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Mastering the Art of After Dark Photography

In his new book, Gim Liu aims to help photographers learn light painting and long exposure special effects
Light Painting Photography Technique

Gim Liu is a commercial photographer based in the U.K. and known to his Instagram followers as @Gimagery, a mashup of the words Gim (his name) and Imagery (his passion). That passion is obvious in his favorite kind of photographs, those made after dark. He is a light painting specialist and in his new book, “A Beginner’s Guide to After Dark Photography with Gimagery,” he outlines his approach to making five distinct styles of light painting photos—two of which are his own invention. 

“The beauty of long exposure photography,” Liu says, “is that you are restricted only by your imagination. The possibilities are endless. It’s my favorite type of photography because I am forever fascinated by the vibrant colors and the light streaks and trails produced by the camera. I enjoy the challenge of bringing an idea to life. The outcome is always unknown as my photography is mostly experimental. I love it because it brings out my creative side and stimulates my imagination.”

The experimental nature of light painting is part of its appeal. Unlike most types of photography, the process uses a camera to create an image that would be otherwise invisible to the naked eye. But as any good scientist knows, fruitful experimentation requires proper planning and preparation to deliver useful results. That’s why Liu developed a system he calls the ADP Formula to help produce better light painting photographs. 

“ADP stands for after dark photography,” he says. “I made this straightforward formula to facilitate creating and capturing long exposure photos. It explains the entire process to provide a firm understanding of what is involved in every stage. It also forms a guide which can be followed to steer someone through the steps throughout the entire process.”


Liu’s After Dark Photography formula is made up of four primary stages—Plan, Set Up, Execute, and Analyze.

Stage 1: Plan

Decide Location and Equipment. Think of the kind of photo you want to create, as well as where you’ll do it, then gather all the necessary equipment for the shot. “The planning stage is where the process begins,” he explains, “and in order to be fully prepared, various decisions are made prior to taking a photo.”

Stage 2: Set Up

Positioning, Camera Settings, Focus, Test. “The set up stage is of great importance,” Liu says. “It’s where everything is prepared and put into place to execute the photo you have been planning. If you are going to be in the shot, decide where you will stand or where your camera must be placed to capture what’s intended.” Then position the tripod appropriately, set up the camera and compose the frame. Then dial in the ISO, aperture and shutter speed settings before turning on the self-timer. You can use autofocus to focus in the area of the frame where the action will occur, but once focus is determined, set the camera to manual focus so it won’t change accidentally, then take some test shots and adjust each of the above settings as needed until the image looks right. 

Stage 3: Execute

“The execute stage is where the planning and setup are put into effect,” Liu says. There are a few approaches to triggering the camera. You can set off the self timer just before you want to capture the moment, or start a longer timer—say, a 10-second setting—and then get into position. Or you can get in position and use a wireless remote to trigger the camera to make the exposure. Then perform the action to create the photo, or if your participation isn’t required simply wait for the action to unfold. 


Stage 4: Analyze

Examine, Adjust, Repeat. “The final part of the process is the analyze stage, where you examine the photos you’ve taken. Here attention to detail is needed for adjustments that may need to be made in order to capture the photo as you imagined.” Once the capture is complete, check the LCD on the back of the camera to see what you’ve made. Depending on the results, you’re likely to need to make adjustments. This could be camera settings—higher ISO or longer shutter speed for more light, for instance—or performance changes. Regardless, make the necessary adjustments and then repeat Stage 3 (Execute) and Stage 4 (Analyze) until you’re pleased with the resulting photograph.  

In his book, Liu goes into greater detail with lots of examples of five distinct light painting techniques—Words, Light Trails, Steel Wool, Outlining and Trajectory. Two are his original creations. 

“The two photo types that are my favorite are outlining and trajectory,” he says, “which I came up with myself. They are simply the most intriguing to look at.”


Outlining is a process of using light to draw lines and define the border or outer shape of an object. To do it, use a flashlight or sparkler to draw the outline during the long exposure, with the light periodically disappearing behind the object to ensure a true and accurate outline. While Trajectory shows the path of a moving object—like a ball—thanks to a sparkler attached to an object that is then thrown, kicked or rolled while the exposure is made. 

“A sparkler attached to the object,” Liu says, “enables the camera to capture the movement of the object and show how it traveled. Trajectory is one of the most impressive and creative photo techniques taught in my book.”


These techniques may sound challenging, but Liu says, like so much of light painting photography, they are pretty approachable. 

“In my opinion,” he says, “the biggest misunderstanding people have about light painting is they believe it is harder than it really is. Don’t get me wrong, it takes quite an effort sometimes. But people wrongly think it is beyond their capabilities. It also does not involve much equipment: just a camera with manual exposure controls, a tripod and a light source—which can be as simple as a flashlight.”

I think the biggest mistake people make with light painting is an overarching one,” he continues. “It’s simply the lack of imagination used in the first stage of the process—coming up with an idea. Sure, the photos created by the light trails of vehicles or when you light paint patterns and strokes look cool, but the level of creativity could be much higher. Using your imagination to be more creative produces more interesting and captivating photos.”

“When I try to come up with an idea of what to shoot,” Liu adds, “it must have the potential to result in at least one of the following: to create the impression of movement, to bring a static object to life, to produce an image that is unusual in appearance, or to have qualities that intrigue and captivate. These points are the underlying fundamentals my ideas are based on.”


Light painting photographer Gim Liu’s new book, “A Beginner’s Guide to After Dark Photography with Gimagery,” is available from Amazon. See more of his work at his website at, on Instagram @gimagery_, or on Facebook at See the video trailer for his book, below. 

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