While recently surfing the Photography Served photo blog, I stumbled upon some excellent work quite unlike anything I’d ever seen before. That’s increasingly rare these days, so it came as a very pleasant surprise to discover that the amazing light painting photography by photographer Harold Ross was not a fluke; his whole portfolio is full of amazing work like this. So I got in touch with Harold, a well established commercial shooter from Philadelphia, to find out how he goes about making such great light painting photographs.
"I’ve been painting with light for well over 20 years," he told me, "and I currently use the technique in virtually every image I make. I started painting with light as a response to my desire to have more creative input into the commercial photography that I was doing at the time. I felt a bit constrained, having to follow a layout that included type placement and, as I was shooting product work and food, the subject matter was chosen for me."
Harold started with large format film and Maglight flashlights, and quickly saw that he could create more dimension, texture and color using the highly controllable light sources.
"I also found that I could create an ‘illustrative’ look to my photographs," he said. "This is partially a result of being able to place highlights exactly where I want them, just as a painter does. My clients came to appreciate the unique look of the images I was shooting as well as the problem-solving capabilities of light painting. I actually feel less encumbered when light painting in a more direct connection with my own creative vision and how I light my subject."
The challenge of light painting was trickier before Harold made the switch to digital. On 4×5 and 8×10 film, he had to get everything right on a single sheet of film. In those pre-Photoshop days, the fantastical images looked like nothing anyone had seen before. Today he shoots digitally with a Cambo Wide RS camera with Phase One P45+ back, sometimes substituting a pre-digital Hasselblad body for the Cambo. Noise was once a problem with digital long exposures, but not any longer.
"The day that digital technology allowed me to shoot with time exposure was one of the best days in my life," Harold said. "I am using a camera that can go quite long, several minutes. However it takes an equivalent amount of time to generate the preview, so if I shoot for one minute I have to wait one minute for the image. Obviously, I would prefer not to wait too long for the image so I can make corrections and do another capture. I usually shoot between one and two minutes. Fortunately, most DSLR cameras (once noise reduction has been turned off) give an instant preview and are then only restricted by the noise factor. I just taught a workshop in night light painting in Maine, and all of the students were using exposures of 40 seconds to a minute or two, and there were no noise issues."
"Here is how the process works for me," he continued. "After composing (which involves thinking about how the light itself will become a compositional element) and setting focus, I usually do several captures lighting the subject and the background. In general I use the light to create roundness, dimension and separation. After doing several overall captures, I eventually work out in my mind exactly from which direction and angle I will light the shot. As I am usually trying to elevate the subject from the background, I will usually keep the background relatively subdued. I use Photoshop to softly blend together the captures that I shoot, and I normally structure my layers so that the background is at the bottom and objects closer to me physically are closer to the top of the layer stack."
"I have recently taken my light painting techniques outdoors at night," Harold added, "using battery-powered large LED light panels to paint the light over the landscape in the same way that I do in the studio. What interests me so much about the night photographs is that we are looking at an undeniably real scene, but it is lit with an artificiality that creates a visual duality, a kind of resonance in the interaction between the real and the unreal. There is a spirited glow to these night images, yet at the same time a sense of stillness and quietness which I find evocative and beautiful."
Hard to disagree with those sentiments; all of Harold’s images are quite beautiful. See more, including how he puts light painting to commercial use, at his web site http://www.rossstudio.com and his fine art site www.haroldrossfineart.com.