One of the limitations I had with my photography years ago was that I couldn’t take good pictures at night. Part of this was due to the limitation of my camera: a point-and-shoot Olympus that I didn’t know how to fully use. Sure, there was an automatic setting for “night” that I occasionally utilized, but often the pictures I would get were more based on luck than anything else. Once I was able to dive deep into the settings of the camera, I found I could manipulate them to take the pictures I wanted. Still, the camera had reached the limits of its capability and I moved to a Nikon D7000 DSLR.

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With a DSLR, pictures of cities at night are quite easy to create.

Now that my camera’s settings were much easier to control, I found the art hidden within night photography: painting with light. Due to the minimal amount of photons hitting the focal plane of the camera, long exposures are needed to fully capture the scene with as little noise as possible. Of course, with long exposures come additional challenges (aside from the aforementioned noise). The main challenge is keeping the scene in focus, as any movement will appear blurred. However, this challenge can be an asset when painting with light.

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The lights of cars on a highway are just one example of painting with light.

In order to “paint with light”, there are a number of conditions to be met, including the stability of the camera and a moving light source. These conditions require three techniques:

  1. Shutter speed – This is the main technique for painting with light, as it allows the light source to move across the scene to create lines of colored brilliance. Usually 30 seconds is a good setting to use for maximum time to paint, as well as allowing enough light of the background to come through for context.
  2. ISO – In normal night photography, a low shutter speed can be used with a high ISO. While this can capture moments of action at night without the need of a tripod, it doesn’t work well for light painting and will often leave the resulting pictures grainy and full of noise. A nice, low ISO should be enough to capture the scene, especially if the shutter speed is set for a long amount of time.
  3. Tripod and remote – The crux of the whole operation is to ensure the background of the light painting remains unblurred while the light moves around the frame. To accomplish this, a steady tripod is needed to keep the camera from moving. Furthermore, one can use a timed delay setting to ensure the “shake” from pressing the shutter button doesn’t add to the camera’s blur. An even better alternative is to use a remote control to trigger the camera to take the picture.

Photography Prints
This example of light painting was produced by a low-flying airplane mounted with active fireworks.

I have yet to go back out and take some more “light painting” photographs, but it’s always something I consider when doing long exposures at night. What kinds of art have you created through painting with light?

As always, have fun!
– Benjamin M. Weilert

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