Photography Month Article: Light Painting

“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” – George Eastman

George Eastman knew what he was talking about when he discussed the crucial role of light in photography. After all, he founded the Eastman Kodak company and popularized the roll of film, helping to make the medium accessible and mainstream. Roll film was not only key to the growth of photography, but it was also the foundation for the invention of motion pictures. Today, cinematography and photography are so ingrained in our day-to-day lives that it is quite impossible to imagine a world without them. Even as these mediums have undergone changes with the development of technology, one truth remains unchanged – they would be nowhere without the fundamental element of light.

When I was on exchange, studying Fine Arts at the University of Newcastle in Australia, I decided to give digital photography a shot. My new surroundings inspired a departure from my more traditional fascinations of nature, instead encouraging me to dive deep into more unusual explorations. My professors pushed me to think differently; to look at and use elements in a completely new way than I had before. As such, I focused my attention on the powerful element of light, through light painting. Light painting or drawing is a technique in which a long exposure is made, and a source of light is moved around creating and manipulating a light trail of sorts. Alternately, the camera may be moved to create forms, shapes, or intriguing illuminations using light. It is not an easy technique by any means, but done effectively can produce breathtaking results.

Using candles, sparklers, lit cigarette ends, twinkle lights, you name it, I played around with each new light source for many weeks, in order to better understand their strengths and properties. One night, on the beautiful beaches of Newcastle I met several fire-twirlers. Under the brightly shinning moon, I instantly became enchanted by their fluid movements and natural ease of wielding and controlling such a powerful element. For the week or so, I shot long exposures of their dances, capturing glorious fire trails and perfectly circular rings of fire. Remarkably, the figure was often lost in the darkness of the night.

Another unusual light source that I happened upon was one that we often overlook – our cellphones. While at a bon-fire party one night, I glanced around to see brightly lit faces peering down at their screens connecting to another world. This made me think deeply about our inescapable dependence on our devices, as well as the interconnectivity it has created. I followed up with this idea by painting my model’s faces and lighting them by only using digital devices such as cellphones, iPods, laptops and the like. It was quite difficult to focus in on the faces, as they emerged from complete darkness, but I was thrilled with the results. I painted their faces after becoming fascinated with Australian Aboriginal face painting designs and their meanings. I wanted to show a connection between our inherent human desire to unite and create tribes, even in a modern era, where with the use of technology we have created a kind of technological tribe, linking people all over the world. “Techno tribes” was a very successful series, and remains one of my brightest memories from my exchange.

Since my time in Australia, I have continued to explore the effects of lighting by capturing the shadows produced from cut-out animal drawings and patterns. It is a completely new way of creating artwork and making a statement. But the explorations never truly end, as our ways of thinking and technologies evolve. So if you’re curious, I encourage you to try out some long exposure and try painting with light. Use it in a completely different way than you have in the past. You might just surprise yourself.

– Kat (art editor at Junto Magazine)