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  • Stephen Knight

The Art of Light Painting Portraits

Updated: Apr 23

Previous articles have covered the Art of Light Drawing (i.e. creating light trails), and the Art of Illumination (i.e. lighting things up). Light painting portraits combine these two genres of long exposure photography, but with a human as a subject.

Camera Equipment

So what do you need to get started? Ideally you need an interchangeable lens camera (DSLR or Mirrorless) that can do Bulb (>30second long) exposures. One of the most important camera features for light painting portraits is remote control, and I will elaborate on that later. Some smart phone cameras can also perform long exposures, sometimes with "live composite" techniques.

You don't need expensive lenses. Unlike "normal" portraits that require fast lenses, most of my light painting portraits are performed with apertures between f/5.6 and f/8, so most standard lenses will easily suffice. If you want a milky way background, you may need f/2.8, high ISO, and use light sources at very low brightness levels. I prefer to use wide to normal angle focal lengths between 13mm to 50mm (9mm to 33mm APS-C), though I usually use around 24mm (16mm APS-C). Wide angle lenses allow for light painting in more confined locations, or if you want to include more of the surrounding environment. However, be aware that wide angle lenses will distort the models features, especially if they are not located in the centre of the photo.

You will need to take the photograph with the lens in manual focus. You can either pre-focus with light, then change to manual focus. Alternatively you can use focus peaking/magnification when manually focusing on mirrorless cameras.

Other photography equipment that is required includes a tripod, remote control, and maybe a glow-in-the-dark pebble or tape. Tripods should have good range of height and have adjustable legs to allow stability on sloping or uneven ground.

You also need to be wearing black clothes, and have as much skin covered as possible to make you more invisible whilst you are light painting. A balaclava can be useful for some light painting portraits.

Light painting portrait with a pink fiber optic brush. Model: Simba Sarenyia.
Silhouette style portrait using a Light Painting Paradise pink fiber optic brush. Model: @simba_sarenyia

Light Painting Equipment

There are lots of options for how you create the light trails in light painting portraits including lightsabers, plexiglass rods and tubes, light blades, fiber optic brushes, fiber optic whips, orb lights, LED light bars, torch light alone, and more. These can be purchased from a selection of light painting manufacturers, including Ants On A Melon, Light Painting Paradise, Light Painting Brushes, Light Painting Tubes, Luminosify, Light Painting King, and Lumenman. Alternatively you can make your own tools. I won't discuss each tool in detail, but I always list equipment used for my photos on my instagram. Most light painting tool manufacturers show sample photos in the product descriptions. If you are using flash/strobe units to illuminate the model, also consider using coloured gels.

My personal favourite tools for light painting portraits are fiber optic whips, fiber optic cables, pink fiber optic brushes, black fiber optic brushes, and various light saber like tools.

"The Art of Light Drawing" article also covers a lot of information that can also be applied to light painting portraits.

Light painting portrait using an AOAM RGB Critter and BitWhip. Model: Madeline Basil.
Light painting portrait using an AOAM RGB Critter and BitWhip. Model: Madeline Basil.

Finding A Model

Finding a suitable model can be tricky, especially for your first light painting portrait session when you lack a portfolio and references. If you can find a willing candidate from friends and family, go down that that route. Otherwise try politely asking models on Facebook groups, or Instagram. Be professional at all times, and allow the model to bring a chaparone (I often put the chaparone to work with assisting with lighting). You need to be clear to the model that light painting portraits are very different to normal portraits:

  • They will need to keep extremely still for many seconds.

  • It will require multiple attempts. Patience is a virtue!

  • It will not result in flattering skin tones, or high sharpness.

  • There will be a relatively low number of good photos from a photoshoot.

  • However, the end results will hopefully look awesome!

If you are light painting in Urbex or other potentially risky locations, make sure the model is fully aware of the risks. You may be liable for any accidents! Be realistic on post-processing time frames, and have a "normal" portrait plan B in case the model can't keep still.

