Photography Tips from Kristian Bogner: Painting with Light

Photography Tips from Kristian Bogner: Painting with Light

September 23, 2014

Kristian Bogner is a commercial, architecture, adventure, fashion, and sports photographer and Nikon Ambassador for Canada. For some inspiration and more pro tips check out or attend one of his photography workshops: This article first appeared in the Autumn 2014 issue of PhotoNews Canada.


One of my favorite photographic techniques is painting with light. This is done by shooting a long exposure of a subject that is dimly lit - usually at night or in a dark room, and applying a flashlight or other continuous tone light source to literally paint it with light. This is an exciting form of photography because you paint differently each time and every image becomes a masterpiece in its own right. While the technique is very simple, this can be a difficult concept to understand at first-but with a little practice it can be on of your best new tools for creating amazing images. The fall colors will soon be here, why not try light painting a tree at night using some of the following tips:

1. Use a tripod

In order to capture the continuous light you will need to use a sturdy tripod and head because you will be shooting long exposures. Lock it down to prevent any movement and level it if you can. You can always sand bag or weight the center column for even more stability during really long exposures in outdoor locations.

light painting 2

2. Switch to manual settings

Switch your camera to manual settings because your exposure meter obviously won't work in the dark. As a starting point I recommend that you set your camera to f/8 at 30 seconds and ISO 100 or your lowest noise setting. If this doesn't give you enough time to paint your subject with light then close down the aperture and increase your exposure time. To shoot exposures of 30 seconds or longer you may need a cable release that lets you lock the shutter open - use this with the 'bulb' setting in your manual shutter speed control.

Use manual focus. I suggest that you point your flashlight at the subject and let autofocus lock on to the lit area, then switch your autofocus off. If your lens has a distance scale, shine your flashlight on it and take note of where it is set just in case you accidentally bump your camera and need to readjust. Remember to refocus each time you move your camera or subject, and turn autofocus back on before you put the camera away.

Set your white balance for the most pleasing results. I usually start with daylight balance and then adjust the setting to achieve the most pleasing effect. You can also crank up the saturation in your picture control settings to really make your colors pop!

3. Reduce vibrations and free your hands

I like to have my hands free when I paint with light, so I prefer to use a wireless remote trigger or a cable release so that I don't create any unnecessary vibrations. The remote trigger lets me take a series of photographs as I move around the scene and paint with flashlights, speed lights, or other light sources. My favorite trigger system is the Nikon WR-R10 + WR-A10 Wireless Remote Adapter. If you don't have any of these options, see if your camera has an exposure delay mode and set it to the longest setting-if you don't have that option use your camera's self timer to give you enough time to get into position with your lights. This will also help eliminate any vibration that you may impart to eh camera when you trip the shutter.

4. Choose the right light source

Painting with light can be achieved with almost any light source. One of my favorite lights is an LED headlamp that I bought at MEC. I can wear it for hands-free lighting while setting up my camera in dark areas. It is great for hiking and small enough to fit in a pocket. My LED headlamp has several output settings for different effects. For more light painting power I use an LED bicycle light that provides 1500 Lumens of power. Other light painting options include lasers, lamps of all shapes and sizes, flashlights of any kind, icelights, car lights, glow sticks, sparks from burning steel wool, a burning torch - the list is endless.

A fireworks display can be a spectacular opportunity for an adventure in painting with light - but do NOT hold them in your hand! Use a long exposure to let them dance across your sensor as you capture to their brilliance. Try a low ISO like 100 and adjust your f-stop until you get the right exposure - the goal is to see color detail in the fireworks. Set up on a tripod and adjust your exposure time from about half a second to 30 seconds and see what you get.

5. Filters, gels and electrical tape

You can change the color of your light source by attaching filters or colored gels that you can buy at any camera store. You can alter the intensity and the shape of your light source for creative effects. For some product photography shoots I put black electrical tape over small flashlights to reveal only a small slit for pin point lighting. I used this technique to add light to the back of a beer bottle to capture a warm glow effect. Be inventive with different colors and combinations, they can really add a splash to your images whether you are shooting products or landscapes.

You can get infinitely clever and technical with filters during a long exposure. For example, try putting bubble wrap or a soft focus filter over the lens to add a glow to your light painting session. You can cover a portion of the lens, and leave part of the lens unfiltered where you want the image to be detailed and sharp. See what kind of interesting images you can create with different filters. This technique is called split-focus.

6. Light painting movement and technique

The technique for painting with light is an artistic experience that takes practice. If you just shine a flashlight on part of your subject during a long exposure it will produce a hard light source like the sun. If you move the light around during the long exposure, perhaps in a circular or wavy fashion, the movement feathers the light, and makes it a much softer, larger, and in most cases, a more pleasing light source. I usually move away from the camera and paint in this circular fashion to illuminate different areas of the subject. I move around to different spots and light accordingly to get my desired lighting ratios. This of course is usually done with relatively stationary subjects. Be careful to stay behind the camera or away from your subject unless you want the light source to appear in the shot.

Another very creative effect is to draw on the subject with your light source facing the camera. This can be fun and you can practice spelling out different words, designs, or shapes. You can simply cover your light with your hand to interrupt the trace of light while you move to the next part of your creation. Wear black clothing if possible to make sure you don't appear in the shot as a ghosting effect!

Light painting 1

7. Use strobes, Speedlights, or mixed lighting

I often paint with light using a flashlight in one hand and my Nikon SB910 in the other. I usually set my Speedlight to full power and set the flash zoom depending on the distance tot he subject and the desired degree of beam focus. I will often fire the flash several times over the duration of a single long exposure, which gives me more power and also softens the light source while allowing me to move to different angles between flashes. You can also try colored gels on the flash or feather bounce the light depending on the effect you want to achieve.

8. Experiment and have fun

Light painting can be infinitely technical but insanely fun as well. As you move around and light your subject you can see the results of applying different light intensities, shapes, colors, and special effects. Light the subject from different angles and you will enjoy a learning adventure that will come in handy whenever you use strobes or any continuous light source.