Light Painting with a Laser Pointer

While we’ve gone over the endless uses for laser pointers many times, we haven’t really done any tutorials on how to use our lasers. You might be familiar with light painting – a photographic technique that uses long exposures and sources of light to create designs and motion within a photo. If not, you’ve probably seen a long exposure photograph – you know, the ones with vibrant colors, streaks of light and an almost surreal look?

One of the best parts of light painting photography is that you don’t need much artistic sense. And, you can also try over and over to get the results you want without wasting paint or other materials. While light painting can be a lot of trial and error, there are a few techniques to keep in mind in order to make the most of your time and help you achieve the results you’re looking for.

What you need for Light Painting

You don’t need too much equipment when it comes to light painting; no crazy flash setup or special systems. All you really need is a camera where you can change the exposure settings, some darkness and a source of light.

  • Darkness – You can’t get streaks of light or do a long exposure if there is light already present. You’ll end up with a blown out photograph that’s far over exposed and you don’t see much other than bright white. So, as you can probable guess, it’s best to try light painting at night or in a dark room with the lights off.
  • Tripod – Any movement of the camera will be seen within the lights in the photo, so stabilizing the camera is important if you want control over the light streaks within your photo. Another technique is setting your camera up with a long exposure and moving the camera body to create light streaks. This approach will take the ambient light and use it to create streaks/motion.
  • Sources of light – This is where a laser comes in handy. If you decide to light paint, it’s best to aim your tripod-mounted camera at an empty, blank, dark background and use your laser as your “paint brush”.  pointing your camera towards a blank wall in a dark room works well.

What Camera Settings should you use?

Ideally, you’ll want a small aperture paired with a long exposure. The smaller the aperture, the less light that passes through – this is the opposite of the settings we want for astrophotography and other types of photography. Less light passing will allow for a longer exposure time, giving you more time to paint with you laser. A smaller aperture also makes for a sharper, wider focus. Aside from aperture and exposure, you’ll want to make sure your ISO is low, ideally 100. The lower the ISO, the sharper the image.

Exposure time depends on how long you plan on “painting” for. Most cameras can do a maximum of 30 second exposures. So once you set your aperture to a small setting (f22, f18), then start to play with the exposure until it looks good.

Use manual focus and be sure to pre-focus. If you’re in a dark room, simply turn on the lights and manually focus your camera, then turn the lights back off and paint away.

What lasers are best for light painting?

Well, that mostly depends on your budget and color preferences. You don’t need the most powerful laser for light painting as your camera controls the brightness of the light/lasers. We recommend using a dual-powered laser pointer; it’s has a high and low power setting, which will allow you to have both a narrow and wider beam without the need to change settings on your camera. It’s available in blue, green, red and violet.

If you’re looking to get an even wider stroke, go for something that’s capable of changing the laser beam’s divergence.

How to Actually Light Paint

It’s very simple, set your camera on the tripod and take a sample shot with flash / lights on just to help you verify that your composition and positioning  is OK.

Make sure to have the exposure set to a relatively long value. Slow down the aperture as much as you need. If you are outside do nothing but if indoors – this is the time to turn the lights off.

Take a click. Once the shutter is open use your flashlight/ laser pointers (light source) to light up whatever you want to “paint”. You can use the light source as a paint brush, and apply the light, just like you would have done with an ordinary paint-brush on paper. You can use the light as a pen, and paint delicate or precise parts or pieces of work depending on your piece.

Please note that areas where you go slowly will be more lit than others so be extremely careful not to linger too much over the same spot or area – you will burn it.

As soon as the shutter closes, you are a free to inspect your image and make corrections and any alterations and repeat, it’s that simple.

Quite a lot of photographers and enthusiasts have attempted this and enjoy it but only a few have mastered it – I fall in this category unfortunately, but hopefully not for long! I stumbled upon a few great pointers that I thought I’d share.

Light Painting Tips

#1.  Mix it up! Don’t try to paint everything with the same light and color. Avoid making your paintings dull really odd and flat. Painters don’t use just a single brush and color so neither should you!  The whole purpose of this light painting is to create different and unique lights on each different part of the landscape.

#2.  Choose a ‘dimmable’ flashlight or light source with an adjustable beam for best results. Many flashlights have adjustable beams, but few flashlights can be dimmed(some laser pointers have different power settings) so that you can use just the right amount of light on every part of the photo.

#3.  Watch-out for noise. Taking your time painting in light is convenient, but long exposures also create more noise.

#4.  You’ll most likely need to take more than one photo. As a matter of fact, some light paintings, like the incredible photos attached in this post required a number of photos so that the different parts of the photo can be treated separately.

#5.   Choose flashlight without a hot spot.  If you move the flashlight around enough, it won’t make a difference if the flashlight has a bright circle in the middle of the beam (hot spot), but for doing little fine details in the scene, you’ll want one without a hot spot. An alternative option for not having a hot spot is to tape wax paper or tissue paper over the flashlight lens or use a dual power laser pointer!

#6.  Just because you’re light painting doesn’t mean you should forget all your typical night photography techniques.  Remember to use mirror lockup, long exposure noise reduction, a cable release, etc.

#7.  Remember to mix in ambient light to make the photo look more natural like including the moon, street lights, etc as this adds a lot to the mood of a photo.

#8. Walk into the scene it’s fine! Remember that your camera only records LIGHT, as long as you’re wearing dark clothing and don’t allow light to shine on you, there’s no problem with walking through the scene, adjusting and setting things, and painting in the fine details.  Remember not to accidentally answer your CELL PHONE! or its light will show up in the photo – learned that the hard way!

#9.  Focus each picture on a specific area of the picture that you’re working on, this will improve the sharpness in the overall shot. Make sure to get one wide-angle shot of the scene so you can put all the little pieces together.

Conclusion

I hope that with these few tips your light painting photography will significantly improve. Interested in light painting and still have questions? Feel free to email us and we’ll do our best to answer any questions you might have.

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