I've been seeing a lot of light painting on the internet these days, popular among tech geeks with tripods and headlamps or newfangled LED light strips (which I super want, by the way). And don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of intentional light painting too, but I am more often amused by accidental light painting. You know, when you snap a picture of pretty lights in the dark and when the digital preview pops up, you think, Woah.
My history with digital photography has been pretty loosey goosey. I've mostly stuck with point-and-shoots because lugging around expensive, bulky equipment on my many adventures is not my favorite thing to do. I want something small, compact, and inexpensive so I can continue throwing it in my bag without worry.
(It's hard to get drunken, on the fly shots like this if you have to lug your camera bag around Reykjavik, Iceland at 4am.)
Shitty camera + nighttime settings + pretty lights + the flick of your wrist and you've got yourself some blurry, streaky, colorful art, creatively dashing across your friend's beautiful faces or lighting up the night sky. I tend to lean towards drunken whimsy, so these pictures actually end up capturing my memories more closely than boring old real life.
There are many ways to light paint without props. With cheap point-and-shoots that don't give you supreme control over your exposure lengths, you'll probably end up sticking with nighttime as the best time to paint. I usually find the Night Portrait Mode, or something similar, as the best setting because it features a long exposure and a timed flash that prevents your subject (should you choose one) from getting too blown out (not that I mind that look too much). But don't forget to play around with your settings to find the best one for you and your camera.
The best thing about the Night Portrait Mode is that it will capture your subject but still give you that beloved long exposure to play around with. It can get double exposure-y and I love it. That's why I like to get jiggy and call upon that desired light play.
Here are some of my favorites over the years and some interesting lights to play with:
The bar/venue scene is a great place to start with some fun light painting. You know you are going to be there anyway, surrounded by bright lights and dancing around. Plus, the blown out quality of night portraiture can end up painting your subject in a flattering light once you reach that not-so-flattering part of the night.
Fire is also a quick and easy light painting subject. You can really never tell what kind of paranormal, sentient flame work might be captured.
Also, try burning a piano some time. It's fun.
Ever try to photograph the moon? It almost never comes out in photographs the way our mind's eye perceives it. A long exposure gives the opportunity for spelling and shape making, almost like reverse light painting: instead of standing in front of the camera and waving a glow stick to draw something, you move the camera around the light subject. Except you have to do it backwards. The following two pictures were taken with the moon and a lot of paper lanterns at the Wakarusa Music Festival in Ozark, Arkansas.
The above picture was also taken in Arkansas at Woolly Lake State Park in Greenbrier; a different place, a different time. Boy, I love Arkansas!
And then there's Burning Man. I won't even elaborate on that here. There are pretty lights everywhere and if you aren't seeing them streaky to begin with than you're doing it wrong!! It may be hard to tell, but the next picture is of a 60ft tall rooster mutant vehicle.
I also love these whitewashed pictures I took one overcast evening just before dusk at the Devil's Hopyard State Park in Connecticut. They fall more into the realm of double exposure photography than light painting, but the spooky swirls light get me every time.
And then, of course, there are just the streaky, unformed free-for-alls I love so well. The recipe for these is simple: point, shoot, and wave your camera madly around until the frame is captured. Some times they are psychedelic and some times they are just plain spooky. Win-win.
Hooray for low budget light painting!