Phone Light Painting is Easy and Fun
I have found that one of my favorite things to do while camping is staying up late at night shooting the stars with Alison. When the night sky gets darker, the fun begins. It’s light painting time!
When we are shooting astrophotography, our Jayco camper is typically the center of our compositions. It’s something we have focused on for years since we have been RVing. I know it’s odd, but it’s kind of our thing. Since we usually pick campgrounds with low Bortle ratings (darker skies with lower light pollution), we need to light paint in order to bring out the RV and actually see it. You can obviously do the same with whatever your subject is, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a camper.
So, you probably came here to learn about astrophotography light painting with a phone camera (unless you got lost down a Google rabbit hole).
Let’s begin with a few tips.
How Do You Do Astrophotography Lighting Paint with a Phone Camera?
There are several things to consider when light painting an image when shooting astrophotography on a smartphone:
1. Make sure you have a phone with a camera that is able to capture the stars.
2. Select a dark enough area to actually see the stars.
3. Pick an object that you want to light paint in the foreground.
4. Compose an image in your mind with the selected object in the shot.
5. Decide on a color or multiple colors to use in your shot.
6. Test different amounts of light shined on the image at different distances from the object.
7. Practice, practice, practice!
Pick Your Phone Camera
If you haven’t read in this article, my phone of choice for astrophotography is the Google Pixel 6. So, whenever I mention a phone, it will probably be that phone. Alison and I have also played around with iPhones 11, 12, and 13 for night photography, but we have found the Pixel typically produces the nicest images. That’s why the Google Pixel series is typically rated as the best astrophotography phone on the market without jumping through a bunch of post processing hoops. Straight out of camera, the images are fantastic! There is no need to mess with ISO, white balance, or anything else. That’s why people like me prefer phones: simplicity.
If you do want to use another phone besides the Google Pixel 6, go for it. Samsung, iPhone, Xiaomi, OnePlus, or any other phone with the capability to shoot stars should work and at least some of what I will share should be practical for you. I’ll be focusing on techniques that can be used on all phone cameras, but since the Pixel has a much longer processing period of 4 minutes and 2 seconds in camera, I have found more techniques can be implemented. There’s just a lot of wiggle room to play with light painting on this camera. That’s why I like it so much.
Find a Dark Sky Area
This section is a bit obvious if you have already been shooting astrophotography or even looking up at the stars, but I’ll say it anyway. Make sure you are in a place where you can actually see the stars. That’s why it’s called astrophotography and not “light pollution-ography”. The smaller the Bortle number, the better since it will be easier to see the stars and shoot them if the sky is darker.
We always make it a point to go to the most dark areas we can access for our RV trips since most of our night camping activities revolve around astrophotography, stargazing, and just chilling out around the campfire. That’s why even most of our short weekend trips are at least 2 hours outside of the Dallas area so we can escape all of the city lights.
Use our stargazing campground map to help you find the perfect place to shoot the stars!
Select an Object for Your Foreground
Now that you have a good phone camera and a place to shoot, think about how you will actually shoot it. Maybe you have a cool tent you want to include in your image. Well then, make that your subject. What about a funky looking tree or a rustic barn? Go for it.
When I approach shooting an object in the foreground, I usually think about how that object works into what kind of story I’m trying to tell. I know it sounds kind of odd, but bear with me since I’m not exactly the best at explaining this kind of deep artistic emotional stuff. Like I mentioned earlier, we regularly shoot our Jayco when camping. It is a central part of the RVing story we are telling in our images. I guess you could say, it’s the story of a family that loves to RV and after the kids go to bed, mom and dad just relax outside under the stars for countless hours and reconnect with nature and each other.
Whatever your story is, try to include foreground objects in your compositions when shooting the stars. Light painting will help emphasize foreground elements to aid you in better telling of your personal story.
