Dedicated to Light Painting Photography

Posts from the ‘Landscapes at dusk’ category

Disused trestle bridge in northern New South Wales, Australia (see story below)

Reconnaissance — it’s such a formal military term. I prefer to use “recce”. Others might say “recon” or “location scout”. Any of these terms are fine. My main point is that a recce, or lack of one, can affect the success of a photo shoot.

I’m a great believer in research – especially for location shooting. For my style of light painting, planning is essential because I shoot only one set-up per night (at dusk). That set-up needs to make the best use of my time, and the location.

So what’s the purpose of recceing a location? My working philosophy is centred on The Principle of the 7 Ps:

Proper, Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance

In terms of light painting photography, this means that the time and effort I put in before the shoot often makes a difference to the way the shoot proceeds.

This post provides behind-the-scenes information about some difficult shoots, and the lessons I learned. I’ve included three examples of shoots that I didn’t fully recce. I’ve also included another shoot that could have failed had I not physically recced the location.

1. Treachery Head, Myall Lakes National Park, NSW, Australia

Years ago I was driving along the coast north of Sydney. I decided to break my journey and stay a night at Pacific Palms. As I had my camera and light painting gear with me, I did a Google Search of natural points of interest around Pacific Palms to see what I could shoot during my one overnight stay. Several images of Treachery Head came up on my computer screen so I did a Google Map search, realised it was an easy 30-minute drive from Pacific Palms and finalised plans to do a light painting of this prominent headland. But I didn’t make time to visit the location before the shoot so I had no idea what to expect.

Light painting of Treachery Head, looking down to the ocean

As I hadn’t physically recced Treachery Head, I made these errors of judgement:

1) Walking the bush track from the carpark through the national park to the headland took longer than I imagined so I arrived at the location close to sunset, which restricted the time I had to find the best position and compose a shot.

2) I struggled to find a strong foreground element to include in my composition.

3) The rocky spurs that descended to the ocean were massive, dark and “unlightable” at dusk.

I proceeded to do some light painting because I was determined to make the best of a poor situation. The final image is adequate but forgettable. Lesson learned – a proper physical recce before the actual shoot would have helped me find a better location.

2. Stationary Steam Engine, Tapin Tops National Park, NSW, Australia

This is another example of an Internet search that I didn’t follow up with a recce. I was returning to Sydney from a trip to the North Coast. I decided to break my journey at Wingham, a small town on the Manning River. I did a Google Image Search of the Wingham area and found an intriguing image of a rusted stationary steam engine in a bushland setting. I was quite excited about the prospect of light painting abandoned machinery in the Australian bush. My Internet research revealed that the engine was located one-hour’s drive northwest of Wingham, in a national park. However when I arrived at the location in the Tapin Tops National Park, one hour before sunset, this depressing sight greeted me. The stationary engine was no longer sitting amongst trees (as shown on the internet) it was surrounded by steel!

Traction Engine -- Tapin Tops NP

Stationary Engine at Tapin Tops — fenced-in and protected

I understood why the National Parks and Wildlife Service had erected a fence to preserve the engine, and other old machinery but the high fence drastically limited my photographic options. I was determined to bring an image back, so I extended my tripod to full height and straddled the obstructing fence. Even with a wide-angle lens I was quite restricted in my framing. Here is the resulting light painting:

Stationary Engine, Tapin Tops National Park

Stationary Engine, Tapin Tops NP

The irony is that the image of the “unfenced” stationary engine – the shot that originally inspired me — still features on the Tapin Tops National Park website (as of April 2018).

3. Paperbark Forest near Bellingen, NSW, Australia

On this occasion I did not appreciate the local circumstances or understand the risks I was taking because I had not done a full recce.

One of my favourite places in New South Wales is the town of Bellingen and the beautiful Bellinger River Valley. Many years ago my wife and I were driving along a backroad not far from Bellingen. The dirt road narrowed to a low causeway and I realised we were driving through swamp country with paperbark (Melaleuca) forest on either side. I glanced out the driver’s window for no more than a few seconds and marvelled at the vista of paperbark trunks reflected in pools of dark water. It was a mental image that would haunt me for years until I resolved to return to light paint this mysterious landscape.

Years later I drove up the Pacific Highway and turned off the highway to revisit this location. I was on a backroad that serviced isolated residential bushland properties. What I didn’t realise was that this road was also used by large timber trucks that ferried logs to a local sawmill.

The road descended to the causeway and I passed through the swampy paperbark forest. The narrowness of the causeway meant there was no place to park so I drove a further 200 metres to find a safe place for my car.

Paperbark causeway near Bellingen

This causeway near Bellingen is barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass

It was approaching sunset and the deep forest was getting dark. I grabbed my camera backpack and tripod and hiked back along the causeway to the best vantage point. The shoulder of this dirt road was quite steep and loose, so positioning the tripod was a challenge – too far one way and I would be up to my knees in swamp water, too far the other way would make me a traffic hazard. I locked down the tripod within a metre of passing cars.  Once the sun had set, I quickly became the next tourist attraction as homebound locals flicked their headlights and slowed down to peer at me, hunched over a camera mounted on a large silver tripod.

As dusk deepened and I rehearsed my light painting sequence, a local man took the time to stop his car next to my tripod legs. He wound down his window and cautioned me about the large timber trucks that use the causeway. As it was getting dark and I was ready to light paint, I asked the man about the likelihood of such a truck appearing that evening. He said I should expect the last truck of the day at any moment. After he drove away the sounds of the bush returned for a few minutes. But the croaking frogs and birdcalls were soon drowned out by the roar of a large diesel truck at the other end of the causeway. Its headlights blinded me as it slowly but relentlessly approached my position. The truck didn’t brake. It just drove through as though it owned the road. I began to panic and stood ready to quickly lift the tripod and camera out of the truck’s path, but the front wheels just missed my tripod leg. The causeway shook with the power and weight of the passing truck. Its load of logs was supported by large, rear wheels that quietly rolled past my precarious camera position. I was thankful to be spared what could easily have been a disaster. The timber trunk disappeared into the night and I set about light painting the scene.

