Lightpainting, a fun and easy portrait technique

Are you looking for a simple, fun, and creative way to spice up your portraiture? I created this image in a single frame (no photoshop other than to adjust the shadows) with a single strobe and some stuff I found lying around the house. The technique is called light painting, and depending on the light source you use and it’s direction you can get some really fun results.  Let’s break down the process.

The gear

I’m a pro gear shooter but have captured shots like these many times with entry level cameras. You can even use a smartphone if you use an app that will allow you to take long exposures. I’m shooting with a Canon 5d Mark IV and a single Profoto strobe in a 1 X 3 foot strip box (not gridded). The colored lights in the photo come from a single LED strip out of a broken toy that I put into an old foam mailing tube. You can buy similar LED lights on Amazon for a couple dollars. That’s it, other than my trusty studio mannequin Karen. Optional gear is a remote trigger for your camera, but I was feeling lazy and just used the built in two second timer to allow me to get into position before the shutter opened.

The Setup

Controlling your ambient light and reflected light in this shot is the key to success. Choose a room that you can get completely dark, and since you will be in the frame, dress in dark clothing. With your strobe off, pop your camera into manual mode (don’t be afraid) and dial in your lowest ISO – mine is 100, f 8.0 for your aperture and 1/100 for your shutter speed. Turn off your lights and take a photo. We are looking for a completely black frame, so some adjustments might be necessary. Every room is different, so you may need to go for a smaller aperture (16 or 22 if your lens and camera support it). Next, get your model in and turn on your strobe. Since you are working in a dark environment, some experimentation is needed. I put my strobe in manual mode and started at the lowest setting. If you try and use TTL or auto mode, your camera’s metering will usually try to put a lot more light on your subject than you want it to, losing the cool low key effect. Take a few shots and dial in the amount of light you want on your subject, then set your camera for a 10 second shutter. At this point, you should end up with the light you dialed in on your subject in the previous step and the rest of the frame should be (mostly) black. How black the rest of the frame is will depend on the amount of ambient light coming from other locations around you. Depending on the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor, you may need to do some light hunting, in your room. I usually pop a bit of black tape over power LEDs on electronics or just put pillows in front of them. Sometimes a little ambient glow can give you a cool effect. Work with what you have.  Now that we have our lighting for the scene all dialed in, we are ready for some fun.


Take a shot and with your LED light source on, move it around your subject (be careful moving around in the dark) and review your results. Play with moving the light slower and faster, if you move the light too fast you can often get “skipping” as in the image below. This is usually either due to the speed of the flashing of your LEDs or if the LEDs have a slow refresh rate. Make sure you have fresh batteries in your light source, or that it is plugged in if possible. Depending on the power of your light source, you may need to adjust your camera’s aperture or the time your shutter is open for. Explore, and try different settings, you never know what you will stumble on.  Try moving the light source in different ways around your subject. Moving the light from the front to the back of your subject gives more depth to your final image and moving the light closer or farther from the head of your subject can light them in interesting and different ways.

This is a video of the LED contraption I used for this photo.

Traditionally, light painting is done with a flashlight, try using a light source that is more focused for part of the time, then switch to the colored lights. If you get the timing down, you can lose the strobe completely.

Add your style

Like any good recipe, this is perfect for adding your own flare to the shot. Consider more than one light source, consider a second strobe to add some interesting light on your environment. I often use a gelled strobe with a blue or other color that contrasts the light source I am using around the model. This will give separation from your environment. Consider using different types of diffusion or none at all. Bare LEDs can give a cool trails effect while a modifier like the mailing tube I used will give a softer more ethereal looking light source. Consider turning the light source on and off during the times you are moving it, or holding it in one position longer than others.

When processing your images, try different styles, I particularly like this quick black and white conversion done with one of the presets in lightroom.

Your model

Be mindful that your model may get bored if they are just standing around in the dark. Be sure to show them some of the cool results you are coming up with. Consider using a large stuffed animal instead of a real person so you can get your lighting dialed in and learn what looks best when moving your light source around. Then get your model in and you can get some initial good shots and they will often be willing to stand longer for you while you experiment. 


Have you tried light painting? This is a really easy and fun technique and I’d love to see some of your results. Feel free to send them to me on Twitter!

“Ted’s journey into the landscape of the human body is a marvelous celebration of all that is physical, sensual and diverse

About the author

Ted Tahquechi is a Denver Colorado based professional landscape and travel photographer, disability travel influencer and is almost completely blind. You can see more of Ted’s photography at: 

Ted operates Blind Travels, a travel blog designed specifically to empower blind and visually impaired travelers.

Ted’s body-positive and accessible Landscapes of the Body project has been shown all over the world, learn more about this intriguing collection of photographic work at:

Questions or comments? Feel free to email Ted at: