Light painting is something that anyone can do with minimal photography equipment. In this tutorial, you’ll learn everything you need to know to make a light-painted portrait step-by-step.
I did my first light painting way back in the days of film when I was in photography college. We were given an assignment, and I fell in love with the idea and technique. One of my classmates even went as far as to create his own DIY light painting tool (modeled after a fancy device called the Hosemaster – by photographer Aaron Jones).
But you don’t need anything that fancy to do light painting, not even close. So let’s dig in and take a look at what it’s all about.
What is light painting?
Photography by the very definition and history of the word in Greek literally translates to photo = light and graphy = drawing. So photography then is drawing with light. Light painting takes that concept one step further.
Just as a painter adds paint to a canvas with a brush, in light painting, you as the photographer, add light to the canvas (your digital camera sensor) using a light. That can be any light source including a speedlight, candle, sparkler, flashlight, LED, laser pointer, etc.
You can literally light the scene and the subject with anything! You don’t have to have a lot of fancy gear and you can DIY it as well. We’ll talk about other options if you want to buy some specialized tools.
Read more on how to do basic light painting here:
- Light Painting Experiments to Improve Your Photography
- Fun With Light Painting at Home
- Tips and Tools for Light Painting – Review of Light Painting Brushes
- Video: How to Light Paint a Flower in Total Darkness
What is a light-painted portrait?
Therefore, following on from the above, a light-painted portrait is a photo of a person using this same technique. You can add light painting to the subject, the background, or both.
It allows you to create some really unique portraits, unlike anything else. On top of that, it’s really fun, and the models usually get really involved and excited about the process and the final results too.
Wait until your subject sees the image appear on the back of the camera! Expect to get some great reactions and exclamations (I’ve had some that are too adult-rated to write here if you get my drift).
The mother of the two sisters above was blown away when she saw the image come right out of the camera and appear on the computer screen!
That’s what I love about doing this kind of photography – you cannot do this with a cell phone and people recognize magic when they see it! They are willing to go all in and they become your partner and collaborator in creating something special. It’s fun because it is teamwork.
Note: When I’m working in the studio I sometimes shoot tethered to the computer. That means the camera and the computer are connected and right after I take a photo it appears immediately in Lightroom on the computer.
Equipment and tools for light painting
Here is a list of the bare essentials you need to do light-painting portraits:
- A camera that has Bulb Mode or a maximum shutter speed of 30 seconds, and Manual shooting mode.
- A tripod – this is A MUST! You cannot do this without a good sturdy tripod.
- Some kind of light source with which to do the painting (a good bright flashlight – I use rechargeable LED ones).
- A headlamp (so you can see where you are going when moving around the scene).
- A model to pose for you.
That’s all you need to do this. There are, however, a few other things that are REALLY handy to have as well. They include:
- A remote trigger to fire your camera (if you don’t have one you can try the 2-second timer but it’s easier if you have a remote).
- A helper or assistant. While this isn’t essential it really is helpful to have someone help you out. They can either press the button on the camera for you or handle the light and do the painting. This can even be a friend of the model if you’re stuck.
- A speedlight (flash for your camera that you can fire off-camera).
- Light painting tools to manipulate the light (see more on this below).
- Colored gels.
Really, even if you get a few of the optional things this is a technique you can do with minimal gear and expense. But if you decide you like doing light painting then you can invest in a few more gadgets (like I have!).
Read: Tips and Tools for Light Painting – Review of Light Painting Brushes – these are the tools I use and I recently got a few more that I’m eager to try out.
But you can DIY this too and make your own light wands at home using some white transparent paper to make a light tube. It doesn’t have to be high-tech. You can use anything that glows or has a light source including sparklers, glow sticks, etc. Check the Dollar Store for ideas!
I have made a collection of several of the tools that I use here. There are literally hundreds of items that glow or are illuminated that you can use for light painting. These are just a few ideas to help you get started.
If you have the tools needed, now it’s time to get started painting. Follow these steps.
Step 1 – Find a dark location
The first thing you need to do is find an appropriate location. Light painting can be done indoors or outdoors, you just need the area you’re working in to be as dark as possible. Because you’ll be doing some long exposures you don’t want to pick up any ambient light on the subject or the background.
