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Rod Evans Spins Lights Around People Under Stellar Skies

Rod Evans Spins Lights Around People Under Stellar Skies

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“I am actually a little bit OCD when it comes to getting things right”, says Australian photographer Rod Evans about his attention to detail in photography. Enraptured by the night sky after stopping by the roadside during a drive in 2015, he now blends light painting with scenic night sky locations across the country. Rod uses some familiar and some outright unusual tools for creating his photographs. All of which we’re going to take a look at in this in-depth interview.

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If you thought light painting was as simple as swirling an illuminated object around a stationary subject, think again. Rod Evans does a fair bit of planning and post-production, in addition to the efforts on location, to bring out a crisp, colorful light painting image. Check out the list below to see how varied and complex the gear requirements can be to produce an eye-catching light painting photograph. It’s not all in the gear though. Rod takes his time to get the shapes and patterns exactly to his liking – a process that could take hours at times. This is made more complex when he frames his subjects against the Milky Way

The Essential Photo Gear Used by Rod Evans

A 360 portrait of Rod spinning steel wool in his front yard

Rod told us:

  • Canon 650D / T4i
  • Canon 750D / T6i
  • Canon EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM Lens
  • Yongnuo RF605C trigger
  • Hama DCSS trigger system
  • Insta360 ONE X, ONE X2 and ONE R 360 cameras
  • Weifeng WF-6663A tripods
  • Black optic fibre brush
  • LED umbrella
  • Portrait scanner
  • LightPainter – Ryu’s Lightworks” Edition flashlight
  • Fotorgear Magilight
  • Fiberflies Pixelwhip
  • Homemade light flute (basically a PVC pipe with holes cut in it)
  • Coloured gels to go over the torches
  • Sparklers
  • Acrylic tubes
  • Clear fibre optic
  • Sellotape, duct tape
  • Lots of batteries
  • Glow in the dark plastic stars to mark positions on the ground in the dark
  • Odd plastic trinkets (found at dollar stores) that I use on the ends of the tubes

My most useful camera toys are my remote shutter releases; the Yongnuo RF605C and my newest addition, the Hama DCCS system which is awesome as it allows me to operate the camera from up to 150 m away. Both remotes are great for light painting, particularly when I’m stuck on top of a waterfall alone and can’t keep racing down to check the image on the back of the camera.

The Phoblographer: Please tell us about yourself and how you got into photography.

Rod Evans: I’m a 44 year old primary school teacher who currently resides in northern New South Wales, Australia. In 2013 I was living in Brisbane when I enrolled in a Diploma of Screen and Media at a local TAFE college. In that course that I needed a DSLR camera primarily for capturing video, but it was when I moved down to northern New South Wales in 2015 that I found a new use for my camera. I was driving out on a quiet country road one night when I noticed the sky was clear, so I thought I would pull over and see if I could spot the Milky Way. I hopped out of the car, and there she was, stretched out across the western night sky.

Luckily, I had my Canon DSLR in the car, so I set it up on a tripod in a grassy paddock and captured my first image of the Milky Way. From that moment on, I was hooked. At first, I was mainly doing landscape and astrophotography, and then I teamed up with my friend Caroline Fisher one night, who showed me how to do steel wool spinning in the street outside her house. That was my first foray into long exposure light painting (which has become my primary focus over the last 4 years).

I really love light painting because it gets me out from behind the camera and puts me in front of the lens where I can let my creativity run wild. Other than the Diploma of Screen and Media, I really have had no formal training in photography. I’ve basically taught myself just from watching YouTube tutorials and getting out there and experimenting.

A reflected orb under the Milky Way. The white in the orb is created with ice

The Phoblographer: What’s the secret behind getting such a sharp image? Asking the subject to not breathe for a 30 second exposure? (just kidding). Jokes aside though, how many takes did it take to get this stunner?

Rod Evans: My light painting shoots usually range from 1 to 2 hours. During that time, I usually try a whole range of different shapes and patterns using different light painting tools. I am actually a little bit OCD when it comes to getting things right, so if I’m doing an orb or a spiral on location in a train tunnel or at a rockpool by the sea under the Milky Way, I will keep on light painting until I get a shot I’m happy with. Once I’ve got it, I can then pack up and go home.

Light painting with models can be difficult when you need them to stay still (anywhere from 10 to 60 seconds, depending on the circumstances). There are a few different ways you can light a model for light painting; sometimes I will use a rear curtain flash to illuminate them; other times, I will have them standstill for the entire length of the exposure and paint them in with a torch at the end. Recently I have used a portrait scanner (from Light Painting Brushes) to illuminate the model. That tool is great as I only need to illuminate the model for a couple of seconds, and they usually come out pin sharp.

Milky Way spiral. Tool used was a red acrylic tube with a yellow plastic tip.

The Phoblographer: Does the 500 rule and NPF rule come into play a lot when you calculate your outdoor light painting shots, or does the subject’s exposure take precedence over the stars?

Rod Evans: When I first bought my 10-18mm lens, I used the 500 rule to calculate that when shooting at 10mm, I could get a maximum of 30 seconds before the stars started to streak. I’ve never used the NPF rule. When light painting, some of the exposures can be up to 10 minutes long, which (when combined with astrophotography) will obviously produce long star trails. This cannot be avoided when shooting a single exposure, but one way to combat star trails would be to do a composite/blend of two exposures; take a nice clean shot of the stars and then blend that with the foreground shot using Photoshop. I have done blends before, but I generally don’t mind having star trails in my lights painting images.

