How Denis Smith creates his eye-catching light paintings… [Olympus]

South Australian based photographer and master light painter Denis Smith came to photography – and Adelaide – after a series of seismic life events saw him leave his native New Zealand where he’d had a long career in high end corporate sales.

Within two years of buying his first camera, he began creating his signature ‘Ball of Light’ images. At the time, he explains, ‘there were several light painters creating Ball of Light pictures, or orbs to use the technical term, and their images really appealed to me. I quickly started taking these light painting images into the wild, looking for crazy, open and challenging locations to work.’

And when it comes crazy locations, you’d have to say that the ocean would be right near the top of the list. ‘My Liquid Light series has been in the making for a few years now,’ Denis says. ‘I live very close to the Adelaide coast and during summer the water is so warm it’s like a bath. Importantly for this series, it is also shallow for some way out, and that makes it “easy” to have a tripod in the water.’

An Olympus shooter since 2015, when Denis captures his light paintings in the sea, he says ‘the most common setup for me is the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II and the M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO. This lens is stunning. It is super wide at 7mm but gives the flexibility of a zoom range that is the equivalent of a 14-28mm (35mm equivalent).’

While some of his images look as though they might be heavily edited after the fact, Denis makes it clear this is not the case. ‘Every single one of my images was processed from the raw file that came from the camera. All of my images receive adjustments, but I never add or remove pixels – apart from watermarking and cropping.’

However, he has a secret weapon.

‘When I was first handed an Olympus OM-D E-M10, the guys at the camera store told me about this feature it had called Live Composite, and how it might be useful for light painting,’ he says. ‘My first reaction was to laugh. At the time I was well and truly on the “bigger is better” conveyor belt when it came to cameras. But after a few nights out experimenting with the Olympus, I was in love!

‘The Live Composite feature is incredible,’ Denis explains. ‘When the lighting conditions are outside of the light painting norm – too bright for a 30-60 second exposure – Live Composite is a life-saver and has broadened my canvas significantly. I can now create images in bright street areas, or near dusk and dawn, for pictures that previously were unattainable.

‘The Olympus cameras have built in intervalometers. Normally used for time lapse work, I have the cameras taking one, two or even three-second exposures, while I am in front of the lens moving constantly with a light painting tool. This method creates a series of images that I then choose from in post production.

‘Live Time, which gives you the ability to see your images build live on the display, is also super helpful. I can spend two or three minutes in the scene, doing the light painting and then can come back and watch the image come to life.’

Now an Olympus Visionary, it took Denis hundreds of experiments to refine his orb spinning technique, but he says ‘once you get the hang of it, it can be beautifully relaxing, even meditative. And what results is an image that is completely unique. I have never created two Ball of Light pictures that are the same, they are like fingerprints.’

Happily for those keen to try a little light painting for themselves, Denis says that you don’t need an elaborate technique. ‘Creating light painting images is incredibly simple – even with the most basic camera. All you need is manual control, a $5 torch and an empty drink bottle to create magic.

‘As a newbie to light painting, it is all about being bold with your camera settings. Push the boundaries of ISO and exposure. You don’t need a really expensive, or bright torch. A dim torch and a drink bottle light-tool may deliver underwhelming images at first, but once you start cranking that ISO up, your images will come to life. So be bold and crank it up!’