Light Painting in Abandoned Buildings

This past winter in Michigan was one of the coldest in a decade. I typically would continue to explore abandoned buildings, no matter what the weather.  But with many days below freezing, I opted to stay inside and find something else fun to do instead! One of the new things I have been experimenting with is light painting. I started out in my basement, but when the weather warmed up I moved on to abandoned buildings.

You may be asking yourself, “What exactly is light painting?”

To quote Wikipedia:  β€œLight painting, also known as light drawing or light graffiti, is a photographic technique in which exposures are made usually at night or in a darkened room by moving a hand-held light source or by moving the camera…”

In simple terms, the photographer, or someone else working with the photographer, chooses the light source and moves it in certain ways to get certain results.  Here I will show some of my light painting results in abandoned buildings.  While abandoned buildings are interesting enough unto themselves, light painting adds a whole new level of interest.

This first image was taken inside an abandoned armory in Detroit. To get this effect, I used battery-powered string lights (also called fairy lights).  I bunched the strand of lights together and wrapped them with duct tape to make one larger light source.  I stood at the top of the stairs and swung the light strand in a circle while walking down the stairs.  I started with a smaller loop and then let out the string as I walked to make a larger loop by the bottom of the stairs. You notice you don’t see me, that’s because I am moving and when taking a long exposure, people or objects are not captured in the image.

Light Painting on Stairs

This next image was taken on a trip to Gary, IN in May of this year, and as you can see churches make a great backdrop for using steel wool.  To get this effect, you light steel wool on fire (which is stuffed inside a wire whisk which is attached to a wire cable) and swing it to get these circles with sparks flying out in all directions.  It is a very cool effect, and many people ooh and ahh when they see me do it in person.  Of course you have to be extremely careful when you use fire, I wear gloves, protective eyewear, a hat, long pants/sleeves and heavy duty boots.  And of course make sure all sparks are out before leaving the location.

These next images were captured in an abandoned Detroit automotive plant.  We were experimenting with different ways to use steel wool.

Here I was spinning the steel wool above my head to get this “shower” effect, of course you have to be sure not to have your camera or people too close!

Light Painting Steel Wool Overhead

We found this long, dark room with pipes in the building and wanted to use it to capture steel wool in a small space.  You can see the sparks bounce off the narrow walls to give a different effect.  There is just enough light from the steel wool to light up the room, no other light source was used.


Here I used a bit of Photoshop magic to complete this dual steel wool image.  Both steel wool circles were shot separately (first in the left bay, then in the right).  In Photoshop I used a mask to “paint” the light circle on the right into the image.  I just couldn’t be in two places at once!  This image sort of reminds me of eyes peering out at you.

Double Steel Wool Circles

This last image was taken by John Clark at one of my workshops at the same location.  I was the one twirling the steel wool, John took the image.

The Machine Rises Again

I feel like I am just starting to scratch the surface of light painting.  There are many great photographers/artists who are creating very complex light painting scenes that are quite amazing.

My friend and fellow Detroit photographer Bryan Levy and I have been offering light painting workshops to local Detroit photographers through Creative Vision Photography Workshops.  We teach the camera settings to use for light painting, composition and demonstrate a wide variety of light sources that can be used. It’s exciting to see people so amazed by it and really start to run with it on their own.  We offer 2-3 light painting workshops during the summer months.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *