Cliff at Bombo

Basalt Cliff at Bombo NSW

It might look like daylight, but this two-minute exposure of an abandoned quarry on the South Coast of New South Wales was made about 40 minutes after sunset. I light painted the rock-face and foreground grass. Later when I enlarged the film frame, I became fascinated with the feathery look of the distant wave action.

These days, when I mention to people that I shoot on film, I usually get one of two reactions: either people are incredulous that I still use “old” technology; or there’s a vacant look (particularly from people under 25) as they try to fathom how this ancient medium works. Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to turn back time, nor deny the fantastic advantages of digital photography. I enjoy using my DSLR as well as my digital compact. But I am of an age that knows and enjoys both worlds – digital and analogue. And for me, light painting on film is magic. It may be old magic but it’s still magic!

Ancient Pepper Tree

130-Year-Old Pepper Tree at Pokolbin NSW

The Hunter Valley, north of Sydney, is renowned as a historic wine-growing region.  This old tree with its tortured trunk grows beside one of the original family vineyards. Light painted during an eight-minute exposure on 120 Fuji T64.  

Here are the reasons I light paint on film:

1. For me, film is best suited to long exposure photography

My exposures are in minutes, not seconds. It’s not unusual for me to have the shutter open for eight or more minutes while I move around in front of the camera “painting” selectively with my torch (flashlight). This is how I produce my location light paintings, like the series, Landscapes at Dusk.

My difficulty with digital cameras is that long exposures and high ISO produce “noise” (random bright pixels) in the image because of the electronics involved. The longer the exposure and the higher the ISO, the more noise is generated. This is why most digital cameras don’t offer more than 30 seconds as a maximum shutter setting. And often, noise reduction (NR) software is required to reduce the digital noise that a camera generates.

The most effective digital noise reduction occurs in-camera using the manufacturer’s proprietary NR software. However applying NR while shooting in the field effectively doubles the exposure time – so a three-minute exposure becomes six minutes as the software works to cancel out the digital noise.

This significant time delay may not matter if you have all night to shoot, but when I’m light painting at dusk, my ideal working time is the 15-minute period between the sky being too bright and the night sky being too dark to register on my low ISO film. I don’t have time to wait for a digital camera to apply NR. I want to produce three or four time exposures of a scene before the dusk sky fades to black. So I’m chasing the diminishing skylight by increasing my time exposures – something film does very well.

Reaching Over, Angophora, Bouddi NPAngophora – Reaching Over

After I set up this camera angle and waited for dusk to darken, I realised a full moon was rising behind me and illuminating the scene. I decided to limit my time exposures to 60 seconds and light paint quickly so the moonlight didn’t affect the shot.   

2. I shoot film because I love the look of it

There are few things more exciting (or at times terrifying) than spreading a roll of processed 120 size transparencies on a lightbox and seeing your triumphs or your mistakes up close through a viewing loupe. With reversal stock like Fuji Velvia or Fuji T64, there is very little latitude in exposure – your image either looks perfect or depressingly unusable.

When I first began light painting flowers in the late 1990s, I was shooting on 35mm film. Digital photography was in its infancy and at the time few digital cameras could match the quality of 35mm film so I continued working with my Pentax camera and macro lens, trying to perfect my use of the Hosemaster Light Painting System.

StrelitziaStrelitzia

This Bird of Paradise image is a wonderful example of the precise lighting you can achieve with the handheld, fibre-optic light source that is the hallmark of the Hosemaster Light Painting System. Shot on 35mm Fuji Velvia in 1999.

It is amazing to look back and realise that just 20 years ago the best quality photographic images were still being produced on medium and large format transparency film. I remember visiting my mentor, Robert Clark, a professional photographer who was shooting food shots for a popular cookbook series throughout the 1990s. I wanted to see Robert at work in the studio because I was thinking of upgrading from 35mm to medium format. Robert was shooting with a Fujifilm GX680 camera. The 6cm x 8cm format produced images five times the size of a 35mm frame. This outfit looked ideal for my floral portraiture, so I bought a new GX680 with a 125mm lens, a second-hand Gitzo tripod, a professional light meter and my first roll of 120 Fuji Velvia film.

I set the camera up in my “studio” (our garage without the car), borrowed a neighbour’s hanging orchid, switched on the Hosemaster and produced my first floral portrait on 120 film. I was hooked! The quality was astounding. Decades later, I still get excited every time that camera shutter clicks.

