Three years ago, Claire Harper wasn’t remotely interested in photography and she didn’t even have her own camera. Her interest in light painting – a creative form of long exposure photography which creates colourful images by moving a hand-held light source – was sparked when she became frustrated by the fact that her tours in Victoria Tunnel in Ouseburn were getting delayed because people struggled to take photos that they were happy with in the dark in the former air-raid shelter.
‘We came up with the idea of organising specific photography tours,’ Claire explains, ‘and for the second one of those, a gentleman called Chris Anderson came along who was interested in light painting.’ Claire (who had never seen anyone light paint before) let Chris take over the tour, and after becoming fascinated by the technique, began organising regular light painting workshops in the tunnel, eventually branching out to other local historical sites including Newcastle Castle, St Nicholas’ Cathedral, Hexham Abbey and some outdoor locations in the North East too. She now runs a Facebook group called North East Light Painters, where people post their photos and arrange group light painting sessions.
In basic terms, light painting is a photographic technique where experimental, colourful images are produced by moving a hand-held light source while taking a long exposure photograph – this can take anything from 10 seconds to five minutes. All you need to get started is a camera capable of long exposure photography and a tripod to keep the camera still. Claire has a second-hand Canon 500D Digital SLR camera, but she explains that you can now download apps on your iPhone which allow you to use long exposure.
You’ll also need a light source, and Claire explains that you can use anything from a 99p supermarket torch to more expensive specialist light painting equipment, which costs a few hundred pounds. ‘Personally, everything I use is very cheap,’ says Claire. She mainly takes along items she can find at home to her workshops, including ping pong balls and plastic rods which diffuse light in different ways when placed over a torch.
To take a photo, you leave the lens open on your camera so that it captures all of the light that it is exposed to, producing long light trails on the final image. ‘I like the fact that a lot of the time you don’t know how the photos will turn out until you see them at the end,’ says Claire. Other photographers who aren’t as keen on the unpredictable nature of light painting will retake their photos a few times to achieve perfect results.
According to Claire, winter is the most popular time of year for light painting simply because it gets dark early. ‘When the clocks change, you have to go out later unless you can find a totally dark indoor space to work in,’ she says.
One of the best things about light painting for Claire is that it encourages young people to take on a creative hobby because they are so intrigued by the practice. She explains that one night when she was out with a group, they bumped into a group of school kids loitering around the Ouseburn Valley with nothing to do. ‘They started watching what we were doing and became so interested,’ she says. ‘Before we knew it, they’d started joining in.’
Claire has an exciting year ahead. She’s giving talks at The Photography Show in Birmingham in March, and hoping to add a splash of colour to more North East locations including Chillingham Castle and Eggleston Abbey. In a nutshell, Claire says that her favourite thing about this hobby is that you can be just as creative and daring as a graffiti artist, without getting in trouble. ‘You scribble all over the walls using light, and it just disappears,’ she says.
To find out more about light painting and how to get involved, join the North East Light Painters group on Facebook