DIY: Make Crazy Detailed Light Paintings with Photo Light Stencils

Extra photos for bloggers: 1, 2, 3

Ever tried painting with light but got an amorphous blob instead of the heart you meant to draw? Us, too.

That’s why light stencils are so so so great!

Instead of free-hand drawing with an LED light, you’ll use a cardboard box with a shape inside of it to shoot super detailed light paintings.

You don’t even have to cut out a stencil!

Just print out an old photo or a silhouette and slide it into your homemade lightbox. Pop the flash a few times, and create surreal dreamscapes even Salvador Dali would be envious of.

What better way to take advantage of those daylight savings hours?

How to Make Photo Light Stencils

p.s. Make a light stencil photo, and share it with us on Twitter! We’ll spotlight 3 winners on the Photojojo Tumblr. Just 1) Follow us @photojojo and 2) Hashtag it #photojojodiy. We’ll pick winners Monday morning 11/26 PST!

Why it’s cool:

ingred-smPhotoshopping people into your photos… meh.

Light painting people into your photos… YAY!

You can’t go wrong with this tutorial.

You’re essentially making a reusable, portable light box that can house any image you can dream of.

Combine that with sweet backdrops around your neighborhood, and your light painting possibilities are endless.



  • Medium Sized Cardboard Box
  • Cardboard Cutter
  • Black Duct Tape
  • Ruler
  • Pencil
  • Printed Images on a Black Background (Step 9)
  • 9″x 12″ Self-Laminating Sheets from any office supply store
  • External Flash
  • Tripod
  • Your Camera

STEP 1: Cut Image Opening:

paint-smFirst, you want to make an opening on the bottom of your box for your image to sit.

If you’re printing on 8 1/2″ x 11″ paper, make an opening that is 1/4″ less on all sides.

That means you’ll measure and draw a rectangle that is 8 1/4″ tall by 10 3/4″ wide.

Use a cardboard cutter to cut out the rectangle.

TIP: You may have to pass through each cut a few times if your box is thick.

Step 2: Cut Sides:

paint-smStart with one of the sides perpendicular to the bottom of the box that now has a rectangle cut out.

Center your flash at the top of this side. The top is edge furthest away from the rectangle cutout.

Make diagonal lines from the sides of the flash to the bottom corner of that side of the box.

Repeat this step for all four sides perpendicular to the bottom of the box.

Remember: The bottom of the box is where you just cut out the image opening in Step One.

Step 3: Cut Away:

paint-smUsing your utility knife, cut along the diagonal lines you drew.

This will remove the corner pieces from the four sides perpendicular to the rectangular image area cutout at the bottom of the box. By doing this, you will be able to tape the edges back together at an angle, creating a trapezoid.

When you have cut all four sides, they should lay flat in a star-like shape.

Step 4: Rebuild:

paint-sm.Using black duct tape, line up the tapered sides you just made.

Make sure to leave an opening at the tapered end for your flash to slide in.

It’s kind of like building the pyramid, but with less work!

Step 5: Line Edges:

paint-smOnce you have all the sides sealed together, use your black tape to line the edges of your image opening.

This will prevent any wild cardboard pieces from showing up in your image.

Do the same thing to the opening for your flash.

Step 6: Black it out:

paint-sm Now, cover the entire box with black tape.

This will prevent it from showing up in your images.

If you prefer, you could spray paint it black instead.

Just make sure to let it dry completely before moving on.

Step 7: Make a handle:

paint-sm Handles come in handy, eh?

You’ll be glad you added this step once you’re out taking photos.

Cut a scrap piece of cardboard into a rectangle that is 2″ wide by 10″ long.

Cover it with black tape.

Step 8: Attach:

paint-smTape the ends of your handle to one side of the box close to the smaller opening.

Make sure it’s really secure and that your hand fits through it.

Remember, you’ll need one hand holding the box, and one using the flash.

Make your handle the most comfortable it will be for you.

Step 9: Prep Images:

paint-smSo the trick is, you need to print your images with a black background.

This will prevent light from passing through, and help them integrate better with the rest of the scene you’ll be photographing.

Using image editing software, place your image on a black background.

These steps show you how to cut an image out of the existing background.

You could also make you image into a silhouette.

Step 10: Print:

paint-sm Once you have your images the way you like them, print them out.

Make two copies of each image.

Line them up perfectly, and tape them together.

Step 11: Laminate:

paint-smLaminating the image will make them reusable.

We used self-laminating sheets from a craft store, but most local print shops can laminate for you as well.

Just peel of the backing sheet and lay your image down smoothly.

Place another laminate sheet on the backside to seal them together.

Trim off the excess, but leave a bit of a border around your image.

Step 12: Place Image:

paint-sm Tape on your laminated image to the large opening at the bottom of the box.

Use black duct tape for this, too.

Make sure to cover up any borders on your image so extra light doesn’t creep through the edges.

Step 13: Set your Flash:

paint-smManual mode on your external flash works best for this.

Start at 1/8 normal power.

You may have to adjust this while shooting.

Step 14: Place flash:

paint-sm Put your flash through the small opening at the other end of your box.

Your flash won’t stay in this opening unless you’re holding it in place. Be sure not to let it drop.

Use the handle you created to hold the box with one hand, and your other hand to hold the flash.

Bam. Now, you’re ready to go photograph.

Step 15: Set up your scene:

paint-sm Find your perfect location. Use a tripod and a long exposure.

If you have a friend willing to help you out, it will make this process smoother.

If not, practice makes perfect, huh?!

Step 16: Make Background Exposure:

paint-sm Test out the exposure for the background first.

This will help you know how long you have to work with.

For this image, we used a 2.5 second exposure at f/8.

Step 17: Focus and Adjust:

paint-sm Place your image where you want it in the scene.

Focus your camera on your lightbox image.

Start the exposure by pressing your shutter button. Pop the flash once by pressing the “test” button, then move out of the scene.

Take a look at your image, and adjust where necessary.

TIP: If you see your black background around your lightbox image, you need to adjust your settings. Turn down your flash power, or stop down your aperture, i.e., change it from f/8 to f/11 or f/16.

Step 18: Trial and Error:

paint-sm Keep playing around with placement and exposure to get the perfect combination.

Your aperture settings will control the amount of light from your flash. The shutter speed will control the ambient light.

So, if your flash is too bright, stop down the aperture. If your background is too dark, increase your shutter speed.

TIP: Don’t forget your scarf and mittens! Oh, and a hot chocolate!

Take it further

Thanks to Trevor Williams and Fiz-Iks for this amazing project idea! Check out his video.