Light painting with robot vacuum cleaners

Learn how to create beautiful long exposure photos while cleaning your house using a robot vacuum cleaner.

Lexy Savvides Principal Video Producer
Lexy is an on-air presenter and award-winning producer who covers consumer tech, including the latest smartphones, wearables and emerging trends like assistive robotics. She's won two Gold Telly Awards for her video series Beta Test. Prior to her career at CNET, she was a magazine editor, radio announcer and DJ. Lexy is based in San Francisco.
Expertise Wearables, smartwatches, mobile phones, photography, health tech, assistive robotics Credentials
  • Webby Award honoree, 2x Gold Telly Award winner
Lexy Savvides
3 min read

Watch this: Light painting with robot vacuum cleaners

Robot vacuum cleaners are brilliant minions, selflessly sucking up your dust with nary a complaint. But did you know that you can also use them to create gorgeous light-painting photos?

Light painting is a technique that uses long exposures to create light streaks and trails that actually look like you are painting a scene with light. The beauty of light painting is that it's generally all done in-camera and you can use almost any light source you have -- including the LED lights on top of many robot vacuums.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

What you need

  • A dSLR
  • Tripod
  • Remote shutter release
  • Robot vacuum cleaner
  • Extra LED lights (optional)

Step 1: Set up the scene

The best part about using robot vacuums for light painting is that you can do it in any room in your house. Choose a space without too much ambient light from doors or windows; night time is ideal.

To keep the shutter open for longer than the maximum shutter length (usually around 30 seconds) you will need to use bulb mode on your dSLR. This is either found on the mode dial, or scroll through your slower selectable shutter speeds to find bulb mode.

Pentax K-3 (with 18-135mm Lens)
Bulb is often found on your dSLR's mode dial. Sarah Tew/CNET

Bulb mode will give you control over ISO and aperture, while the shutter speed is whatever length you choose. Keep your ISO low, around 100. Set your aperture to a mid-value, somewhere between f/5.6 and f/11 to start with. Focus the image where you desire.

Having a wide-angle lens (or a wide focal length) helps you to capture more of the vacuum's trail around the room.

Set up the vacuum's barriers or guards to make sure it doesn't veer into the tripod during the clean. You may also want to set the cleaner to keep on moving until the battery is nearly depleted if you want to go away and make a cup of tea during the long exposure.

Step 2: Take photos

Now comes the fun part. Turn off the overhead lights, kick back, and enjoy the light show!

Press the shutter button on the remote and lock it into place so you can keep the exposure going until you want it to stop.

Depending on the strength of the built-in lights on the robot cleaner, you may need to adjust the time the shutter stays open.

Experiment with different modes, apertures and shutter times for various effects. For example in the photo below I set the Samsung NaviBot to spot clean a particular area and took a 42-second exposure at f/5.6 to capture the trail.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

For a little extra fun, if you have access to more than one cleaner, set them both going at the same time to get even more light trails. Alternatively, if you only have one cleaner, you can stack multiple exposures on top of each other in post-processing to create different effects.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

If the vacuum's LED lights are not strong enough, you can attach a brighter, battery-powered LED to the top. For a different look, put some coloured cellophane on the light.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

The results are only limited by your imagination, so get your robot vacuum painting with light! For more inspiration, check out the Roomba Art group on Flickr.