So try to find a dark spot like your basement or living room at night, a park or area with no street lights, or somewhere away from city lights. You can make it work if there is a tiny bit of light but the brighter the ambient light is, the harder it will be to do the light painting. It often means you need a shorter exposure which doesn’t leave you enough time to paint or you have to hurry and that makes it messy.
The image below left was my first attempt at making the one seen earlier. There was too much light falling on the background so I blocked that and took another test shot using just flash (lighting the models only).
You can see the result in the image above right. The darker the background, the better the light painting will show up.
Below are the resulting images of just the light painting wand (with a red color gel) and no flash. Can you see how dark the room is without the flash on the girls? That’s how dark you want it!
That’s also why a headlamp is really useful because you’ll be crawling around in the dark.
Step 2 – Camera settings and test shots
Once you have your location you need to set up your camera and take a test shot. Here are some starting camera settings to use.
- Manual shooting mode
- ISO 200
- Aperture: f/5.6
- Shutter speed or exposure time: 15 seconds or longer
- Focus mode: manual or back button focus
Note: There is no one answer for what to choose for the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed here – you will need to experiment and that is the purpose of doing the test first. The settings above are just suggested starting points.
If your scene is dark enough your test image should be almost black. If you want a bit of the background to show up in the photo, make sure it shows in the test. If it is too dark use a longer exposure time (20-30 seconds) or increase the ISO to 400 or 800. If the image is too light lower the ISO to 100, and increase the aperture to f/8.
Keep taking test shots until you get something that looks like this.
My first test was too bright so I lowered the ISO from 200 to 160 and decreased the exposure time from 15 seconds to 6.5. If we had waited a bit longer for the light in the sky to get darker, I could have used a longer exposure time. But one of my models had to leave for another engagement.
But this is what you want! The model or subject should be barely visible and the background really underexposed. Next, you’ll be adding light to the scene.
Step 3 – Focusing in the dark
The tricky part of this whole thing is getting the subject in focus. Your camera’s autofocus cannot work in the dark so you need to help it out a little. Follow these steps to achieve focus. This is also where having a friend or assistant along will be really helpful.
First, if you have a helper get them to light the subject using your flashlight (if you don’t have an assistant get the subject to shine it on themselves). Then using the LED screen (or LiveView mode if you have a DSLR) zoom the view (do NOT zoom the lens) to 5x or 10x magnification and use manual focus to make sure the subject is sharp.
This is the final image (above) – it included six images combined in Photoshop. Each part of the room was done as a separate frame (as seen below) to get the lighting just right.
Or you can also use back button focus if you are familiar with that technique. Read more on that here: What is Back Button Focus and Why it Will Help You Take Sharper Photos.
Either way, you need to set and lock focus on the subject. Make sure that autofocus is turned off as well because otherwise the camera will hunt and try to focus in the dark. That will result in either a missed shot or a really blurry image.
It’s a good idea to double-check the focus after taking several images. You want to make sure it hasn’t shifted by accident or the subject has moved out of range.
Step 4 – Adding light painting
Once you have your base exposure for the background it’s time to add light. You can use one of the following two options:
- Create the image all at once in one single exposure
- Take several images and combine them later in the post-processing phase
The latter provides more options and latitude for error but is more complex to put together later in processing. So determining which method to use is based on several factors:
- How much ambient light is hitting the scene and the subject? If there is a lot you may have to keep the exposure a bit shorter and do several shots, so option two would apply.
- Your experience with this technique. If you are new to doing light painting, I suggest option one to keep it simple.
- Your photo editing experience and processing skills. If you are familiar with using layers and combining images using Photoshop, ON1, or Luminar Neo then choose the option that works best for the scenario.
- How complex is the lighting you want to paint? If you want to use multiple colors and styles of lighting to create a pattern or design, it might work better to do option two. But if you have a totally dark room or location you still might be able to do it in a single shot.
NOTE: Some light painters prefer to get it all in the camera in one exposure. That takes more skill using the light to make sure that every “brush” stroke is perfect, with no mistakes or booboos! So I usually opt for taking multiple images. That allows me to choose the best painting or designs and combine them in Photoshop afterward.
The bottom line is that you just have to do it and tweak things as you go. That brings us to the next step.