Create a Composition
Many people will say to go with the rule-of-thirds when creating compositions. Sure, you should try some shots with this basic technique, but don’t forget to experiment with various angles and looks. You might be surprised with what you create. Basically, don’t put limitations on yourself when it comes to compositions. Play around with the object you selected and its position in your foreground and see what you can come up with. Work with them by testing numerous shots and varying distances, positions, and angles. Play with vertical, horizontal, and even more irregular camera orientations.
I remember this one night in Copper Breaks State Park when Alison had gone to bed after 2 AM, and I decided to stay outside and experiment for another 30 minutes. I was playing around with lighting up one of the triangular shelters at the campground trying to see if I could create a never before seen composition. It might not be an award winning cell phone shot, but I’m glad I stayed out and learned quite a bit by just testing out different angles. I actually settled on very minimal lighting on the shelter and decided it was better not to light paint it too much for this particular shot. Plus, I’ve always been into silhouettes.
Choose a Color for Light Painting
We are finally getting into the meat of this article. It’s time to actually light paint.
When light painting on a phone, you can really make your images unique by testing different colored lights. Most headlamps and flashlights only come with two colors: white and red. The same goes for lanterns. Most of the lanterns we own have a white setting only with the exception of one that has a nice amber color too. The vast majority of the time though, I settle on simply using white light when light painting because for most of my stories I like to tell, white light just does the trick. Call me boring.
Sometimes though, I’ll experiment with other colors when I feel like making a more interesting or “artistic” shot. We have a light wand that gives off a decent amount of light for close targeted light when painting and has thousands of different colors to choose from. It allows for lots of experimentation in each image.
You can experiment with different types of flashlights with filters. Some not only have standard white and red lights but green and blue as well. These additional settings are typically used for hunting and fishing based on what part of the visible spectrum different animals can see. In our case for astrophotography, it’s more for art and less for animals…unless you are shooting your images in an area filled with wild hogs. Then, you might want a multi-colored flashlight for other reasons too.
We actually had that happen before one summer Texas night and it was a bit freaky! Hearing a group of giant, aggressive pigs walking through your campsite on a moonless night shooting the stars can be a bit creepy when you hear loud snorting somewhere in front of you.
We have a flashlight that has multiple modes to click and change color, but there are also flashlights that have filters you can screw on to change the color. It really doesn’t matter what type you choose. It can be cheap or expensive. As long as you get a nice image from using the tool, pick whatever works for your budget.
Writing this article has made me realize that I should test out my UV flashlight and see if the phone camera will pick up any of that range of the light spectrum. So, stay tuned! I’ll try to link it here in a future article if it works. If it doesn’t, disregard this little paragraph.
How Much Light and Where to Use it
This section is essentially trial and error. I wish I had a good rule of thumb to give you, but alas, I don’t. I can share what has worked for me in several images, but giving a mathematical rule is something I have yet to figure out.
Let’s look at some images and see what I did.
These dead trees were on the shoreline of a lake in Oklahoma’s Great Plains State Park. I think I was about 20 or so feet from them, and I was trying to illuminate the foreground enough to get the branches to show up and a little reflection on the water.
I shined a headlamp for about 2 seconds 3 different times, waving it back and forth over that time. When I tried earlier to shine it directly at the branches for a few seconds, this is what I got.
You can see it’s obvious I’m using a flashlight based on the shape in the water in this image…no bueno.
Look at how the flashlight stays on the branches in this related image. I learned I needed to move the light source a bit for this particular image. I think it looks better than that first image.
I also decided to go with a vertical photograph to showcase the stars more.
Sometimes a steady light source of a few seconds just works like in this canoe example. Could it be because this is a Bortle 5 sky with another ambient light source off to the right? I honestly don’t know.
I tested a few shots without light painting the foreground at all and also with a bit more light painting on the canoes. Eventually, I landed somewhere in the middle.
What I do know is that it’s important to test out numerous techniques when shooting and learn in the field. With our travel trailer, I have a pretty good idea of how it will look under different types of dark skies, moon phases, and unexpected light sources.
