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A Beginners' Guide to Light Graffiti

written by: fortynights•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 5/29/2009

Light graffiti is a fun way to make colorful, dramatic pictures. Use these tips to immediately start your own light graffiti portfolio!

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    Fun and Easy Graffiti

    Light graffiti is an easy and fun way to experiment with your camera and the power of light. It's also a lot more legal than the spray painting variety of graffiti. Light graffiti (or light writing) has been around almost as long as cameras, but contemporary photographers have some advantages over their forebears; cameras are getting better at capturing long exposures, and light technology is better, too.

    All you need to get started is your camera and an understanding of how to control shutter speed; light graffiti demands longer exposures of anywhere from several seconds to many minutes. A tripod will help you compose the shot and keep the camera still. And one or more lights will add to the fun.

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    Camera Settings

    To create light graffiti, you or a friend will stand in front of the camera with a light, in a dark setting. After you open the shutter, you can begin moving the light to draw shapes and patterns in the air. If you move quickly enough, the camera won't record a person, only the patterns of light you leave behind. The camera may also record the background if its spotlighted by other light sources, such as the moon or a streetlight.

    For best-quality shots, use an ISO setting of 200 or lower; higher ISO settings create more noise, or grain, in low-light images. Use the lowest aperture number on your camera to let in more light, unless, of course, you're shooting in a location that's a bit bright. In that case, a higher aperture number (16 or higher) may darken the scene enough to let you write more graffiti.

    Finally, you'll need more time so you can create your graffiti masterpiece, so longer shutter speeds are essential. Experiment with 20 or 40 second exposures, or even 5 minute exposures, to see how the results look. Of course, the longer the exposure, the darker location you'll need.

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    Light Selection

    In theory, just about any light will work for this project. But the best tools have tight, focused light that lets you create precise patterns.

    LED flashlights are among the best for light writing. They're compact, super-bright, and come in all sorts of fun colors. Glow sticks (from your local dollar store) are also perfect for light graffiti images.

    Don't neglect your surroundings while you play. Buildings, trees, and other objects that would otherwise be lost in the shadows can add cool effects; just illuminate them with bigger lamps or halogen lights.

    (click on image to enlarge)

    IMG 9604 (Large) 

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