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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.

Necessary equipment

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.

Another critical piece of equipment? A towel, preferably white, placed under your tripod to lay your gear on. Not only will it protect expensive electronics from cold and moisture, but you’ll also be able to see it in the dark, Mabry noted.

Scout locations during the day

Scouting an appropriate subject for light painting should be done in the daylight hours, when access and terrain can be safely determined. Mabry recommends choosing a subject that intrigues you, whether historical, such as the buildings on London’s Beauty Ranch, or modern, like a cityscape. He also advises the buddy system both for the scouting and photography sessions, which adds to the safety factor, ensures you have someone on hand to help while you paint, or, he quipped, someone to “take your equipment and sell it” if anything goes awry.

This isn’t an occupation for those averse to long hours standing in the cold and the dark. The photographers in the class are outfitted with layers, down jackets, hats and gloves. Mabry’s toolkit also includes the little chemical hand-warmers used by skiers and mountaineers. Even at sea level, standing behind a tripod in the dark of night can be chilling.

Here comes the night

Careful watching and waiting, as well as some math, shape the light painting class as darkness descends. The work begins in the “golden hour,” as sunset approaches, with students setting up their stations, then hurrying to the edge of the vineyard to capture images of the sinking sun firing up the burnished leaves, or washing brightness onto one side of the prickly pear paddles in the cactus garden while the other side cools in shadow. Mabry also uses this time to help students acquire “critical focus” on the subject barn, ensuring they are set up to capture “shadow, depth, dimension, and beautiful color” once the light painting begins.

Next comes what Mabry calls the “blue hour,” which in November or December lasts more like 15-20 minutes. He dictates settings for the photographers —timer set for 10 seconds; ISO 400; F-stop 5.6; 30-second exposure. Click. The stallion barn, manure barn and oaks are a shadowy silhouette at the bottom of the frame; above and behind is a stunning electric blue.

Fading to black — or as black as the state park can get given the ambient glow of Sonoma to south — is a gradual process.

The camera settings are hitched to the deepening dark, and while for the neophyte it is a foreign calculus, order and pattern exist. Some in this class are familiar with the process and make their adjustments either on cue or before, while Mabry and his assistant guarantee that the unfamiliar get it right. In these classes, Mabry’s goal is to ensure everyone goes home with several images good enough to frame and showcase. Repetition and patience make perfect in this exercise. Over the course of the evening, Mabry and each of his students make 60 to 80 exposures, enough to ensure a handful of shots are beautiful enough to frame and display.

The students are also encouraged to take part in the painting itself. After Mabry demonstrates how it’s done, he hands the lights over to the others, letting them learn by trial and error, experiment with the different styles of light and filter and illuminate different aspects of the subjects.

All the while, there are eyes on the sky, watching the stars come out, wispy clouds move overhead, jets streak across the black. The park after dark defines the mood, still and empty of humankind but for teacher and students, chilly and windless. Voices stay low. Adjustments are made, then the shutters snap open, the light begins to play, the shutters snap closed.

And again.

For more information on classes offered by Mabry, and his other work, visit mabryphotography.com. For information on upcoming classes, as well as guided hikes, offered at Jack London State Historic Park, visit jacklondonpark.com.

Admission to the park is free through Dec. 31.

Tracy Salcedo is a Glen Ellen-based writer and editor. Her latest book is Historic Denali National Park and Preserve, published by Lyons Press.

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