What Lenses I use for Light Painting

How i choose my Lenses for Light Painting?

Of course, you have some kind of camera and a lens, and what you have, is what you have. You can use pretty much anything for light painting there is out there and get fantastic results. So before you chose the lens for your shoot you will need to buy it. If you are lucky and you can just purchase and Lens you could possibly want, I suggest go to DXO-MARK and choose first by your desired Sharpness, Distortion, Vignetting, Transmission, or Aberration. Anything goes.

If that’s not the case, work with what you got! That’s what I do. Ok I am in a very luxurious position. I started purchasing lenses many, many years ago and this thing went obviously out of hand. Also I have friends that also own a Canon camera, that’s why I have access to so many lenses.

After you been through with the DXO-MARK there are a couple of considerations for Light Painting and traveling. How do I chose? Here I share with you my parts of my thought process in what I will use for a shot.

What lens for Light Painting?

Depending on the Composition and Subject you want to feature you can work with pretty much any lens or no lenses at all. Yes – there is a land of Photography that works without lenses = Refractography. But here is just the line up of lenses that I currently have in use.

Too much text, you don’t want to read all this? Here is the Video Version of this Blog Post.

Selection by weight and size:

What Lens for Light Painting? When I travel I have to select my lenses in advance, way before I actually get to see what I am about to photograph. When I’ve been to a place or spoke with someone about the spot I may know what lens to choose. Locationscout.net might be a great source of information about spots in this regard.

So in cases, I don’t know much I would grab something that is not too heavy and small yet allows me to adjust from landscape to portrait. The wide-angle lenses are usually not too big so that’s an easy one. Bringing the Canon 85mm F1.2 or 70-200mm Canon is sometimes a big/heavy decision. There will be moments then, I would prefer the 24-105mm zoom lens for that reason.

Think twice before you stuff your hand luggage. Some Airlines have only an 8 or 10-kilo allowance.

Compare Lens Size

Compare the Size of the Lenses

Just to show you what that means for packing a backpack of photo case. The LensBaby is actually not just a promise in name and size. It is actually tiny in comparison with the Sigma Macro or the Canon EF 70-200mm (Amazon Link). One must really want to achieve a special effect to carry the big lenses around the planet.

Lenses for Light Painting

Selection by Subject:

For Landscape and Architecture, I would often use a super wide-angle lens.

So that limits my choice to the LAOWA or the Samyang.

Lately, I have kept using the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D (Amazon Link) because it is considered the World’s Widest f/2.8 Lens with close-to-zero distortion. It has an angle of view (122°), this is super nice for light painting landscape, architecture, and astrophotography. Most important to me as Lightpainter; its full-on manual. At the moment truly my favorite when not shooting a portrait. It’s a tiny bit sharper than the Samyang 12mm F2.8 in my opinion. Coming in at a third of the price the Samyang is a viable consideration!

shot with a Laowa 14mm Zero D F2.8

Light Painting at Monopol Berlin

When it comes to shooting a portrait I usually choose something 50mm to 200mm lens.

As you can see I have a wide range of that. If you want to go all bokeh then the 85mm F1.2 is incredible. The super-low F-Stop will give you that nice feeling of depth. If you shoot at F2 or lower you can really make things stand out. Just like here with Samira the Light Painting gets blurry as it leaves the field of depth.

shot taken with a Canon EF 85mm F1.2 lens

Tube Light Painting Portrait
Tube Light Painting Portrait with a Canon 85mm F1.2

If you want to use super strong light or even fireworks the 70-200mm comes in handy because it can go all the way up to F32. Also, super useful because it can be easily mounted to a second tripod. That way you can do a lens swap. Very nice!

Lens Swap Light Painting Photography

Lens comparison - Canon EF 16-35mm F2.8 and Meyer Optic Görlitz 35mm F2.0

Light Painting Photograph Milkyway

Here you see a comparison between two lenses on the same subject. On the left, you see the use of the Canon EF 16-35mm F2.8 (Amazon Link) actually set to F2.8 and focused on the tree. On the right, you see a Meyer Optic Görlitz 35mm F2.0 set to F2 in the hope to see the milky way as well. The Lenses are very different in the making and certainly in the hyperfocal distance of each lens.
As you can see in the background of the tree the milky way is super soft and not as crisp with the Meyer lens. This is an effect that can be used in the right way once you understand the benefits when used rightly. You got to learn that F16 is not always F16 (could be fighter jet). What I am saying is that some lenses close way more than others. There was a moment I used a Meyer Optic Görlitz with fireworks and just thought I have to crank up the lens to F20 because it’s going to be super bright. I set it to F20 and blew up what I had. It looked like I had two sparklers that were it. F20 was too small of an opening it left merely any light through. Not like my Canon EF 16-35mm F2.8 (Amazon Link) at the same setting.

