Find out how I create light painting photographs using custom light stencils! Feel free to watch the tutorial video as well:
I will show you the process I use to design and build my light stencils and then go through the light painting process step-by-step.
To create a light stencil, you’re going to need an idea! It can be anything from a word or phrase, a simple drawing, or a logo.
Take some time to get inspired. For me, inspiration can hit randomly while doing something completely unrelated. My initial large-scale light stencil idea was born while I was doodling on a piece of scratch paper during a work meeting.
Start with an Idea
Sometimes the hardest part is getting started. You need to think of a great idea before you can create a great light stencil. Take some time and come up with a fun idea to try.
For this tutorial, I am going to be using a design I created as an example, but you can use anything from a word or phrase to a simple drawing or a logo. Start by sketching out some ideas.
Let’s take this doodle and make it a design! I begin by refining my sketch in a sketchbook, using tracing paper to sketch multiple iterations, fine-tuning and adjusting my design with each new version.
Scaling Up Your Design
After I am satisfied with my sketch, it’s time to scale up my drawing to a poster-size piece of paper. There are many ways to do this but the technique I prefer is using my TV as a tracing lightbox.
First I use my phone to take a top-down shot of the sketch and then I airdrop it to my computer (I am a Mac user, you can use similar cloud storage methods or similar for Windows users). From there, I mirror my computer screen to the living room TV.
I then carefully tape my poster-size sheet of cardstock paper onto the TV with my design centered behind it. I use clear tape that will not leave a residue or mark on my TV. Now it’s ready to be traced! I use a pencil to lightly trace out my sketch on a poster-size sheet of cardstock paper. Boom, we have gone from a 2-inch sketch to a poster-size design!
Finalizing the Design
Now it’s time to do any final touches before we start to cut out our design. I take the poster and make sure all my lines are smooth and the design looks good. Erase any extra pencil lines and make sure all the curves and spacing are adjusted so that it looks perfect.
Cutting Out Your Stencil
It’s time to CUT IT OUT! Our design is ready to go, so grab a utility knife and start cutting. I use an Exacto blade to do my cutting. I start out by using a straight-edge metal ruler to do any straight cuts that my design may have. Then I move on to the curved cuts. I find that it is best to cut them slowly to make sure you are precise. It will take time, but this is the point where craftsmanship counts! If you rush the cutting, you risk ruining the design you spent so much time refining and perfecting.
If your design contains any centerpieces then you will want to hold onto those pieces. Keep them together and write a description of which piece it is on the backside of it. I sometimes also write top, bottom, left, and right on the back of the piece so I don’t get confused when trying to put it together later!
Painting Your Stencil
With a light stencil, you want to channel your inner Rolling Stones and Paint it Black! This will help with blocking out light from the edges of your stencil and give you nice crisp lines. You will need to paint the whole sheet of paper black as well as any centerpieces you may have. I am using black spray paint, but you can use any type of ink or paint to get this done. I just find that spray paint is quick and effective, plus it doesn’t take too long to dry.
Mounting Your Stencil
Now that your poster is cut out and painted, it’s time to mount it! You can attach it to another sheet of paper if you want, but I prefer to use plexiglass, as it leaves a clear background to shine any type of light through. Plus, it adds rigidity to your stencil.
I begin this process by flipping my stencil over and adding double-sided tape around all of the edges. I start with the outside edges of the paper then add the tape to the edges of my design.
Next, I place my poster-size design onto a sheet of plexiglass and press firmly along all the edges to attach it to the plexiglass. Now at this point, it is pretty well-attached, but I don’t want my design to flop off in the middle of a photo, so I add regular clear tape along the edges to fully secure my poster to the plexiglass.
Add Your Center Pieces
Remember those centerpieces I told you to hold onto? Now is their time! Grab any center floating pieces you have and flip them over. Add double-sided tape to their edges.
Then grab the negative parts of your design that you cut out, and use them to accurately place your centerpieces onto the plexiglass. Once you have firmly pressed down on your centerpiece, remove the negative part and boom goes the dynamite! Now your center floating pieces are attached and your light stencil is almost ready to test out!
Get Your Stencil Upright
The last step before taking some test shots is to get your stencil upright.
You can build a frame from wood, or you can grab some nearby objects to hold your stencil up, I have used many things such as light stands, chairs, trash cans, or any large object you can lean your plexiglass on
I find that light stands and clamps work best for me as it allows plenty of room behind my stencil.
Set up your camera on a tripod in front of your light stencil. Focus on your light stencil and then switch your lens to manual focus. You don’t want your camera trying to blindly hunt for focus in the dark and lose your crisp shot. The settings you use will vary based on your location and the brightness of your lights but here are some good starting points.
I set my aperture to somewhere between f/8 and f/11, this is pretty much the middle of the road for most apertures, letting in a decent amount of light but not overexposing your highlights. I usually set my ISO pretty low between 100 and 300 to prevent hot pixels and noise. For my shutter speed, I use bulb mode so I can open and close the shutter using my wireless remote trigger release whenever I need to.
Take Some Test Shots
Now let’s do some test shots with this new light stencil! Grab some different light sources and hit the lights! Open your shutter and get creative!
Move your different light sources behind your plexiglass until you believe you’ve filled all the open spaces of your stencil.
Close your shutter and review. Make adjustments if you’re not happy with your results. If your light sources are too bright and your highlights are blowing out, then close your aperture tighter or lower your ISO. You may find that you have light escaping near the edges of your stencil, if so, add a black curtain to the sides or top of your stencil to block the unwanted light leaks.
One of the light sources I like using most with these stencils is my Fotorgear Magilight. I enjoy it because I can create custom patterns and colors from pre-loaded graphics and use them to fill my light stencil
Taking it to the Next Level!
So there you have it, this is how I create light paintings with my large-scale light stencils! I hope you enjoyed learning about this process. If you want to see how I create images like the ones shown below, stick around, I am going to show you in my next video!
Thanks for checking out this post! Stimulight the Night, peace!