Painting with Light: Amateur Edition

Welcome to Amateur Hour, folks! A couple weeks ago, I conducted and shared an interview with Austin, TX photographer Matthew Danser about how he “paints with light.” At the end of that interview, I promised you, dear readers, that I would try to replicate Danser’s technique at home without professional equipment. It felt good to make that promise. Until the next day. Gulp.

Lightpainting, Painting with Light, Long Exposure
Imitating the pros. Trying to paint with light. Matthew Danser is going to kill me when he sees that I have massacred his beautiful photograph and created this emblem of the amateur imitating the professional. Danser’s work can be seen at

I have a great deal of interest in digital photography, but my life is as crazy as anyone else’s. My son, family, and work keep me busy from dawn to midnight every day. I’ve never had time to cultivate any photography skills, even though I’ve always been very interested, sitting on the edge of my seat, if you will, for a chance to take some digital photos in order to learn a little about how capturing light can create astonishing works of art.

My interview with Matthew Danser had given me my long sought “excuse” to try out some photography techniques. But it also required that I put in an honest effort. The thought in the back of my head: These photos are going to suck. Probably a lot. And they will most likely be seen by the thousands of people who visit this blog monthly. Second gulp.

But I’m the kind of person so riddled with ADHD that even my paranoia about being judged on a mass scale can only last about three minutes before the audacity to try anything resurfaces and action is taken. So here’s what happens when a total amateur who has no idea what he is doing tries to “Paint with Light.”


My son’s stuffed animal, named Cat.

And old, sturdy tripod that I got from a thrift store for twenty dollars.

A teal men’s bathing suit. (For coloring the light, not wearing! Sheesh!)

A red sweatshirt. Also for coloring light.

My Nikon d5100 digital camera (any digital camera that will let you do long exposures will work). There are long exposure apps for smartphones, too. I’m excited to see how that works.

A one-dollar flashlight from – you guessed it – the Dollar General. One dollar. Even. Gotta love it. Especially since it’s all I could afford, seeing as how I’m still paying off the aforementioned Nikon that I bought to take photos of our baby son. (True, a million pictures have been taken of him during his first year-and-a-half on Earth. However, 999,999 of those photos were taken with an iPhone. Go figya.)

The famous One Dollar Flashlight. Or, as I like to call it, my paintbrush.


The plan was to wait until it was dark in the apartment and do some light painting. I knew that I could use the Shutter mode on my camera to set it to take exposures of up to thirty seconds. I saw that my camera also had an option for bulb release, so, invoking Danser, who recalls how his girlfriend had to hold down the button on his camera for a full thirteen minutes, I determined that if I asked really nicely, I might be able to persuade my wife to hold down the trigger to get exposures longer than thirty seconds. Otherwise, thirty seconds was my window of time to do all the light painting I could.

I started off pretty timidly. I had seen photos online in which people used long exposures to create squiggly lines. The most popular examples are pictures of traffic at night, headlights and tail lights streaming, giving you a sense of the fluid motion of busy intersections. You’ve also seen those nature pics in which streams and rivers and clouds and stars become gauzy with movement because of long exposures.

But what I really like about Danser’s work is the use of color. The effect of running inside the hut and popping off red-gelled flashes shown at the beginning of this blog post (and here) gives new life to the objects in his photo. I wanted to duplicate that otherworldly effect. I didn’t have gels, so I used a teal bathing suit and a red sweatshirts as colored filters through which to shine my One Dollar Flashlight.

Colored Silhouette

So, THIS IS A TERRIBLE PHOTOGRAPH. BUT! I learned something really cool. The well-defined red color you see is actually Cat’s shadow on the wall. See, first I put my red sweatshirt over my One Dollar Flashlight and “painted” the wall red for about ten seconds. Then, I held Cat up and shined on him with the teal bathing suit covering my One Dollar Flashlight. The effect was very poor. But the strong red color of the shadow tells me that I could paint a wall with a gelled light and then silhouette something against the wall and get an image of that silhouetted something in vibrantly colored negative space. Kind of like a stencil. There are tons of possibilities here, so I will keep the gears turning on how I can make this failure ultimately lead to a success.

Speaking of success, I wanted to have some, so I decided to stop concerning myself so much with using random clothes to paint color into my photos and instead decided to use the One Dollar Flashlight like a paintbrush of light. First attempt.

