Under the dark sky, a dozen fingers click a dozen shutters. Ten seconds pass; the shutters click open. And the light show begins.
An incandescent beam flickers across the broad side of Jack London’s stallion barn, focusing on the big wooden beams that form the corner, then flashing on the small windows, and then moving to highlight the pitched roof. The light reaches back into the oaks for a moment, then sweeps across the baseline, the ground just beginning to blush with green, new grass. Another beam pulses across the rusting farm equipment in the foreground, and on the stone walls of the neighboring manure barn.
Thirty seconds pass. Then, just a hair shy of synchronicity, the shutters snap closed and the lights go out.
Photographer Ray Mabry, who has taught several photography classes at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen and was behind the light “brush” painting the barn, returns to the line of students standing behind their tripod-mounted cameras to check out the images they’ve captured. Each student has framed the subject just a little differently, and each camera catches the brushstrokes of light in a different way. The photographs are ethereal. It’s long past time for sunset glow or sunlight shadow play, but that’s what is captured on the historic rock and timber and rusted metal of London’s historic ranch.
This is light painting. Mabry is the master artist, and his eye, as well as the brush of his lights, helps shape images for those in his class. He’s here to share his experience, his techniques and his knowledge of the necessary equipment with aspiring light painters, who are either toying with the idea of getting this style of night photography or who seek to hone their skills.
“I’m learning something new,” said Lynda Stuber of Santa Rosa, a member of the Santa Rosa Photographic Society.
What is light painting?
Google “light painting,” and you’ll pull up some pretty amazing shots, of paddlers creating arcs of light on a dark pond, of stunning outlines illuminating everything from dinosaurs to the Beatles crossing Abbey Road, of sizzling, colorful streaks and swirls that look magical and, well, Photoshopped. And some are.
However, most of these images have been created with “point-source” or light graffiti, says Mabry, who begins his class with a lesson on what light painting is, and the gear a photographer needs to be successful at the art form. Point-source is one of three types of light painting, Mabry notes; another is kinetic (where the camera moves), and the third is traditional, which is what he was teaching at Jack London, where the artist illuminates different parts of a subject within a frame using a variety of potential light sources and filters.
Then he launches into a discussion of gear. Obviously, cameras and tripods are critical. But so, too, are the lights used in the painting, and Mabry set up a variety of strobes for students to experiment with. The light of choice for the evening was tungsten, or incandescent, which is warm and golden, as compared to LED light, which is bluer and more like daylight. Brands, candlepower and battery life are all considerations when choosing lights for painting, as are the various aftermarket applications, such as colored gels, snoots, and gobos which filter, direct or diffuse the beams.