Light Graffiti has become very popular. The term is a bit of a misnomer, but the art form involves drawing or writing in the air using lights and then capturing those patterns with a slow shutter speed to turn normally impermanent light into something more. You don’t need any fancy lens filters or Photoshop skills either, just a camera with a manual mode and one of any number of camera tripods.
There are three parts to creating stunning light graffiti – the location, the camera settings, and the actual light drawing itself.
Choosing the right setting is very important, and you’ll have to experiment to get a feel for your camera and what you like. Generally, you want a place that has little ambient light so the background isn’t overexposed when you leave the shutter open for a long time. Most people also like shooting these with interesting details that they can integrate into their art, such as a brick wall or other textures, but you can also position the camera so the background is entirely black and you only see the light-lines, or the lines and the artist. Bear in mind that if you try to use the sky as a dark backdrop, light pollution from cities will brighten the background to a lighter color and might reveal interesting or distracting backgrounds.
Framing the shot itself is part of getting the right setting. With the help of someone else, frame up the shot and then figure out where the outer edges of the frame will be so you can keep the light in frame or spill it out deliberately.
For starters, although not technically a setting on the camera, you need a tripod. It’s the only way to avoid unwanted shake and blur with long exposures.
The most important thing about the shot is a long exposure. So set your camera to full manual and choose the slowest shutter speed. If you have a remote, you can even use “bulb” mode that keeps the iris open as long as you want. There’s obviously an outside limit for shutter speed, but your camera’s native settings won’t have it. 30 seconds is often the max, which is not very long at all for creating your art.
Because of the long exposure, you have to set the ISO as low as possible, usually 100, and the aperture as small as possible, usually f/8 or higher. These two settings prevent too much light from entering the shot, and they have the added bonus of reducing noise and expanding your depth of field to make keeping everything in focus easier.
You want to turn off all the other automatic settings too. Set your white balance manually, choose your focus manually or at least use the center-weighted average, and turn off light metering if you can.
Technique and the Light Drawing
You need to experiment with different light sources to find the right one for each photo. Also plan on spending some time redoing the same photo repeatedly to get the effect you want as far as the person in the photo. You can do it so they are invisible and only the light art can be seen if you keep it dark enough and use shorter shutter speed. Or you can achieve any number of other effects where the “artists” look stationary, shows blurred movement or seems to be part of the light drawing.
Practice the thing you’re drawing, whether it’s words – which have to be done as a mirror reflection of your intended design if the artists are facing the camera or you’ll have to flip the photo in editing – or just shapes. You can also leave the shutter open before and after the actual drawing to let more of the background enter the image and make the person more transparent.
Light art and light graffiti is easy to create but offers virtually limitless variations. You can even try adding fill lights or colored lens filters to alter the aesthetic of the exact same technique. As long as you have the camera fundamentals right, you are only limited by your imagination.