Incredible Light Graffiti


Use a torch to slowly trace the outline of a vehicle, person or even the furniture in your living room. Exposure: Details not available. Photography & Light painting: Jim Laurence

Use a torch to slowly trace the outline of a vehicle, person or even the furniture in your living room. Exposure: Details not available. Photography & Light painting: Jim Laurence

Have you ever splashed a canvas with paint? Ambarin Afsar shows you how you can do the same with light!

You must have fond memories of dipping a brush into water colours and making fun paintings. You can make similar paintings with light as well! Even if you are not familiar with light painting, you must have probably already experimented with it. Remember that brilliant light trail of fireworks that you captured with your camera last Diwali? Or have you photographed wonderful spirals and streaks of light coming from a twinkling, well-decorated Christmas tree? If your answer is “yes”, then you are already a light painter!

Light painting is a photographic technique where you physically ‘paint’ or sketch light within your frame, during a long exposure. This can be done using a light source like a torch or even a bulb. What can you paint with light? Well, almost anything! Limited only by your creativity, light painting is as versatile as you want it to be. Castles in the air, motorcycles, birds in flight or even stick figures—you can go all out with light painting. So, how do you begin?

Pre-visualise the Image

The first thing you need to do is decide what you want to shoot. Imagine you are going to tell a story through an image. Depending on what the frame looks like in your head, arrange props or get someone to pose for you. You could make use of the furniture already placed in the room. Alternatively, you could shuffle the furniture around or completely empty the room. The advantage of pre-visualisation is that you know exactly what you want to do and do not end up with weak compositions.

Darkened Room, Dark Clothes

Now that you have pre-visualised the shot, you need a perfectly darkened room. If you are going to light paint during the day, use thick sheets of black chart paper or black curtains to cover the windows or you could simply light-paint at night. This is to avoid distracting elements and overexposed images.

Also, wear black or dark clothes to avoid registering yourself as a ghostly figure in your picture. The camera is likely to record your presence in the frame if you wear light-coloured clothes, and even if you happen to hold the light source close to yourself. However, ghostly figures can make catchy subjects too, depending on how you use them to tell a story.

Clutter-Free Backgrounds

You have a dark room and are suitably attired. Now, ensure that the area which you are using as the background is completely free of clutter like furniture, books, clothes and posters. If there are immovable objects in the background, change your frame so that there is enough space to light paint without clutter. However, this does not mean that you cannot use props to make your light painting more engaging. Make use of posters, chairs, tables and other knickknacks to get that extra edge.

Steady There!

It is crucial to have a perfectly steady camera during the long exposure. Mount your camera on a tripod or use a hard, steady surface like a table, a stool or even a stack of books to prevent camera shake.

Go Close or Go Wide

Depending on how you have previsualised your photograph, you need to consider what the action will look like and where your subject will be positioned. Accordingly choose between a vertical frame or a horizontal one. Place your subject in the frame and then set up your camera. You can shoot a close-up to get close to the action or take a wide-angle shot to provide a larger canvas for light painting. For example, draw a scenery around a person in a wide-angle shot. In a close-up, use the outline of a person’s head or the curves of a vase to paint arches and lines.

Focusing In the Dark

If you are using a compact camera, halfpress the shutter-release button to lock focus on the subject, while the lights are switched on. Keep the button pressed and ask someone to switch off the light. DSLR users can use autofocus to confirm focus and then switch to manual focus. This is to prevent the camera from searching for focus again.

Also, it is preferable to select the narrowest possible aperture like f/8 or f/16. This will keep everything sharp in the frame. The light source and other elements will not go out of focus at any point.

Long, Longer, Longest

Most compact cameras allow a 15-second long exposure at the maximum. If your compact camera does not have a Manual or Shutter Priority mode, then use the Night Landscape mode instead. This will make the camera select the lowest ISO value and a slow shutterspeed. Most DSLRs allow a 30-second long exposure; however, you can switch to the Bulb mode to get longer exposures. Use the lowest possible ISO value to ensure that you do not get excessive noise in your image.

Freeze That Expression

In some cases, you might find that your subject does not hold still; thus resulting in unwanted blurs in the final image. To avoid this, fire the on-board flash or an external flash gun to freeze their expression and pose. If you do not like the colour cast caused by the flash, cover it with an orangecoloured gelatin paper for warm tones. A trick that you can try is, make someone stand in different parts of the frame for a few seconds each, and fire the flash. Repeat the process. You will get multiple ghost images in one frame!

Highlighting Strokes

You can highlight certain parts of the light painting by letting the light source linger for a while; giving you strong, bright strokes. Moving the light around faster, might give you fainter strokes. You can experiment with different strengths of strokes—soft, hard, dim, bright—to add variety to your light painting. However, the intensity of the light source and the duration for which it remains pointed towards the camera, affects the image. For instance, if you use a very bright light source to light paint and allow the light source to linger in one place for too long, this may result in flare and blown-out images. To avoid this, keep moving the light source around briskly.

Experiment with the duration of the long exposure. Try merging several images made using different exposures. Also, choose different subjects—people, pets, toys, furniture, books or even your laptop. Combine different light sources like bulbs, mobile phones, torches and candles, and add variety to your light painting. Try out weird, whacky ideas too! Want to make a UFO or cool-looking aliens? Want to trace all the furniture in your room? Go ahead! Have fun with light painting and you are sure to get some really crazy pictures.

Choosing the Right Light Source

Making the right choice of light source is crucial to your light painting. There are many options available all around us, some of which are even available at home! You can light paint using candles, torches, laser torches, bulbs and LED lights. Each light source affects a photograph in various ways.

  • Brightness: A bright light source will be easily recorded by the camera and will give you strong, bold lines. A dim light source will give you faint lines and you might need a longer exposure to let the camera take in the light.
  • Colour: A red, orange or yellow light source will give your image a warm feel, while a green, blue or white light source will give your image cool tones.
  • Shape: You can cut out various shapes and paste them on your light source. For example, you can cut out a stencil of a star and paste it on your torch. Voila! You can now create a starry sky!
  • Width: The width or the thickness of the beam of light affects your image just as the choice of a brush affects a painting. A thick brush gives broad strokes, while a narrow, fine brush would make fine detailing. Similarly, a diffused beam of light will give you thick strokes good for outlining and a thin, precise beam will help you light paint in detail.

Creative Light Painting Styles

It is fun light painting your name and drawing smileys. But, there are a few more fun light-painting techniques that can add zing to your images. Create unique light paintings using the following methods.

  • Tracing and Outlining: Trail the light source along the contours of a sofa set, a chair, a computer, a motorcycle or even a car, to get great outlines of these objects! You can even make people pose while you trace their outlines to make images that look like light painting sketches.
  • Use the Background as a Canvas: You can use a plain background as a canvas to light paint all sorts of things just as paper is used for drawings and paintings. You can draw mountains, trees, a house, birds and complete sceneries too.
  • Draw Cartoons and Stick Figures: You can make stick figures and other comical sketches using light painting. A stick figure is fairly easy to draw. You can make these little stick men perform various actions in your images. Show a stick figure interacting with a real person for some really fun results!
  • Tell a Story: You will find that light painting works wonders when you have a story to tell through the image. Create a series of images that have a narrative, much like picture storybooks. For example, you can make your own toy story! Light paint using various toys lying around your house. Paint actions for each of these toys, make them interact and watch the story come to life in your pictures.
Tags: Ambarin Afsar, Composition, light painting, Low light, march 2010, Shooting Technique