Painting with the Master
Sunday, September 19th, 2010 by Reed Hoffmann
Back in 2001 I had my first opportunity to teach a workshop with Dave Black, and watched him give a light painting demonstration. Since then I've had the pleasure of watching him grow the size, complexity and beauty of his light painting. Last week we both were in the Tetons teaching a Mentor Series workshop (http://www.mentorseries.com), and this time I had the chance to not only watch him work, but also do a little of my own large-scale light painting. What a blast!
Dave’s one of those photographers who’s always looking for new ways to make images. As he discovered light painting, and started refining his technique using digital cameras, he wasn’t content to simply do the same still-lifes and portraits that were becoming the norm. No, Dave wanted to go further. He went out and found million-candle power spotlights and starting looking for big subjects. He painted rock formations in Monument Valley, stands of Aspen in Colorado, ice climbers and even got kicked out of Yellowstone Park for light paining a geyser (if you ever meet him, ask for the story). As a freelance photographer, this has been one way Dave’s grown his business. His night photos of Arlington National Cemetery, light-painted, were a highlight of a book about that sacred ground. And he’s not afraid to share his knowledge. He’ll tell you all his tips and tricks on his website, http://www.daveblackphotography.com, in the “Workshop at the Ranch” section.
Last year we taught a Mentor Series workshop together in Colorado, and Dave led the group in a light painting exercise at a ghost town. This time, in the Tetons, we took the groups out to Mormon Row, a famous spot with old buildings and the Tetons behind them. This spot has been used in many films, and is a “must” stop near Jackson Hole. Dave knows that all photos are a combination of subject, light and background, and that’s still true with light painting. It’s not enough to simply have a subject to paint, but how you paint it and how you frame it (the background) are just as important. And, as I mentioned, Dave’s always looking for new ways to do photography. He’s moved up to more powerful spotlights, and taking advantage of some of today’s cameras that let you shoot at previously unheard-of ISOs. That means he’s now using the Nikon D3S (and I was using the D700) and shooting at ISO 2000. With the bright spotlights he’s using that lets him do two things. First, he can be further from his subject (in Monument Valley that was over a mile away!). But what’s really interesting about using the higher ISOs is what happens to the sky.
Since the earth is constantly moving and rotating through space, even a minute-long exposure shows blur in the stars. Dave discovered that at high ISOs, he could use a relatively short exposure, like 30-seconds, to show the star field with minimal blur. It’s a great look. Like I said, he’s always pushing the edges.
The workshop finished late Sunday afternoon, and so the organizers and three of the instructors (Dave, myself and John Reddy) went to dinner in Jackson Hole. And after that, headed back to Mormon Row for a few more night shots.
Dave wanted to duplicate a photo he’d done years ago of the main barn, at dusk, where you could still see the silhouette of the Tetons behind it. This time, though, with his new technique, it would also show the star field. We made that, then Dave and I paired up to paint not just the barn (from far left, to make the light more interesting), but the second person went behind the barn to light the trees in the distance to the right. We kept our exposures at 2000 ISO, 30-seconds, f/4 using 24-70mm 2.8 and 14-24mm 2.8 lenses.
After finishing that, we headed down the road to another set of buildings that had a barn with a corral. During image reviews earlier that day, I saw some photos shot the night before using Dave’s technique to showcase the Milky Way. There’s so little light pollution out there, and you’re at altitude, so the resulting images were spectacular (thanks for sharing, Howard!). So at the second location I wanted to find a shot that would include the Milky Way, which meant shooting from a different angle. Dave led the way again, but after getting the shot he wanted, he left John and me to try something else. We moved in closer and went for a vertical shot, and used up the rest of the battery life of the spotlights making that.
Over the course of the four day workshop, I never got more than four hours of sleep a night, even Sunday night when it was over. But that’s okay. I’ll happily trade some lost sleep for a chance to go out and make nice photos with good friends.