f Picture This: Phototherapy|May 2018| TPW magazine
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Picture This: Phototherapy

Photographer uses light like an artist's brush to enhance night shots.

By Earl Nottingham

Ken Zoller tries his best to maintain sanity while working a day job in the bustling West Texas oil business. However, on many evenings, the Midland native unwinds with what he refers to as his “phototherapy.”

This kind of therapy typically begins just after sunset — the period photographers refer to as “blue light” — and can continue late into the night. With a camera, tripod and flashlight in hand, he travels to remote locations and rustic historical structures in West Texas and New Mexico to photograph them against the starlit sky, illuminating his silhouetted subjects with a variety of light sources using the technique referred to as light painting.

Zoller scouts for days, weeks and sometimes months before he begins shooting. Once he finds a location, he determines the best time and day to shoot based on the directional orientation of the subject against the night skies, especially if he is trying to include the Milky Way in the image. He finds smartphone apps such as The Photographer’s Ephimeris and PhotoPills useful to determine the optimum date and time and typically prefers to shoot on the night of a new moon to maximize a starlit sky. Other times, he will include the light from a full moon to illuminate a scene.


Painting with light requires a digital camera, tripod, electronic cable release and some type of handheld light. Almost any type of flashlight can be used if the beam angle is variable. Using manual camera settings and a cable release, the shutter is tripped for a period of roughly 15-30 seconds to gather the light from the stars and to give the photographer enough time to move away from the camera and paint the subject with the flashlight by moving it back and forth and up and down until the subject has been completely lit. Exposures of longer than 30 seconds can be used, but any stars in the sky will be rendered as trails as they move through the sky.

Zoller’s go-to combination is a 16mm lens, f/5.6 at 25 seconds and an ISO of 3200. His favorite light is a small LED, but he often uses small, inexpensive, battery-powered tea lights inside a structure to accent small areas. Trial and error usually determines the proper combination of shutter speed and subject lighting. With infinite variables of exposure and lighting combinations, no two images are ever the same. This serendipitous process makes the experience quite enjoyable.

When painting with light, it’s easy to fixate on the technical aspects of capturing the image, such as shutter speed, aperture, ISO, etc. However, like the master artist who has perfected the use of his palette and brushes, Zoller uses strokes of light to define the textures and forms of his natural and manmade subjects. He reveals their character and allows them to silently speak the stories of their past as they erode through centuries or millennia, framed against the infinite universe behind them.

See Ken’s work at www.kenzoller.com.

Please send questions and comments to Earl at earl.nottingham@tpwd.texas.gov. For more tips on outdoor photography, visit the magazine’s photography page at www.tpwmagazine.com/photography.


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For more on TP&W magazine photography, go to our Photography page


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