Elegant but Edgy

An Interview with Light Painters

A few weeks ago, I did a blog post about light painting, and I thought it would be cool to have some friends share their experience with everyone.  With me are three Light Painters and photographers, Mike Ross (TxPilot), Jake Ramirez (DigiCord) and Andy Dufeau (Pixelated~Light).  All of these amazing guys call Texas home, and we have had some fun times hanging out and light painting together.  I should note that we did part of this interview during a two and half hour road trip for a LP session of epic proportions.

Guys, we’d like to hear some of your thoughts on things, especially light painting and photography, but anything is game!

  1. When and how did you get started with light painting?  Who were your influences?

Mike:  I started light painting on the 4th of July in 2009 with my nieces and nephews writing their names with sparklers while I was doing some long exposures of fireworks. I was already on Flickr and being curious, I did a search on long exposures with lights and found an incredible shot posted by another Flickr member that goes by tigtab . The shot was one that she did using a light stencil of butterflies that just blew me away! I started experimenting with different light sources and doing silhouette shots using different techniques, while spending a small fortune on different light tools in the process! Having a background in electronic and computers, I thought a lot about programming various lights and LEDs to create images with light, my ultimate goal was and still is to paint the Mona Lisa with light.

Jake: Well it all started because Adri (other half of DigiCord) was into photography and one day out of pure boredom and luck I found the website DIY Photography and the main page had a tutorial by a fellow named TCB on a Light Wheel he used to create some tunnel shots. After a bit of research on Flickr I made me a wheel and took some not so great photos in our living room but was instantly hooked. At the time i knew nothing about photography so with the help of Adri and TxPilot (who was the first person to message me about being a fellow Texas Light Painter woot woot!!) I started learning the wizardry of the Camera. I had a background in electronics so I soon ordered some LEDs, bought various cold cathodes and we started our adventure into the night. We have met a lot of awesome people, Mike has been a tremendous help and mentor. I have managed to make some great friends with light painting through our meet ups and done some crazy shit with you know who….(points at Andy!  He is probably climbing something as i type this).  DigiCord’s first photo posted to Flickr was of an Orb (shown below) in November 2009, which has been the bane of my existence for quite some time now but I love it and making all of the other various light tools I have created. One day…..I will rule the world with an orb….

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Andy:  I started way back in ’96,but not with my own camera. I shot with my brother Eric and his Sears badged Pentax K1000. So he got me started. We did simple stuff like outline each other with sparklers, shoot jumping jack fireworks, play with black lights, lasers, x-mass lights, parking lot light globes, you name it. I started doing my own stuff in ’03 with my 1st camera a Nikon FM10. and my 2nd Graflex 22 medium format. I did mostly just lighting buildings and broken down cars. The 1st light painter I was inspired by was was Troy Paiva aka Lost America. I was mesmerized by his full moon lit shots of America’s waste lands. Living in city like Austin TX I couldn’t just go out and find a yard of rotting cars and planes, so I never masted that form of LP. It wasn’t till I joined Flickr in ’07 where I found the real light junkies. Tdub303, {tcb}, Jannepaint, Captain Blithering, and all the other light junkies really opened my eyes to what is possible in front of the camera. In ’09 I tried my 1st serious light painting shoot, I was blown away with what I had created. I was hooked! Shortly after that I met Digicord, (you Greg) and the rest is history… Digicord and I shot every chance we had and learned so much.

  1. So everyone is going to ask…how the heck do you light paint anyway?  Give us the details!

Mike:  I usually compare light painting to photo long exposures of freeways in the city at night where you see headlight and taillight trails of cars but do not see the cars. Most people have seen those shots and can understand the concept of long exposure times with the car lights leaving trails like that. You have to set your camera to bulb for the super long exposures for the more complex light painting shots, typically using a remote trigger. I usually set my camera to f/13 – 16 range and 3 to 10 minutes exposures on average depending on the brightness of the tools and the ambient lighting involved. This is to keep the shots from being overexposed. One of the benefits to the stopped down aperture is nice starbursts on some of the lights that I use. This is also affected by the shape of the aperture opening as well.

Depending on the type of image I want to create, I may use one of the tools I built for the purpose, such as the light-painting multi-tool (shown below), which allows me to attach various light tools and manipulate the angles and arcs that the tool goes through to create shapes for the image. For example I can create a planet with rings with a combination of these tools or a dome or ball of light.

Jake:  Personally I have just started telling people its magic…..I borrowed Harry Potters Wand…duh. jK. First things first is u need a camera with a bulb setting. I try and explain to people that bulb setting keeps the shutter open and in a dark place any light movement or ambient light is captured by the camera. This is why i say magic, because I don’t even understand what i just said haha..I will leave the explaining to the pros haha. but you can check out my Orb tutorial for a little bit more elaboration.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/digicord/sets/72157623437879847/

Andy:  That’s a big question. 1st you need a tripod, shutter cable, lights, and what ever your mind can come up with. Most of light paintings are done with “light tools”. My weapon of choice is the orb tool. Battery, switch, long piece of wire, and some LEDs. You can draw on the walls, in the air, make circles, make orbs, light things, its such a versatile tool. Now on how I light paint?  It depends on what I’m after, the biggest thing is balancing your light sources. If I’m downtown I want to use the brightest light tools I have to fight off  light pollution. If I’m in a tunnel or some were dark. I want to use my light tools + a spotlight to light up key areas. I never have a plan when I set out I usually find a dark place and think. “What can I do here?..”  I just try things until it evolves into something I like. Its hard to explain LP I’ve tried it many times and most people ( non photographers ) just end up looking like a dog who was shown a card trick… ~tilt head~ “Huh?” I will try and walk you though my tilt shift half orbs shot. 1st I set up on top of a hill to get a good vantage point, with my Hartblei Tilt Adapter and 80mm 2.8 medium format lens mounted to my Nikon D80. I set the tilt to 8 deg. try to focus where I want my orb, hit the shutter, run down the hill spin a quick half orb, check and adjust focus. Now I set the aperture to f/ 5.6 to get a wider DOF, spin my half orb, and I do this by turning the orb tool on and off at every downward stroke. Run up the trail some more spin the top half ( This took 11 shots to figure out how to get right ) run back to my camera and change the f stop to 2.8 to get the full tilt effect, wait a min. or so and end exposure. The whole shot took about 3 min. I like to work fast.

