Painting with light is one of the more satisfying sub-genres of night photography, producing amazing pictures that look almost like clever Photoshop effects. But it can sometimes seem daunting with the fancy torches and light sources. In this light painting tutorial we offer a fresh DIY photography approach to add to your book of night photography ideas. Follow our 8 step tutorial below and learn how to capture light-painted orbs using nothing more than some fairy lights, rope and a few more common household items.
1. The tools of the trade!
To create amazing lighting effects, a little DIY photography is required. For the orb, you’ll need a set of battery-powered LED fairy lights, electrical tape and cable ties, nylon rope, an off-cut plumbing tube to use as a handle, and a large washer.
To create sparks, get a chain dog lead, a wire whisk, a handle (such as a cut-down paint roller handle) and some wire wool. The dome requires an old wheel, an elongated axle, and some more LEDs.
2. Create a floating orb
The set-up for an orb is straightforward. Cable tie the LEDs into a bundle with the knotted rope in the centre. Insert batteries and test. Cable tie and/or tape the battery pack to the bundle, but don’t cover the switch.
Measure a comfortable rope length, about one metre, and thread this through the pipe and washer. Then tie a knot in the rope so its length is adjustable. Alternatively, tape the rope to a wooden dowel.
3. Make some sparks!
Creating an awesome shower of sparks is also a relatively simple procedure. Cut the dog lead chain in the centre with a hacksaw.
Clip the kitchen whisk to the end of the dog lead, and cable tie or tape the other end of the lead to the handle – securely and strongly! Stuff the whisk with super-fine 0000 grade steel wool.
4. Build a dome of light
Domes require a little more DIY photography skill, but results can be spectacular!
You need a wheel – an old bicycle wheel is ideal as the slender spokes help with the illusion – set on an axle the same length as the wheel’s radius (so when resting on it the wheel slants at 45 degrees, with the top rim directly over the axle).
Use a string of 10 or 20 LED fairy lights equally spaced around the circumference of the wheel, facing up and out. Secure them with cable ties or electrical tape.
5. Best camera settings
Any DSLR will do, and a standard lens is perfect for the job, but using a tripod is essential. A remote release and hotshoe bubble level are helpful, too. Shoot in raw format and set ISO100 for best quality, and turn the exposure dial to Manual mode.
An exposure of 30 secs should be sufficient for most light paintings, but for more complex night photography creations, set the camera to Bulb mode and lock it open using the remote release.
Aperture controls light brightness, so really bright LEDs or wire wool spinning work well at f/11, and normal LEDs at f/8 or f/5.6. Single Shot and Daylight White Balance round off the settings.
6. How to set up
Switch your torch or headlight on and place it on the ground where the action will take place – it’s also a good idea to mark this position using chalk or a light-coloured stone.
Zoom to the desired focal length to compose your image and autofocus on the torch using your camera’s central sensor. Then switch the lens to MF (manual focus), being careful not to move the zoom or focus rings. Recompose the image and level your camera.
7. How to capture
Shoot a trial exposure at, say, f/8 and examine the image. If the light lines are overexposed and burnt out (use the Highlight Alert to check), close down the aperture and try again. If underexposed, open it up a bit. It’s worth remembering that the brighter you record the light trails, the whiter they become. If you want a strong blue or red LED line, underexpose the image a little. If you’re ‘performing’ yourself or don’t have a remote release, set the self-timer.
8. Dress up time!
Wear dark clothes because any light objects may show up in the images. A dark hoodie works well and also protects from sparks. As long as you keep moving, you’re less likely to show up in the final image.
Just don’t stand in front of the LED lights or in front of a light background. You can paint light on things with an LED torch, or shine it directly at the camera to draw lines.
Tracing around an object or person works well, and strapping the light to an object that moves around can produce great trails or patterns. You can even hang it on a string. Lots of creativity here!