Light Painting World Alliance - Light is Paint, Night is Canvas

Written by Rick Dobble 


     Time is very different now than it was before photography. Before photography there were only written records, which were often subjective, along with paintings and drawings -- plus memories that were often flawed or that faded within a few year's time.

     Photography freezes time. Photography can record reality, objects and details in the real world, independent of our memories. This objective ability can allow us to view the past without the mist of emotions, the rose colored glasses that often tint our recollection of the past.

     Why photography is the art of time: A photographic exposure is a combination of the amount of light coming through the lens combined with the amount of time that light is allowed to hit light sensitive material. Time is at the core of photography. This works in two ways. 
One: the moment the photo is shot freezes an instant in time.
Two: the length of the shutter speed can capture an image so that it looks normal to the human eye or capture a picture in ways that the eye cannot see.
Photographs are used routinely in court cases and other legal matters because they are believed to show an objective picture of reality. While not entirely true, the phrase, "the camera doesn't lie" echoes this idea.

     Time, in a sense, can now be grabbed, taken hold of. We can look at our past in our family photo album or an old yearbook.

     100 years ago when Kodak introduced the Brownie, photography became available to every level of society, from government, to companies, to the upper class and to the average citizen. 

     The Wikipedia article on the Brownie included this fascinating comment:
In 1908, the Austrian architectural critic Joseph August Lux wrote a book called Künstlerische Kodakgeheimnisse (Artistic Secrets of the Kodak) in which he championed the use of the camera for its cultural potential. ...he argued that the accessibility the camera provided for the amateur meant that people could photograph and document their surroundings and thus produce a type of stability in the ebb and flow of the modern world.

     Now, of course, there are many subjective aspects to photography in which a photographer can chose what to photograph or emphasize and what to leave out -- or even stage the shot. Yet at the moment the shutter is snapped, the photograph is a real world record of what was in front of the lens. (See footnote about Photoshop.)

Look at your family album with photos from ten or twenty years ago. A sharp shot will show the patterns on a dress, the hair cuts, the toys, the decorations in precise detail -- detail that could not have been preserved any other way.

                              We might call the time before photography, pre-photographic;
                                         just as we call the time before written records, prehistoric.
                            If there is truth to the idea that "a picture is worth a thousand words,"
                           then visual/photo literacy is now just as important as the written word.
     The illiterate of the future will be the person ignorant of the use of the camera as well as the pen.
                                                            Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

     If you think that I am exaggerating the importance of photography, try to imagine the world without it: no television with photography (film, video, still photos), no instant replays, no YouTube videos, movies, camera-phone snap shots, no photos sent to you on your cell phone, no baby pictures, no yearbook portraits, no photos in catalogues, online stores, newspapers, books or blogs...

                              THE FOLLOWING 18 PHOTOGRAPHS ARE FROM 100 YEARS OF WAR

     These pictures demonstrate the power of photography. They affect us today not only because they document war in precise detail - detail that historians will study for centuries -- but because we know that they recorded an actual moment of real people whose lives were wrenched apart. No other art form has this feeling of reality and brings the past alive. 
NOTE: This series of photographs shows war in all its horrible extremes from death to unbridled joy when the war was over - and contains pictures that may be disturbing to some readers. Viewer discretion is advised.


The Union locomotive "Hero" was captured by Confederates in the US Civil War during the fighting in Atlanta.
                                     (Mathew Brady -


Blowup of a portion of the above photo. A railroad buff would be able to glean volumes about the construction
of this engine from the sharp detail in this photograph.
                                 (Mathew Brady -


Did you know that balloons were used in the US Civil War? I didn't. This photo reveals a variety of information.                                                             (Mathew Brady -


                         Ambulance during the US Civil War.(Mathew Brady -


                     Dead Confederate soldier at the siege of Petersburg, Virginia --US Civil War.

                                     (Mathew Brady -


    The last photograph of Lincoln before he wasassassinated.(Mathew Brady -


                      Damage in London by German bombers during the Blitz -- World War II.


                 People walking by smoldering destruction in London during the Blitz in World War II.


                               Abandoned boy in London toward the end of the war -- World War II.


                                                   German solder during World War I.


   The famous Soviet T-34 tanks in night fighting in the winter during what the Russians called "the Great Patriotic War."


Soviet soldiers relaxing during a lull in the fighting during the Great Patriotic War.(


    A US officer looking at a dead 'last stand' German soldier he believed had killed a number of his men                                                           in the battle for Cherbourg,France-- World War II.


                                  Destruction in Berlin as a result of the war -- World War II.


           Celebration in Times Square, New York City  after the surrender of the Japanese in World War II.
     This photo shows the many happy faces of young men who now knew they would not have to fight and die.


Civilians caught in the middle of deadly fighting during the Vietnam War being directed by a South Vietnamese soldier.


       Wounded US soldier during the Tet offensive in the town of Hue during the Vietnam War.


One of many confrontations between protesters and authorities in the United States, during the Vietnam War.

     Footnote: Okay - Photoshop can change what the camera saw, but that is a different question. Plus digital manipulation is usually pretty obvious and only a tiny fraction of the billions of photos being shot now are being altered.

