DIY Photography Tips

DIY Portrait Backgrounds

Painting with LIVE COMPOSITE or Bulb Shooting Mode

Have you ever considered the idea of painting with light to make a portrait background? The possibilities with this live composite technique are endless and it’s actually a lot easier than you might think.

Some of you may be thinking that, although light painting has been around for decades, it’s not very practical for shooting portraits. With most cameras you would be thinking correctly. Indeed, you can do light painting with pretty much any camera that has a BULB mode that will allow you to lock the shutter open.

Bulb mode on camera

But my Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II camera has a LIVE COMPOSITE feature that gives me incredible control, dramatically simplifies the process, and makes it very easy to create cool portrait backgrounds in real time. So I am going to show you how I did it with my Olympus camera, but I will also give you some really useful tips for doing this with other cameras using a BULB shutter setting.


In LIVE COMPOSITE mode the camera shoots a series of images continuously using the same exposure time. All the images are combined together into a single composite, in camera. The first image is used to record the ambient light. After the first exposure, only the brighter pixels in any following images are used. If nothing becomes brighter in the scene, nothing changes in the picture.

I can see that confused look on your face – so let me walk you through the steps. I have my E-M1 Mark II and the M. Zuiko 45mm f/1.2 PRO lens mounted on a tripod. To make the process even easier, I’m shooting tethered to my laptop using a TetherPro cable from Tether Tools and the Olympus Capture software. This allows me to set the computer up behind my subject like you see in this video and then control the camera and watch the image build as I am moving the lights around.

To set the camera up in LIVE COMPOSITE mode you must work in Manual exposure. So before I enter LIVE COMPOSITE Mode, I will decide on the aperture that I want to shoot at and select a shutter speed ranging from half a second to 60 seconds. For my studio portraits I use the camera’s base ISO of 200.

Next, by dialing the shutter speed all the way down past 60 seconds I will find the LIVE COMPOSITE setting and by clicking the menu button at this point I can tell the camera what exposure duration I want to work with.

Two important tips that I learned while perfecting this technique: don’t use auto focus or auto white balance. Since I am working in a dark setting and since I will potentially move my lights in front of my subject as well as behind my subject, I don’t want the auto focus to hunt. So manual focus is the solution. The same goes with white balance. Since I am using all different colored lights, I don’t want the color balance to shift during the exposure.

When I press the shutter the first time the camera records an establishing shot of the ambient light. This is the shot that all the other shots will build on top of. For these portraits, I am working in a very dimly lit studio, so with an aperture of f/11 the camera is basically recording a blank frame. Then when I press the shutter a second time the flash fires and that image begins the composite. You can see in the video here that on the LCD that I have my subject, but still no background. Now the camera will continue recording images until I press the shutter button again to stop the process. You can check out the video here to see how the image builds in real time as I move the wand around behind my subject.

Pretty cool huh? I wind up with a full resolution raw file that is exactly what I saw in the Live Preview.

painting with light

You can set a duration of anywhere from half a second to 60 seconds for the composite frames. The camera will allow you to do this for a total exposure time of up to three hours – which is MUCH more than you need for a portrait. I used a setting of 2 seconds and my total exposure time for most of my shots was no more than 30 seconds.

What Lights Work Best for the Backgrounds

I know some of you are already asking that question and my answer is… whatever you have available. Be creative!

The shot a few paragraphs above was done using the Yongnuo YN360 LED Video Light wand. You can find these on Amazon for about eighty bucks – but you don’t need to spend that much money.

The background below was created with 22 inch glow sticks that you can get a party store for less than ten dollars. I waved them around and it created a kind of smoky feel.

painting with light and glowsticks

This colorful background below was created with a pair of light up LED gloves that have different color modes.

Painting with light LED gloves

I purchased the gloves online for less than $15.00. Notice that you can also move your light in front of your subject to help create a feeling of depth in your shot.

Below is a version that I did with a black light bulb.

painting with light black light bulb

The possibilities are truly endless. You could work with a flashlight or if you have a fiber optic party light or even the light from your cell phone could be used to create a cool background.

What else is LIVE COMPOSITE good for?

You may remember in my LED Lighting Series Wrap-up post where I showed you how I used the Yongnuo light wand to paint with light and photograph some aluminum flowers. I explained how it was a trial and error process to get the exposure just right.

With LIVE COMPOSITE there is very little trial and error. Here is a simple product shot of an Olympus Camera done with LIVE COMPOSITE.

Olympus camera

You can see in the video here that I am able to watch the light build during the exposure and that allows me to decide where I need more light. Notice that the light source is an iPhone.

So, you see – LIVE COMPOSITE is an extremely useful feature in many genres of photography – not just star trails and night landscapes.

Here is a shot created by Olympus Visionary Mike Boenig.

mike boenig

Mike took this iconic Chicago landmark and, using a 12mm lens on an Olympus OM-D E-M1, shot at f/22 with one second shutter speeds. The LIVE COMPOSITE feature allowed him to record the theater marquis and leave the shutter open long enough to record the headlights and taillights without overexposing the marquis.

Peter Baumgarten

In this shot above, Olympus Visionary Peter Baumgarten used the OM-D E-M1 Mark II with an 8mm fisheye lens at f/1.8 and shutter speeds of 20 seconds. The LIVE COMPOSITE feature prevented the light from the home and its reflection on the water from becoming over exposed while recording the star trails.

Jamie A. McDonald

Above is an image by former Olympus Visionary Jamie McDonald that used the LIVE COMPOSITE feature with 8th of a second exposures over an 8 minute time period to record the Philadelphia skyline and catch multiple lighting strikes.

But LIVE COMPOSITE isn’t just for shooting in the dark.

Frank Smith

Above is a shot from Olympus Visionary Frank Smith done in daylight with a neutral density filter using one second exposures that gives the clouds a painted effect.

What if I am not an Olympus shooter?

If you’re not using Olympus cameras you can still create your own portrait backgrounds by using the BULB shutter setting on your camera. The major difference is that there will be a lot more trial and error because you will have to work out the exposure instead of having the camera do it for you.

You will need a remote shutter release that has a bulb setting to lock the shutter open for the duration of your exposure. For portraits like the ones that I did, you will want to work in a totally dark room so that there is no ambient light accumulating in your frame.

If you are shooting on a bulb setting I would recommend working at a very small aperture like f/16 or f/22. Power up your flashes to give you enough light at that aperture and then if you are using LED light sources like I did, you will have more time to work with adding light to your shot instead of having the LEDs immediately overexpose and become too bright.

I hope this gives you some ideas. Take this idea and run with it – go create and show me what you come up with!

Now go pick up that camera and shoot something! Because your BEST shot is your NEXT shot. So keep learning, keep thinking, and keep shooting. Adios!

Joe Edelman

Joe Edelman is an award winning Photographer, Photo Educator and the host of The The LAST FRAME LIVE, which is viewed by photographers in over 100 countries.  Follow this link to learn more about Joe or view his portfolio.
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