Steve Humpleby: Painting the Light Fantastic

W I T H     S T E V E     H U M P L E B Y

Masterclass with Steve Humpleby


Straight-talking Steve Humpleby is a master of the fine art of light trail photography or, as it’s more commonly known, painting with light. Steve runs Oz Light Junkies with his mate Dave Savage, and they specialise in taking their love of light trail photography on the road. Steve takes some time from light spinning to give us an insight into his approach to light painting.

What Steve does with light trail long exposure photography beggars the imagination. The stunning images he creates are part performance, part photography and a whole heap of fun! It’s no wonder that his light trail photographic work won him the top prize in Olympus’s national photographic competition, which saw his work displayed in advertisements and billboards across Australia as part of Olympus’s “Anything but Ordinary” campaign.

Light trail photography (aka light painting) involves long exposures, during which light sources are used to paint into the scene. In this Masterclass Steve shares his top tips and tricks for light painting with us, along with the “tools of the trades” that all budding light painters need in order to create amazing images!


Lightsphere at Esperence Stonehenge - by Steve Humpleby
f6.3, 44 seconds, ISO160, 14mm


What is it about light painting that’s got you so interested and involved in it?

Initially it was just night photography in general that I really enjoyed. I think the light painting was, for me, just an extension of that. I have been doing bits and pieces for a few years but people really just noticed recently. I guess the feedback and requests to show how it’s done has become all-consuming!


You have really been pushing your light painting over the last year – acquiring new gadgets and lighting toys. What do you enjoy most about it? Is it to do with the slight element of unpredictability, or is it something else?

I have been acquiring and building light painting tools for a while and, yes, when a tool works as designed or beyond, that is an awesome outcome. But in the end, it is the creativity what drives me I’d say. Trying to use the tools in different ways and the including those into a well composed photograph.

The unpredictability is a contributing factor as well, of course, even though I try to eliminate as much of that as possible. The real unpredictable outcomes are usually experienced by those that have come to the workshops, the sounds of surprise and awe that people let out when they see what appears on the screen of their cameras. Mind you, sometimes I get that myself as well!


A spin in a spin - by Steve Humpleby


Tell us a bit to the technical side of light painting photography. Because a lot of the photography takes place in the dark, what considerations about exposure do you need to take? For example, do you expose for ambient light, or for the actual light painting – and how do you know what f-stop, shutter speed and ISO combo to use?

Obviously you need to take your environment into consideration. If it is just ridiculously dark like out in the country with no moon, I may just open the camera wide to try a star trail and light the foreground with a torch or LEDs. I could also just open the camera for an hour and go silly with domes or orbs for as far as the eye can see (or till my legs have had enough).

At the other end, in the situation of say a full moon, which I love, I can use that to my advantage. I can make it appear to be daylight yet a light painted orb or dome may appear. I have a rough idea of what ISO and f-stop each tool works well at, so I adjust the shutter speed for the ambient and away you go.

Then, there’s the in between around town at night, or even at dusk or dawn. Try to expose a stop or so under ambient and light paint in the time available to you. Of course there is always stacking if things are working against you.


Earth, Wind and Fire - by Steve Humpleby


Can you give us a run down of the main light painting tools you use?

Well, let me brush on most of them. The obvious ones that everyone has at arms reach are simple torches, sparklers and so on. So, there is always somewhere for people to start. I still love and use sparklers a lot in my light painting.

I guess the next step is the light sabres and light toys. I don’t use these as much as I used to, but still have a few. I still purchase the “Glo Bag” every year at the Perth Royal Show.

Then we step up a bit to the DIY stuff that you can’t just buy, or at least shouldn’t (LOL). I have bike wheels with various lights attached, two-meter long led battens, a circle tool made from a speaker stand, some fire creating tools wink and everyone’s favorite, the “Wool Spinner”.


Ah yes – the Wool Spinner! It needs its own OHS user manual that one, what with all the burns!! Let’s talk about the light painting you did of the DNA tower in King’s Park. Can you step us through the process? How did you paint it etc?


Where X-Mas Trees are made - by Steve Humpleby


This was at the night of the Luna Eclipse. A few of us got together to go out and photograph a few of Perths popular structures, in a different light. This was our last point of call for the evening (morning). We did so many things like running up and down that thing with different lights, we were all exhausted. The example we have here was the last one we did.