     "All media are extensions of man that cause deep and lasting changes in him and transform his environment".
                                                                                                             Marshall McLuhan

     "The camera has offered us amazing possibilities, which we are only just beginning to exploit...for although photography is already over a hundred years old it is only in recent years that the course of development has allowed us to see beyond the specific instance and recognize the creative consequences".
                                                                                                            Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

     Technologies can extend our reach physically and allow us to go beyond the limits of our senses. Television brings events from around the world into our living rooms, for example, and photography lets us see in the non-visible part of the light (electromagnetic) spectrum such as in the x-ray or infrared wavelengths.


     X-ray of a human hand (left); normal photo of a tree (bottom right), infrared shot of the same tree (top right).
                                         The camera can 'see' in ways that the human eye cannot.

     But, photography also extended our ability to perceive time. It has expanded our sense of time -- which I believe is another sense just like touch or smell or hearing but even more important.

     As you will see in the following photographs, we can now take a one million second exposure to reveal 10,000 galaxies in the furthest part of the universe and also millisecond or nanosecond shots of subatomic particles. These long and short exposures give us a slice of time and the power to see worlds unavailable to the eye. The ability of photography to do this has allowed us to confirm that the universe was created with the Big Bang. It has also allowed us to discover the most fundamental building blocks of matter with photographs of subatomic particles released in high speed collisions.

     In my research I found that "starting as early as 1840, cameras were designed to take photographs with astronomical telescopes. After 1900 large telescopes were optimized for photography rather than for observation -- making them essentially telephoto cameras." Coupling photography with astronomy has led to many of the major discoveries about the universe during the last 100 years -- discoveries that were only possible with long exposure photographs. 


This composite photograph was included in Edwin Hubble's doctoral dissertation of 1917 and shows photographs of different types of 'spiral nebulae'. Later Hubble proved that spiral nebulae were galaxies outside our own galaxy, the Milky Way. Up until then everyone had assumed that the Milky Way was the entire universe but because of photography scientists found that the universe was much larger than anyone had imagined.
From Edwin Hubble's Ph.D. dissertation: Photographic Investigations of Faint Nebulae (

     Even in the normal world photography can 'see' things that the eye cannot see: events that happen much faster and also events that happen much slower -- such as a photo finish at a race, a bullet piercing a light bulb, the time lapse growth of a plant or the slow motion replay of a touchdown at a football game.

     In addition artists have used photographic long exposures to capture continuous motion -- to reveal a moment in time smeared across the picture area like a painting. Or photography can capture moving light sources, such as flashlights used like paint brushes, to create light painting photographs taken over many seconds or even minutes. As a photo artist I have used both of these techniques for over 10 years now and have written a book about it: Experimental Digital Photography, Rick Doble, Sterling Publishing, New York/London, 2010.


     Chronophotography: Named for the primal Greek god of sequential time, Chronos, chronophotography was invented by Edweard Muybridge in the 1870s and produces a number of sharp photographs of movement in sequence. The series on the right shows Muybridge's famous sequence of a horse galloping in which he proved that all four hooves left the ground at the same time (top right) - which the human eye could not see. Photo on the left shows a modern day chronophotograph of a diver, very similar to diving photos shown on TV at the Olympics.


One million second exposure of deep space by the Hubble telescope; this is a cropped enlarged detail showing over a hundred galaxies.  The full original photo shows about 10,000 galaxies in the deepest part of the universe. 



Photograph of the first atomic bomb test, code named Trinity, 25 milliseconds after its detonation in New Mexico USA on July 16, 1945. Taken with a Rapatronic camera developed by Harold 'Doc' Edgerton, the high speed photography wizard, exposures of atomic blasts were frequently about 10 nanoseconds (0.00001 milliseconds).


A streamer chamber photograph of subatomic particles: a proton-antiproton interaction at CERN´s Super Proton Synchrotron in 1982.


                       Very fast photo triggered at the moment a bullet pierced a light bulb.


                                                         Photo finish of a race.


The same water current taken at a very fast and a very slow shutter speed. The fast shutter speed photo at the top shows water in sharp frozen detail, much sharper than the eye can see; the slow shutter speed photo at the bottom shows the same water soft and foaming -- again in a way that the eye cannot see.


'Light painting' digital photograph: a self-portrait taken at eight seconds. Digital photography has expanded the ability of artists to use photography for artistic purposes. This self-portrait I took of myself was done entirely by me with a handheld flashlight in one shot. (Rick Doble)


                                           Time lapse animation of a flower blooming.

NOTE: Not only did photography reveal the subatomic world, its discoveries led to the invention of the digital camera -- as the image sensors on digital cameras work because of our understanding of quantum physics.

(All unmarked images from

Sergey Churkin
Comment by Sergey Churkin
Yes, photography is really deconstructing the time :) And light painting photography makes this process more visible :)Thank you Rick for your thoughts!

Felipe Ferreira
Comment by Felipe Ferreira
"The camera doesn't lie". Our retinal persistence is what we call truth, is the trap to our existence But it is not real. =) Light for us all.

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