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Sigma 24-70mm at 35mm, Canon 5D. ISO 400, f/2.8, 4 seconds.

In this paint with light image there were two lights used to illuminated the subject. The light on the model was a large flashlight, with a tungsten white balance. I set the white balance of the camera to tungsten to give the subject the right coloration. The second light utilized was a daylight balanced flash that was used to illuminate the trees and environment.

Sometimes we all need to push our creativity and to try something unusual. Painting with light is one way to go outside your comfort zone and produce something that is truly eye-catching. Painting with light is when you utilize long exposures and illuminate your subject by purposefully lighting each part of the frame. For me, I recommend pushing your creativity by trying unconventional light sources including flashlights, pen lights, lasers and fire.

Painting with light for portraits can be particularly reward for both you and your subjects. Below are some basic tips to consider when trying your hand at creative painting with light.

Note: In general there is no ‘trick’ for exposure in painting with light. My recommendation is that you experiment. Perhaps start your exposure at ISO 800, f5.6.  From there you can adjust the ISO and aperture to let in more light (increase exposure) or cut out light (decrease the exposure). The length of your shutter speed does not affect the exposure if there is no ambient light, and instead is open for however long you need to illuminate your subject.


Sigma 70-200mm at 70mm, Canon 5D Mark 2. ISO 800, f/4, 44 seconds.

In this image I used a maglite to illuminate the subject. I traced the model with the flashlight from behind, allowing a bit of the light to peak over the edges of her frame.

Note: Help on this image from Bob Trautman.

When painting with light, you might consider starting off with flashlights. There are some great advantages to utilizing flashlights:

Flashlights and handheld flashes provide inexpensive and unique “on location” lighting. Furthermore, these are tools photographer usually already own and had readily available. In the past, I’ve used Maglites available at many hardware or home stores, but any flashlight with a strong enough output will work. With flashlights and strobes, adding gels is easy; therefore, you can get creative by mixing colors of lights or the color temperatures of the lights. You can add gels and other textured/colored paper to make the light more interesting. This form of lighting is readily portable, so you can shoot in a location that has limited light without having to use a huge budget to purchase portable studio equipment.

Sigma 24-70mm at 70mm, Canon 5D Mark2. ISO 100, f/11, 91 seconds.

This photograph was created at a workshop with the famous light painting photographer Patrick Rochon. In this image I used several small flashlights to create the illumination. I used a white pen light to illuminate the hair, and a flashlight reflecting onto blue paper for the blue tones.


Sigma 85mm 1.4, Canon 5D. ISO 400, f/8, 2 seconds.

This image was created using a tiki torch to illuminate both models. I shook the tiki torch back and forth as it crossed the frame in order to bring out the details of the flames.

While flashlights are the ‘obvious’ starting place for paint with light, there are dozens of more creative light sources you can utilize. Anything as big as a spotlight to as small as a pen light or anything from flashlights to fire—all will produce interesting and beautiful effects. There is no right answer… it all depends on what you are attempting to achieve. Some light sources you might consider:

  • Pen lights
  • Maglites
  • Flash lights
  • Strobe lights
  • Tube Deck lighting
  • Lasers
  • Christmas Lights
  • Fire
  • Glow Sticks
  • And much more!

I also recommend making your own tools. Perhaps take a flash light, and add tinsel and gels to the end. Perhaps take Christmas tree lights and add mylar amongst the lights. With a little experimentation you never know the amazing lighting sources you can create!

Sigma 50mm 1.4. On a tripod, Canon 5D, ISO 100, f/18, 20 seconds.

You can create really striking results for your images by using a laser for illumination. Just be careful to avoid any contact with the eyes, even if they are closed.


Then you are painting with light, there are many new aspects of the image you must take into consideration. Be aware of:

  • Shutter speed  and Motion Blur: When you approach your shoot, you should know what type of effect you’re looking for.  Do you want the background ambient light to show through? If yes, you’ll need a longer shutter speed.  Do you want your model to blur or be still?  You should pay attention to the relationship between shutter speed and aperture, because when you’re using flashlights, the shutter speed will make a huge difference in the sharpness of the model, the amount of ambient light showing through, and more.
  • Ambient Light: Be aware of the ambient light around you.  The longer your exposure, the more this ambient light is going to show.  Make sure that if there is ambient light, the light doesn’t create distracting patterns or undesired hot spots in the images. You might often even be pleasantly surprised by the way colors in the sky or environment show up on camera during long exposures.
  • Color Temperature and Gelled Lights: Each different light source you use will have a different color temperature.  Even two different flashlights will be slightly different colors.  The large flashlight I have has a VERY warm bulb, whereas my Maglite is just general tungsten.  My strobe is daylight balanced. These lights will record different colors on film. This is a variation to be aware of and perhaps use to your advantage.  For example, in this image I painted the model in the foreground with the very warm flashlight.  The model was backlit with a daylight-balanced strobe.  I shot this image in raw, and so I set my color balance to match the warm/tungsten flashlight on the model.  This, therefore, made the daylight flashlight go completely blue (as it was a cooler, bluer color temperature).  You can also use gels of any color (red, blue, green) to add an additional dimension to the light. You can buy gels from many photographic supplies companies and also from theater supply companies (used for gelling stage lights).
  • Flashlight vs. Strobe: Using a strobe will freeze the images/action.  I often use strobes to create defined edges.  (I use them as backlight to help separate the model from the background).  Flashlights will create much softer light and allow for movement and much more of a painting effect (you can concentrate the light in a particular place, etc.).


  • Tripod: You MUST use a tripod.  Your exposures will be anywhere from one second to 30 seconds or longer.  You need to have the camera steady or you’ll have no discernible form of a model (too much movement will obscure it).  Some photographers will handhold shots with flash, so they can blur the background ambient light into the models.  This is not really “painting” with light the way you will do it with a flashlight.
  • Cable release: A cable release is helpful because it allows you a free hand to paint with the flashlight and also keeps the camera steadier when you’re shooting long exposures (less camera shake associated with the pressure your hand puts on the trigger).
  • Multiple Light sources: Consider bringing multiple flashlights at once (and maybe even more than one assistant).  Frequently I’ll have one flashlight to light the background, another for the mode, and even another to give a little back/rim light for the model.  In my most recent painting with light shoot, I had a large tungsten flashlight to illuminate the model, another flashlight for the trees in the background, and another light to give the model’s contours more definition.
  • Shoot in RAW: When painting with light, it’s often easy to blow out highlights (if you leave the light lingering in one place too long) or to want to bring out more detail from darker areas.  For this reason, I REALLY suggest shooting in raw because it will give you the most exposure latitude and flexibility for editing your images later.

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  1. Lindsay thanks for the tips and inspiration.

  2. Any tips on focusing? It is hard to have the subject in focus when it is so dark.