Zach Alan’s Light Painting Photographs Are Fire – Literally!

All images by Zach Alan. Used with permission.

“…my chief strength in this genre is improvisation,” says Zach Alan. He adds, “Whenever a location doesn’t quite pan out, it’s a good feeling to still pull off a shot I can be proud of.” Everyone should admire Zach’s light painting photographs, not only for how interesting they are but because of the time and effort he puts into creating them. While viewing them, we feel like we’re looking into another world, his creative world. We’re big fans of this type of photography. It takes us away from the pressures of everyday life and injects some fantasy and awe into our minds. We describe the work as fire, not just because we’re cool, but because they literally are. Not content with an orthodox lighting approach, he introduces actual fire to his larger than life scenes! Tired of asking, “How does he do it?” we thought it would be better to contact him and find out.

Phoblographer: Hey Zach! We love your light painting photography. How did you get started in this technique?

ZS: Thanks Dan! My earliest experiment with light painting was a few years back. My wife Juli and I found an incredible abandoned underground cistern and needed a way to light the entire 80,000 square foot behemoth. We each took a cheap camera flash in hand and walked the entire length of the space, popping the flash as we carefully walked along in the inky darkness. Some time later, I came across the early work of someone who would later become a friend, Eric Paré. Seeing his work was a major catalyst to earnestly pursue my own style and dive deeper into the world of light painting.

“An hour-long light painting session maybe nets around five winners due to the added complexity.”

Phoblographer: Considering shooting and editing, how does light painting portraiture compare to a standard shoot in terms of time?

ZS: Generally it is MUCH more time consuming than any of the other genres I’ve worked in. Not only does the model have to stand perfectly still, I personally have to memorize a specific order of steps to take in order for the shot to be just right. Every light has to be on just the right brightness, every tool I attach to the lights use dims the light differently than the others, and a single misplaced swing of a light painting tool can ruin the shot. A normal hour-long portrait session can average 20+ “winner” shots. An hour-long light painting session maybe nets around five winners due to the added complexity. Editing is roughly the same, and sometimes even a bit quicker, as I mainly just focus on tweaking my colors rather than a more transformative edit.

Phoblographer: What tends to be the most challenging part of light painting? Are your areas of improvement in this genre?

ZS: One of the biggest challenges for me is simply finding an interesting (and really, really dark) place to light paint. Finding a nice abandoned place with interesting features that you preferably won’t get murdered in is tough. I try to incorporate beautiful landscapes in a lot of my work, and I’m lucky to live in Texas, where we have hugely diverse landscapes to choose from. I’d love to travel a bit farther afield, but the only challenge there seems to be the budget! A weakness of mine would be trepidation in the face of my goals. I have a few big shoot ideas floating around, and it’s sometimes hard to just pick something and run with it.

Phoblographer: In terms of scouting locations, planning the lighting etc; how do you approach and plan for a shoot?

ZS: I usually begin with the place I’m planning to use for the shoot. I keep several friends in the “urbex” community close, as they’re a great source of new and interesting places for light painting. I’ll take my urbex buddy out to scout a place during the daytime to get a feel for the safety of the place, and later return at night to get to work. Once I’ve chosen a place and I’ve taken a few shots of it in the daylight, I’ll review the shots and get a mental image of how I can best fill the space with light. Once I have this mental image of what I want to pull off, I’ll pack just the specific light painting tools needed to make it happen and head out! For landscape light painting portraits, we arrive a few hours before sundown and take a few test shots to find the best placement of the subject within the greater composition. Jules and I also experiment a lot with new portrait ideas in the tiny dining room in our apartment. Many of my portraits were made in this tiny 10’x10′ space!

Phoblographer: Talk to us about your set up. What gear is used for this kind of work and what editing software do you use for post?

ZS: These days I use a combination of a 5D Mark IV and an EOS R, alternating between the two for video and stills. A good tripod is crucial, and I use an AltaPro 2+ 263CT and it’s funky swiveling center column system to get tricky angles. As for the light painting tools themselves, we use a huge variety of different items. Many of my shots are created using purpose-built light painting tools by Light Painting Brushes, for which I’m an ambassador. For everything else, I use either something I’ve slapped together myself, a T12 tube guard, or a home made torch for the work with fire.

Phoblographer: Wow! Use fire with some of your light painting? How is this done and what safety measures must a photographer take?

ZS: For these images, I use a simple home made torch consisting of a wooden dowel rod with a plain white cotton T-shirt stapled to it and then soaked in BBQ starter fluid. In these images I’m not only capturing the image, I’m also behind the model creating the shape with the fire. We use a simple and cheap trigger, the Yongnuo RF603C, to start and stop the exposure with the camera set to bulb mode. The list of safety precautions is fairly long, and it’s something we take very seriously. Anyone reading this and considering working with fire should read my blog post on the topic – Let’s Talk Fire Safety

“It’s a really fun process when I get to interface with a client and translate their ideas into a light painting…”

Phoblographer: We imagine this level of work requires a lot of mental focus. Are there any other genres of photography that are more relaxed that you enjoy doing?

ZS: It does! These shots require a large amount of coordination on my part and the part of the model in order to work out well, not to mention the muscle memory I have to build up in order to learn complex light painting shapes. My second favorite genre in the world has to be astrophotography incorporating landscapes. These super long exposures are created at a much slower tempo and a lot of time is spent just chatting with good friends while the camera does its work. It’s a wonderfully zen type of photography that I can never shoot enough of.

Phoblographer: You have shot for several clients for your professional work. Do you pitch this style to them or do they tend to prefer a more “classic” aesthetic?

ZS: Luckily for me, I’ve already got the reputation as a person that does a lot of work in the light painting world, so most clients come to me with light painting in mind. It’s a really fun process when I get to interface with a client and translate their ideas into a light painting that I can pull off in a single frame 🙂

Phoblographer: In terms of developing this style, what are your creative ambitions in terms of experimenting and creating something new?

ZS: For me, almost every night we shoot, we try something a little different each time. Light can be manipulated and formed in an infinite number of ways, so there’s always something new to discover and learn about the nature of light every time I see the back of my camera once the shutter’s come back down. My next endeavors are mainly focused on consistently honing new ideas and techniques, and putting them to work in new and exciting locations. My “white whale” project is one I hope to get done by the end of the summer, which is to light paint atop a hulking shipwreck that’s stuck in shallow water not too far from where I live.

Phoblographer: Finally, if you’re ever in a creative rut, what works for you to help get out of it and find your photographic mojo again?

ZS: This one is super tough for me. Like a lot of folks in the world, and a lot of creatives in general, I deal with this on a semi-regular basis. In my personal experience, the number one most helpful thing to pull out of the nosedive is to commit yourself to work on something related to one of your goals at least once a day, and reach out to artists that inspire you. It helps get my head in the right place again, and even better than that, it’s a meaningful step towards creating the future I want to make for myself.

You can enjoy more of Zach’s work by visiting his websiteYouTube and Instagram.

Dan Ginn

Dan Ginn is a content writer and journalist. He brings with him five years' experience writing in the photographic niche. During that time he has worked with a range of leading brands, as well as a host professional photographers within the industry.