I absolutely LOVE light painting of all types, so if you want to give it a try, Table Top light painting is the perfect way to start out. First, you need to come up with a theme and gather some cool things. You can always borrow items from friends, family or neighbors. Most people will be flattered that you admire their things, and you can always offer to give them a print of the finished product.  Scroll down to start the 10 Easy Steps!

Caryn Esplin - 1940s Desk - Light Painting - Ten Steps Tutorial

Light Painting the 1940s Desk - Camera Setup: ISO 200 - f/11 - 30 seconds

Caryn Esplin - Old 1940s Desktop - Light Painting

One image, completely unedited: Old 1940s Desktop - Light Painting - Caryn Esplin - ISO: 320 - f/8.0 - 20 seconds


1. Find dark area:

It will be much easier to control your results if you light-paint in total darkness.

2. Arrange table top scene:

Set up an interesting table top arrangement. Don’t be afraid to overlap and crowd things up a bit.

3. Place camera on tripod:

Place your camera on a tripod. Try a few angles from above and eye-level.

4. Set Manual Mode:

Start with something like ISO 200 – f/11 – 30 seconds. If the light is too bright, make some adjustments. See # 8, below.

5. Lock the focus:

With the lights on, focus on the focal point, then switch the Auto Focus to Manual, so the camera won’t try to refocus during the light painting.

6. Activate Self-timer:

Turn self-timer to a 5 second delay (to give you time to get in place), turn off all lights, then press the shutter.

7. Paint light from off-camera:

Light the scene with a small LED flashlight from the sides of the scene for “off-camera lighting.” In other words, avoid lighting the scene from the same angle as your camera. Use your flashlight like a paintbrush, with circular, feathered motions from about 5 – 15 inches away. Move around the scene, spending a few seconds on each area. To avoid light trails (random lines of light from the flashlight), do not point your light directly at the camera. Also, you can use black “gaffers tape” (or duct tape) on the end of your flashlight to reduce and shape the light source. This will also help you reduce the light trails.

8. Adjust the lighting:

Check your results, then adjust the ISO, shutter speed and f-stop for more or less light. For example, if things are too bright:  Change the ISO to 100;  Change the aperture to f/16;  and/or Reduce the shutter speed to 15 seconds.

9. Leave dark areas:

For a more artistic result, be sure to leave some areas dark. Since this is a light painting you should leave part of the scene dark. The light is much more creative if it is subtle in some places. Light up the focal points and the interesting colors and textures.


Repeat many times for optimal results. It will take many hours and many setups to get great results. This is one of my favorite styles of photography. It is a passion of mine for the past year, so I take it very seriously and practice whenever I can spend a few hours in the dark, without being rushed. It is not easy, but very satisfying for me. I hope you enjoy it.


If you want to try something much easier to master, use a smaller light source (pen light, laser pointer, colored glow stick, cell phone) to paint in mid-air or trace an object with light. This style of light painting is completely different, but equally fun… and much quicker to learn and produce satisfactory results.

Caryn Esplin - Light Painting Setup - Table Top Light Painting

Arrange a nice table top scene, then setup your camera for an interesting angle.


Camera:   Nikon D7000
Sharp Lens:   Nikon 85mm f/1.4 AF-S  G
Pistol Grip Head on Tripod:  The Sunpack Pistol Grip (Click Here) (Sunpak 620-PISTOLGRPQR – larger style on Amazon is $30 – 40) – I LOVE how I can quickly lock in any angle with this tight Pistol Grip Ball Head. You can remove the head on most tripods, so I just replaced my old Bogen/Manfrotto head with this new “squeeze, position, and lock” pistol grip, and I save a lot of time getting the precise angle I need. It just takes too long to keep re-twisting the turn-handle on a ball-head, and I don’t like the three-way pan head either. The squeeze-and-release locking method with the Pistol grip is the way to go!
LED Light:  Mag-Lite XL100 (Click Here)  (Amazon Price:  $25)

Caryn Esplin - Light Painting - Maglite XL100 - Great for Light Painting

Any inexpensive dollar-store LED light will do, but my favorite flashlight for table top light painting is the Maglite XL100, because I can adjust the amount of light by rotating the flashlight. Every LED light has a different light "color" so you may have to adjust your White balance to accommodate. It will take a few shots at different WB to find the right "color of light." With the nice white-cream colored light I get from this XL100, I usually shoot with Auto WB and get great results. I used photographer's "gaffer tape" to create a "Snoot" on my light for this shoot so I could pinch down the tape and reduce the amount of light. Even though I turned my light down to 10% of the full beam, I was still getting a little too much light at times... especially when shooting at larger apertures (1.4) with my Nikon 85mm f/1.4 AF-S G lens.


Light painting desk - Caryn Esplin

ISO 100 - f/1.4 - 6 seconds - A shallower depth of field blurs the background

Caryn Esplin - 1940s Desktop - Light Painting

Edited image: I masked in the old flashlight from another image, that appeared to be turned on. I shined my LED light in the end of the old light to make it light up. I often use this technique when I light paint old trucks outside. I shine my light in the old headlights, and it looks like they are shining in the darkness.


Most of these light paintings are COMPLETELY UNEDITED because it is easier to control the light, focus and composition when you light paint and use Manual mode with a tripod. It is a deliberate, planned photoshoot that produces fabulous results most of the time…Once you get the hang of it. 🙂


My inspiration for this shoot is a combination of my interest in Sherlock Holmes mysteries and a collection of old desk pieces of my fathers, who was a CPA, and had all kinds of interesting gadgets on his desk. I used to love going to his office to check out his stuff.  When my mother died a few months ago, my father moved from Idaho to Arizona, so he gave away a lot of old things. The old books and the brass counter are his. The black gloves are my mother’s. I acquired the typewriter for $10 at an awesome estate sale last summer along Highway 20 near Ashton. I found the old flashlight, telephone  and binoculars at various antique stores over the years. I do love finding deals on old things, as much as I like discovering old buildings and ghost towns. I bought the old hat at a neighbor’s garage sale, when her husband passed away. These items were popular in the 1940s, so they remind me of something that would be on the desk of a private investigator in that era.

To place an order, text Caryn at 208.339.3395 or email caryn@carynesplin.com. Dismiss