Light painting is an easy photography trick to implement with a broad range of applications. You can get started in just a few minutes with the things you already have lying around.
Here’s how to light paint with a smartphone:
What is Light Painting?
Simply put, light painting is a general term that encompasses any photograph where you manipulate a light source while shooting a long exposure photograph.
In most cases, the camera is kept in one place (it is a long exposure, after all) and a light source is moved around within the frame of the photo. Sometimes, however, the camera itself is moved for even more nuanced effects – but that’s an advanced technique.
Light painting has four critical components:
- A camera to capture the photo, of course.
- The subject of the photo. It can be anything from a person, a product, or nothing – the light painting will be the subject.
- A light source.
- Darkness. (Spooky)
How to Light Paint with a Smartphone
The phrase “how to light paint with a smartphone” can be a little misleading. It could mean one of two things:
- Take a picture with a traditional camera while painting light with your phone.
- Take a picture with your smartphone and paint light with something else (unfortunately, traditional cameras are not great candidates for the painting part).
But we are Photos With Phones, so you could probably guess we’re gonna go with number two.
Collect those critical components and you’re technically ready. Before you get started, though, consider gathering some of this equipment that will make your life a lot easier.
Smartphone Tripod for Light Painting
With any long exposure photography, a tripod is pretty much mandatory. If the camera isn’t held absolutely still, the photo will be blurry and the effect ruined.
Smartphone tripods are really cheap, less than $20 in most cases.
Also, if you’re like me, you don’t have friends to hold the camera for you. At least, not any friends willing to traipse around the city in the dead of night. Tripods aren’t really optional.
Smartphone Remote Camera Shutter for Light Painting
Another necessary piece of equipment is a remote camera shutter. If you have a buddy they can take pictures for you while you’re painting, otherwise, you’ll need the familiar comfort of a feelingless robot.
Remote camera shutters are something of a pain to use with most traditional cameras, but with phones, it couldn’t be easier. They simply connect via Bluetooth and are fully integrated (no apps necessary), ready to snap, record, and more with a handheld remote.
Here’s a good one we recommend:
But if you noticed, that tripod up above was bundled with one of these bad boys… something to think about.
Facilitating loneliness notwithstanding, a remote camera shutter is important any time you’re taking a long exposure shot. The act of tapping your screen to start the exposure starts the whole process with vibrations.
If you want more info about remote camera shutters, we did an in-depth look at them in this article.
Setting up the Scene for Light Painting
Alright, you’ve got all your equipment and components of your shot together. Now it’s time to set up the shot.
- Your (smartphone) camera needs to be on a tripod with the scene in the frame.
- Your scene needs to be dark. It doesn’t have to be pitch black (although that can lead to some really cool effects), but it has to be dark enough that a long exposure won’t brighten the image to the point of blinding.
- You, or an assistant, need to have the light painting tool. The tool can be anything that emits light – a flashlight, a sparkler, a keychain LED, or a phone.
Try to eliminate as many light sources as possible. Overhead lights are an obvious one, but also move away from streetlights and turn off screens. During a long exposure, every light source is “magnified” and can impact the image – even if it’s out of the scene.
Need some instruction on how to take a long exposure on your phone? Check out this guide.
Now it’s time to light paint.
Light Painting Techniques
At a very basic level, the trick is just to shine light selectively. There are two primary methods:
Light paint by Shining Light at the Camera
Ever seen those pictures of people running around with sparklers and there’s a big long trail of light? That’s this.
Point your light source directly at the camera taking the long exposure. Keep it aimed there while you’re “painting”. Move it at a medium pace – not frantically and not too slow.
Light Paint by Illuminating the Subject
Instead of pointing at the camera, you’re pointing the light source at the subject.
For this, move slowly and methodically. You want to illuminate the entirety of the subject and you want to illuminate every part for approximately the same amount of time. If you miss a spot, it will be very apparent.
Don’t be afraid to move in front of the camera if necessary, just don’t stay too long.
Using Your Phone to Paint Light
We’ll assume you’re using two phones here – one to take the long exposure, the actual picture, and another to use as a light source.
There are loooads of ways to use your phone for light painting. It’s an incredibly versatile tool.
- Use the flashlight. Point it at the camera taking the picture and wiggle it around. Yay, light painting.
- Take a screenshot of a white screen (or any other color). Have that image open and use the front of your phone to shed light on the subject.
- Use a dedicated light painting app. There are some really cool ones. They can emit solid colors, rainbows, or any pattern of colored light you want. They can strobe for neat effects. Some apps will even let you type a message that it will spell while you’re moving your phone!
Light Paint is an imaginatively named iOS app that has the above features.
For Android, check out Lightbrush.
Light Painting Tips
- Ideally, your body won’t show up in the long exposure. The best way to accomplish this is to keep your body moving as quickly as possible – and in different places. Also try to keep light off of yourself. Wearing dark clothes helps.
- Experiment with the angle of the light source. Light from above, below, and straight on the subject can make for differing shadows and dramatic effects.
- Use different colors!
- Keep your ISO low to reduce grain. All the light you need should be painted in!