Light magic with photographer Peter Solness

Peter Solness: waterscape

Light is a big deal for photographers. Many will talk about their love of it, how to capture it, and the best times of day for it. Peter Solness has spent the past eight years painting with it. After a 25-year career as a photojournalist, traipsing around Australia and the rest of the world shooting for magazines and travel publications like Lonely Planet and Australian GEO, Peter turned his creative focus to the photographic technique of light painting. The technique typically involves shooting at night or in darkness, using slow shutter speeds and a light source, such as a torch.

These days as a practising artist and photography tutor, Peter creates shared experiences around light – whether that’s using the technique as art therapy for people with mental health issues, holding public art events involving photographers and families alike or spending all night kneeling in a national park while using a torch to illuminate an ancient rock carving. “I’m using light paining for social benefit, documentation of cultural sites and also for public art and public expression,” says Peter.

This acclaimed shooter’s photographic journey began in 1974 when he saved the money from his paper run and bought himself a Nikonos II underwater camera.

“My brother was a very skilled and entertaining surfer. He used to surf at Shark Island in Cronulla in the early days when it was first being surfed and I managed to get some good shots of him,” says Peter. And so it was, that at 16 years of age Peter had his images published in Surfing World magazine.

Peter Solness: mangrove

Continuing his interest in surfing and photography, once Peter left school he studied photography for four years at TAFE. “During those years I realised I wanted to go beyond just surfing,” he says. “I had more curiosity about the world.”

Through reading books like Susan Sontag’s On Photography as part of his studies, Peter says he became fascinated with the idea that the camera could be a storyteller. “I had questions about my life and my own country,” he says.

It was the late ‘70s and Peter was spending his time shooting his mates surfing. “None of us had regular jobs, we were all out surfing. So in a way I chose the camera to educate myself – and also have a great time,” he says. “I picked up the camera, as many photographers do, as a tool to understand and enquire, to explore my own ideas and my own curiosity, and I suppose to empower myself with a bit of knowledge.”

With the desire to learn and a curiosity to explore his own country, Peter bought a motorcycle in 1980 and headed west, away from the surf and into the outback. For two years he explored Australia. It was a time that predated outback tourism and grey nomads, and a lot of the roads were still dirt. “I came back a changed person,” he says.

“I measured my days in terms of the photographs I got,” says Peter of his travels. It was the era of film, which was expensive to buy and process so, being on a tight budget, he recalls he would arrive at a “great scene” and shoot four frames only. “I would shoot one horizontal – I’d bracket it two thirds underexposed and one third overexposed – and shoot one vertical too if I could.”

Peter got his break into the world of photojournalism when he scored a 12-page feature on his motorcycle trip in Australian GEO magazine. Adding that piece to his portfolio, Peter’s unique and insightful visual storytelling lead to a job at the Sydney Morning Herald in 1982, which launched his career as a photojournalist.

What followed was a thriving 25-year career and livelihood. Peter worked for “virtually every magazine in Australia, international publications, held exhibitions and major book productions in Russia, China and Southeast Asia,” he says.

After a great experience as a traveller and photographer, Peter says, “Finally, in 2004 I saw the writing on the wall in terms of making a living as a photojournalist.”

His work in stock photography and magazine commissions began to slow down, some agencies went broke and there was a shift in the industry as well as an influx of new photographers.

Skilled at self-reflection and reinvention, Peter admits he “often had periods in my career where I’ve had to really dig deep and say, ‘What am I doing? Where is this going?’ Followed by periods of insecurity around trying to find solutions.

“What I realised was that I have so much experience in the industry … I can problem solve.”

The photojournalist travelled to the Northern Territory to base himself in Darwin where there was still work for his “last hurrah.”

“By that stage I realised I had to regroup and decide where to take my career… you have to reinvent yourself, I’d been photographing since I was 15 years old and now I’m 58 – you just can’t keep doing the same thing for 40 years,” he says. And so Peter came to revisit light painting. It was a technique he’d played around with in his early days of surf photography, and later in a successful book of his, Tree Stories, published in 1999.

