Adventures in Light Painting

Every once in a while it's good to stretch yourself outside of your comfort zone and try something new.  This is exactly what I did last Friday.  A few weeks ago I was searching the websites of a few local camera stores and I found a light painting workshop offered by Dan's Camera City.  The workshop was being held in a town I was familiar with about an hour from my home and it was led by someone I know, so bonus!  I signed up immediately.

With all the YouTube videos, articles and tutorials available these days, one could ask, "why spend $99 and drive an hour to learn light painting?"  Well, for me the chance to talk with an instructor in person and to meet other like minded photographers is an invaluable experience and it will trump the web any day.   

The evening started with a slide show presentation by Olympus Visionary, Frank Smith.  To view some of Frank's wonderful work, check out his website here. A representative from Olympus was also there with a few live drive kits to loan out.  An Olympus shooter myself, I didn't need to borrow any gear, but it was nice to have some experts around in case I needed assistance.

Once we started to lose the light, we headed down to the park to shoot. Frank provided tips on positioning as well as setting guidelines.  For best results you'll need to shoot in manual mode.  If your camera has in-body stabilization, turn it off when using a tripod.  Most of my images were taken at between f/5.6 and f/11 at ISO 640-1000 with auto white balance. Note in most cases when shooting at night a low ISO is best to keep the noise down, however, with Live Composite, the higher ISO was recommended to us. You'll have to experiment with your camera settings to see what works best in your situation.  You will also want to turn off auto focus, otherwise your camera will have difficulty finding focus in the dark.  When in bulb mode a 20-30sec exposure should produce good results. You want to be careful with how long you exposure your images.  Too long and you could start to see star trails if the sky is in your exposure.  When using Live Composite I had the camera set to take an exposure every 2.5 seconds.  

Here are some things you will need to do light painting:  

  • flashlight (those that have multiple colors are handy too)
  • headlamp (optional)
  • glow stick (optional)
  • tripod
  • wide angle lens
  • camera capable of manual settings and bulb mode
  • remote shutter release is handy if you have one
  • your creativity

It's recommended to wear dark clothing if you are going to be in front of the camera painting with a flashlight or other light source.

If you own an Olympus OM-D E-M1, E-M5 Mark II or E-M10, the Live Composite mode is definitely an advantage.  I'm still blown away by the ability to see the picture developing before your eyes. When you see the image the way you want it on the LCD screen, you just press the shutter again and you're done!  This mode also allowed us to set up our base shot then hit the shutter and help the instructors create the light with flashlights while the other folks had to stay with their cameras.  When we were done playing with the flashlights, we walked back to our cameras and finished the exposure.  As long as no other light is added to the scene while you are walking back to the camera, you should be good.  

In this photo below, the same person was repositioned and light painted for the entire length of the building.  The trick was to cover your lens with the lens cap during your exposure while the subject was being repositioned. This was just a first try so there are a few issues with this image.  You'll see various light streaks across the body of the subject in several of the positions.  This was due to the flashlight being aimed directly at my camera instead of the subject.  It's easy to do this when you are first learning this technique.  

f/11, ISO 640, auto WB, manual focus,   Live Composite set to take an exposure every 2.5s

f/11, ISO 640, auto WB, manual focus, Live Composite set to take an exposure every 2.5s

f/8, ISO 1000, auto WB, manual focus,   Live Composite set to take an exposure every 2.5s

f/8, ISO 1000, auto WB, manual focus, Live Composite set to take an exposure every 2.5s

In addition to light painting with flashlights, Frank also allowed us to play with a Pixelstick.  This was a bit of a mind blowing experience.  It's basically a large wand with a small electronic device attached that allows you to alter the patterns of light and it also has a media card slot so you can load up images to display.  To the naked eye, you see just a strip of light passing by, however, the camera is recording all of the light it sees, therefore when you are done exposing your shot, you see something like the pattern in this photo.  This device also allows you to cast a still image (check out the gallery at the end of this post for an example).

Another cool technique we learned is spinning steel wool.  You basically take a household whisk and stuff it with steel wool.  Attach the whisk to a rope (a dog leash would work well), light the wool on fire and spin it.  The results are really cool as you see in the image below. You can search the web for  articles and videos on how to do this and the correct steel wool to buy, but please take all of the necessary precautions if you are going to try this.  You don't want to do this standing on grass or in a dry area where grass or brush could catch fire.  Make sure you are in a safe area and you have someone watching out for stray sparks, etc.

f/8, ISO 1000, auto WB, manual focus,   Live Composite set to take an exposure every 2.5s

f/8, ISO 1000, auto WB, manual focus, Live Composite set to take an exposure every 2.5s

If you are an Olympus user, this is a great article on live composite and star trails:

Check out the gallery below for some more photos from the workshop.  All of the images you see below are straight out of the camera with no post-processing.  The exposure and framing aren't perfect in these shots and I certainly need more practice to capture better images, but I had a lot of fun and I learned a ton! If you live in Eastern PA, check out Dan's Camera for other workshop offerings.  Their staff is extremely knowledgeable and friendly. Check out MeetUps and local stores in your area for any offerings they might have as well.