Light painting portrait with 2 Light Painting Paradise Fiber Optics. Model: Belle M Clare.
Light painting portrait with 2 Light Painting Paradise Fiber Optics. Model: @belle_m_clare

Creating the Light Painting Portrait

There are two paradigms for illuminating the model for light painting portraits:

  1. Illuminating the model with light from the light painting tool only - this is what I usually use for light painting portraits. The model is only illuminated by the light painting tool(s) used during the exposure. The light painting tool is moved either behind or around the model during the exposure (or in the case of black fiber optics, brushed over the model). This does the require the model to keep very still, particular when the light source is close to the model. If you only move the light painting tool behind the model, you will get more of a silhouette look, though if there are reflective surfaces nearby some light will bounce back onto the model. If you move the light painting tool in front of the model (not necessarily directly in front) then you will illuminate the front the model as well. I try and keep exposures using this paradigm to 6 seconds or less, but have managed a 13 second exposure.

  2. Illuminating the model with a light source, then light painting - this paradigm allows for longer and more complex light painting. In this case, the model is illuminated at the start of the exposure by either flash/strobe units, a portrait scanner, or a quick (1-2sec) burst of light from another light source such as a torch/flashlight or LED panel light. The light painting is then performed behind or around the model. The reverse may also be performed, where the model is illuminated at the end of the exposure after the light painting. Using flash will typically give the model more realistic skin tones. Using flash will also reduce the chance of the model's movement being blurred, but you may get a ghosting effect if they move in-between the flash and being illuminated by the light painting tool later in the exposure. Using a portrait scanner or burst of light from a flashlight/torch is a bit more "lit by hand", but increases the risk of model movement. If illuminating the model with a portrait scanner or flashlight, try not to illuminate the same part of the model twice e.g. scan from head to foot only. It is possible to combine multiple "illuminations" such as a strong backlight, weak front lighting, and then multi-element light paintings behind the model. I've successfully managed many >30 second long portraits using this paradigm with either flash or a 1 second burst of light from a flashlight/torch, followed by light painting behind the model.

Photo created using both flash and light painting. Model: @ms.helenafox
Photo created using both flash and light painting. Model: @ms.helenafox

An important thing to consider is how you trigger the exposure, which will of course be in manual mode. This can be done in one of three ways:

  1. Trigger the start of exposure with a set exposure time (e.g. 6 seconds) with a remote (with optional delay) - this is what I usually use for predictable exposure times.

  2. Trigger start and end of Bulb exposure with a remote - this is what I use when I can't predict the exposure time e.g. black fiber optic portraits, or more complex portraits.

  3. Hold down the remote for entire Bulb exposure - this is often used for Eric Pare style "circles behind a model" as precision is required around start and end time. Only a limited number of remotes can do this.

Exposure settings with light painting portraits, are trial and error. Quite often a few attempts may be required to get the exposure to match the brightness of the tool and/or illumination (or vice versa). Communication with the model on when to keep still is critical for good results, such as counting down to the start of the exposure. If you are using sharp tools such as light blades, then take extreme care when moving them close to the model!

Another important tip is to make sure the model is comfortable during the long exposure. Whilst I have successfully performed a light painting portrait with a model standing on her head, and another in a suspended lyra hoop, it does make life easier if the model is in a position that is easy to keep still. I sometimes use a glow in the dark pebble as a marker, so that I know where I have focused. This allows the model to leave their position and return after having a look at the results on the back of the camera, which is somewhat inevitable when the photographer says "wow"!

I post-process many of my light painting portraits in a similar way to my other light painting photos, though I sometimes ease off raising shadows if things are getting noisy. The new AI subject masking in Lightroom is very useful for light painting portraits, as you can isolate the model and post process them differently to the rest of the photo - for example if you want to increase the brightness of the model, but keep the brightness of the light painting the same. However, sometimes the AI subject masking can get confused with light painting in the background and I have to revert to using a brush tool instead. Getting the original in-camera exposure correct will give you more flexibility when post-processing.

There are so many creative possibilities with light painting portraits, it is a fun genre to explore!

Light painting portrait using an AOAM RGB Critter and BitWhip. Model: Riley Aston.
Light painting portrait using an AOAM RGB Critter and BitWhip. Model: Riley Aston.


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