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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Light Painting

Using small LED lights, you can create some impressive backcountry night photographs

Not everyone is comfortable rock climbing at night, but Webster was the perfect person for this night climb. It turns out that he and Tishler are no strangers to night climbing. Living in Los Angeles, their local crag is Joshua Tree National Park. You can climb in Joshua Tree most seasons, except in summer, when the desert cliffs roast under a hot sun, but at night the desert cools quickly. Webster and Tishler routinely climb there in the summer from nightfall until 3 a.m., and can be back in L.A. for a sunrise coffee. I was lucky to be camped right next to them when I visited Arapiles.

I scouted Agamemnon in daylight well before Webster was in position. I did this so I could ascertain the best position for shooting, as well as to consider my photo framing and lens choice. I also took this time to assess the safety issues for the shoot. In my position, in the back of the chimney, there was rockfall danger to the climbers below so I would need to climb into position carefully, and to avoid a safety line from knocking a rock loose, I used no rope. For my lighting assistant, I rigged a couple of safety ropes on the cliff edge above and also rehearsed the lighting strategy. For the shoot, we'd be working in pitch-dark so the more setup and planning ahead of time, the better.

The climbers started up the climb after sunset, and it was pitch-dark when Jordan was in climbing position for this photo. Before opening the shutter, I instructed Jordan on how to direct his headlamp, then had him freeze into a position during the exposure. The exposure for this photo was 25 seconds, and the aperture was ƒ/4; to make sure I got the light from the stars, I set the ISO to 640. I prefocused on the climber's headlamp and kept the focus on manual since in the darkness the autofocus wouldn't work. Using a 16-24mm lens set at 16mm gave me decent depth of field on my Nikon D800 DSLR. My light person above was using an 80-lumen Petzl headlight filtered with a full CTO orange filter; the warm light matched the beautiful orange sandstone of Mount Arapiles. During the exposure, I talked my light person through painting the scene—first, lighting the climber for a few seconds, and then, with slow vertical movements, sweeping the left walls and then the right arête with light. After the exposure was done, everyone could relax while I waited for the camera's processor to move the image to the camera's CF card. I reviewed the image to check for overall sharpness, blurring of the climber and the light exposure. In all, I made about eight exposures with the climber being photographed in different sections of the climb.

The technique of light painting is a simple way to expand on your backcountry photography. It takes some getting use to working in the dark and a willingness to commit to plenty of trial and error.

To see more of Bill Hatcher's photography, visit www.billhatcher.com.

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