Painting in photos? It’s possible and it’s a relatively simple technique. Material, technique, retouching, we explain how to draw light streaks on a photo taken with a smartphone.
Light painting is a photographic technique that is very similar to the technique of light trails. It allows you to play with light sources to draw shapes. A true painting of light in motion, frozen for the time of a picture. A paradox that only photography allows! It’s a fairly simple technique to achieve, provided that certain prerequisites are met, namely a very low luminosity and a completely stable smartphone. In this tutorial, we will teach you how to make light painting photos with your smartphone. From the material needed for retouching to composition and settings, everything is explained in detail so that you can reproduce a photo similar to the one shown in the image that illustrates this article.
Light painting necessarily refers to the photographic technique of long exposure. Concretely, it is about lengthening the time of the shooting in order to play with the light sources. In the case of light painting, the impression of movement comes from moving light sources that will leave light trails during a long exposure. But unlike light trails where you don’t control the light source (passing cars for example), when you do light painting, you are the one who is at the origin of the movement of the light source to give substance to your imagination and create shapes and drawings on your photos. Hence its name: “Light Painting”.
How to take a photo of light painting?
To make light painting photos you will need four elements:
- A dark environment
- A tripod
- A smartphone with a Pro mode in its photo application
- A mobile light source (e.g. a smartphone flash)
It’s essential to shoot in a dark environment. Otherwise, the photo may be overexposed.
For this, you can of course take your pictures in the middle of the night, which allows you to imagine complex compositions. But dark places such as a tunnel or a parking lot are also suitable for this type of photo. Keep in mind that the most important thing is to have as little light as possible.
For this series of photos, I chose to shoot indoors, in my house, at night and with the shutters closed. This arrangement allows me to have as little light as possible and to be able to extend the exposure time in order to be able to “draw” serenely. Moreover, to take photos in long exposure, it is essential that your smartphone be as still and stable as possible during the shooting. The slightest movement risks blurring the photo. In my case, I used a camera tripod (with a smartphone adapter), but a small smartphone tripod works just as well.
It is also essential that your smartphone has a Pro mode in its photo application, as is the case for the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra used in this tutorial. This mode allows you to fine-tune important camera settings for light painting photos, such as shutter speed or sensor ISO rise. If your smartphone does not have a Pro mode, you still have the possibility to download a dedicated application. They are usually paid for, but cost only a few euros and will serve you for a long time.
I also invite you – if your smartphone allows it – to shoot your photos in RAW. It’s a lossless image format, because it doesn’t require compression. It is however essential to go through the retouch box once the photo is taken, if it is this format that you use.
The last thing you need to take photos in light painting is the light source that will allow you to “draw” the shapes you want. For my part, I used the flash from another smartphone. This one emits in only one direction and allows a “sharp” drawing. I also used a circular LED camping light that emits in 360 degrees and gives a more “psychedelic” effect to the pictures.
Think about its composition
Once all the prerequisites are met, you are ready to capture your first photos in light painting. And you have two options, which we will explore:
- A simple composition highlighting only your light drawing ;
- A complex composition to highlight your light drawing in its environment.
As for the picture on the front page of the article, the idea is to highlight only the drawing you are going to make. In this case, the framing can be basic and it is only necessary to “draw” in the air with your light source trying to stay in the frame.
Here is the image of the photo of One of the article, unretouched. For this picture I used the center line on the tile to stay in the frame when I was rotating the camping lamp around me trying to keep a fluid movement.
Here is the picture of the front page of the article, unretouched. For this picture I used the center line at the tile level to stay in the frame when I rotated the camping lamp around me trying to keep a fluid movement.
A more complex composition is interesting to highlight the light design in its environment. Here the idea was to represent through a luminous line a drawing present on a sheet of paper.
As you can see on the phone screen, it was necessary to frame the photo with a space on the third third of the screen leaving room to draw the luminous character.
