How to Make a Dramatic Portrait with Light Painting Using Items Found in Your Home


In this article, I’ll show you how to do a fun project you can do with friends and a little light painting. You can do this, using things you likely already have in the house.

It’s always fun to experiment with different and creative ways of using light in photographs. It’s also a lot of fun to take some risks and experiment with a technique that may or may not produce good results. The reality is you can learn from every photographic experience. It doesn’t matter if the results are perfect or not. Each time you pull out a camera you create something that adds to your knowledge base and helps you to grow as a photographer.

Learning lessons

In the case of a project I did recently with light painting and live models, several lessons were learned. The first was the importance of finding enthusiastic people to assist with my projects. The second was the importance of a reflector in adding light to a photograph.

Lastly, the third lesson involved pushing the limits of human abilities. I asked my friends to hold very still for these images, sometimes in some slightly awkward poses. How much was too much for my models?

How to Make Dramatic Light Painting Effects with Items Found in Your Home

This was our final image of the evening. It took a lot of trial and error to reach this point.


The light painting project

The whole concept for the photo project was inspired by the light painting of Eric Pare. He creates dramatic images in stunning locations with the help of dancer Kim Henry. Eric uses an easily created light tube and a strong flashlight. It’s winter here in Canada, and at -30c it’s not reasonable to ask a friend to pose outside in a landscape while wearing skimpy clothing.

So using his idea of long shutter speeds, it was time to craft a different project. The goal was to create dramatic images that you could easily reproduce within your home at a fairly low cost.

The following images were created in my kitchen using a large piece of black velvet (a black sheet will also work) draped across my portable backdrop stand, a reflector, an extension cord, and a string of Christmas lights. Of course, three friends were also recruited to assist with the project. They were more than willing to participate in the fun. In the end, there were a lot of laughs, and everyone was quite dedicated to the effort to get the images correct.

How to Make Dramatic Light Painting Effects with Items Found in Your Home

A terrible grainy image but my friend was having so much fun she needed to take a quick selfie.

The Setup

Setting up was very easy. A backdrop was attached to the narrow walls of my kitchen. Black velvet is a lovely fabric for absorbing light and creating true black in photographs. I love black velvet and I’ve used it to create some very dramatic still life images and portraits in the past.

Wait until the fabric is on sale or pick remnants. The only trick to black velvet is to use a lint brush to remove white fuzzy bits. These show up quite easily in images, and it’s a pain to clone out all those little white spots.

How to Make Dramatic Light Painting Effects with Items Found in Your Home

Here we set the lights and the background. The kitchen is pretty narrow so it was a challenge to set up the backdrop. In the end, part of the backdrop was taped to the wall.

How to Make Dramatic Light Painting Effects with Items Found in Your Home

A shot from above. My friend stood on the countertop to spin the lights. As you can see they were loosely draped over the fan.

How to Make Dramatic Light Painting Effects with Items Found in Your Home

The reflector was placed just below the model’s belly button and the light was directed up towards the face.

After setting up the backdrop using tape and the cross piece from my backdrop kit, we then hung the Christmas lights from the ceiling fan.

In the original plan, we intended to turn on the fan and let it spin. It’s a good thing we realized that the lights would tangle around the fan and cause an issue. So it then became the job of one person to spin the fan 340 degrees during the exposure manually.

The Camera Gear

We used a Canon 5D Mark III mounted on a tripod and the 2-second self-timer. That allowed the person manning the fan to begin spinning the lights.

How to Make Dramatic Light Painting Effects with Items Found in Your Home

This image is getting better. It’s still soft. My exposure time wasn’t quite correct yet here.

The Procedure

It was time to establish the proper exposure for the whole project.  The trick here was to balance the exposure so that there was a long enough shutter speed (exposure time) to blur the lights but we also needed to keep the models in focus.

It’s awfully hard to stay still for even just a few seconds. In fact, it’s almost impossible. After several experiments and through trial and error the final exposure used was 0.8 of a second at f/3.2 with an ISO of 100. We also used a large reflector to bounce the light back up towards the models face.

How to Make Dramatic Light Painting Effects with Items Found in Your Home

This one is a little better. I ran it through a sharpening editor to help. It’s not perfect but I love the way the lights curved around their hair.

The whole experiment required us to use two people to create the photo and one or two people as models in each shot. The photographer triggered the camera timer as well as held the reflector, while the fan operator stood on the countertop and spun the fan at the proper moment.

How to Make Dramatic Light Painting Effects with Items Found in Your Home

This image didn’t turn out as planned. You can see how important timing and communication are to this kind of project.

The Keys to Success

The keys to a successful photograph were quite simply communication and timing. The lights had to be spun at exactly the right moment, and the photographer needed to communicate timing to everyone else.

It took a lot of tries to get the whole thing correct, but in the end, we were able to produce the desired images.

How to Make Dramatic Light Painting Effects with Items Found in Your Home

The creative person in me is able to ignore the slight ghosting from motion because I love how the lights spin above and below her eyes.

The goal was to create dramatic images with a neat light painting effect. I wanted to encircle the model with light, almost as if she were standing within a light tube. There were many failed attempts.

Sometimes our timing was off, and the lights did not spin around the model or got caught in her hair. Other times the lights moved too slowly and didn’t make it all the way through the image. Other times the issue was the lights themselves. Sometimes the lights spun right across the model’s eyes. I like a few of these images, but at the same time, some ran across the face in a way that was not attractive.

Have fun with it

The whole experiment was a lot of fun. It made for a great night out and some fun pics to post on social media. My friends were happy to post the pics to show their friends. As an artist and a professional photographer I also wanted to see if I could use the technique for other purposes.

Is it possible to use this technique to create some interesting fine art images or perhaps for some interesting portraits? The answer is yes! There’s a lot that can be done with this technique. It’s well worth experimenting with and seeing what kind of results can be created.

How to Make Dramatic Light Painting Effects with Items Found in Your Home

In this one, we achieved exactly what I was hoping to do. She is standing in a circle of lights.

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Erin Fitzgibbon is a freelance photographer, writer, and teacher, from Ontario, Canada. She specialises in portrait, sport, and fine art photography. In her free time, she escapes to the backcountry or the beach with her family.

  • Vans_a_joke

    Clever! Well done.

  • JR

    Absolutely awesome. I’m going to try this. Thank you for the article, Erin. I do however wonder what would have happened if right near the end of the exposure you just fired a weak flash at the model or into the reflector-hmmm. Would that freeze any motion blur from her slight natural movement? I bet the flash would have to only hit her and not the spinning lights. Well, I hope to answer my own question when I try this. thanks again.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    So glad you like it.. And you read my mind. I plan on messing around with this more in the coming months. I want to dress someone up as a wizard or something and mess with the spinning lights ???. I intend to use a flash for the next set. Why i didn’t think of it the first time I don’t know. I could have gone back and reshot a few with a flash but I have this thing about being completely real about my photo shoots. Cheers and by all mean show me what you produce.

  • JR

    Will do! Can’t wait. Thanks again.

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