South Australian based Denis Smith fell in love with light painting photography in 2009, only a few years after buying his first camera. More than a decade later his passion for the artform is undiminished. [Article courtesy of OM SYSTEM]

Before becoming a photographer, Denis had been in a high-end corporate sales job, but the pressure and lifestyle caught up with him, leading to what he describes as a ‘pretty dramatic breakdown’.

‘That is when I picked up a camera for the first time, closely followed by discovering the technique of light painting,’ he says. ‘Incredibly quickly I made the connection between photography and the management of my mental health. I have never looked back.’

These days along with his personal and commercial work, Denis also runs the School of Light which, he explains, ‘has physical and online workshops designed to share the love I have of light painting with the world. Early on in my photography career I started doing physical workshops. One of the benefits of a long career in sales is confidence in presenting. I loved it.’

Pre-pandemic he conducted traditional face-to-face workshops but when those became problematic or even impossible, he started a YouTube channel where he offers short tutorials on light painting techniques and tools. ‘Physical workshops have started again,’ he says, ‘but I am really excited about expanding the body of tutorial videos; they are so much fun to make.’

Asked how his work has evolved over the years, Denis says, ‘When I started light painting it was all about creating The Ball of Light. The idea of actually lighting a scene or rotating a camera was so foreign to me. But now they are an integral part of my work.’

While he still enjoys creating his signature Orb light paintings, the impetus to push into new directions was at least in part provoked by a mildly confronting experience from relatively early in his career.

‘I remember a well respected artist at an exhibition once looking at my work, remarked that it was very Ball of Light focused. We were chatting away about the technique and he said quite flatly, “So what’s your next trick?”. I was quite taken aback, being a newbie to photography. But I now know what he meant.

‘It is interesting that creating orbs has remained my most enjoyable method. There is something very meditative about the process. It requires concentration and thought. But apart from heading to exotic locations, and seeking roundness, it is hard to be expressive. Other techniques such as liquid light, allow movement in space that can reflect a mood or emotion. It is easier to scale work, take it into tighter spaces. There is more freedom to create a piece that reflects a story of mood.’

To create his liquid light images, Denis developed his own distinctive water-proof light painting tools which he now sells via his website. While he reassures beginners that they can start light painting using pretty much any camera with a Bulb setting that allows long exposures, he’s also an OM SYSTEM Ambassador, so has access to the distinctive strengths of the OM SYSTEM cameras and lenses.

‘I remember the first time I saw the Live Composite feature on OM SYSTEM cameras,’ says Denis. ‘It basically stacks images in real time, but only adds light to pixels when it is brighter. So light painters can see the image building in real time.’ And he adds, ‘It also allows me to do light painting in brighter environments than normal. You can capture a very long – up to 3 hour – exposure while creating a light painting image. The OM SYSTEM also allows me to connect the camera to a screen or projector and show on a massive scale, in real time, how the images are created. This is astonishing at shows, workshops or for people who have never seen a light painting image come to life.

‘I often head into the night with a large amount of gear,’ Denis notes. ‘When I am creating tutorials, I will have two camera bodies dedicated to video, along with a body for capturing the light painting. This along with lenses, audio gear and lights on my back, makes the incredibly compact bodies and lenses in the OM SYSTEM range a delight.

‘Early on when my work was very landscape focused, it was all about wide. My absolute go to lens is the M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO. But recently, he adds, he’s found himself reaching for longer focal length lenses.

‘The M.Zuiko Digital ED 45mm f/1.2 PRO is a staple, and when I am outback, up in the mountains, I regularly pull out my M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 40-150mm f/4.0 PRO. I really mix it up now. However, it is incredibly important to say that the vast majority of my work is at f/4-f/7 range, so even a basic kit lens is just fine. I will regularly connect a little pancake lens to an older OM-D E-M5 just for fun, and to remind myself that gear really isn’t that important.’

In the years since he discovered light painting, Denis has gradually become a full-time image maker and for some time now has been describing himself as a commercial photographer and filmmaker.

Nevertheless, his original passion still burns brightly and he has come to appreciate how it influences all of his photographic activities. ‘Light painting is all about deep shadows, and aggressive highlights,’ he says. ‘I believe this has made me a better photographer outside of this genre. I see light differently. I take more risks because of it and see “bad light” situations confidently. I have also used many techniques developed in light painting across my work.’

And, no matter how busy his commercial shooting schedule gets, he says, ‘I have always maintained a small corner of my work for me, to keep that connection between the work, and my mental health. But the real fuel is the constant buzz of seeing people spend time on the School of Light and take it into the wild. It is the sharing, teaching and growth of our artform that keeps me heading out into the night.’