David Savage who has become obsessed with light painting after joining myself and a couple of others one night I took my lights to Bridgetown, had been experimenting with one of my lights to form a Xmas tree.

I suggested he try one under the tower. We set our cameras to bulb and through previous shots calculated that we would shoot for around 2 1/2 minutes at ISO 200 (another person had a camera that started at this ISO). I was using my manual fisheye but I think we were around f11 or f14.

So, as Dave painted his tree, I painted the left hand side with a bright LED Lenser P7 torch for around 30 seconds. Then to add the red on the side I used the same DIY LED strip that was used to paint the tree to light up the right hand side red for around 60 seconds. I call this “stick” my RGB stick… LOL! We then left the shutters open so that we could capture the ambient light with the cloud movement. This was obviously after the Luna Eclipse was over. A simple shot element wise but effective.


It’s really cool! Quite sci-fi and presents such a different view of the DNA tower. When shooting long exposures light painting, is is preferable to shoot in Bulb mode, or can people just set the shutter speed and go with it?

With many DSLR cameras you can only go to 30 seconds (sometimes a minute) on the camera timer itself. If you want to go longer, Bulb is generally what you need to use. Some also have a feature called Time which is very similar.

You need a cable release or the likes where you can lock in the switch to keep the shutter open.

Timer remotes are also a good option to use where you can dial in the exposure time you are after but not a necessity. I use these if I am chasing multiple exposures longer then the 30 seconds that the camera offers.


Direct Hit - by Steve Humpleby


So, essential gear = shutter release and a tripod (naturally). Personally, I find that light painting can be a challenge because most people think that the light painting is the be all and end all of the image, but it’s really a combination of the light painting and the setting/environment working in tandem that nails a shot. Otherwise, it’s just squiggles and light circles in darkness. Do you think this is true?

Absolutely. Just because you’re “waving around” a light source, doesn’t mean you should stop there. Most people that talk to me about my light painting say that it is the interest or composition that draws them in. I do try to use ambient to my advantage. If there’s none, I’m looking for shapes that I can throw light against or structures to illuminate with either the tool I’m using or a torch. If I’m really lost there is always the silhouette or even a portrait to add interest.


Closed - by Steve Humpleby


And I think that’s why your light painting images work – because you make use of the available surroundings/setting or even a person to juxtapose against the light painting. Your light painting images features quite significantly in the body of work you developed for the Olympus Photo competition – which you won, and had your work features in Olympus advertising. What was it like shooting long exposures with a micro 4/3 camera? Easy?

It was surprisingly good to work with but I was my worst enemy with the “Olympus PEN E-PL3”. You know the old saying that a bloke never reads the manual? Ha ha ha… well that’s me. I went through the comp not fully utilising all the tools it had to offer. I believe I get more out of it now then I did then.

The camera is a 4/3 but for the size of it and the smaller sensor it really does pack a punch. If I was travelling abroad for just a holiday, this is the camera I would choose. I’m not just saying that either, I really do enjoy it.

I was very excited the day they said I had been chosen to be one of the 20 Test Drivers. I knew I was selected for the type of work I submitted, so I immediately ordered an extra battery and a cable release. Never missed a beat once they arrived.


Orb at the Indiana Tea House, Cottesloe - by Steve Humpleby


Your work is always different – quite whimsical and creative. Where do you get your ideas from? Do they just happen or do you start with a concept and try to work out how it’s done?

A bit of both really. I do think a lot about some of what I am after in a shot long before I tackle it. I should write it down but I don’t. At any given time I may have five or six ideas that I am composing in my head. Time of day moon etc. The DNA tower shots are an example of those times.

I have one I am toying over at the moment that came to me while watching TV a few weeks ago. Actually pulling the ideas off is whole other kettle of fish. Sometimes I plan and plan and on the day I get nothing. Other times I just stop at a location and if it’s happening, nail a shot immediately.

One example of the latter would be a photograph that I had no plans for but I was driving back to Perth one evening and just decided as I came to a corner to turn off the main road and go to a little place I love. I got there and just went for a walk, no camera. 5 minutes later I had THE shot that probably nailed the Olympus comp for me! I don’t have that one to show you at the moment, but some people may have seen it on the odd bus shelter. [Steve is referring to one of the images currently used by Olympus in their “Anything but Ordinary” campaign.]