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Children's Light Painting

I’m sure all children and even many adults have at some point been given a flash light or maybe a sparkler and tried to make shapes or words by moving it around so fast that it tricks the eye into seeing a solid line. Well there is a really simple photography technique that allows you to capture these words and illustrations, it’s known as light painting and with a bit of practice you can easily produce some extremely effective results.

What you need:


The camera does not need to be particularly fancy but you do have to be able to manually adjust the exposure time. The ability to instantly see results means a digital camera will be easiest whilst practicing, but the technique will work equally well with a film camera.

Stable Platform for Camera:

It’s important that the camera remains perfectly still whilst taking these photographs. If you have a Tripod that will be perfect but really any stable surface at the right height for taking the picture will work; a chair, table or even carefully piled boxes should work fine.

Light Source:

Different kinds of light will produce different effects. It’s probably easiest to start by using a flash light but if your children are responsible enough a laser pen, sparkler or candle can be used to achieve different effects.

Setting up the camera:

man with camera on tripod

Almost all different camera types and brands are changed in different ways so if you are not already familiar with how to change the manual settings on your camera you may need to consult the manual or a website dedicated to your brand of camera. Digital SLR Cameras are the easiest to control manual settings on, but many compact digital cameras allow this too.

The most important thing to control for taking these images is the Shutter speed. This is the amount of time the lens lets in light. To change the shutter speed your camera will need to be set either in Manual mode, often represented with an M. Alternatively you can set your camera in Shutter Speed Priority mode often represented with an S.

How long your exposure time needs to be depends on how complicated your design is and how long it will take. 45 seconds might be a good starting point but it really depends on you.

With some cameras you can set the length of time to Bulb which means the shutter will stay open for as long as you hold the Shutter release this will give you the most flexibility but means the person taking the picture can’t also be in it.

If you have set your camera to manual you will also need to adjust the ISO and Aperture if you wish the background and people in your images to be visible then a high aperture and ISO would be desirable, although be aware that if you set the ISO much above 400 your image will likely become grainy.

The flash should usually be suppressed whilst taking the picture, although some interesting effects can be created using it during very long exposures, but to begin with turn it off.

The camera needs to be perfectly still whilst the picture is being taken, when the lens is open for a long time any camera movement will result in your photographs becoming majorly blurred. Therefore you cannot hold the camera you need a tripod or flat surface to leave the camera on.

It is also important that you take extra care not to move the camera as you press the shutter release. If you have a remote control for your camera now would be an ideal time to use it. If you don’t but are struggling with camera blur, you can set your camera to self timer so that you are not touching the camera as the photograph takes.

Framing the picture:

When framing the picture it’s important to make sure there is as little light as possible, all light will be exaggerated in the image, resultantly any lamps or lights in the background will become very bright and large often taking over the whole picture. Choose a location that is dark as possible and position the camera so any lights that you cannot turn off are not in the frame.

Make the frame as large as possible; you cannot always judge where your drawing will go, you can always crop the image later. To get an idea of what will appear in the picture you may wish to try taking a photo with the flash as a test before hand.

Taking the picture:

Depending on what effect you hope to achieve there are different ways to do this, with practice I’m sure you’ll even come up with your own techniques.

cartoon sun holding camera For most images you will need to point the camera at the artist, once the picture has started taking they should draw their image relatively slowly. It’s not like playing with a sparkler where you need to move fast to trick the eye.

The slower you move the clearer the image will be in the photo, even if you can’t see it whilst you draw it.

Draw it big, the slower you are and shorter the exposure the thicker the lines will be and they could start to overlap.

It’s also important to remember that if you are facing the camera anything you draw will be seen in reverse on the image. With this technique if the artist stays in one place whilst drawing you will be able to see them, although any part of them that moved will be blurred. If the artist moves around whilst creating the image they will appear semi transparent or maybe even invisible. If the artist stands still in several different places whilst creating the image the artist will appear semi transparently in each of these places.

It’s important to remember that anywhere the light moves will come out in the photo, kind of like an etch–a –sketch, you need to plan the drawing accordingly. Of course if you’re using a torch you can always switch it off whilst you reposition it.

If you want to get a clearer image you may want to try using a laser pen, (although be sure to observe the relevant safety guidelines, avoiding shining the laser into people’s eyes etc.) For best results when using the laser pen aim the camera not at the artist but at a wall or surface, and then have the artist draw the image on the wall. The image will appear in the photo as if it was neon light.

Expanding on the idea:

As you get more confident with creating these images you can become more creative, perhaps have models standing very still for the photo whilst an artist draws things over them. Be creative; perhaps make it appear as if your models are shooting lightning bolts, or label them with their name.

If you want the figures in the image to stand out you can do this by “colouring them in” with a torch, simply do this by shining the torch at them from a fairly close distance and covering them with the light.

The images I’ve included are simple ones that you could easily attempt to recreate, however searching Light Painting on the internet will bring up some extremely impressive images that demonstrate the true potential of this technique.

The more you try this the more you’ll learn about how light works and soon you’ll be developing your own techniques and creative uses for light painting. Have fun.

Easy Examples:

example of light painting
Photo by Ewan Cambell MacDougall

Using a sparkler the word RARR.. has been written, the model can be partially seen in the background as they have stood still.


light painting
Photo by Mohamed Saad Hussain & Ewan Cambell MacDougall.

First the torch was shined at the model, and then with the torch beam facing the camera lightning beams were drawn from the models fingers. The artist is not visible because they did not remain still in any position, but the model stood still so can be seen.


image of light on models feet
Photo by Mohamed Saad Hussain

By shining the torch at the models feet, then having the model move and then shine the torch at the entire model the figure is seen in the photo with two sets of feet.




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