Turn Your Flashlight Into a Digital Paintbrush

We don't usually often think of it this way, but photography is really about drawing pictures with light--which means that you can literally draw your own pictures by adding light to a photo in a controlled way. Many years ago, before digital photography, I used to experiment with this sort of photo using long exposures and a flashlight. In the past, I've shown you how to mimic that effect digitally ("Add Sci-Fi Special Effects.") This week, I thought it would be fun to do it the old-fashioned way and actually "paint" with a flashlight.

Getting Set Up

Painting with light is more art than science: You can get great results with almost any kind of camera, and experimentation is key. Unlike the kind of experimentation I remember from my college physics class, though, this is actually fun.

To get started, you'll want a digital camera that has some sort of long exposure mode. Ideally, you'll be able to set the shutter speed to 8 or 16 seconds. I've found that 8 seconds is barely time to do anything, so honestly, you'll get more satisfying results if your camera has a 16- or even 30-second exposure setting.

You'll also need to set the camera on a stable surface. Since you can't really hold it still for 16 seconds, a tripod is ideal. You could also just set it on a desk, table, chair, or any other surface that isn't going to move around during the exposure.

And finally, you'll need some light sources. You should gather one or more flashlights, and, if possible, an external flash unit. Don't mount the flash on the camera--you'll want to hold it and trigger it manually.

Taking the Shot

Now that you have your supplies ready, wait for nightfall and position your camera for a photo. Your surroundings should be as dark as possible, such as in a room with the lights turned off. or outdoors, away from street lights. Press the shutter release to start your long exposure, and then use a flashlight to "inject" light directly into the scene.

One way to use your flashlight is to mimic a sci-fi "phaser" effect, like this old photo from my film days. I achieved this shot of my buddy Paul "phasering" Bob by positioning them in total darkness, starting the camera exposure, and illuminating them with my handheld flash. Then I carefully moved a flashlight in a straight line from Paul to Bob. For a finishing touch, I removed Bob from the scene and fired the flash again to achieve the impression that he was disintegrating.

For a modern update with a digital camera, here are some shots I took just this week with my daughter, who hasn't been this excited to be photographed since the time we tried our hands at popping water balloons at high shutter speed. Here she is shooting beams of light from her hands.

And this one shows the kind of cool, unpredictable light trails you get as a result of random variations in the way you hold the flashlight.

Controlling the Light

Since this technique relies on you moving a flashlight around in the dark, clearly it's not possible to get perfect results every time--that's why I say you need to experiment. You can stack the deck in your favor if you remember to choose your camera settings wisely.

The shutter needs to be open for a long time, so that means the only aspect of your camera you really have control over is the aperture. If you use a small aperture (which equates to a large number, like f/18), the effect of the light will be diminished. A large aperture (small number, like f/4) will admit a lot more light, and that means any ambient light will illuminate the entire scene. But it also means the flashlight will appear brighter, and you might pick up ghost images of the person moving around with the flashlight. Start with an intermediate aperture, like f/8, and vary it to see how different values affect your photos.

Pointing the Flashlight

Finally, how you point your flashlight can give you dramatically different effects. I recommended that you point the flashlight directly into the camera lens, because that will give you the most immediate and dramatic result. But as an alternative, try shining the flashlight at objects in the scene instead. In a perfectly dark room, for example, you can experiment with selectively illuminating subjects. Good luck, and send me some of your best results.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This Week's Hot Pic: "Betty Blue," by Brandon L. Cyr, Dallas, Texas

Brandon writes: "I took this shot at an old antique store in Northern Texas with my Canon EOS Digital Rebel. This antique car was beautifully highlighted in all the right places by a late afternoon sun. I like to focus on the smaller, more intimate details of everyday scenes, and that's why I don't show the whole car. A headlight isn't usually something people stop to take a look at, but here, it became the focus of the shot."

This Week's Runner-Up: "Grasshopper in Silhouette" by Mark Godett, Ridgecrest, California

Mark writes: "Last October, while camping, I decided to take a nap in our blue nylon tent. This grasshopper landed on the outside of the tent while I was on the inside. I took the photo with my Canon A620 using the macro setting."

To see last month's Hot Pics, visit our slide show. Visit our Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? Send me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

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