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Light Painting and Special Effects Photography
Tips and Tricks

10:00 AM - January 15, 2013 by Adam Short

Get basic, affordable equipment

  • If you are just starting out in photography, get any basic DSLR camera with an interchangeable lens. Canon, Pentax, Nikon, Sony, whatever is affordable, just make it a DSLR – you must be able to adjust the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, focus and white balance manually. 
  • The lens is the biggest factor in determining image quality and the most important part of your camera.
  • Use the basic most likely 18-55mm kit lens that comes with your camera. They’re usually pretty good.
  • You must have at least a cheap tripod to take any kind of decent photograph to obtain precise focus and keep the camera in the same position for multiple exposures.
  • Most photographs do not require Photoshop and can be done “in-camera”. However, Photoshop is highly recommended for all photographers because it extends your capability. If you don’t have any money, download the free 30-day trial version or download a free alternative program called GIMP.

Learn and understand basic photography concepts

  • Shutter speed is how long light enters your camera during a photograph. Know what shutter speed is and learn what the numbers mean on your camera. 125, for example, usually means 1/125th of a second, which is fast. 30” means 30 seconds, which is slow. Fast means less light, slow means more light.
  • Aperature is how wide the hole in your lens is set to. Know what aperature is, and what the F-stop numbers mean. F2.8 means 1/2.8 and is a large hole. F22 means 1/22 and is a small hole. Big hole means more light. Small hole means less light.
  • Depth of field means how in focus, or out-of-focus, the background is relative to the foreground of your photo. Learn what depth of field means. F2.8 means shallow depth of field, with the background more out of focus. F22 means deep depth of field, with the background more in focus.
  • The ISO is a measurement of your sensor’s sensitivity to light. Know what ISO means, and experiment with different values on your camera. It’s better to use low sensitivity, like ISO 100-200, because it’s sharper and has less noise. 
  • White balance refers to the “blueness” or “yellowness” of the colors in your photos. Learn what white balance means. It adjusts the color to look correct under different lighting conditions.

How to adjust your camera for light painting


Put your camera on a tripod and use Manual Mode and manual focus, lower the ISO number as low as it can go. Have your aperture at F8 and your shutter speed at 5 seconds. Take a shot and see how it looks. Adjust F number and shutter speed as needed.

How to focus in the dark


Place an LED or flashlight facing the camera on the spot where you want to focus. Focus on the light until it becomes sharp, then switch to manual focus so the camera won’t try to keep auto-focusing. Remove the light.

How to do light painting


Go to a dark place. Find an object to photograph, like an apple. Put your camera on a tripod in manual mode, on manual focus. Set the aperature to F8 and shutter speed to 5 seconds. Take the picture. First, simply shine the light on the apple to light up the apple in the photo. This is called light painting. Next, shine the light behind the apple, pointing the light into the camera. Move it around. This is called light drawing.

Good lights to use for light painting

  • Maglights are good, cheap flashlights to use in light painting. You can take the cap off to go into “candle mode.” You can get a fiber optic adapter to light small objects.
  • Key chain LED lights are very inexpensive, can take some abuse, and can create multiple parallel lines at once if you get many of them.
  • To light up large scenes at night, get a large, bright flashlight like the LED Lenser X21. It has a 500 meter range.
  • A Bayco work light has an RGB LED strip, and can be used to create bars of color.
  • Fairy lights, or battery-operated LED Christmas lights, can be waved in front of the camera to make squiggle patterns. Swing the (bundled) LED lights in a circular or globe pattern to make an “orb” photo.
  • Tape fairy light LEDs to a hula hoop and spin it to make circular orbs.
  • Take a laser pen and draw on your subject or background.
  • Photograph fiber optic lights alone or drag them across your subject for flowing lines.
  • Get a V24 Light Stick, which is like a light sword, and wave it around to create interesting patterns.
  • Use glow sticks, which are inexpensive and can be thrown, smashed, or submerged in water safely.
  • Use a flash to freeze a moving subject in place during a light painting.

Trick Photography and Special Effects techniques to try


Flash

  • If you have an on-camera flash, you can set it to repeating mode to get multiple images of a moving subject in one image.
  • Use an external flash such as an inexpensive LumoPro LP180 to get flash effects in different directions and distances.
  • Use a wireless transceiver, like an RF-603, to trigger your flash remotely when you press the shutter button.
  • Place different colored gels on your flash and flash your subject from multiple angles with different colors to get multi-colored effects.
  • Combine multiple lights, such as external flash and LED lights in the same photograph.
  • Place a stencil over a flash to light the burn custom designs into your exposure.
  • For a classic look, take a long exposure of traffic at night.
  • Place water in a large, clear container before a black or white background. A fishtank works best. Turn out the lights. Take a long exposure, drop an object in the tank, and trigger an external flash at the moment the object hits the water to freeze the water drops splashing into the air.

City Lights

  • Traffic has always been the classic example of long exposures.
  • During a long exposure, try tilting your camera up or down or moving the focus ring to get interesting, blurred effects.
  • Go to an amusement park and take long exposures of the rides and lights at night.
  • Set up your camera in your car at night. Drive down the street and take a long exposure of the lights.

Fire

  • If you find a fire dancer, take some long exposures of the dance.
  • If you ever see a fire dancer and you happen to have your tripod and camera on you, take some long exposures.
  • Combine multiple light painted images into one image using Photoshop.
  • Take a long exposure of a firework sparkler in motion or trace objects with the sparkler.

Lightning

  • Take a series of 30 second exposures during a lightning storm using burst mode and a shutter release. Load lightning photos into Photoshop.
  • Take photographs over a reflective pool or puddle to mirror lightning strikes.

