Light painting saved Denis Smith’s life. A decade ago the native New Zealander was working as a Xerox salesman in Auckland, earning more than $300,000 a year but blowing it all on fast cars, expensive cigars, and copious quantities of alcohol. “I was killing myself working, trying to sustain that lifestyle,” Smith says. “It developed into an overwhelming sense of fear and depression.”
Smith and his wife resolved to make a clean break. They sold their house, cars, and most of their belongings and moved to Adelaide, Australia. Deciding he needed a hobby, Smith bought his first camera and began taking photographs during long walks through the wild Barossa Valley near their home. “I thought I was Ansel Adams,” Smith recalls, “but then I joined a few Flickr groups focused the Barossa Valley and realized that so many other people had taken exactly the same photos.”
But it was also on Flickr that Smith discovered the then-small community of “light painters”—photographers who shoot at night, using colored light sources and long exposures to create intricately composed images. Fascinated by the process, Smith began experimenting with his own light photography, eventually developing what became his signature technique: the “ball of light.” Smith discovered that by standing in place while swinging an LED light on a cord in a circle he could create near-perfect spheres of light. A short documentary about the process by filmmaker Sam Collins racked up a quarter million views, turning Smith into one of the world’s best-known light painters. (In the process, Smith also quit drinking; he’s been sober for 10 years.)
Smith now gives talks about light painting all over the world and sells a custom-built LED tool on his website so that amateurs can create their own balls of light. Recently, he added a new technique to his portfolio, “liquid light painting.” It all started in his bathtub, where he experimented splashing around with a flashlight fitted out with an acrylic, lightsaber-like blade. Then his wife photographed him playing around with the same tool in the ocean, down the road from their house.
It took Smith two summers to perfect the style—Adelaide is too cold the rest of the year to go into the water—but the results were worth it. Although he still shoots at night, the technique is otherwise very different from the ball of light images. Instead of a single long exposure, Smith programs his camera to rapidly take thousands of one- or three-second exposures over the course of several minutes. While the camera snaps away, Smith waves and splashes colored LED light implements around like a Jedi practicing his technique. The final images show brilliant streams of light cavorting above the water like some psychedelic sea creature. Because he’s constantly moving, Smith remains invisible to the camera—he doesn’t have to Photoshop himself out in post-production, as many viewers assume.
Like his ball of light images, the liquid light photographs attracted significant interest on social media; the store on Smith’s website now sells the components of a “liquid light” system for DIYers. And although his passion has become a job—he’s now sponsored by Olympus—Smith tries to stay in touch with what attracted him to light painting in the beginning.
“It’s a fine line between it being something personal for me to escape the pressures of daily life, and a business,” he says. “I’m trying to keep some of it for me, but also satisfy the hordes.”