  1. So, do you need to be nocturnal to be a light painter?  Is it exclusively an outside night time activity?

Mike: No and no. I have a regular day job, but most of the light painting does occur at night, just because it’s easier than finding a large dark interior space. We recently did a major shoot inside of an empty warehouse.

Jake:  You can light paint during the day if you have a dark room.  I have done something called physiograms inside in the living room with the windows blacked out.

Andy:  No, but it helps. Any where dark will do. I work 8-6 as a Toyota mechanic and I always try to find time to go out and shoot.

  1. What about the gear?  You can’t just get this stuff at the store.  Where would someone start?

Mike:   Any light source will work for light painting ranging from cell phones to flashlights and all sorts of other specialty lighting. To get specific effects, you will have to experiment with different types of light sources and techniques in using them. The photo below includes just a sample of the different light tools that I have used in the past.

Andy:  Yes you can! Auto parts stores, Dollar stores, electronic stores, hardware stores, and just about any store that sells lights. You just have to look. I once made an orb tool at a party with a flash light and some string. It took seconds! I would start at any big box store.

  1. Is Texas a hotbed of light painting activity?  Where else in the world can we find people doing this amazing stuff?

Mike:  There are Light Painters scattered everywhere around the globe! I know of several light painters in many parts of Europe, Australia, Canada and China as well. There does seem to be a small concentration of them here in Texas but I know of a similar concentration in Melbourne, Australia.

Andy:  I don’t think TX is a hotbed for LP?… I only know of 4 or 5 people in TX who LP regularly, and I shoot solo 99% of the time. You can find LP all over the world! There is so much talent out there, it’s hard to keep track.

Jake: I don’t know what these 2 are talking about…Texas for the win!!! (jk) Texas just happens to have some really talented light painters but they are really scattered throughout the world. Just search on Flickr and you will see all them crazy people running around at night in strange places all over the this planet.

  1. Some light painters are instantly recognizable.  Do you have a signature style?  Is it the gear?  The camera work?

Mike: I don’t know if I have a signature style, but many people recognize images where I have used my programmable light sticks. It’s definitely the gear and how it is used. I like experimenting with different techniques and different types of images, but I think a lot of my work is recognizable by other light painters as being my work. I can look at a lot of images from other light painters and recognize who the artist was almost instantly simply by the type of image they created.

Jake:  I like to think I don’t have a style but I am primarily known for my orbs. Its something I work very hard on and spent many nights practicing. I’m still in the pursuit of my perfect orb…one day dammit….when I get them robot legs. I think its easy to pick out the style of a Light Painter by there camera work combined with the light painting, its a unique signature everybody has.

Andy:  I like to think my style evolves as I pick up new skill sets. I do like my shots to be clean, balanced and have purpose. I don’t really go for the wild abstract hot mess shots often. The images I enjoy doing the most are the technical ones. Shots that take 5-11 times to nail. Like my recent tilt shift half orbs shot, or “though the viewfinder” shots. The pay off is so satisfying. If you don’t have the right gear you can’t really do the technical stuff. Camera work can be mild to wild. You can just set the focus to infinity f stop, bulb, and do what you want. Or you can change the focus and aperture during exposure to get added focus and light control.

  1. Words of advice for newbies?

Mike: Practice, practice, practice. Visit the discussion area of the Light Junkies group on Flickr for tutorials and ideas. Don’t be afraid to experiment!

Jake: Don’t be afraid to fail. It is easy to discouraged, just keep at it and it will start to look the way you want.

Andy:  Experiment 1st and go from there… We all started somewhere.You learn so much though failure. I sucked so bad at orbs when I started. Once you find something you like practice, practice, practice, and before you know it,  you begin to evolve in to a light junkie. Look for new lights every time you go to a store. Thinking of new ideas at work, and scouting for new locations.

As always, it is a blast hanging out with y’all. For those that are interested and would like to learn more about this art form, just follow the links provided to their Flickr accounts.  There is a wealth of knowledge there and tons more amazing images to see.

-Greg

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Our road trip to Ingram, TX was really awesome and here are a couple of images from each of our cameras at Stonehenge II, where we did a light painting session for the ages!

The Hill County Arts Foundation has taken it upon themselves to make this amazing work part of their grounds. More info can be found here:

You can help by donating to the preservation effort.  They have setup a PayPal account to accept contributions for this awesome piece of art, which reportedly has cost over $50,000 to move and setup/repair.  They are in need of anything that people can offer, and have plans to build a picnic area and install lighting and informational signs.  Please take a moment to visit and give a little.  Thanks!

Also, if you would like to purchase prints of our Stonehenge II images, we will be donating the proceeds to the preservation efforts through the end of August and offering 15% off prices.  Visit our website to purchase prints and use discount code StonehengeII at checkout.

ALL IMAGES ARE COPYRIGHT OF THE RESPECTIVE OWNERS.

If you are interested in using any of these images or re-blogging, please contact us.

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