So what’s the lesson here? If I’d spoken to locals as part of my research, would I have avoided setting up on the causeway because of the timber trucks? Perhaps. Did luck and naivety help me achieve this light painting? Definitely!

Swamped

Swamped

4. Railway Trestle Bridge, near Eltham, NSW, Australia

This final example highlights the value of a recce and how being forewarned is forearmed.

When I was visiting my father in northern New South Wales, we went for a drive to recce several abandoned bridges along a disused rail line. We found this wonderful old trestle bridge near the village of Eltham.

Railway Trestle Bridge, Eltham recce

Disused trestle bridge — showing the local access road

The abandoned bridge was well situated for light painting. There was a main road nearby but it ran parallel to the railway so at dusk any passing headlights would not affect my light painting activities.  As I recced the bridge, I realised the best composition would have to include a dirt road that passed under the bridge. This road was used by local farmers who needed access to their properties.

This road posed a particular problem. If any traffic passed under the trestle bridge while I was light painting at dusk, the car lights would appear as coloured trails in the bottom of my frame. Light trails are one thing, but given that any passing locals might be surprised or curious about a lone camera on a tripod and a stranger with a portable light, I anticipated that drivers might stop their cars mid-frame to enquire what’s going on. I knew I wouldn’t have time to explain or chat, and I didn’t want to lose a single exposure to light trails, so I devised a way of limiting any potential loss during the shoot.

The next afternoon when we returned to the bridge to set up for the dusk shot, I gave my father a special task. I armed him with a big black card and positioned him next to the camera. I asked him to be vigilant during my four-minute light painting exposures and if he saw that a car was about to pass in front of the camera, he was to yell “Freeze” to me while I was light painting, and then raise the black card in front of the lens while the car passed by. This would block the lens’ view but not affect the overall exposure in the dusk light.  Once the car had exited the frame, he was to lower the card and yell “Continue” so I could finish my light painting sequence.

Eltham Trestle Bridge

Trestle Bridge near Eltham

Sure enough, during two of the four exposures I made, locals drove home under the bridge and through the shot. My father was an excellent watchman and his use of the black card saved my shots. But the lesson here was that if we hadn’t done a recce, we wouldn’t have anticipated the problem, or planned a solution.

As a light painting photographer, I believe a recce is valuable and worth the time spent. I learn so much about a location and the challenges it presents. And being forewarned is forearmed.

Just remember The Principle of the 7 Ps: Proper, Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance and you can’t go wrong! Well, you can’t go as wrong.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Centennial Park, stairs and tree, light painting photography, long time exposure, Fuji T64, Fujifilm GX680, flashlight, torch light, treescape

Centennial Park, Sydney

This tree and stairway were lit by flashlight during a ten-minute exposure.  The actual lighting sequence took three minutes but I kept the shutter open for the extra time to try to capture more detail in the fading sky.  The trickiest part of the shoot was descending the stairs in the dark while I concentrated on evenly lighting the iron handrail.

One of the great attractions about light painting photography is the dramatic tension between time and play.  I say “play” because that’s what happens when I begin to light a scene after sunset.  There is a sense of unpredictability, of playfulness, for me during each new exposure.  I might change the angle of the light beam or accentuate different textures. Or I could highlight a different part of the frame.  Each exposure is a chance to experiment with my hand-held light source.  This means the lighting is dynamic, unique — no two frames are the same!

A time interval is essential to every exposure, and in light painting I use long exposures, from 60 to 600 seconds!  During these lengthy exposures the remaining light in the dusk sky silhouettes the background trees and horizon.  Meanwhile I have an opportunity to put my stamp on the foreground.  So it’s what I do during these long exposures that really excites me.

That adrenalin rush begins with the clunk of the camera’s opening shutter (using the B setting).  Then I click the start button on the digital timer that hangs from my belt, and I jump into shot — literally.  Although I’ve previsualised the shot and rehearsed my lighting sequence, there is something wildly crazy about scurrying around in front of the lens, and remaining “invisible” (at least to the slowly exposing film frame).  Of course I help myself by wearing dark clothes and hefty boots, and by constantly moving about so my image doesn’t appear as a ghostly shape in the shot.

I try to design my lighting sequence so that I’m close to the camera at the end of my timed exposure.  But invariably I find myself some distance away when the timer on my belt beeps that time is up.  I then need to stumble my way back to the camera to close the shutter.

Cougal Park, northern New South Wales, long exposure photography, light painting photography, blurred water, blurred rapids,

Creek at Cougal Park, northern New South Wales

This was my first attempt to light paint moving water.  I shot four frames during dusk — each of increasing duration as the light in the sky faded.  This was the last frame — a time exposure of eight minutes.  The foreground tree, creek rapids and grass along the banks were part of a 60-second lighting sequence.  My main concern was not to overexpose the rapids.  Shot on 120 Fujifilm T64 in 2011.

There is also a tension about the way I light.  I don’t like frontal lighting.  It’s flat and uninteresting.  I try to light objects from the side, to accentuate their texture.  The danger is if I position myself too far to the side, the light source itself will feature and appear as a bright, wriggly pattern in the final image.  So as I move around in front of the lens, trying to complete a lighting sequence within my chosen exposure time, I am always thinking how best to use my flashlight — and not shine it into the lens.  Sometimes that can be quite a balancing act!

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.

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