Light Painting

A light painting by a young maker in the MAKESHOP at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

Yesterday in the MAKESHOP™, makers of all ages had a brilliant time “light painting”, a photographic technique that uses a camera with slow shutter speed to capture images of fast moving lights. With materials you probably have nearby right now, you can have hours of fun experimenting with goofy, dramatic and surprising visual effects!

Below is a slideshow of just a few of the hundreds of light paintings we made yesterday. Send us YOUR favorite at

Read on for materials, instructions and inspirations for making your own light paintings!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

How does it work? The aperture of a camera works like the iris of your eye. Both expand or contract to allow more or less light into the lens. Grab a flashlight and look at your eyes in a mirror. As you shine the flashlight near them, do you see how your iris expands or contracts? This is how your eye protects itself from too much light or assists you in seeing when it’s dark outside.  A camera has this, too. Unlike your eyes, you can control this on your camera with a setting. The F-stop setting controls the fraction of light stopped by the aperture. Get it?

In light painting, you let only a little bit of light in through the aperture but for a long time. And by “a long time” … we mean five seconds! Five seconds is a very long time for a camera, since regular photos are taken in only a fraction of a single second.  During those few seconds, the lens captures the light as a bright smear, tracking it as it moves.


  • Camera (digital or film)
  • Lights (flashlights, holiday lights, bike headlamps, cell phones – anything that lights up!)
  • Darkness
  • Tripod or tabletop to keep the camera still

Settings (based on what we did):

  • Shutter Speed: 5 Seconds (this is how long the shutter stayed open and captured the image)
  • F-stop: F-29 (the fraction of light stopped by the aperture – remember, like an iris!)
  • ISO: 100 (how sensitive the camera should be to light. We set ours as low as we could so that our little tiny moving light didn’t blow out the picture and make everything bright white.)

Once your camera is set and you have your lights, begin to experiment. Snap the shutter button and quickly move your light in front of the camera. Can you make a swirl, square or heart? Can you spell your name? Outline your sister? Draw a hat on your dog? (Note: Keep the light moving, so it doesn’t burn your lens like an iron left on a shirt!)

Get more ideas about light painting and long exposure photography at these helpful links:

Stay calm and make on!
© 2012 Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: