Light painting – back to blurring

Neue Fotografie von Tom Zilker

A move away from digital clarity and back to the softer focus of painting. Light painting as a new field in photographic art.

The term “photography” originally comes from the Greek: phos – light and graphein – to paint. Photography is thus nothing more than a way of painting with light, a light painting.

In its early days, photography was indeed still closely linked to painting, due to the long exposure times, low focussing possibilities and blurring caused by movement, which gave the images a painted feel.

In the last hundred years, in contrast, photography has distanced itself from this and become an ever more precise technology for depicting objects as realistically as possible. The pixel rush in some areas of digital photography is only one expression of this ever increasing technological development. Despite this, but in parallel with it, photography has also developed into an independent and recognised art form.

So what is actually the crux of photography, the photographer’s endeavour? Ultimately, every photographer draws on the wish to depict and simultaneously interpret a real, existing situation. The picture is supposed to convey the desired message to the observer, exploiting the targeted use of light and shadow, focus and lack of definition, cropping and photo composition. The photographer’s perspectives simultaneously become the perspectives of the viewer.

Now indeed the boom in digital compact cameras and the visualisation of the media have led to a tangible glut of technically flawless, over-focussed pictures. Do we still notice this emotionally at all? That is a matter for debate. Many top photographers have embraced the trend in the meantime through new elements of composition and lighting, conscious exaggerations or a reduction in the content of their images.

The emotionalisation of photography

The technique of light painting constitutes another counterpoint to digital precision. Through the conscious use of blurring and movement during the exposure, a photograph is transformed into a painting, an unreal image.

If a light painting is viewed with sufficient spatial distance, it is not necessarily easy to distinguish whether the image is a photograph or an impressionist painting. Structures existing in nature are interpreted, strengthened, modelled with the existing light and washed out. This enables the essential character of the object being depicted to come to the fore.

Let us take a group of trees from the English Garden in Munich as an example:


I see the spring clearly, daisies are blossoming in the meadow, the light is finding its way through the leaves of the crowns, which are held up and supported by three more or less strong trunks. In painting, such a picture could, to all intents and purposes, be viewed as part of the tradition of impressionism and the iconography of a Claude Monet in the sense of “plein air”.

The attempt to put the light and its constantly changing effect on objects, colours, contrasts and the atmosphere on record, is the classical “sujet” of impressionism. Light painting is connected to this.

Seen from a purely technical point of view, an image like this does not come into being as a haphazardly blurred snapshot. The exposure times, which are increased through a grey filter, are used through the movement of the camera, the photographer and the objects, in order to model the image in the desired manner. This is a process that may take a long time and which challenges the photographer to enter into an intense analysis of the object.


Let us take BMW Welt in Munich as a further example. Thanks to its particular architecture, it is certainly an object that has already been captured a thousand times on film and digital memory cards. The observer may still find a certain fascination in such a picture at first glance. After 20 similar pictures in a range of variants, this fascination quickly wanes. And with it, the effect of this architectural masterpiece.

With the technique of light painting, as a photographer, however, I am able to bring the essence of the object to the fore once again: its surfaces, the geometric structures in the façade, the light and shade effects of the late afternoon sun, the overall impression intended by the architect.

BMW WELT I, II and III, 2010, (c) TOM ZILKER

Every viewer can develop their own idea of it for themselves; as a photographer, I do not dictate a particular interpretation. And it is precisely this that is the fascinating thing about light painting for me. Room is left for interpretation. My perspective, my point of view, need not necessarily be that of the viewer too.

In my view, this is an interesting development that ought to be considered further. On this subject I recommend the pages of Jürgen Wassmuth, BFF, from whom I was able to learn a great deal about light painting.

Naturally, alongside light painting, there are also other artistic styles with a similar objective or technique. Here is a small, incomplete selection of related topics:

  • artistic photo montage, digital art and composing – the creation of new worlds from a collage of real photographs on the computer
  • light painting – light projected from fluorescent lighting, tablet pcs, smart phones or torches is used as a brush, in order to conjure up objects that do not exist in an image. Or the noteworthy project by Dentsu London. A technique that also attracted the attention of Pablo Picasso.
  • lens flares and streaks of light from the sun are again consciously being used in advertising photography as a creative method in order to give pictures a warmer, more natural tone (e.g. current campaigns by Stefanel or Gucci)
  • tilt shift effects break through the usual visual expectations of the viewer with displaced areas of focus.

[Thanks to Tom Zilker for this excellent guest article]

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