1In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. 3And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. 4And God saw the light, and it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.

Kamehameha – Light painting tutorial

“And god said, let there be light; and there was long exposure” – Might consider printing in Camera manuals

A friend of mine challenged me to create a surreal photo without using photoshop, and the next immediate thing that came to my mind was light painting. So, we got together and tried lots and lots of shots and that’s what I ended up doing this Friday night. Out of everything that we tried this one is my personal favorite.

long exposure light painting tutorial

Light painting tutorial

The instant I showed my friend here the marvel of light painting, it was love at first slight for him. He immediately got interested and asked me to teach him the ropes.

To understand light painting, one must first understand the concept of how a camera works. What you have seen here is pure science of photography with no post editing intervention. Ok, I did make a few adjustments in the RAW file to convert it to JPEG but that’s about it. So anyone can do this with a DSLR without having to use photoshop. Trust me, you don’t even have to be a “photographer” to do this.

The science behind long exposure

So, you know how a camera takes pictures, right?

If you don’t, check this out.

Basically, when you press that shutter button, the camera shutter opens and closes in fractions of seconds. The maximum speed on most of the cameras is 1/4000th of a second. This opening and closing of the shutter slices up the stream of light falling into the camera thus making the digital film burn just enough to produce a picture.

Now imagine. If you can keep the shutter open for, say 1o seconds, you will be allowing in a lot of light and all you will see in your picture is a pitch bright white.

But lets say you are in complete darkness and shine a tiny little light source in front of the camera, what will you see? A tiny little spot of light.

Ok, now we do the same thing but this time, you move the light source around in a random pattern for as along as those 10 seconds for which the shutter of your camera stays open. Now? If you guessed that the camera will capture the patter of movement of light, you are absolutely correct.

When light falls on photosensitive film, it burns the film. When light moves as it falls on the film, the film traces the pattern of the burn. Kapeesh?

Things you will need

  1. Tripod: Motion blur or camera shake can happen even at 1/100 secs. And we will be talking about exposures as long as 30 seconds.
  2. DSLR: You most definitely need the manual mode of the DSLR because no other camera mode or camera will let you lock the shutter open for such a long time
  3. Laser pointer/laser pen or other source of laser: The light source which will be used to trace the path of light
  4. An external flash (hot shoe): This becomes necessary when you are trying to bring in people in light painting
  5. An empty room: Or at least a room that has one empty wall.
  6. A friend, as crazy as you are: It’s difficult to do these on self timer all alone so if you have someone to assist with, it will make the whole process a lot easier.


There are a lot of things that you can do with light painting. Different light sources when used in different ways will produce different results. Altering the shutter speed alone can impact your output. What I will tell you now is only about how I did the shot that I showed earlier. As long as you understand the science behind long exposure, you should be able to do all sorts of different shots and may be start to develop techniques of your own.

Step 1: The setup

Place the camera on the tripod. Set the shutter speed to 30 secs, aperture to f/11, ISO to 100. Ask your friend to take his position as per your shot. Turn off all the lights

Step 2: Focusing

How can the camera auto focus when you are in complete darkness? Have you already guesses use the laser? That’s brilliant. Point the laser on the wall and use it to auto focus. Once the camera is done auto focusing, turn off the laser and switch to manual mode. Set the camera on a 5 second self timer.

Step 3: Gone in 35 seconds

What I am going to tell you now has to be done in the next 35 seconds. Ready, get set, go.

  1. Press the shutter button on your camera. The 5 seconds self timer will kick in. In these five seconds pick up the external flash and run to stand in front of your friend, pointing the flash at him.
  2. At the end of 5th second you will hear the camera shutter open. At that instant, fire the flash on your friend.
  3. Pick up the laser pointer and make the necessary pattern. I started painting the pattern from his hands to the center of the wall.
  4. Put down the flash and the laser and run to take your position. Mean while, your friend should leave his position to pick up the laser and the external flash that you just put down.
  5. Ask your friend to fire the flash on you when ready and then paint the light pattern with the laser the same way you did.
  6. By the time you are done, 30 seconds would have expired and you will hear the sound of the shutter closing.
  7. Go back to your camera and wait for it to process the image. The longer the exposure, the longer it will take to process.

Step 4: RAW to Jpeg (optional)

When you are firing the lights there are chances that they may illuminate areas that you don’t want them to. So, it’s best to shoot in RAW so that you can take care of these adjustments later on. I had to reduce the highlights a bit and darken the blacks and shadows to create a dark feel to it. Plus I did not want my pyjamas to be peeking out from the shadows. 😛 Here are the RAW settings I made for this picture.

light painting long exposure tutorial

Things to remember

  1. Light painting only gets better with your imagination. Be creative with your scene and you can do wonders with light painting. To being with, experiment with lighting up still objects with various light sources and see how your images turn out. This is how I started. Understanding the light sources is really important for creating fantastical scenes.
  2. When you are trying to include people in your scenes, use flash. The sudden burst of light will freeze the person’s image on the film as soon as the fired flash bounces off them and falls on the camera.
  3. Always set the ISO to 100 to minimize noise.
  4. The slowest shutter speed that you can set on most DSLRs is 30 seconds when you push beyond 30 seconds, the shutter switches to bulb mode. In bulb mode, you can keep the shutter open for as long as you want. So, you will not have to hurry up and finish in a set time, rather you can take your time to create patterns for as long as you want. It’s best to use bulb mode with a remote for shutter release to avoid camera shake.
  5. Always shoot at aperture smaller than f/11. Because you will be allowing a lot of light at anything larger than f/11 and all you will see is a blown out patch of light instead of a pattern.
  6. Use a black curtain or a black painted wall for better results.

But wait, there’s more

Hope you enjoyed the tutorial. Let me know if you have any questions in the comments or just let me know what you think. Here are some more shots from this session.

long exposure light painting tutorial
Self shot. I was not standing at the exact point where I auto focused and so I turned out to be out of focus. This is why you need a partner.
long exposure light painting tutorial
*insert magic gif*
long exposure light painting tutorial
Creating plasma right from your hand
long exposure light painting tutorial
Warning: Do not fire laser directly in to the camera. You might damage the light sensor or the digital film. Here I told my friend to fire the laser around the lens. Each line was fired for about 1 second.
long exposure light painting tutorial
The electrifying average joe


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