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Slow Shutter Art: 3 Brilliant Tips for Photographing Light Paintings

The term "nightscape photography" often conjures up images of having to mount a camera on a tripod and shoot carefully with a slow shutter speed. However, there is also a technique of holding on to your camera and using light to paint pictures at night. Let's find out some of the tips to doing so with a look at some sample photos. (Reported by: Kazuo Nakahara)

EOS 7D Mark II/ EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM/ FL: 16mm (26mm at 35mm film-equivalent)/ Shutter-priority AE (f/16, 3.2 sec., EV-0.7)/ ISO 200/ WB: White Fluorescent Light
A camera is not exactly a device that captures what you see, but rather, one that captures light. To that effect, as long as there is light around, any scene becomes a canvas on which you can paint what you like.


Tip 1: Choose a nightscape with few light sources

Painting a picture against the night sky involves moving your camera to trace the form of the picture you wish to paint while the shutter is open. During exposure, any street lights present will be captured as light trails as a result of the movement of your camera. Therefore, nightscapes with few light sources make for an ideal canvas as you can clearly capture the shapes of your light painting.

EOS 7D Mark II/ EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM/ FL: 16mm (26mm at 35mm film-equivalent)/ Aperture-priority AE (f/4, 1/30 sec., EV-0.3)/ ISO 1600/ WB: Auto
The scene where I did my light painting. As too much light will cause the image to become too cluttered, nightscapes with somewhat sparse lighting are just right for such a purpose.


Tip 2: Join the start and end points of the painting

First set the shooting mode to Shutter-priority AE. Then, find a shutter speed that gives you sufficient time to finish painting your intended picture, and fine-tune from there. For a simple drawing, 3 seconds should be just right. Remember to turn off image stabilization for your lens. Then, release the shutter while holding the camera, and move the camera in a single stroke to paint your intended picture.

When drawing your painting, it is important to join the start and end points. To get a good painting, keep your camera sufficiently close to your body, and move your whole upper body as if there were a brush attached to the end of your lens. If you are using a wide-angle lens, I would recommend drawing a roughly 10 to 15cm figure in the air with your camera.

EOS 7D Mark II/ EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM/ FL: 16mm (26mm at 35mm film-equivalent)/ Shutter-priority AE (f/16, 4 sec., EV-0.7)/ ISO 200/ WB: Auto
The painting lacks impact if the start and end points of the figure do not meet. Hence, aim to connect the points as accurately as you can.


Tip 3: Move the camera in reverse to your intended direction

Do take note that the figure you paint will be opposite to the direction in which you move the camera. Furthermore, during exposure, the mirror is raised and the viewfinder will be blacked out, so you will not be able to check your light trail. This means that you have no choice but to rely on your intuition. However, if you start off with simple figures such as circles or triangles, you will soon get used to it with a bit of practice.

When a heart is painted normally

When painted in reverse

Note that your painting will appear opposite to the direction in which you move your camera. Hence, I would recommend drawing on a piece of paper before turning it over and using the reversed image as a guide.


For more ideas on how you could create art with light sources and light trails, read:
How to Capture Artistic Handheld Shots of Firework Displays!

Or check out our other articles about Slow Shutter Art:
Creating Surreal, Spinning Radial Blurs
Using Zoom Burst to Transform Stars in the Sky into a Meteor Shower


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EOS 7D Mark II (Body)

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EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM

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Kazuo Nakahara


Born in Hokkaido in 1982, Nakahara turned to photography after working at a chemical manufacturing company. He majored in photography at the Vantan Design Institute and is a lecturer for photography workshops and seminars, in addition to working in commercial photography. He is also a representative of the photography information website studio9.



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