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Low-Tech Light Painting [Instructables How-To]

No iPad necessary.
December 14, 2010, 5:09pm

All the advances in digital photography and post-editing programs have proved to be amazing complements to light painting (a low-exposure photographic technique manipulated by hand-held light sources). Pair that with all the nifty projects we’ve seen using the iPad/iPhone’s streaming, pulsating light effects, and it’s safe to say that light painting is making a comeback in a big way. For those without access to an array of tools, a manual camera and any powerful light source will work just fine — artists like Picasso have been practicing this look for years.

Gjon Mili for Life Magazine “Picasso Draws A Centaur In The Air.”

-Camera with manual shutter speed
-Tripod or other stable, level surface
-Light source like a flashlight, mobile phone’s flash, or LED
-Dark, aesthetically pleasing background

Step One: Check Camera Settings
On your camera, set the shutter speed (the length of time the camera’s shutter is open) to anywhere from 5-10 seconds, keeping in mind how long long you think it will take you to make your design. Make sure the F-stop (the focal length of the lens) is set around f16 or f22, giving the photo a sharper image and longer depth of field. Larger apertures like f5.6 or f2.8 will blur the lines of your drawing.

Step Two: Fine Points
Choose a background that is dark enough to show your light drawing, but not too busy that the painting will get lost in the background. This Instructables artist uses a nighttime sky backdrop. Fix your camera to the tripod and frame your photo. Press the shutter release button to start capturing the photo.

Step Three: Flashdance
Using your flashlight, or other light source (we hear bright LED lights work best) write your name, draw a picture, or make an original design in the air. Remember, you only have as much time to paint as the length of your shutter speed.

Step Four: Rinse and Repeat
If you’re not a professional photographer, you might not get the perfect image right away. Tweak your shutter speed, F-stop, or even switch your background for premium results.

Visit the Instructables "How To" for further guidance.

[Gallery credits from start to finish: Toby Keller; Joerg Miedz and Jan Leonardo Woellert; Mark Brown and Marc Cameron for Se7en Magazine; Rafoto; Light Graffiti; Michael Bosanko; Markolight; Frances Parker]