Water

  • Do a light painting over water or next to a mirror to get a mirrored light painting.

Snow

  • Take a long exposure of snow falling at night time.

Bubbles

  • Create a mixture of 90% bubble solution and 10% glycerin and blow large bubbles into it with a straw. Zoom in on bubble surface and take flash photos to capture psychedelic colors.

Smoke

  • Burn incense in front of white or black background. Light up the smoke, and take flash photos.
  • Take a long exposure of an apple while dangling a string in front of it. The string will look like smoke.

Christmas Lights

  • Move the camera in front of a pile of LED Christmas lights during a long exposure to create a textured layer. 

Domes

  • Create a “dome” by attaching a light to the end of a broomstick and pivoting it around on the ground.

Circles

  • Create perfect circles with RGB strips by attaching to a paint roller and rotating the stick around the roller using a light stand. Or, simply attach any light to a ceiling fan and turn on the fan.

Writing

  • Write letters in a long exposure using LEDs.

Smartphones

  • Find a light painting app for your smartphone and use it to make sophisticated light patterns.

Camera

  • Throw your camera up in the air and spin it while taking a long exposure (and catch it).

Camera shake

  • Use a shutter release, mirror lock-up mode, exposure delay, or self-timer mode to remove blurriness from camera shake when you press the shutter.

Daylight Long Exposure

  • Place an ND400 filter on your camera and take long exposure photographs during the daytime. Good subjects are water splashing on rocks, waterfalls and fountains.
  • Use a graduated neutral density filter to take long exposures of moving clouds.
  • Use a neutral density filter to take long exposures of city streets – moving people will not appear in the photo.
  • Use an ND filter and take a long exposure of a clock. Moving hands will be blurred.

Ghosts

  • Create “ghost” images by shooting double exposures of a scene – one with the model, and one without. Use your camera’s multiple exposure option, or open the two photos as layers in Photoshop and set the “person” layer’s opacity to 50%.

Dancers

  • Take a long exposure of dancers on a stage.

Body parts

  • Take a 1.5 second photo of a person while they move their eyeballs around to make them appear ghostly or dead.
  • Take a short exposure with someone’s eyes open and then closed for an interesting look.
  • Have your subject shake their head quickly back and forth with face muscles loose. Take a photo with a flash to freeze the motion.
  • Take two photos, one where both of your eyes are looking up and one where both of your eyes are looking down. Combine in Photoshop. Mask out one of the eyes to show the eye below looking in the wrong direction.
  • Take two photos: one of your face, another with your hands over your face. Combine in Photoshop.
  • Take two photos: one of your head, another of a plant at the same angle as your head. Combine in Photoshop. Make it look like the plant is growing out of your head.
  • Trying taking several photographs of different parts of your body. Combine in Photoshop to create a strange looking new creature.

Scanner

  • If you have a scanner, you can take strange “time-morphed” images by moving your subject along with the scanning light. For example, scan your face but turn it from one side to the other during the scan.

Animal eyes

  • With a flash turned on, take photos of animals in the dark and experiment with getting eye reflections.

False perspective

  • Take photos with objects in the near and far distance aligned to create false perspectives.
  • Rotate a photograph horizontally to create a gravity-defying illusion.
  • Take a photograph of clouds, flip it upside down, and combine with other photos to create interesting cloud “floors.”
  • Take photos of reflections in ponds, lakes, or puddles with your camera upside down.

Transparent laptop screen

  • If you have a laptop, open the screen and frame the laptop in your photo. Zoom in just enough so that you can’t see the frame of the monitor in your shot. Close the laptop, and take a photo of what’s behind the screen. Set that photo as the desktop pattern on your laptop. Now, zoom out to wide angle, open the laptop screen and take another photo. The laptop screen will appear to be transparent if done correctly.

Books

  • Take a long exposure of a book and turn the pages during the exposure.

Glow

  • Try taking two photos: one in focus, and one out of focus. Combine them using a double exposure option or using Photoshop. This will give the shot a kind of glowing light.

High Dynamic Range

  • Find a scene with both harsh sunlight and deep shadows. Put your camera on a tripod and take three photos: one underexposed by two stops, one correctly exposed, and one overexposed by two stops. Combine the three photos in photo shop to get a “high dynamic range” or HDR photograph. 

Photoshop

  • Open any photograph or light painting in Photoshop and invert it using Control-I.
  • Take several exposures with different lighting conditions, each 30 seconds long with different things lit. Open Photoshop and click File > Scripts > Load Images into Stack to create a single composition. Change the blending mode on all layers to lighten.
  • Take a photo of a large cooking pot on a stove. Remove the pot, and take a photo with your head in a position where it would be if it were in the pot. Open the images in Photoshop. With the “head” image on top, create a layer mask to mask out everything but the head to show the pot below to appear like a head is being cooked in the pot.
  • With the sun creating long shadows, take one shot of a model standing and another with just their shoes on the ground. Put them together in Photoshop with the person layer on top, and mask out the person so the shoes and the shadow of the person only are in the photo.
  • Take two photos – one with a TV only, and one with the TV removed and someone with their head in a position as though it would have been coming out of the television. Combine the images, and mask out everything except the head coming out of the television.
  • Take a series of photographs on a tripod of a scene. For each shot, move to a different position in the frame. Combine in Photoshop using layer masks to look like there are multiple copies of yourself.
  • Go to a hill. Take a photograph of someone on top of the hill jumping up in the air so that their feet just clear the top of the horizon. Take another photograph of just the hill. Combine in Photoshop, but move the person much higher up in the sky.

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