When I visited New York City in June of 2014 I arranged a photoshoot with 3 ballet dancers. We shot in Brooklyn at dusk with the Manhattan skyline as the backdrop and, suffice to say, it was a memorable shoot. One of the biggest takeaways for me was that I wanted to work with dancers again in the future. Their strength, elegance and poise made a big impression on me and, on top of that, they were just really really nice people.
Over next few months I worked with more dancers, learning more and more with each shoot. Dancers make a fantastic subjects for a number of reasons but I think I most enjoyed the collaborative nature of the sessions. I’d ask people to perform a sequence of movements and I’d look for shapes or expressions that were interesting to me than I’d ask the dancer to repeat that part of the sequence while I tried to capture what I had seen. It’s tricky and takes a bit of patience but it’s satisfying for both parties.
After a few shoots I wanted to try something more experimental. I had the idea to combine a dance shoot with light painting. I could imagine an image where the movement and energy of the dancer was somehow surrounding and emanating from their body like electricity. It would be possible to shoot the dancer and the light separately and combine the elements in Photoshop but I wanted to capture it all in-camera in one frame.
What is light Painting? In it’s simplest form light painting is just moving a light source (say a torch) around in the dark while leaving the camera open for long enough to record the movement. You may have seen photos of people waving sparklers around on Guy Fawkes night, for example.
For what I had in mind, I needed some help! I found an amazing dancer, Corina Andrian, and I brought in a photography friend, Kelly Deans, who’s got a knack for these kind of tricky shots. One of the hardest things was communicating exactly what I had in mind – partly because I didn’t know exactly how it should look – I only knew I wanted ‘energy’ to surround Corina. We tried a few different light sources before Kelly brought out a fibre optic brush. This was it! The fine strands of light gave me exactly the look I needed and we set about the trial-and-error process of making the photo. I’d love to say we just did it and it was fantastic but one of the secrets of good photographs is that the one good photo you see is usually the result of a series of test shots leading up to it.
After a few tries we found a couple of poses we liked and which Corina could hold for the 25 second exposure time that Kelly would need to paint in the light. Even at this point it was a bit hit-and-miss because it’s really difficult to visualise exactly where you’re painting the light on someones body in a pitch black room while also moving fast enough to cover everything in the relatively short time of the exposure.
I feel embarrassed to take any credit for these photos – Corina and Kelly worked so hard on the shoot to bring this to life. I’d encourage you to experiment with light painting. All you really need is a dark space (indoors in a dark room or outdoors at night time), a tripod and a light source. You don’t have to ave a person in the shot – you can simply start by writing your name in mid-air and take it from there! The settings here were ISO 100-200, f/8 and an exposure time of between 25-50 seconds but it’ll be different for you depending on how bright your light source is and how dark the surrounding area is. If you’ve got the time to experiment you will come up with some amazing scenes and the only limit is your imagination. You can find some more in-depth tutorials here at lightpaintingphotography.com. Please also check out the incredible work of Eric Pare.
Let me know if you have any questions or comments.