As can be seen on the phone screen, it was necessary to frame the photo with a space on the third third of the screen leaving room to draw the luminous character.
I invite you to activate the “Composition Grid” mode of your smartphone, to display a grid on your screen. This allows you to enhance your subject while respecting the rule of thirds. We explained in detail its principle in our tutorial on the Golden Hour photo.
The rest is up to you! Your only objective is to integrate your light design into its environment.
PRO mode settings to know
As we said earlier, to take good light painting photos, you need to use the Pro mode of the smartphone photo application. The basics to know are exactly the same as for light trails – namely the long exposure – since we’re going to play with two parameters:
- Shutter speed. It is noted as a fraction in the application. For example 1/500, for a speed of 0.002 second.
- The rise in ISO. This is a value that will define the sensitivity of the sensor to light. The higher the value, the more light the sensor captures, but the more digital noise you will have on the photo.
The notion of shutter speed is essential for long exposure photography. To capture movement – and to give it that blurred feeling on the final shot – you need to decrease the shooting speed and therefore increase its value. With the Galaxy S20’s Pro mode you can vary the shutter speed up to several tens of seconds. The longer the exposure time, the smoother the movement will be. But the downside of this longer exposure time is that too much light enters the sensor.
To counteract this overexposure, on an SLR camera, we would play with the aperture of the diaphragm. But smartphones don’t have this possibility yet (except for the Samsung Galaxy S9 and Galaxy Note 9, but in a very limited way). So it is on the ISO sensitivity side that we have to play with. In our case, and without going into details, I invite you to set the parameter to the lowest value. Our advice: perform several tests in order to find the right balance between exposure time and ISO sensitivity.
And that’s where your imagination comes in. The advice I can give you is to draw on a sheet of paper the shape you want to give to your light design. Then try to transcribe this drawing in space and taking into account the framing you defined previously.
Once you are comfortable with your light drawing, I invite you to time yourself in order to have an idea of the time needed to complete your drawing.
You now have the basic parameters to start testing.
For my part, I make my drawings in 10 to 15 seconds and I had to do several tests to determine the right exposure time. You will find below pictures taken with different exposure times.
Exposure time: 4s – ISO 50Exposure time: 10s – ISO 50Exposure time: 30s – ISO 50
With an exposure time of 4 seconds, the photo is correctly exposed, but I didn’t have enough time to draw my little character correctly. On the other hand, with an exposure time of 30 seconds, I had plenty of time to draw, but the photo is overexposed and the whites are “burnt”. An exposure time set to 10 seconds is the perfect compromise between a controlled exposure and a complete drawing.
If you are satisfied with the result, my advice can stop there. On the other hand, if like me you want to improve your pictures, I invite you to continue reading this article.
How to retouch your photos
Lightroom Mobile is the ideal application to perform touch-ups directly on your smartphone. It is a free and very complete application available on the Play Store and App Store. If you are not used to retouch your photos on such an application, I advise you to activate the automatic settings first. The engine of the application will vary different settings to make the photo as beautiful as possible according to the criteria defined by Adobe. If you like the result, then all you have to do is export the retouched photo.
On the other hand, if you are more picky or you have an idea in mind about the final result, you can vary many parameters manually, such as exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, etc… You can also remove chromatic aberrations from your lens or change the framing if necessary. In this case it is your own sensitivity as a photographer that will make you vary this or that setting according to your preferences.
For my part, I worked on parameters such as exposure and contrast while playing with other values such as highlights (varying their intensity), the strength of shadows and blacks. This allowed me to make certain parts of the image disappear and bring out only my drawings.
After retouching With all these tips, you can experiment yourself with long exposure photos on a smartphone. Light painting pictures are rather simple to reproduce if the basic rules are well assimilated. However, you will have to make several tries in the Pro mode settings before finding the perfect configuration. If I can give you one last advice: find a spot you like, get comfortable and experiment.
Finally, to discover more pictures using this technique, I also invite you to follow closely the hashtag #lightpainting on Instagram.