Light painting

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Pure Energy and Neurotic Man, a light painting by Barbara Morgan, (1940)

Light painting is a photographic technique in which exposures are made by moving a hand-held light source while taking a long exposure photograph, either to illuminate a subject or to shine a point of light directly at the camera. Light painting can also describe works where the camera itself is moved during exposure.

Painting with a point of light on a long exposure dates back to 1889, and was used in Frank Gilbreth's work with his wife Lillian Moller Gilbreth in 1914, when the pair used small lights and the open shutter of a camera to track the motion of manufacturing and clerical workers. Man Ray, in his 1935 series "Space Writing," was the first known art photographer to use the technique. Photographer Barbara Morgan began making light paintings in 1940.


Example of light painting moving the camera

There are three basic light painting techniques. In addition to traditional light painting, there are also processes of "light drawing" and "kinetic light painting" (also known as "camera painting").[1]

Traditional light painting uses handheld lights to selectively illuminate or color parts of the subject or scene. Light painting requires a slow shutter speed, usually at least a second in duration. Light painting can take on the characteristics of a traditional painter working with oils, acrylics, or water colors.

Light drawing involves shining a light source to "draw" a picture by shining it directly towards the camera lens and moving the source rapidly, during a slow shutter speed of usually a second or more. Light drawing can take on the characteristics of a quick pencil sketch.

Kinetic light painting is achieved by moving the camera, and is the antithesis of traditional photography. At night, or in a dark room, the camera can be removed from the tripod and used like a paintbrush. An example is using the night sky as the canvas, the camera as the brush and artifically-lit cityscapes as the palette. Putting energy into moving the camera by stroking lights,[clarification needed] making patterns and laying down backgrounds can create abstract artistic images.

Light paintings can be created using a webcam. The painted image can already be seen while drawing by using a monitor or projector. Another technique is the projection of images on to irregular surfaces (such as faces or buildings), in effect "painting" them with light. A photograph or other fixed portrayal of the resulting image is then made.


Hubertus-Chapel in Germany / Example of light painting technique using LED lights to selectively illuminate

Light painting, more specifically light drawing, dates back to 1889 when Étienne-Jules Marey and Georges Demeny created the first known light painting “Pathological Walk From in Front”.[1]

In 1949 Pablo Picasso was visited by Gjon Mili, a photographer and lighting innovator, who introduced Picasso to his photographs of ice skaters with lights attached to their skates. Immediately Picasso started making images in the air with a small flashlight in a dark room. This series of photos became known as Picasso's "light drawings." Of these photos, the most celebrated and famous is known as "Picasso draws a Centaur"[2] During the 1970s and 80's Eric Staller [3] used this technology for numerous photo projects that were called "Light Drawings". Light paintings up to 1976 are classified as light drawings. In 1977 Dean Chamberlain gave birth to light painting (using handheld lights to selectively illuminate and/or color parts of the subject or scene) with his image "Polyethylene Bags On Chaise Longue" at The Rochester Institute of Technology. Dean Chamberlain was the first artist to dedicate his entire body of work to the light painting art form.[1] The artist photographer Jacques Pugin made several series of images with the light drawing technique in 1979.[4] Picasso and Mili's images should be regarded as some of the first light drawings. Now, with modern light painting, one uses more frequently choreography and performance to photograph and organize.

This artform enjoyed a surge in popularity in the 21st century, partly due to the increasing availability of dSLR cameras, advances in portable light sources such as LEDs, and also in part due to the advent of media sharing websites by which practitioners can exchange images and ideas.


Light Painting with LEDs by the artist Beo Beyond (2013)

A variety of light sources can be used, ranging from simple flashlights to dedicated devices like the Hosemaster, which uses a fiber optic light pen.[5] Other sources of light including candles, matches, fireworks, lighter flints, glowsticks, and Poi are also popular.

A tripod is usually necessary due to the long exposure times involved. Alternatively, the camera may be placed on or braced against a table or other solid support. A shutter release cable or self timer is generally employed in order to minimize camera shake. Color Gels can also be used to color the light sources.

Some light painters make their own dedicated devices to create light trails over the photo background. This can include computer-controlled devices, such as the 'Digital Light Wand' pioneered by US Light Painter Mike Ross. This Arduino controlled LED array can render images that could not be made by drawing in the air with a single light source alone.


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