Harold Ross: Master Of Shadows

“If you think about painting a landscape at night,” says Ross, “the areas that are lit are lit, and the areas that aren’t lit are completely black, completely unlit. So, just by using the lighten blend mode in Photoshop, we can get rid of that darkness.”

Great photography can be magical when the artist creates a sense of wonder through a unique pairing of vision and technique. Harold Ross is just such a photographer.

Ross is a light painter. It’s a simple technique that requires no specialized equipment beyond the ability to open a camera’s shutter in total darkness and wield a light source to paint the subject with illumination. The resulting images are incredible, with an ethereal, painterly quality quite unlike anything accomplished by traditional lighting methods. And with a photographer as skilled as Ross, the subtlety and nuance in the light are captivating.

A onetime commercial photographer, Ross began experimenting with light painting in order to find more creative freedom. It was so freeing that he eventually left commercial work in favor of fine art.

“I shoot tethered. Everything I do is tethered, even my landscape work. I always shoot tethered, and I use Capture One. I think Capture One is by far the best tethering software there is. I use that, and I use it as what I call the world’s best light meter,” says Ross. “I use a specific method of measuring the exposure, and I can tell with my exposure slider whether I’m a stop underexposed or stop overexposed, and I can then reshoot if I need to, and I know exactly how long to adjust my light painting to get that exposure correct.”

“Thirty years ago, when I was a commercial photographer using strobe equipment,” Ross says, “I felt that I didn’t really have a ton of creative input in the work. So I picked up light painting as a way to get more creative autonomy. I had art directors that could tell me basically what to shoot and generally speaking how to shoot it in terms of layout, composition, etc. I had some input there, but the light painting gave me a way to work with the lighting in a way that no one could really tell me how to improve it. So it was like my own piece.”

But it wasn’t just the creative freedom that excited Ross. It was also the unique quality of the lighting that light painting produces.

“Along with that,” he continues, “there were certain lighting challenges that I couldn’t easily solve with normal, standard lighting. I had a couple of small Mini Maglite flashlights that had little incandescent bulbs. So I would take a Kodak Wratten 80A filter and put that in the light to get it to match the emulsion of the transparency film I was shooting, and I would apply light in certain places. The first time I did that, the first Polaroid that I pulled, it was just absolutely interesting and beautiful in that light-painted area. So I immediately thought, alright, I’m just going to light paint everything and make it all beautiful. And I did. I completely shifted the whole focus of how I was lighting.”

This photograph was captured in Maine. “I was teaching a landscape light-painting workshop up there,” Ross says. “We rented a big farmhouse right on the ocean. I had six students for a week, and we went out every night and did my landscape light painting. I noticed this clothesline in the back of this farmhouse in the yard. And so I just thought, ‘Wow, that’s really cool. I want to photograph that.’”

Much of Ross’s work is done indoors, where he showcases a knack for turning otherwise-mundane objects into marvelous, sculptural images with the ethereal drama that only light painting can provide. Eventually, he determined he could use the same lighting technique on a larger scale. So he armed himself with battery-powered LED panels and headed outside to make light-painted landscapes at night.

“I think a big mistake some people make is that they’re trying to illuminate a landscape in a soft manner with a very small light,” he explains. “I like to say that a flashlight really has no business in the landscape. It’s too small. So I’m using a custom-made 5×24-inch LED panel, or I have two 12×12-inch LED panels that I bolt together to have a 12×24-inch light source. It’s kind of like having a softbox out there. You’ve already made the light way softer than a flashlight, and then by moving it during the exposure, you’re making it even softer. The motion is softening the shadow. Shadows are great, but in my opinion, they should be soft.”

Diffusion is essential, but Ross says shining a flashlight through silk doesn’t work.

“Talk about cumbersome,” he says. “Trying to take a flashlight and backlight a silk, that would be super cumbersome. And that light doesn’t have any throw. There’s no projection of light from a diffusion panel like that. I do use those in still life work, for metallic or glass objects. But the nice thing about the LED panel is you get tremendous throw of the light.”

Ross says that if you look deeply into this shot, you realize it’s a big pumpkin patch. “A couple of acres,” he says. “And, you know, most landscape photographers are hoping to simplify or distill down what they see into a simple graphic thing.” But instead of distilling, Ross uses light painting to capture lots of detail in the foreground, middle ground and background. “I just sort of walked around and found what I thought was an interesting viewpoint with some pumpkins in the foreground and composed it. And, of course, in nighttime light painting in general, it’s a good thing to get there while there’s still quite a bit of light, so you can compose reasonably.”

Ross’s nighttime landscapes create a sense of disorientation as they appear simultaneously natural and unreal. The effect is mysterious and cinematic, and the scenes appear to be illuminated from within. That’s partly a function of the smaller light source—which creates drama and enhances color—with movement to soften it. It’s an unnatural combination that gives Ross’s light painting its unique impact.