Step 5 – Experiment and refine
There isn’t a single right way to do light painting, nor can you do it wrong. It’s all about what you want to create and sometimes you just have to figure that out as you go. So just get started.
When you’re working with a live model you need to light them and add some design elements to the background (and/or the foreground). How you go about it depends on the tools you’re using but what I suggest is to figure out the best way to light the subject first.
Examples of light-painted portraits
Let me walk you through several different light-painted portraits that I have created. Take note of the progression and experimentation I had to do to get the final result in each case.
One single frame outdoors
In the first image below, I had the base exposure set already and I added flash to light the subjects.
Above you see my first two failed attempts at adding the light painting. The flashlight I was using wasn’t bright enough to get the orange light wand to show up. So I swapped to a brighter one (see below).
Now the orange wand showed up nicely but the exposure time of 6.5 seconds didn’t allow me enough time to get through the entire scene. So in this case, we just wanted a few more minutes for it to get a bit darker, then we tried again.
HINT: Make sure you have a model or models that are going to be patient with you as you do this process. It’s not a quick one. We took about 20 minutes just to get one final image of this group. So choose a model who will be part of the process and have fun with it – not one who will complain that it’s taking too long. Set yourself and your model up for success and fun.
The image above is the best of several we created in a single frame. It took me and two helpers to do this! So keep that in mind, if you want to do images like this you can’t always do it by yourself.
Remember there is a flash lighting the models? My husband Rob was holding the flash off to the left of the camera. It was triggered using a remote (Godox flash and remote flash trigger). I had another helper (the fiance of one of the models who came along – thanks Faye!) pressing the remote to fire the camera.
Finally, I did the actual light painting with the orange wand by moving through the scene during the exposure to create the swashes of light. I don’t show up in the image because I kept moving the entire time (that is key) and was wearing dark clothing.
Multiple images outdoors
But we weren’t done yet! I was pretty happy with the image above but I wanted to make sure I had options later in case I wanted something more dramatic. So I did some painting in the scene without the models (just the dark background).
I then took all of the images above, plus one of just the models and no light added, and opened them all as layers in Photoshop. That allowed me to pick the best parts of each of the light-painted images and combine them into one. This is the final result.
Can you see which of the light-painted images or elements I used?
Watch: How to Make a Stunning Light Painted Image Using Photoshop Layers
Thanks to my fabulous models Jacqueline Buffalo (model, make-up artist, activist), Brittany David (make-up artist, owner of Binny Cosmetics), Elizabeth Ping (retail manager), Sage Mo (pro wrestler), Sheena Kaine (model, stunt woman, actress, boxer, MC, speaker, clothing designer), and Kim. The witch-themed photoshoot was their idea and they did all the costuming and props! Powerful Indigenous women!
Single frame indoors
Indoors does not mean you need a studio to do this. The following portraits were created in a community hall with the lights out, after dark. But you could do this in your living room or basement too as long as it’s dark and you have enough space.
In the following series of images, I used the same process as outlined above. Set the base exposure to make the background dark. Add light to the subject. Then start the light painting.
Note: You do not need to use flash on the model, you can also light them using the flashlight or any of the light painting tools you have. I personally prefer flash though because it freezes them and they won’t appear blurry because they moved during the long exposure. Experiment with both options and see what works best for you.
Notice in the image above left that the blue light is a bit faint and there is texture showing in the background? That is because some light from the flash was hitting the background, affecting it and the blue light (the darker the background the better your painting and colors will show up).
So we blocked the light hitting the background and you’ll see the difference in the image above right. But in that frame, you can see the light wand and my hand in the lower left corner. I didn’t complete the full circle behind her.
Here is the final image that was done in a single frame. The background is totally black. The blue shows up well. and I completed the full circle to make the arch around her.
Thanks to my lovely and talented, amazing model – singer, Indigenous woman, performer, and creator – Crystle Lightning who graciously posed for me and embraced all my wild and funky ideas. I greatly appreciate your time and willingness to try these ideas!
The images below were made using the same technique, also done in a single frame. It took me several attempts to get the arch smooth in the left one. Then by experimenting and getting swirls by accident I made several more to perfect it and make the image on the right.
