With the July 4th holiday just 2 weeks away, many people will have an abundance of sparklers lying around to celebrate the holiday. If you want to take your photography to the next level and turn your sparklers (or household flashlight) into a canvas, keep reading to learn how to paint with light.
Before you get started, you will need a few items to ensure you can create the desired image:
*DSLR camera or point-and-shoot camera
*Lighter (or matches)
*Tripod (or something sturdy to set your camera on)
*Friends (1 or more)
*Off-camera flash (optional)
Step One: Find a dark location and set up your tripod
Find a dark, outdoor location (you can shoot indoor if using a flashlight instead of sparklers). This will keep outside lights (like streetlights) from showing up in your photo. It will also make sure the sparklers are the main focus of your image.
Attach your camera to your tripod. This is for stability and to prevent blurry images since you’ll be taking long exposures.
If you don’t have a tripod, no worries! A stable surface like a table or chair will help keep your camera still.
Step Two: Choose whether to use flash or not
You have two options when photographing sparklers:
1. If you want to create an image of only the light of the sparklers, you will not use any flash.
2. If you want your friend to be clearly visible in the photo with the light of the sparklers, you will need to use flash. Follow the directions in the steps below for whichever you have chosen.
Step Three: Decide what you or your friend will be drawing with the sparkler
Have your friend practice what they will be doing with the sparkler before they light it. Remember, if they are writing words, they will have to write it in reverse/mirror-image (have their back to the camera).
Step Four: Adjust your camera settings
First, change your white balance from Auto to Cloudy or Shade if you want to give your sparkler an orange hue. You can also experiment with other white balance settings until you’re happy with the color of your sparkler (example: tungsten = blue hue). If left on auto white balance, the sparkler will look white. You can also purchase color sparklers for another creative twist!
If you are using a point-and-shoot camera, set your camera to “night mode.” While on night mode, you won’t have to make any f-stop or shutter adjustments. However, if your point-and-shoot has a “manual” option that allows you to set f-stop and shutter speed, set it to manual and follow the instructions for the f-stop and shutter speeds below.
For DSLRs, set the camera to “manual”. Adjust your f-stop to 5.6 and your ISO to 100. Your shutter speed can vary between 8 seconds and 25 seconds (you may also choose “Bulb” which keeps the shutter open as long as the shutter button is pressed; this works best with a trigger remote to avoid movement).
For a non-flash photo, a shutter speed of about 25 seconds will capture the sparkler’s light, as well as illuminate your friend a little bit.
Step Five: Set your flash settings (optional)
If you are planning to use flash, you’ll want to keep your shutter speed shorter (about 8 seconds). If you are using the built-in flash on your camera, set it to “rear curtain / slow sync flash”. This means your flash will pop at the end of the exposure instead of the beginning.
If you are using an off-camera flash, you won’t need to set “rear curtain / slow sync flash” because you’ll be manually firing it.
Step Six: Focus the camera on your subject
Because your auto-focus won’t be able to focus in the dark, you will need to shine a flashlight onto your subject. This shows your camera where your subject is and it will be able to focus on them accurately. Most cameras auto-focus when you press halfway down on the shutter button.
Once you’ve auto-focused, switch it to manual focus (without moving your camera’s position or your subject), so that your camera doesn’t try to refocus after you’ve turned the flashlight off.
Step Seven: Click your shutter and light-paint!
Now to have some fun! Give your friend a few seconds to light the sparkler, then click your shutter and watch the sparkly light painting ensue!
If you are using the optional external flash for this photo, remind your friend when you decide to fire and fire the flash once (make sure you fire the flash within the time of the exposure).
Step Eight: Make adjustments and experiment!
If the photo is too bright or full of motion blurs, you’ll want to try a faster shutter speed. If your sparklers aren’t bright enough, you can open up the shutter and fine tune how much light you want in your photo by slowing down the shutter speed.
Make sure to experiment and have lots of fun!
Play with your settings from f-stop to ISO to make the image your own!
If you are light painting with a flashlight instead of sparklers, consider taping tissue paper or wax paper over your flashlight lens to eliminate hot spots (the bright circle located at the center of the beam). Another great tip: make sure to block the stream of light when breaking up letters in a word (your hand or a black piece of paper will work)… unless you’re writing in cursive!
Adjusting your settings to let less light in is better for capturing the sparks, while adjusting your settings to let more light in shows more of the streaming and movement of the sparklers.
Attach a sparkler to a string and swing the sparkler in circles. It will create an exploding tunnel effect!
Drawing slowly creates a thicker sparkler line, while quicker drawing creates a thinner one.
Writing letters in the air will result in backwards words, but this can also be resolved by simply flipping the image horizontally in post-editing.
With a flashlight, have another friend shine light onto your subject for a neat angelic glow!
If your goal is to not have any people appear in your photo (light only!), recommend that they wear black or dark clothing.
Make sure to have fun with it and feel free to post some of your sparkler creations in the comments below! We’d love to see what your canvas of light created!