“Part of it is that we’re using a smaller light source,” Ross explains, “both in still life or any other work. We’re using a smaller light source than we normally would see these subjects illuminated by. And smaller light sources produce more color. It’s kind of automatic that you get in light painting a lot more color than you might shooting out on an overcast day, for instance. A lot of it has to do with how we apply the light to the subject, if it’s applied from an angle and distance that is going to reveal a lot more detail in that object than we normally see. Applying the light with a very high level of drama, and then softening that drama through motion—which, of course, light painting must involve. It has to involve motion; otherwise, you’re not really light painting. The key to light painting is that you’re using a smaller light source for an incredible amount of detail and depth, but you soften it to make it feel like a soft light source.”

One fundamental difference between Ross’s tabletop light painting and his nighttime landscapes is that with the smaller setups, the light comes from outside the frame. But with a landscape, the photographer is walking around in the viewfinder, illuminating the scene from within.

“In a still life,” says Ross, “one has to be extremely careful not to bump one of the objects that’s in the still-life setup. In nature, if you’re out running around in the landscape and you run into a tree, the tree’s not gonna move. You’re probably going to fall over!” Ross says it’s why shooting a landscape can be more enjoyable. It’s less stressful than being in the studio, where you have to be extremely careful that you don’t bump into your subject.

“Typically in a still life, you’re lighting from the side,” Ross says, “and in a landscape—at least in my vision about how I want to light a landscape—I’m really lighting them from the back and the middle. I’m doing that to create a dichotomy between the lighting, which is completely unnatural, and the scene, which is undeniably real—and hoping that that sets up kind of an interesting dichotomy for the viewer. Looking at this the scene and wondering, how can this light be happening? I think that’s really interesting. It almost gives a theatrical feeling for me.”

Ross starts with a base exposure for the scene at a level that delivers deep shadows with just a hint of detail.

Outdoors that exposure is done with the day’s last light in the sky, which serves to provide depth and shadow detail—in effect a fill light—in the finished image. Then Ross moves through the frame, making multiple exposures and painting light throughout.

“The overall exposure is done with the waning light of the day,” he says, “after the sun is down. There’s an exposure for the distant areas in most of my night images and then after it gets completely dark, I light paint and then layer those images together. When you’re light painting, you have to remember that there is going to be fill light in the image. I teach a lot of students, and one of the things that most people by human nature try to do is, they try to light paint into all of the shadows. They’re trying to eliminate all shadow, which is sort of a basic misunderstanding: ‘Shadows are bad, they’re dark, and we need to get rid of them.’ I always say to my students, ‘Shadows are your friend, they create depth and dimension.’

“I had tried using fluorescent lights inside of a softbox,” says Ross, “but it was really difficult to rig up a power system. But with LED panels, you can just put a battery pack around your waist, plug it in and have this amazing light source.”

“It’s a very contemplative method of working,” Ross says, “because you’re spending possibly a couple of hours making a picture. And most people want to make a picture in 1/250th of a second. So there’s just a psychological thing about slowing down and really looking at what the light is doing to the surface of this object. And you have to look at that from the camera viewpoint, which is another kind of non-intuitive thing, in a way, because you have to be in front of the camera. Most photographers are a little bit hesitant to get in front of their cameras because they think they’re going to be in the frame. And, yes, I am in the image in a lot of the landscapes, but I simply don’t use that part. I leave myself out. With light painting, I’m only lighting a piece of the frame at a time, and I’m just not in front of that piece. By getting in front of that camera, I can see exactly what that light is doing, and if I move it a little bit up or a little bit down, I can see the result of that movement.”

Ross favors a slow, deliberate process in studio and outdoors. Noise from long exposures isn’t an issue, and he layers 20, 30 or even 40 frames together to create the rich, nuanced results seen here. It’s laborious and technical but also straightforward. He likes to keep it simple.

“I’m not a big gearhead,” Ross says. “I just don’t feel that I need to buy the latest and greatest camera. My camera is a 25-year-old Hasselblad. I also still use a Cambo technical camera as well. But in the studio, I use mostly the Hasselblad with a Phase One back. It’s an incredibly basic camera; it has no electronics in it. Keep it simple. Everything I do is simple. Even my use of Photoshop is very simple. We’re using a time exposure—you know, open the shutter, leave it open, do the light painting, close the shutter—so that’s very simple. And I control depth of field by using an aperture that gives me enough depth of field without getting lens diffraction. And we can easily test our lenses for diffraction to see where it becomes an issue. I just concentrate on the light. Even the lighting tools that I use are very, very simple. They’re just two different light sources and a couple of ways of diffusing those, and that’s it. It’s just very, very simple.”

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