Photography is not always a simple choice between natural light and studio lighting, there are other ways. Enter Harold Ross. If his photos look different and special to you, it’s because he is a practitioner of the art of light painting.
Light painting, in a nutshell, involves moving lights around during a long exposure. It goes deeper than that, but it’s a lot more fun to hear it broken down by a master.
Harold Ross is a master of light painting, after all, he’s been at it for 26 years, and has even taught it. Check out his amazing other-worldly photos and find out how he made them.
How did you get started as a photographer?
Born into a military family, I became interested in photography at a very young age. My father was an amateur photographer, and as a youngster, I would watch him make prints in the darkroom, and I thought it was like magic.
Do you use natural light or artificial light?
I mainly use artificial light, but in my Night series, I also use ambient light for part of the exposure. I use LED flashlights and panels. In my workshops, I teach lighting theory, and one of the most important things for light painters to understand is that the softness of light is directly related to the virtual size of the light source.
In light painting, we can make a light larger (and softer) by moving it over time. This is what sets light painting (I refer to the process as “sculpting with light”) apart from any other method of lighting. We can actually get the benefits of a smaller light (more surgical application) and a larger light (beautiful softness) with one light source!
What is the Shopcraft series?
The Shopcraft series came from my regard for people that create and work with their hands. My grandfather, who was trained in Switzerland as a blacksmith (and who taught me how to weld and work with metal, one of my other passions), instilled a respect in me for the tools, machines, and places that these people used to create things.
Do you have a fascination with artifacts from the past?
Yes, I do. My fascination is wrapped in the notion that we, in general, disregard (and discard) things from the past. For me, this applies to history as well, and I believe that forgetting the past is denying reality, and that conversely, remembering and considering the past can only be beneficial.
In photographing these older objects, I hope to convey the beauty that I see in a beautifully designed hammer, or a piece of machinery that is as beautiful as it is functional.
Your photos have a beautiful way of making what you’re shooting seem unreal, like in a storybook. Where does this come from?
I think that it is simply that I am photographing the unmistakably real scene… in a way in which the lighting is not normal, or natural. This creates an “illustrative” feel.
For example, the process I use allows me to place highlights, just as a painter would place them with white pigment… I use light to enhance and reveal the shape, texture and dimension of my subjects just as a painter would. I think that this combination of actual and artificial can be perceived as unreal, or hyper-real.
How did the Night series come about?
It was literally impossible to do a landscape light painting in the way that I wanted to with film. The reason is that the lighting, in my way of thinking, has to come from the back and sides, NOT from the camera. Lighting from the camera angle is flat, unattractive, and adds very little dimension.
In order to light the forest floor, let’s say, one must light from the back, with the light aiming toward the camera. As the light gets closer to the camera, the light itself is visible, not something we can deal with on film.
With digital capture, however, we can very easily eliminate the light source itself from the image. So, to make a long story longer, I always wanted to do landscape light painting, but until digital photography came about, I couldn’t achieve the effect I wanted. Technology is a wonderful thing!
What is the most important thing you’ve learned about photography since you started?
To me, the most important thing is that there is nothing without the vision, and vision is nothing without the means to realize it.
We are working in a very technical medium, and there has to be a certain mastery of technique in order to put forth one’s vision. Here’s the trap, however… it’s too easy to get drawn to the amazing array of equipment (and software) that we have available to us.
Interestingly, I’ve experienced this philosophy in many things in life: motorcycle racing, welding, and others. Technique and experience (these reside in the brain) are more important than any piece of equipment.