Defining Light Painting Photography – And Defining Me

I’m working on a series of articles about light painting gear and techniques and thought I’d start out with a quick primer of just what light painting is. I have to admit that I don’t know if there is such a thing as an “official” definition. Wikipedia gives it a shot, but I really don’t think there is a light-painting agency to approve anything. I think this is one of those things that has different meanings according to who’s doing it.

Steel wool light painting

Steel wool light painting, where the light source is directed at the camera. Nikon D700, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens, f/11, 151 seconds, ISO 100.

Since I’m the one writing this, I’ll give you MY definition. Light painting photography is defined as:

A: Using a controlled light source to illuminate an object that the camera records.
B: Directing a light source into the lens for the camera to record.
C: Purposely moving the camera while it is recording a light source.

Fireflies and light painting

Light painting, where the light (a flashlight with a red gel filter) illuminates an object (the trees) being photographed. Nikon D700, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. Multiple stacked exposures at f/4, 15 seconds, and ISO 3200 for the fireflies, plus one exposure at f/5.6, 30 seconds, and ISO 1600 for the light painting on the trees.

The key terms here are “controlled,”  “directing,” and “moving.” If you photograph a nighttime street scene and accidently knock over your tripod during the exposure, you’ll record objects being illuminated by lights, light rays coming directly into the camera, and light streaks from the moving camera, but you won’t be light painting. To do that, you must purposely move the lights or the camera during the exposure.

Abstract light painting

Abstract light painting at Times Square in New York. Nikon D700, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, f/22, 1 second, ISO 100. Camera handheld and purposely moved during the exposure.

Now, I imagine you’re wondering what’s the point in all of this. The only thing that matters is the photo, right? I mean, who cares about the definition of the technique used, right?

Anal Adams

My name badge for Carolina's Nature Photographers Association's annual meeting.

Yea, I get that. But you have to take into consideration who you’re talking to, here. Here’s a clue. I attended the Carolina’s Nature Photographers Association annual meeting this past weekend. They provided everyone with a name badge to wear during the conference. Mine had the name “Anal Adams” on it. Along with the acronym “What Would Anal Adams Do?”

True story. Those folks know me.

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