Light Painting is a great way to create striking images and illusions using a camera, a light source, and a little practice. When the camera shutter is open (and the room is dark) the film or digital sensor acts like a blank canvas and the light becomes your paintbrush. It’s also possible to create interesting effects by exposing the same subject multiple times, so play and experimentation are a must. Share your creations using the hashtags #LightPainting and #LEDItGlow.
One of the great things about light painting is that it uses only a few materials and tools. There's also a lot of flexibility to what you use, so feel free to try out things that you have laying around.
☐ Phone or computer: pick your preferred tool
☐ Phone app or website: we recommend using Slow Shutter Cam, Spectre, or GlowDoodle, which allow you to take long exposure images (find out more about each below)
☐ Lights: such as single LEDs, a strip/ring LEDs, a flashlight, IR/UV light, electroluminescent (EL) wire (all with appropriate batteries)
Set Up Your Environment
With materials in hand, create a space for your light painting atelier. Preparing your space ahead of time makes testing out different painting techniques and app settings much easier. Consider the following as you're designing your environment:
While it's possible to make light paintings in bright rooms and daylight, dark spaces create crisp, black backgrounds that will make your drawings pop. A good environment can be anything from a bathroom to a room with windows covered. Even outside at night can provide a great backdrop.
Have your tools ready
Before entering into your fully dark space, have your materials nearby. It's no fun fumbling around to find tools in the dark, so set up a designated space to keep your lights and other materials to make your paintings. Also consider how to keep your phone still for a long exposure time (sometimes 10 seconds or even longer). Hands can work in a pinch, but consider other tools like books or even a tripod to keep your photo from having unintended blur.
Work together … or alone
Light painting is a great collaborative activity. Designate one person to take and direct photos and another to do the painting. The director can help position the painter to be in frame as well as press the record button. Alternatively, this activity can be done independently by using a countdown timer or the front-facing camera on a phone.
Use each photo as data to inform future light paintings. It's often (if not always) the case that you'll want to make small changes to your design based on seeing the final photo. Use this information to make changes, and keep practicing! Testing out your planned motion without recording is another great way to get familiar with the movement before capturing an image.
Choose Your "Painting" Tool
Holding an LED and battery in your hand makes for great light paintings. If you'd like to extend your reach, build your own light painting tools using materials on hand. Consider how the light will illuminate and where the battery will live. Choose a brush length that works for your needs.
Take it Further
Digital tools like Slow Shutter Cam allow for easy layering. Begin with an initial drawing, stop the recording, and take a look at what light paths have been recorded. Pauses between layers are a good opportunity to swap out LED colors and create more intricate textures with light.
Consider adding computation to your light "paintbrush" by programming your LED to change colors. Use a micro:bit to change light color when tilted, and attach everything to a glove for easy wearability. Check out this E.T. glove created by Celeste Moreno.
Tinker with long exposure photography on a digital camera. Set your camera to take long exposure images. Many digital cameras are capable of taking a ten-second or longer exposure. This is sometimes called a “Shutter Priority” or “Bulb” setting. Check your camera manual to find out if your camera has this capability. Get started and check out this PDF guide for more details →
Slow Shutter Cam (iOS, $1.99)
Our go-to app for all things light painting. It can layer images so you can take multiple exposures. Once you figure out settings that work well for you, you have all the tools needed to create great images. Play with the Shutter Speed setting to take longer exposure images.
Spectre (iOS, $4.99)
For a couple more dollars, Spectre offers a nicer experience for light play with easy-to-use settings. This app is great if you're just getting started with light painting and are looking for a quick and easy tool to make great photos.
GlowDoodle (web app, free)
A great website for many reasons. It uses your computer's webcam to record images, so it supports solo light paintings easily. It's also an open source project made in p5.js so it's easy to make changes. One of our collaborators Kreg Hanning did just that and made a remix of GlowDoodle that adds a timer and additional functionality, try it out!
The Original Light Painting website
Light Painting Tools I and II blog posts
Light Painting Glove by Celeste Moreno
Light Painting at an After School Program
Light Painting at an Educator's Meetup
Light Painting at Exploratorium Events I, II, and III blog posts