Not so long ago going to the photographer to have photos taken was an entire event. Such visits inevitably accompanied special moments in family life, such as childbirths or weddings. Professional camera owners were the “chosen ones”. We are now living in an image culture and an image-based world. Everybody takes pictures. Recently the world marvelled at the success of Instagram, bought by Mark Zuckerberg for an incredible sum of 1 billion $. The power is in the pictures. However, surrounded by sheer volume of images and accustomed to simplified, digital techniques, we often forget what photography really is about.
The term itself derives from Greek and literally means 'drawing with light'. As the famous quotation suggests: "Amateurs worry about equipment, pros worry about money, masters worry about light." And light truly is the most important aspect of the photographic image - the same frame can look great or disappointing, all depending on lighting quality. Good there is a considerably large group of enthusiasts who have took it all to heart, treat the etymology of “photography” literally and simply draw their pictures with light.
How do I do this?
Light drawing - or, more commonly, light painting - techniques typically require darkness and use of very long exposure times. Therefore, if you want to go about creating such images, a tripod is definitely necessary. Also, the camera must have manual exposure mode, and B (Bulb) time synchronisation preferably (automatic cameras will tend to over-brighten the images) - which is why you might have a problem trying to take light painted pictures with an ordinary digital compact camera. To trigger the shutter, use a remote control or cable release; alternatively, you can use the self-timer.
The last, but key element in the arsenal of a “light painter” is obviously a source of light. And what does that exactly mean? It all depends on whether you decide to work in the open air, with the changing light available there, or whether you want to take matters into your own hands and create images from scratch. In the latter case the light source may be everything from a simple flashlight (it is always good to have two: a large and a small one), light emitting LED diodes to matches and candles - basically any luminous object, which can be moved around is good for the purpose. By obscuring the source of light with various color films, we can modify the color of light.
Shooting light paintings resembles a bit how the photographers used to work a hundred years ago, when the exposure time was regulated by timed exposing and covering of the lens. Back then ISO speed was so low that shutter speed (btw, shutters did not exist yet) was not count in fractions of seconds like today, but in full seconds. Light painting technique is based on the assumption that the picture is taken in low light conditions, which necessitate the use of long shutter speed of at least a few seconds.
The second element that guarantees long exposure time is choosing the lowest ISO speed available, which will result in high technical quality of images, i.e., will decrease noise caused by amplification of the signal from the matrix, characteristic for high ISO speed. Image focus should be set in advance and only manually, since AF systems will not be able to work in (almost total) darkness. Aperture value can vary, depending on what effect you want to create.
The final result is highly dependent upon your imagination, but what should be stressed, it is almost always impossible to predict precisely - especially when you work in an open air location. Remember that with long exposure the main area to play with is light, but do not forget that movement can kick up your photos too.
Below you will find five different types of popular long exposure themes, implementations and creative techniques. Enjoy and be inspired!
In the images generated with long exposure techniques even ordinary objects look unique and show often unnoticed details. A very interesting series drawing from this phenomenon was presented by artist Aaron Durand.
He observed that trains are very grateful objects to be photographed in this technique. It is not very surprising when we realize that they combine both motion and light - simply the best tools of a light painter.