Long Exposure Photography: Light Painting

By: Andrea Sarcos

Essentially, photography is painting with light. You can control the way light is captured with the settings on your camera, or if you’re feeling extra creative, you can try light painting. Light painting is taking a long exposure photograph in a dimly lit space and moving, or “painting,” with the source of light. I played with this photo technique last year, and I’ll share my story and embed some tips in here, too. This technique requires a lot of patience, trial and error, creativity and fun.


A DSLR camera with manual control

A tripod

A flashlight

A few LED lights

A few patient and groovy friends

Bug spray

My friends Dani and Rawlin assisted me with this shoot. I sprayed us all with bug spray (who wants to be covered in mosquito bites?), and we set up the photo shoot at a playground in Rawlin’s neighborhood around 9 p.m. I wanted ample time to play with light, so I set the shutter speed on my camera for 30 seconds and my aperture at f/5.6. This means that my camera would take in all the light that is available in the environment in those 30 seconds and expose it onto one photograph. This is why it’s best to do long exposures at night.

I set my camera on a tripod and aimed at the playground and at my model, Dani, on the slide. I shined the flashlight and manually focused my lens on her. I asked her to be as still as possible and not blink while the photograph was being taken. I counted down “3, 2, 1!” and hit the shutter. During those 30 seconds, I shined the flashlight on Dani for about seven seconds, moving it continuously. You have to do this to expose your subject evenly. I didn’t want to overexpose her (i.e. make her too bright). Seven seconds was just enough. After that, I turned the flashlight off and Dani, Rawlin and I ran around the playground with the little color-changing LED lights. Essentially, we painted the outline of the playground with the lights.

We tried light painting again with Dani’s LED hula hoop. I shined my flashlight on her body for a few seconds while she stood still. Then she moved her hula hoop in different directions. Photographs from both photo shoots are provided here.

The final result was awesome, and I couldn’t have done it without my friends. Light painting gives you creative control over your photographs, which is something that all photographers, amateur and professional, can have fun with.

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