This article first appeared in MAKE Volume 38, on pages 52–55.
Light painting is an art form created by moving a light source and camera in relation to one another during a long exposure. Though light painting is almost as old as photography itself, it has seen an explosion in popularity since the advent of the digital camera. Modern light painters have developed a rich variety of original tools and methods to create their art. Here are just a few of my personal favorites.
10 Tools and Techniques for Light Painting
The Fire Wall
Not for the careless or faint of heart, this method from Barry Elder nonetheless yields stunning results. You'll need fuel, a rope or strap, a long fireproof pole, a lighter, a wet towel, and an assistant (or two). Be sure to have a fire extinguisher handy. Hang the rope from the pole, dip it in the fuel, ignite it, then open the shutter and walk along the path where you want the wall to appear. Then carefully extinguish the flame.
All you need for this basic trick is a string of battery-operated holiday lights and some duct or other dark tape. Tape 10 or so lights at the end of the string into a bunch, then tape over the remaining bulbs to block the light. You can also add colored gels for effect. To use, open the shutter of your camera and swing the lights around in a circular motion while rotating your body through 360º.
The Perfect Circle
This one is made from a skateboard wheel, a paint-roller handle with extender, and a crank handle bent from scrap. Just attach your cold cathode, RBG led contraption, sparkler, or any other light-emitting device. Then start the exposure, put the pole on the ground, fire up the lights, and turn the handle.
The Light Lathe
Patrick Scherer uses a handheld electric drill to drive his rig, which consists of a photo light stand, a black emitter mount, and a generous serving of duct tape. Turn on the lights, open the shutter, and slowly spin up the drill. The lighting elements, whatever they are, should have some flex, so that centrifugal force will cause them to bend outward as the drill speed increases.
Though artist Wes Whaley has so far been close-mouthed about the details of this tool (a tutorial is "in the works"), it's known that he uses carefully shaped pieces of electroluminescent (EL) wire to punctuate conventional spinning arcs with contrasting angular, highly geometric patterns.
Andrew Whyte’s dome-painting rig is built on an old bike wheel with an axle that extending the length of the wheel's radius on one side. Holiday lights are mounted along the rim. To use, just tip it over on the axle, start the exposure, flip the lights on, and give it a spin. The wheel rolls in a circle around the axle, and the lights on its edge trace out a beautiful dome.
The Light Stencil
This hack by Trevor Williams works on the same principle as the flash projector. All you need is some scrap cardboard, tape, and a flash. Shape the box into a pyramid, mount the flash at the narrow end, and mount your custom-cut stencil at the wide end. Stand in-frame and project images directly into the camera, or stand out-of-frame and project onto a surface in your scene.
The Cold Cathode Wand
Dana Maltby has hacked cold cathode tubes — the neon light’s cheaper, safer younger brother — to be battery operated for light-painting use. Building one just takes an 8XAA battery holder, a switch, and some simple tools. Swipe, slash, or wave it in the air to create colorful bands of light.
The RGB Light Pen
Dana Maltby’s light pens are made from holiday lights, batteries, lots of tape, and some simple on/off switches. Using one is as simple as pointing it at the camera lens and drawing in the air. Renowned light painter Darren Pearson has used Dana's light pens to create everything from skateboarding skeletons to dinosaurs.
The Digital Wand
Unlike the other "analog" tools on this page, this is a full-featured programmable RGB LED light wand, built around an Arduino with an SD card reader and a small screen so you can load your images and go. All you have to do, once you start your exposure, is move the LED wand at a more-or-less even pace; the microcontroller takes care of the rest.