Image taken by Denis Smith using the Olympus E-M1 Mark II @ 28mm, f4, 2 sec, ISO 640

Olympus visionary Denis Smith is considered a master in the art of light painting. His work often combines dazzling swirls or ‘balls of light’ with beautiful landscapes or night skies. Denis teaches light painting photography workshops across the globe, and recently established the online School of Light

See more of Denis’ stunning work:
denissmith.com.au / @the_ball_of_light


Light painting is an incredible amount of fun on so many levels, whether it is duct taping a torch to a drink bottle for the kids at a BBQ, or climbing a mountain in the French alps to get that perfect moonlit landscape.  

What is Light Painting Photography?

Light painting photography is a technique that involves moving a light source in a dark setting during the capture of a long exposure photograph. The path taken by the light appears in the photo like a light ‘painting’ or ‘drawing’.

The great thing about light painting is that it takes little equipment, experience or effort to create really striking images.

light ball photography on the beachlight ball photography on the beach

Image taken by Denis Smith using the Canon 5D Mark II @ 24mm, f2.8, 178 sec, ISO 100

Light & Dark

Photography is all about light and dark. With light painting we are working at the extremes of these parameters. In general we are working at night and with light painting tools, which by their nature are extremely bright. So we are always pushing our gear, and riding the edge of shadows and light.

When I began my photography journey 12 years ago I remember the first time someone described “seeing the light” and how it would improve my work. Well I now know exactly what they meant. By becoming more attuned to the extremes, it helps me in my daily photography no end. 

light photography on the beachlight photography on the beach

Image taken by Denis Smith using the Olympus E-M1 Mark III @ 17mm, f9, 20 sec, ISO 200

Gear

There are many misunderstandings about light painting photography. The one that I like to smash first is that you need fancy gear to make it happen. 

My first light painting camera was a Canon 450D and a plastic kit lens. I still share images made on this camera; I was recently featured in an international magazine, and one of the images they selected was taken with this camera. Gear doesn’t really matter. 

The vast majority of my images are captured at f4 or higher. All basic kit lenses can do this, and I assure you that any ‘basic’ camera today would blow away anything available 10 years ago. Never let anyone tell you a better camera will create better ideas, and that’s what makes great images: great ideas.

Light Painting Photography Essentials

  • Any camera that can be set to Bulb mode
  • Wide angle lens (up to 35mm equivalent focal length) 
  • Sturdy tripod (a ball head is recommended for quick composition changes)
  • A torch, light painting wand or other light source
  • A dark environment (indoor or outdoor)

Recommended Gear

  • Remote shutter release, ideally with a lock (alternatively, you can set your camera to a timer)
  • String or wire (if painting balls of light)
  • Dark clothing (if you want to appear as invisible as possible in your shots)

 

astral and light photographyastral and light photography

Image taken by Denis Smith using the Olympus E-M1 Mark III + Olympus M.Zuiko 7-14mm f2.8 PRO Lens @ f2.8, 30 sec, ISO 3200

Olympus Starry Sky AF: Astro Photography Made Simple

Combining light painting with astro photography can produce some truly awe-inspiring results. However, getting sharp focus on the stars can be tricky. The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III’s Starry Sky AF feature makes this process automatic, even when there are other elements in the frame.

light painting photography with yellow and blue light streaklight painting photography with yellow and blue light streak

Image taken by Denis Smith using the Canon 5D Mark II @ 24mm, f2.8, 130 sec, ISO 100

Light Painting Tools

We can have incredible fun with basic light painting photography tools as well. I manufacture and sell a large range of tools specifically designed for light painting, but always encourage people to have go with the basics. A cheap torch taped to a drink bottle. Cheap Christmas lights or anything that sparkles and glows from a kids’ toy shop. The possibilities are endless. 

One of my favourite light painting tools is an old glass bottle with a torch taped to it. The light that emanates from tools like these is incredible.

Light Painting: How To 

When it comes to light painting techniques, Denis says it’s all about experimentation

  • To start, try opening your camera’s shutter and waving a torch or other light source around in frame. (How do you compose when it’s dark? Before committing to lots of trial and error long exposures, try taking some quick initial test shots at a wide open aperture and high ISO setting.)
  • Once you get used to shooting long exposures without overexposing, try adding different kinds of light sources. 
  • To create Denis’ signature ball of light, simply tie a light to a string and spin it around in a circle while rotating. With practice and consistent movements, you should get a nice, round light orb.

Camera Settings for Light Painting Photography

Denis recommends setting your aperture to f4 or higher and your ISO as low as possible to minimise noise. From there, try playing around with shutter speeds of 3-10 minutes. 

Autofocusing in the dark is always a challenge, so use a torch to help pre-focus your camera in MF (manual focus) mode.

light ball photography on the lakelight ball photography on the lake

Image taken by Denis Smith using the Canon 5D Mark II @ 24mm, f2.8, 130 sec, ISO 100

Locations

Light painting for me is about adventure. Whether that is in the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, in temples of Angkor Wat, around the incredible Moai of Easter Island, or the most unique travel destinations, I chase the full moon. But in these crazy days of COVID I challenge myself to make the best of my local spots, and that can be just as exciting. 

Chase the Moon

Photographing around the time of a full moon makes a big difference to the light levels in light painting shots and other outdoor long exposures. It makes background details more visible (saving editing time) and makes it easier to see what you’re doing while shooting.

Apps like The Photographer’s Ephemeris (which shows exactly where and when the sun, moon and stars will appear in relation to your shooting location) are great for planning outdoor photos.

light ball photographylight ball photography

Image taken by Denis Smith using the Canon 5D Mark III @ 24mm, f8, 229 sec, ISO 100

The School of Light

I have been teaching light painting across Australia and the world for many years, and with the onset of global and local travel restrictions we have developed a comprehensive online light painting portal for education, inspiration and community - School of Flight 

Come along on an adventure with me and explore the night. Bring a kid along – they love it – or share what you learn here with your local photography communities, and most importantly, stay safe. 

Peace, Denis 

 Want more tips on light painting photography?

Just ask one of our staff photographers.