“What I found was a photographic application that required, demanded, all my skills and knowledge, and from that I have an edge over other photographers,” explains Peter. “I found it satisfying… and by doing light painting I could challenge myself and push myself to other areas that I wasn’t being pushed in through my commercial work.”

Newly reinvigorated, Peter describes it as like rediscovering photography and his love of it.

“The buzz came back,” he says. “That original fascination with photography and the magic of it was there. It was happening because I was light painting.”While photographers are used to shooting what’s in front of them – particularly true with photojournalism – with light painting, you are creating images not seen with the naked eye. “It’s a creative dialogue between what you see and what the camera can see,” says Peter.

Having worked as a photojournalist for so many years, Peter admits at first he felt conflicted with this approach. “I started off doing single images and then I started doing more shots and blending images – in camera,” he says. “The thing for me is, I’ve always seen the camera as a window to the world… I’ve never bought into the heavy post-production Photoshop and altering things to a point where you lose the connection between the world around you.”

With Peter’s work, what you see is all done in-camera, all he employs are levels and blending layers. Since exploring light painting more fully in 2009, Peter has earned a reputation for his talent in the field. He has been involved in have been numerous exhibitions, awards, participation and residencies with art events and festivals, and conducts regular workshops in Centennial Park Sydney.

Peter recently held a public art event, Orb of Light, which enthralled a crowd of 1000 spectators as about 200 people were arranged throughout the landscape, spinning orb lights on strings that Peter had hand made. He uses light painting as an educational tool for school children, too – an activity that has a performance side as well as a photographic side, which is particularly enjoyable for children.

Peter also spent time in Hill End in April as an artist in residence photographing local artists using a torch. “[Those images] have a painterly almost 17th century renaissance feeling. The light is ethereal, it’s so intriguing. It really just creates another way of seeing things,” he says.

His original inspiration for the technique was to create “this almost spiritual, mystical landscape. I wanted to give it a reverential quality.”

As for the technical side, the images Peter captures take a lot of slow, deliberate consideration. “Sometimes I spend the whole evening just doing one frame,” he says, explaining how he spent one night with a colleague on a walkie-talkie directing them to use a torch to light up an entire gorge in Kosciuszko National Park.

Peter critiques his work, questions how it will contribute to his body of work or how it offers a new way of seeing the world. “I conceive my own ideas, I realise those ideas, I go out and physically create new work, I then post-produce those and question myself around what I’m doing… I print out large format prints and … I say, ‘Is this picture going to add to what I’ve already done? Why do this picture?’”

And this is his passion: “The way it changes the way people see photography … after 40 years of practice, I’m finding whole new visual domains.” He cites his years-long work documenting Aboriginal art sites around Sydney. Peter spent hours one evening holding a torch to light up an rock art engraving.

“It was excruciating doing it but the result was a greater understanding of the Dharawal culture; that is really satisfying … what you see during the day is just this rock, but at night time there are these beautifully rendered luminous figures coming up on the rock, with the stars above – you feel like you could be there 200 years ago experiencing a mystical moment.”

Peter Solness

For more on Peter, his light painting and upcoming events, visit www.illuminated-landscape.com

Peter’s top tips

Keen to try light painting yourself? Here is some advice from the light painting master.

  1. Don’t rush. Spend time familiarising yourself with your surrounds and take time setting up.
  2. Make sure you’ve got a good, steady tripod.
  3. The best starting point is with a 30 second exposure, f/8 at ISO 200. Do a test shot, refer to your monitor and make adjustments accordingly. It’s about the learning process, so don’t worry too much.
  4. Shoot RAW files as it gives you more options.
  5. Try different types of torches and gels. Play around with cellophane over torches (or gels).
  6. Involve your family. Make it an outing and have fun!

In the bag:

Written by Emma Wheaton