Light Painting

Photo by Brittany Kuehne

In 1949, Life Magazine sent photographer Gjon Mili to to France to photograph Pablo Picasso. While he was there, they tried an experiment they dubbed “light painting.” The photos were unique, and while it was difficult to figure out how to do them, now that Mili has figured out the technique, replicating it is not as difficult, particularly with modern equipment.

The effect uses two aspects of photography.
The first is that since the sensor records light, if there is no light striking the sensor, even if the shutter is open, the sensor won’t record anything. Therefore, an exposure that takes eight to ten seconds will still produce a black photo.
The second aspect is that flash duration is only about 1/1000th of a second (varies by flash unit, but 1/1000th is close enough to accurate for our purposes.)
The first aspect means that if you have a single bright point of light, and move it around while the shutter is open, the camera will record that light movement, but the rest of the image will remain dark.
The second aspect is that if you have a shutter open for 10 seconds in a totally dark environment, but activate a flash during that time, it will create the same effect as if the photo was taken at 1/1000th of a second. The reason for this is that in a totally dark room, the flash, being the only illumination, in effect, does what the shutter usually does.
To combine the effects and do light writing, you need a camera, a tripod, a flash, a dark place, a small hand held light and a model.
Here are the steps to create a light writing photo.

  1. Set up your camera on a tripod, with the flash. The flash can be mounted on the camera or off to the side, but it needs to be strong enough to illuminate the subject.
  2. Have the model stand in position. Frame the photo so that the subject has room to light paint without moving the light out of the picture frame.
  3. Get your focus on the model correct. Once you have the model in focus, they should not move closer or further away from the camera.
  4. After you have your focus, switch your lens from autofocus to manual focus. This will prevent the camera from trying to refocus while you’re taking your picture.
  5. The photo used here was in manual mode and used the following settings: ISO 400, shutter speed 8.0 seconds at ƒ5.6, with an off camera studio light set at 1/4 power. You can also use an on camera flash.
  6. Turn off all lights.
  7. Hit the shutter button. Have the subject start their light writing after they see the flash.
  8. When you hear the shutter click off, the photo is complete.

Check the photo to see if the exposure came out like you wanted. The settings used in this example are starting points, and not written in stone. The model used a light stick, which is a one time use glow stick that chemically gets bright when it’s activated. You can also use a small flashlight, a pen light or a sparkler. Caution, if you use a hot object, be aware of the possibility of starting a fire. The slower the person writes, the brighter the light will appear.
In a dark room, the shutter speed needs to be long enough for the individual to make whatever kind of light painting they want to make. Other than that, the duration of the shutter speed doesn’t matter. Most cameras top out at 30 seconds, which is long enough to do some serious light painting.

If the model is writing a word, you’ll need to flip the image horizontally for the writing to be legible. Otherwise, it will me mirrored.