Lightpainting, Painting with Light, Long Exposure

Lamesville! But I thought this was an indication that good things were coming, so I just started playing, running around the room in the dark, drawing lines with my One Dollar Flashlight and flashing it on my face a few times. I was lonely. I wanted some clones to hang out with.

Lightpainting, Painting with Light, Long Exposure

I noticed that the results were veering towards the creepy, so I tried to LIGHTEN the mood.

Lightpainting, Painting with Light, Long Exposure

SO. MUCH. CREEPIER. So I decided to be more esoteric, making symbols that perhaps COULD mean something?

Lightpainting, Painting with Light, Long Exposure

Kidding aside, I really like the out-of-focus effect above. It takes emphasis away from the human in the photo (me) and highlights the “paint.” Obviously, it occurred to me to try writing a word.

Lightpainting, Painting with Light, Long Exposure

Then I got carried away with writing words.

Lightpainting, Painting with Light, Long Exposure

I love the way that the light really does look like paint here. How many times can you see my face in this photo? Creeeeepy, once again. I’m like the Edgar Allen Poe of lightpainting. Like any literary luminary, I began to challenge myself.

Lightpainting, Painting with Light, Long Exposure

Pretty cool, no? But it only made me hungry for a bigger challenge. I had to put the camera in bulb release mode and get my wife to hold down the trigger for this next one.

Lightpainting, Painting with Light, Long Exposure

Dang letter “N!” Always confusing me when I try to write it backwards with a flashlight in the dark. Notice how this picture is lighter than the previous ones? Take a guess as to why that is. Because it was a longer exposure! The ambient light had more time to do its thang.

I decided to start mixing text with design. These next ones inspired me to be a little more experimental with Adobe Lightroom. Because, by the way, this is the first time I have ever used that program.

Lightpainting, Painting with Light, Long Exposure

I felt like I was starting to get somewhere here. For this one, I painted the word “paint” in script on the wall, so it wasn’t backwards for me. Then, I turned around and went SQUIGGLE-SQUIGGLE-SQUIGGLE real fast with the One Dollar Flashlight AKA Paintbrush. Sophisticated, huh?

And then there was The Happy Accident, and I think this is the thing photographers and artists in general hope for. I really wasn’t thinking much on this next one. I just used whatever was around. Good ol’ Cat got back up in the scene. I flashed on myself too close to the camera to be in focus at all, and wrote the world PAINT backwards in front of me more quickly than I had lightpainted any other word so far. The result? Possibly the coolest picture.

Lightpainting, Painting with Light, Long Exposure

I’m pretty happy with the above photo because I didn’t use Lightroom to touch it up at all. The movement of the stuffed cat creates a very soft, fluffy, cloudlike effect. Again, what I am really learning is that long exposure is all about capturing the way motion FEELS. I’m sure this is what they teach you in PHOTO 101, but I’m just figuring it out as I go along.

One more photo. I am happy with this one, too, because it captures the spirit of my exploration, in my apartment, in the dark, seeking to understand a basic technique but perhaps discovering some part of myself?

Lightpainting, Painting with Light, Long Exposure

PLEASE HELP ME. I need tips, comments, and questions to get my mind working on how to create cool and interesting images by painting with light. Thanks again, Matthew Danser! And happy lightpainting, everyone!

Tom Sowders

After majoring in creative writing at NC State, I worked in the home remodeling industry. Then, I attended graduate school for a really long time and gained experience as a writer and writing instructor. I live in the Raleigh-Durham area with my wife and baby boy, and you can find me around the Triangle anywhere there's good music and/or NC-style BBQ.

16 thoughts to “Painting with Light: Amateur Edition”

  1. These blog posts are very interesting and make me think about light in ways I haven’t before. It’s never been an interest of mine, but there is a lot to learn here and it’s presented in a fun, accessible manner.

  2. Yes, Adam, I believe it could. MHP (a rock band from North Carolina) could use light painting to create really interesting band photos. It might be cool to have each band member in the photo paint with their own light. Or pass around a single flashlight. Endless possibilities. Great question!

  3. Nice article! I’m gonna try this out with my 10 year old, you gave us all the info we need to get started. Thanks!

  4. Very creative! Loved the color cloth you used instead of the gel… what a unique way to paint. Endless possibilities!

  5. Awesome article and i can’t wait to share these techniquies with the photographer in our family (my wife). Keep up the good work Mr. Sowders.

  6. Best line in a post filled with great lines: “Speaking of success, I wanted to have some.” Great work, Tom.

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