How to Create a Dynamic Light Painting Portrait

Do you want a bit of action and dynamism in your portrait photography? Using your strobe to light your model in a portrait, while combining this with medium to long exposure can give you amazing results! A light painting portrait is a fun technique that you can play around with, and the equipment you need does not have to be too advanced. An entry-level DSLR camera will work well for this type of photography.

So in this article, I’ll break it down for you, explain what it is and how to do it.

How to Create a Dynamic Light Painting Portrait

Why not create your light painting portrait with some steel wool!? NOTE: Please take safety precautions when doing fire spinning!

What is light painting?

Light painting is the movement of light within your scene, captured using a long exposure. Broadly speaking, there are three types of light painting.

  1. Light painting with light trails – This means the camera stays still, and you move the light around in front of the camera during a long exposure. Photographing traffic light trails is a form of light painting, but the traffic is moving for you.
  2. Light painting an object – In this case, you’re not pointing your light source at the camera, rather you’re going to light up an object by shining a flashlight at it during a long exposure.
  3. Kinetic light painting – This type of light painting uses a light source that doesn’t move, and you move your camera to create the light painting. Examples of this type of light painting are the zoom burst or camera rotation.
How to Create a Dynamic Light Painting Portrait

The zoom burst can make for a dramatic portrait when used in the right place.

Using your flash in conjunction with light painting

So if light painting involves moving the light source or moving the camera during a long exposure, how will you be able to get a sharp portrait? The answer is you’re going to be using a two-part exposure.

A flash will be used for the portrait, and the second part will be a long exposure involving some form of light painting. Your light painting portrait can be achieved in a single exposure or frame. There are times when using more than one exposure is better, and blending the images in post-processing. However, for this guide, we are looking at doing this in a single exposure.

  1. Adjust your camera to full manual mode.
  2. The ambient light in the room you are in must allow you to expose for half a second or longer (it should be dim).
  3. The background should contain a light source, or you can’t light paint.
  4. Adjust your shutter speed to the amount of time you will need for light painting. This will depend on the type of light painting you intend to do.
  5. Now use your aperture to adjust the exposure value to be at around -1.
  6. Have your flash set to manual mode as well. The strength of your flash unit will determine how much power you will need to use to get the correct light, so adjust depending on your unit. The proximity of your model to the flash will also be a factor in setting the strength. The aim is to freeze them, without blowing out (overexposing) their face.
  7. Now that you’re ready with your settings you can take your photo. Check your results and vary the strength of the strobe, and the length of the exposure accordingly.
How to Create a Dynamic Light Painting Portrait

Make some magic with your light painting portrait! The desert in Mongolia was pitch black, this was ideal as there was no ambient light.

Different light painting techniques

As mentioned above, there are several different types of light painting. Now you’re going to see how those can be applied to a light painting portrait.

  • Camera rotation – This means rotating the camera after you have used flash to “freeze” the model. In order for you to get a good effect aim for around half a second exposure. Unless you have the equipment to mount your camera on a pivot this will be done handheld, so you will need a smooth motion.
  • Zoom burst – In order to make this effect, you will need a lens that is capable of changing focal length manually. The technique is similar in that you will expose for around half a second after the initial flash. Using a tripod isn’t necessary, but it will improve your results as the light lines will be straight. Typically you will want to zoom out during the exposure, though you can experiment with zooming in as well.
  • Camera shake – Once again an exposure of around half a second is best for this. After the flash has fired, move the camera around in a random way to make a more dynamic background. This technique can work well at a nightclub to give a sense of energy to the photo.
  • Light painting – In this type of photo, the camera must be mounted on a tripod, and you’ll likely expose for one second or even longer. Avoid area’s where there is a lot of ambient light, especially if that shines onto your model. Your model will need to stay completely motionless throughout the exposure, as you light paint through the scene. The longer the exposure the more difficult it will be to keep the model sharp, so avoid overly long exposure.

This light painting used a pixelstick to create the light.

Now go out and try a light painting portrait yourself!

So there you have it, this is how to make a dynamic light painting portrait! This is a fun technique to use while on a night out, or you can use it in a much more staged setting. Your friends will likely be impressed by the results, as it shows them in a vibrant energetic photo.

Have you ever tried to take light painting portraits like this? What was your experience? Please share your photos and experience both past and present in the comments section below. As always it’s great to get community engagement.

This was a stage portrait, using apartment building lights in the background for the zoomed light.

This can be a great technique to use in a night club, as it will add energy.

This photo used some camera rotation to achieve the result.

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