Ambient Light Sources
Speaking of those pesky light sources, it’s important to learn to work with them, especially if you are camping near people. I can’t even count how many times people have walked or driven through a campground with bright lights that shine into ours. It can completely ruin an astrophotography image.
I think it is very important to learn to use the surrounding light sources that you can’t always avoid and include them in the image like this example where the campground was being lit up by a bathroom light source. I decided to use the RV to block the light and then do a quick light paint on the front of the RV to finish the image. It’s best not to get discouraged when you can’t completely control your environment. Just work with what you can.
Speaking of an uncontrollable environment, check out this article I wrote on shooting with clouds in your astrophotography image.
LED Light vs Incandescent Bulb Light
Does it matter if you use an LED light or an incandescent light for phone astrophotography?
I have found it really doesn’t matter if you use an LED light or incandescent light to light paint in astrophotography. Of course I’m assuming you are just using the light to simply brighten up your foreground subject and not draw artistically in your scene. I’ve played around with flashlights with both types of lights, and I haven’t really noticed a difference for foreground illumination. On the other hand, if you are going to light to draw in your scene, you might want to experiment with LED lights of different shapes and configurations.
There are plenty of websites that sell specialized light painting tools to give you a more precise control over your art, but the purpose of this article is general light painting, so I’m not going down that rabbit hole…yet. Stay tuned, I’ve actually experimented with lots of DIY light drawing.
Using a Diffuser or Dim Light Source
When light painting, you might decide you need some additional light on your subject or in your foreground that is constant. This is where a diffuser comes into the picture (hopefully not really IN the picture since that might actually ruin the image). You can set a flashlight or lantern behind an empty milk jug to get more diffused light hitting your subject. If you don’t have a gallon jug, try simply wrapping your flashlight in a plastic bag a couple of times. We’ve found this technique works pretty well on those extra dark nights.
When Alison and I light paint our RV, it seems like we have just enough light a majority of the time with just a simple shine line strung up across the front or when using a diffuser. On many nights, the Moon will also give us plenty of light to paint the subject. We suggest you don’t just avoid astrophotography on nights with the Moon blasting your image with unwanted light. Use it. Even though you probably won’t be able to capture as many stars, to learn how much some bright moonlight adds to your picture can be invaluable information.
This is a Bortle 4 Texas lake with a nearly full moon and a bright, yellow campground light coming from behind me. What did I learn? Don’t camp in this campsite again, especially when the moon is out.
Can you stack images with your phone? Yes! Am I going to show you that? Nope. If you watch our YouTube channel, you’ll know why. I’m kind of busy doing other things, so I really don’t want to spend time on Photoshop or Lightroom. (Honestly, I can’t believe we actually have a blog now too.)
So, let’s wrap this article up with one more quick section.
If you are interested in the specialty area of light painting sometimes referred to as light drawing, I also wrote an article on light drawing astrophotography you might want to take a look at too.
This picture is just one of many phone light drawing experiments I have tested in my Bortle 8 backyard on top of other images while camping.
Practice, Practice, Practice
I have found over the years, the easiest way to get better at something is to practice it. The same goes for light painting for phone astrophotography. I wouldn’t say I’m an absolute expert, but since I practice regularly, I feel like I have definitely improved since I started doing it. I hope you also get the opportunity to spend more time shooting the stars and light painting your own personal story. It’s a highly underrated hobby!
Try out this article next if you use a Google Pixel and are interested to know if processing length matters. You might be surprised!
About the Authors
We are avid stargazers Jason and Alison Takacs also known as “Roadtrippin’ with Takacs”. With our two boys Preston and Grayson, we seek out some of the darkest skies in the country while also going on many incredible hiking and other outdoor adventures. As part-time RVers, we try to see as much of this amazing world as possible in our spare time and hope you will join us through this blog and other forms of social media as we explore the night sky and other natural wonders as hardcore astrotourists.