Compare the Weight of the Lenses

Lens Weight in gram

Canon EF 70-200mm F2.8 1490g
Canon EF 85 mm F1.2 1025g
Petzval 58 mm F1.9 Bokeh Control Art 840g
Sigma 105mm Makro f2. 8 EX DG OS HSM 725g
Zenit MC-Zenitar 50 mm f/1,2 S 690g
Canon EF 24-105 mm F4 670g
Sigma 35mm F1,4 DG HSM Art 665g
Canon EF 16-35 mm F2.8 640g
LAOWA Zero D 12mm F2.8 609g
Samyang 14 mm F2.8 505g
Lensbaby Composer Pro + Sweet 35 Optik 114g

If you go for a bunch of prime Lenses you might as well sign up for new Gym-Membership to build up some Trapez muscles or bring a private sherpa.

Selection by Light Sources:

In Photography people talk about the Light that goes into the camera. This will determine the quality of your photo not only with respect to noise. Lucky us in Light Painting we can keep the ISO low and if it is dark enough we can keep the exposure running for several minutes. But be careful to misunderstand ISO. Noise is not only caused by ISO. Its F-Stop, and exposure time. So that will be balanced as well. If you are interested in the topic I recommend the following video.

In regards to the lenses we want to use for Light Painting its more important to have a wide range of F-Stops available. That is your valve to how much light goes into the camera on the sensor. Some Lenses Start at F1.2 or less and some go up to F32. If you want to take a photo of a burning light bulb that would be great to have. But don’t forget also the bokeh or depth of field. That becomes then your artistic feature.

The depth of field will be important considering where you going to use your focus point and where you actually want to apply your light painting. Should your features be in focus? You better determined where that is? Put a marker on the ground 😉 Then start Light Painting.

Most important for Light Painters is the relation of the lens you have versus the Flashlight / Ligh tools strength you going to use. Also how fast you going to run around with your Light sources. If you are at F16 you either run slow or have a strong Flashlight.

You will learn to count the Photons going into your camera body.

What Lenses I use for Light Painting
Light Painting Photography tree Bristlecone

If possible I would always prefer a full-on manual lens for Light Painting.

That allows you to change the F-Stop during the exposure. Why would that be interesting? See these two images? Both images are single exposures with no photoshop layers. What happened here is that I started off in a very high F-Stop, say F22 to light up the model (Ingrid and the Tree) then I would open the lens as much as I can, to F2.8 to allow the Milkyway to show up. So I let the scene rest for an extra 30 seconds before ending the exposure.

Gunnar Heilmanns Lens Modification

Sometimes you just want a certain effect. Time to get creative. Tape is your best friend. 😉

Canon EF mount Lenses

Thank you so much for ready so far. I hope that way it was somewhat useful information. This is intended to be my way, my view on things. Light Painting shall always be fun and I do think everyone can and should find their own way. See this as inspiration or Kickstarter to your on movement.

Quick Update

Since I ask what people think of the topic some shared their opinion and what they are doing. Dennis Berka alias Dennis Ryu Bär / Ryu’s Lightworks was super detailed. Dennis is a super active Light Painter. He will always help you if you have a question. He wants Light Painting to progress as an art form and engages in many ways to bring us all forward. We are here in the exact same boat. Thank you Dennis for sharing your side.

For my German readers here a guest post from Dennis:

Da sind meine manuellen Objektive.
Eigentlich hab ich nur ein digitales Objektiv mit dem ich die Fotos dann gemacht hab, und das ist das Kit gewesen was bei der Kamera dabei war, alles andere sind manuelle 😀
Die obere Reihe ist von Links aus:
Nikkor 80-200mm
Nikkor 28-85mm + Makro
Nikkor 20mm
Helios 44-2 normal
Mitte sind:
Helios 44-3 modifiziert
Pentacon 50mm
Unten sind:
Samyang 14mm (Amazon)
Industar 50mm
und ein Super Macro bis 4,5x Vergrößerung Objektiv von Zhongyi
Zu 90% benutze ich die obere Reihe. Die alten Nikkor vor allen haben an einer Sony richtig gute Bildqualität.
Und wie schon gesagt haben die alle den Vorteil das man sowohl Fokus als auch Blende manuell so einstellen kann wie man es braucht und auch während einer Belichtung verändern kann. Und es juckt die Kamera nicht wenn ich die in einer Belichtung wechsel 😉

lenses Light Painting Dennis Berka
lenses Light Painting Dennis Berka

Do you want to find a Lens for Light Painting?

There a more light painters that blog about the topic. Talking about manual “old glass”. Sven Gerard created a wonderful blog post (for german speaking/reading) on that topic. His examples are just what you look for. The different bokeh each lens can provide makes you think twice before purchasing something new.

Lenses Altglas Sven Gerard

Beginners Guide to Light Painting

Meteor Jam 2022

Flashlights for Light Painting

Wind Tunnel Light Painting


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