In this video, we’re going to show you how to capture a light painted portrait with both a DSLR and an iPhone using string lights to create motion in this quick 4-minute tutorial! This shutter drag technique is so easy to learn and is sure to impress. This video is an excerpt from our upcoming course Creative Photography 101 that dives deep into a whole new world of unique and ingenious photo techniques that will set you apart no matter what camera you prefer to use.

Gear We Used for Light Painting Portrait

Before we dive into the actual tutorial, let’s discuss what we used to create this technique:

  • Peak Design Travel Tripod: This has become a staple in our collection, especially when it comes to mobile phone photography. With different mount options available, this tripod helps to stabilize phones for creative mobile photography like you’ll see in this video. For light painting, it is required to have a tripod to stabilize your shot.
  • Amazon String Lights: We have mentioned this tool before in past tutorials for creative shots and it’s the star of this one. You can grab different lengths of these on Amazon but this is our preferred size.

For this technique, we used both a Canon 5D Mark IV paired with a Sigma 50mm Art f/1.4 and an iPhone 11 Pro Max to show you that light painting can be done on pretty much any camera, even your phone. Both images you’ll see as the final products in the tutorial were edited in Lightroom & Lightroom Mobile using Visual Flow Presets.

1. Find a Dark Room

Whether you are shooting in a studio or your home, find a dark space where you can cut away most of the ambient light. Since we are slowing down our shutter speed we will be opening up the light coming into the camera which means our ambient light exposure needs to be pitch black. Since the string lights are super bright you’ll want to arrive at an exposure that doesn’t blow them out but also retains the highlights. You can see just how dark our ambient light exposure is in the screenshot above.

2.  Use a Tripod

light painting with cameraWe mentioned above that the Peak Design Travel Tripod is one of our current faves in our kit and it’s largely in part because of the multiple mounts that you can get for when you don’t want to lug around your DSLR or mirrorless camera everywhere. A tripod is crucial for this technique because we want to prevent camera shake since our shutter speed is so slow.

3. Dial-in Ambient Light Exposure

light painting with iphoneStart with a shutter speed of 1-2 seconds and then dial your Aperture and ISO to black out the room. If you’re on an iPhone, newer models such as the one we used in this video, have Night Mode which allows you to slow your shutter speed down in the native camera app. Fret not – if you own an older model or a different phone altogether you can download the Pro Camera App by Moment which has become one of my must-have photography apps.

4. Instruct Your Subject to Hold Still

Another crucial element to nailing focus in a shot like this is to advise your subject to remain as still as possible. Since we are creating movement with the string lights, we want our subject to be still throughout the shutter drag. You can even explain to them what you are attempting to do so that they have a clearer understanding of how to pose.

5. Get Creative with Light Painting

shutter drag with iphoneAll that’s left is to step behind the subject, set your camera on a timer and press the shutter. Once the shutter opens start spinning the lights to create a pattern. For this tutorial, we kept it simple and just had the lights spinning in a circle but you can try different shapes, outline the subject’s body, or even change your positioning. Play around and see which one you like best but make sure to take a couple of shots to ensure that your subject is in fact still and there is no blur of their face or body parts. Here are the final images with Shiv’s shot on the Canon 5D Mark IV and Jae’s shot on an iPhone 11 Pro Max.

If you enjoyed this tutorial, make sure you check out our Tik Tok where we’ve been sharing fun mobile photography tutorials just like this one! Be sure to sign up to be the first to know when our Creative Photography 101 course releases to learn more fun tips & tricks to level up your creativity game.