 Orchid -- Stanhopea Tigrina

Stanhopea Tigrina

This stunning orchid originates from Mexico. What makes it unusual is the way the flowers come from the bottom of the plant. In this particular case, the flower spike emerged through a hanging basket. Initially it had two capsicum-shaped bulbs that gradually opened out to reveal these amazing flowers. Its strong perfume reminded me of vanilla. This is one of my first images shot on the GX680 in December 1999.  

3. I enjoy the level of technology developed in this camera system

The GX680 is a remarkable camera — a real studio workhorse that produces quality images (6×8 colour transparencies, in my case). This camera system offers 15 superb prime lenses. When one of these lenses is mounted on the camera’s front bellows, there are additional movements available like swing, tilt, shift, rise and fall that increase the apparent depth of an object – an extremely useful facility when shooting close-ups of flowers!

My Fujifilm GX680 Camera with a Fujinon 65mm f.5.6 lens

I use the 65mm for all my landscape shots. The lens itself is an absolute monster, weighing almost 1.2kg. In this photo the lens is not extended, so the bellows are not apparent. The device connected to the camera is a remote release that has been customised — the silver toggle switch was added to change the camera operation from B (Bulb) to T (Time) function. This allows me to make manual time exposures of any duration. 

Although the GX680 is a motor drive SLR camera, its controls are mostly manual. There is no autofocus or true auto-exposure. So time and care need to be taken when setting up and shooting. It’s very hands-on. Each roll of 120 film has to be threaded onto a film cassette. This is inserted into a film holder, which is then attached to the back of the camera. I manually focus the lens, then use a hand-held light meter to calculate the exposure.

Of course, what’s also essential is professional film stock. Fortunately Fuji still manufactures 120 colour transparency films that I love to use. For my studio floral portraits I use Fuji Velvia. The outdoor work like Landscapes at Dusk requires a film matched to my tungsten torch (flashlight), so I use Fuji T64.

Unfortunately Fuji stopped manufacturing T64 some years ago. I still have a few rolls left in my freezer but once that supply runs out I will have to move on to Fuji Provia, with an 80A filter on the lens to balance for my tungsten torchlight.

An Angel VisitsAn Angel Visits (from the series, “Heaven on Earth”)

During a 60-second time exposure, I light painted both sides of these statues in Waverley Cemetery, Sydney. I was so moved by the poignancy of this angelic embrace that I decided to begin a new light painting theme — angel statues. Shot on 120 Fuji T64.

4. I like the enlargements produced from film

For a long time, digital photography could not match the size and quality of a 120-film frame enlarged to its maximum. When one of my 6cm x 8cm frames is scanned at 3200 pixels per inch, a huge 465Mb file is produced. Few digital cameras come close to that file size. And if they do, I can’t afford them.

To date, the biggest enlargements I’ve had printed are 102 cm x 73 cm (or 40 in x 28 in). These archival inkjet prints look fantastic and validate my move to medium format.

Rose - David Austin's Sharifa Asma

Rose – Sharifa Asma

When a friend of mine first saw this image she said to me, “It reminds me of a woman. It’s so sensual.” Certainly I wanted this to be an intimate portrait, but more than that, I wanted the viewer to be enthralled by the translucent beauty of this classic flower by the English Rose breeder, David Austin. Shot on 120 Provia 100F in 2000.

5. I shoot film because I have the time

I don’t have the delivery pressures of most professional photographers. Compared with digital photography, shooting medium format film is a slower process: to set up; to expose; to process; to scan; to post-produce.

My method of light painting is a slower process too, particularly when I’m working outdoors. I arrive at location an hour before sunset. Usually I’ve already recced the area. I scout for the best angle, set up the tripod and lock down the shot. I usually shoot just one set-up per night because I need to wait for the crucial lighting balance between the fading dusk sky in the background and my light painting of the foreground subject.

So there’s lots of waiting, and thinking while I rehearse my lighting sequence. And when I do shoot, the exposures are long – up to ten minutes if I am light painting a large area.

I enjoy shooting on film. It may be old technology. It may even be endangered. But as long as it is available (and there is a lab to process it), I’m happy!

Most of my light paintings are available as limited edition, archival prints (see the menu heading — Prints).  My watermark does not appear on purchased prints.