Spirals under the Milky Way. Tool used was an orange acrylic tube with a purple plastic tip.

The Phoblographer: I see a lot of floral patterns and swirls in there. When you head out to such spots, what are the factors that make you decide what kind of shapes to paint?

Rod Evans: Over the last few years, I have practiced a lot of spiral shapes and spherical orbs, as I find them easy to produce (using colored acrylic tubes), and I love how they look. I expect a lot of viewers would get sick of seeing me do orbs and spiral shapes all the time, but I do branch out from time to time and try new shapes.

Sometimes I choose a shape to match a specific location. Once I’ve practiced and mastered a shape (and got the image I’m after), I will usually do an orb or a spiral at the location just because I can. I often go through my old photos from years ago and discover shapes that I created that came out quite well and that I haven’t visited since then, so it’s good to go back and remind myself of what I’ve tried and what I could perhaps, one day revisit.

Train tunnel flower. Tool used was the acrylic shaft of an LED umbrella

The Phoblographer: There’s bound to be a few naysayers who’d say this kind of an image isn’t a single exposure. How do you deal with criticism and doubt of this sort when it comes to your work?

Rod Evans: Over the last few years, there have been one or two people who have cast doubt whether an image of mine is a single exposure, but usually, most people just believe me when I say it is. I am very honest and forthcoming with technical information in my social media posts; if the image is a composite, then I will let people know that.

Sometimes I will direct people to my tutorials where they can actually see how I create my light painting shapes. When combining light painting and astro, the light source used with a tool needs to be quite dim so as not to overexpose the image (due to the high ISO needed to capture the stars). I guess some naysayers can’t comprehend the ability of the tools I use for light painting.  Oh well, I do my best to explain my set-up; if they don’t believe me then that’s their problem. I know it’s a single exposure so I’m happy with that.

Mushrooms under the Milky Way. This is a composite of a Milky Way exposure and several separate mushroom exposures

The Phoblographer: Tell us about some of your favourite (photography) apps that help you plan such shoots. How much preparation typically goes into producing such an image and how much post processing?

Rod Evans: A lot of people use PhotoPills, but I actually use an Android app called PlanIt Pro, which is very similar to PhotoPills. I mainly use PlanIt to find where the moon is going to rise and where I need to be to capture it over a certain landmark or where I need to be to capture the Milky Way over a specific location such as a dead straight country road or rocky outcrop on a beach (which I have used a few times to capture light painting images).

My light painting and astro shots usually require some editing to boost the exposure and clarity of the Milky Way. Sometimes I will use a clone tool or healing brush to remove blemishes or slightly blurred spots where you can see me in the middle of an orb, but usually, the light painting doesn’t get touched.

Milky Way orb with my dear friend Rachel absorbing its energy

The Phoblographer: The colours that the light tubes produce is entirely within your control. But what happens when the skies and galaxies don’t turn out to be as vivid as you’d hoped to be? What’s the best way to deal with these scenarios

Rod Evans: Sometimes, the color of the tube can really throw off the color of the whole image (particularly the sky). I always set my DSLR on auto white balance as I usually adjust the color and white balance in Post. I do spend quite a bit of time editing my light painting images in post.

The Phoblographer: I’ve never heard of anyone using a contraceptive before for a light painting photograph. How on earth did you come up with the idea for this? Tell us about your favourite image shot using one of these

Rod Evans: I was sitting at home one night trying to figure out how I could attach ice to a torch and use it for light painting. I went to work the next day and told a colleague about the problem I was facing, and he suggested using a condom to contain the ice. Genius! So I went home, filled a condom with water and stuck it in the freezer. A few nights later, the sky was clear, so I wrapped the ice condom in a towel, placed it in a cooler and drove as fast as I could (about a 30-minute drive) down to one of my favorite beach locations, a rock pool by the sea. When I got there, I quickly attached the ice condom to an orange acrylic tube and captured a few shots under the Milky Way; the two I was most happy with were an orb and a spiral plant-like shape. After about half an hour, the ice in the condom melted (due to ambient temperature and/or the heat from the torch), and that was that. Game over. I actually still have the condom in my freezer; it’s been sitting there for over a year now. I probably should go out and do some more photos with it.

Spiral plant created with ice attached to a torch.

The Phoblographer: You’re also someone who does a fair bit of 360 images. Any plans to combine this with light painting some day?

Rod Evans: I have done a few 360 light painting images, particularly around the yard of the house I lived in a few years ago (it had dark skies and great views of the Milky Way). One of them was a steel wool shot I did in the front yard of that place. That image was picked up by Insta360 in 2019 and used to promote their One X camera.

Tool used was a clear acrylic tube attached to an RGB colour-fading torch.

The Phoblographer: Do you also camp out a lot to connect with these beautiful spots after you’re done with the images? How important is that when it comes to being inspired

Rod Evans: I have camped out at locations before but generally I don’t because I actually live within half an hour drive of all these amazing locations so I can actually go out for a shoot and then come home and go to bed. I do love camping though (and at times I miss it). Might be time for me to go off-grid for a while.

All images by Rod Evans. Used with permission. Check out his Instagram page, Redbubble store and Youtube channel for more of his work