Thanks to the stunning Nehua-Jackson sisters who were my models in the photos above. Hinauri (Model/Performer/Designer ᑲᐱᐢᑲᐤ ᒪᐦᐃᐦᑲᐣ ᐃᐢᑫᐧᐤ) and Sidney (model). They are wearing traditional Māori regalia, styled by their mother Kateao.
Multiple images combined – photographed indoors
Just like the image of the group of ladies, I also did some other variations of both of the indoor sessions above. It’s good to have options later, so don’t be afraid to take lots of images.
You can even do the light painting images after your model leaves. Just make sure to leave the camera in the same spot if you can see anything in the background so it lines up.
Here are a few more from the two sessions above.
What I want you to notice here is how many images I took. This kind of photography is not a one-and-done technique. Each time I did the painting I reviewed the resulting image and corrected or adjusted slightly when doing the next one.
These are the kinds of things I look for and correct:
- Too bright in one area – make sure to paint less there next time.
- Overlapped the model too much – watch the location more closely.
- A part of me (arm, etc.) appeared in the image – make sure to stay hidden and keep moving.
- Not bright enough – turn up the flashlight to a higher setting, or paint more/slower in that area.
- Lighting is bumpy – be conscious of moving more smoothly.
- Red or green light showing in the image – watch out for flashlights with glowing on/off buttons.
- Blurry subject – get them to hold more still or try using flash on them.
Here is the final image I made using some of the ones shown above.
Another reason to use multiple images instead of one is to apply more than one light source or light painting element. Or if you aren’t sure that one is going to work. Again, leave yourself options.
In the next series, it was near the end of a 2-hour photoshoot and I think we were all getting tired. So try as I might, the light painting just wasn’t working out how I envisioned it. So we called it a wrap and I took it to Photoshop later.
Make note of the image captions to see what went wrong with that image. She said her favorite color is pink so I wanted to make her hair that color but I wasn’t having much luck
Here is the final image which I made by combining the best bits of the ones above. I also took a single frame of her that I took with just the flash to make sure her face was sharp. When I was adding the pink light to her hair it was hitting her face and making it blurry or into a double image.
I’m quite happy with this finished version! See if you can pick out which parts of the images above I used.
Besides combining multiple images as layers in Photoshop, here are a few other tips to help you process your light-painted portraits.
The first thing I want you to notice is the colors I have selected to use for each scenario. Each time the light painting color is in direct contrast with either the background, or the subject, or both. That is entirely intentional.
In the night scene I chose orange because I know it would stand out against the blue night sky. In the studio setting I chose blue and red to separate it well from the plain background and the models.
Doing this will give you a head start when you start editing the images. Whether you use Lightroom, Luminar Neo, or something else – your software should have some tools to enhance that contrast and the color and intensity of the light.
In the example above, the image on the left is how the red arch appeared before editing. The right image is after doing a mask of the background in Lightroom.
I added Black, lowered the highlights, and lowered the texture (you can see the masked area above) to make it pop more. See how much more intense the color is now?
You can also use Clarity (or Structure in Luminar Neo) and Texture (Details in Neo) to alter how smooth the light painted appears. Increase Clarity/Structure and/or Texture/Details for a rougher (below right), grungier look. Decrease them to make the painting look smoother (below left).
The one on the left is the direction I went with this one because the light brush strokes took less attention away from her. But in in another scenario I might do the opposite. So use your own judgement on an image by image basis.
I also did some retouching on the actual models to enhance their faces, smooth the skin, etc. Both Lightroom and Luminar Neo have great editing tools to do that.
So when you are editing your light painted images, pull down the highlights to fix any bright spots, retouch the faces, and punch up the color of the light swashes.
I may make a video for you to demonstrate precisely how I merged the multiple-frame shots into one final image like this one.
Conclusion and over to you!
Now it’s your turn to give this a try. You do not have to be an expert portrait photographer, this is about trying something new and experimenting. It’s about creating art!
I can tell you that of all the photography I do, the models, onlookers, spouses, assistants, etc. all get the most excited about light painting.
The first time you try this and the image comes up on your camera’s LED screen you’ll see what I mean!
TIP: Just remember to redo focus if your models come running over to see the image!
Have fun with this and please share your light-painted portraits i the comment area below.