Tag Team Tech: Wrestling Teens and Technology February 2018

Light Painting:“Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”

Kelly Czarnecki

When I first saw examples of the art of light painting, I wanted to learn how to do it myself. Then, I wanted to be able to offer it at the library as a teen program. It just so happened that during one weekend, an arts center a few blocks away from the library was offering free hour-long programs. Light painting was one of them. I  attended and found myself with several cameras on tripods scattered about in a darkened room.

It was amazing and affordable. The teens are learning some pretty cool things about making a kind of spoken word graffiti with the snap of a lens and a light source.

It’s a very flexible program regarding aligning it with the library. It can be literal in the sense that teens are learning more about photography–which they certainly are. Or the art can be drawings of characters or scenes from a book. The connections are many.

If you’re new to the phrase “light painting,” check out some of these resources to get familiar. There’s a Flickr group called Light Junkies which gives some great examples:  https://www.flickr.com/groups/lightjunkies/ (and the disclaimer that it’s also not a group that posts lamps and light bulbs). There are also several video tutorials at Lynda.com. Either way, the real understanding of light painting comes in by just doing it.

Manual Camera

If you have access to a fancy DSLR camera (digital single-lens reflex camera) or one with manual controls like I did at the arts center–that’s a  good place to start. Maybe you have connections with a professional photographer in the community that owns such a camera and would be willing to bring it to show its features for light painting.

Starting with the camera is a great way to learn some of the basic functions, including the shutter speed and aperture. Learning the features of a DSLR camera can provide a broader foundation for how photography and light painting works. A few diagrams on the workings of a camera can also explain the settings.

There are many free to low-cost light painting apps available. Many of the apps already have the settings. While light painting is magical in itself–understanding how and why it works can be skipped over if using an app. If time and access are a bit limited, an app is an acceptable way to begin.

If you do have a camera and tripod, you can have it set up and ready to go. The long exposure of the camera is what captures the light. The settings for the camera are recommended below. I’d recommend being familiar with your camera and experimenting with examples before the program to see if these ranges work for you.

  • Shutter speed-set between 11-30 seconds
  • Aperture between F8 and F32
  • ISO between 100-200

There are many tutorials available online as mentioned above.

Physical Space
You will want access to a darkened room. When I went to the arts center, there was plenty of light available during the introduction of the class and receiving the instructions. In other words, we were in our places when the actual light painting was taking place so that we didn’t have to traverse the room or increase our chances of knocking things over. In my library, we had a lit up exit sign that provided light (but not too much) and the light sources themselves. Whatever room you decide to use, you’ll want to make sure to set it up beforehand, and practice in case the lighting, settings, etc. need to be tweaked. You don’t want it too bright or the photo won’t turn out and not too dark as to be hazardous. Depending on your set up, you may want to start in one room that is well lit to get everything explained and ready. Once it’s time to shoot, then move into another room where the lighting is set for the experience.

Light Sources
Selecting the light sources is are the fun part. You will find a lot of suggestions online for which light sources you can use. Light painting photography uses a large selection from El Wire to glow sticks:  http://lightpaintingphotography.com/light-painting-tools/. At the arts center, we used pen lights but you can use keychain flashlights which can be purchased on Amazon for around $10 for a pack of five or more. We also used a rope light, which I was able to find at Home Depot for $10. We also used a strobe light that can be purchased from Amazon or at a party celebration store for $10 and up. Once the settings on the camera are set and the room is darkened, the light source is what is captured on camera. From viewing the Flickr group examples, you can see where shapes and words can be drawn with light. The more detailed the shapes get; the more skill is involved. Words need to be written in the air like backward mirror writing. You need to know where your hand is in space to have the shape make sense in the air. It’s all trial and error and fun. You are not going to mess up a surface by getting paint in the wrong places. You might color outside the lines, but the next great capture is only a click of a button away.

There are many light painting apps available for both Android and IOS devices. I like PABLO (https://www.hipablo.com/) which is a free download and easy to use. You don’t have to adjust the settings like on a manual camera–the app does all the work for you. You need to provide a device to run it on but many teens have a smart phone on which it works just fine. One of the cool features is to see the shape or picture playback as a video instantaneously. Most teens are accustomed to that immediate digital gratification and this is no exception. There are frequent tips and tricks that the PABLO app shares to easily try something new. Teens can easily trade off and take turns with the device while planning what to do next.  

What Next?
Post the photos to the library’s social media sites or make hard copies to add to a display in the library. If you have an ongoing creative hour or makerspace at your library, light painting is another activity that teens can participate in to perfect their craft. If you’re able to bring in a professional photographer that can help delve deeper into the settings and some out of this world effects it’ll likely keep up the motivation.

Kelly Czarnecki is the manager of the Teen Loft at ImaginOn, Charlotte, North Carolina. She has written extensively on teens and technology in libraries and teaches online classes for the American Library Association. In her spare time, she enjoys cooking, running, and exploring the city.


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