searching for a location, and always have a plan-b!

DO: Bring a Really Big Flashlight.

Preferably, you want one that stands on its own and can be aimed. When you are light painting, you're pressing the shutter in near darkness, so your camera can't see any contrast in the scene to set the focus. The easiest way to do this is by shining a really bright light on your subject, or something in the scene where your subject will be, press the shutter button half-way down to focus, and then lock it in by flipping over to manual focus. Just remember to repeat this process anytime you move the camera or subject (you need to be on a tripod). A headlight or standard flashlight won't do the trick, you'll need something brighter, like one of these.

DON'T: Be Afraid to Experiment.

My favorite shot from the night was something random and rather silly; the ghosts pictured above. Start gathering a big ol' box of "stuff" that either emits sharp/bright light, reflects light in interesting ways, or that can be shot through to create an effect. I have a box of shredded CDs that will (somehow or another) make it into a future shoot. Also, begin your light painting experiments by learning to copy other shots you've seen, to learn the fundamentals. After that, you're free to develop your own techniques. This is where the real magic happens, in my opinion, when you create something new and unexpected.

DO: Share You Discoveries.

Light painting, in the form that I enjoy most, is a relatively new form of photography. There aren't many photographers out there that do it well, and you really have to spend some time hunting on the web to learn the techniques. I like to think of light painting as an underground city full of introverted photographers who cringe at the thought of shooting weddings and senior portraits. They're the mad scientists of photography, and they're not afraid of a soldering gun. I love it, and I can't wait to learn more about it. Which brings me to my final point. If you too are interested in light painting, please share your success and failures, your techniques and your cool DIY tools with the rest of us! I really want to explore combining light painting with other techniques, and I promise to share.

In an upcoming post, I will share my behind-the-scenes video of how I made the ghost image seen above, so stay tuned.

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