Painting with light

Matt Stock has spent years developing some of the most inspiring light painting techniques around.Night time photography always sounds so blissfully simple. Wave a torch about and make a cool photo. That is, until you find yourself out in the middle of nowhere at night, unassisted on a shoot, and a trip over a loose stone results in loss of power to your torch. The only one you brought with you. That's when you realise photography after dark takes a lot of dedication and practice, but what you can achieve when you are able to use light as a paint brush makes your now stumped toe and broken torch seem completely worth it.

Matt Stock is one particularly dedicated night time photographer, who has been experimenting with lighting scenes at night for the past eight years. Based in Miami, FL, Matt finds himself drawn toward untold stories and subjects that are looking for a voice, the kind that make for fairly interesting sites during the day but can be brought to life with just the right touch of light under the stars. Matt works cooperatively with national and state parks, non-profit organisations, and historical societies to raise awareness about the world around us.

Since 2009 he has worked closely with a variety of organisations capturing these endangered spaces and in the process has helped raise funds for the protection of spaces as diverse as the Miami Marine Stadium and a collection of stilted homes in Biscayne National Park.

"I have spent the past eight years developing my signature photographic style called Painting with Light in the Dark® which I like to think of akin to sculpting with darkness as a medium. Initially I was fascinated with how subjects that are so familiar during the daylight as to become trite take on an entirely new life at night. I started to pay attention to how moonlight and sodium vapour street lights change the world at night and set about to document objects and subjects in a new light… my light."

Roberts House, ‘Stiltsville’, Biscayne National Park

Roberts House, ‘Stiltsville’, Biscayne National Park

Tell us about your usual set up and equipment.

It's funny, I used to carry every lens, every type of light, every adapter, and then realised that I am bogged down with far too much equipment. So I have since streamlined and as I am writing this, I have my gear bags next to me as I have a shoot tonight and to light up an entire stadium I am carrying less gear than when I first started out lighting a single sailboat.

What do you look for when choosing your subject or location?

My subjects don’t have to be the most unique object in the world or in the most dangerous locations. In fact I like shooting something that has been around for awhile or is familiar to people so I can show it to them in a way they have never seen it before.

How do you plan how you will a scene?

I play a daily game that I like to call “how would I light that?” and I play it everywhere! I play it in my car driving, at a restaurant, everywhere. This lets me get on location and very quickly have a vision for how I want the overall scene to be set up. Then once I get on location I will capture up to one-hundred different exposures with the help of my crew and painstakingly illuminate each element in the scene.

Tell me a little more about the crew you work with on your shoots. Are they other photographers or experts in other fields such as diving? 

Definitely the latter. I try to have experts in the fields I will be working in accompany me on my shoots so that means working with naturalists, park rangers, architectural preservationists, professional boat captains and SCUBA instructors. We work in quite inhospitable environments and I need to be sure my crew comes prepared for any eventuality we may encounter be it salt water crocodile, bear, or wolverine.

Do you have any on location tips or lessons you had to learn the hard way?

Remote scouting is definitely your friend on remote expeditions. Google Earth has been a lifesaver more than once. I would also suggest that people check every weather variable they can before planning a large expedition to a remote area: not just rain but lunar cycle and tides are all very important to monitor.

How do you light paint under water?

Very carefully! I use a variety of dive lights and underwater strobes that I give to my crew of experienced divers and sailors.

How do you combine star trails with your light painting?

I like to think of stars as cast members. Sometimes they get starring roles (pun intended) and sometimes they are just minor players, but they complete the scene and help me tell a story. So if I am working with a dramatic background I may want longer star trails to appear, if I am working with something more subdued, I may only wants points of light. It all depends.

What are your top light painting tips?

Look at what is out there online and see what style fits your aesthetic and then get out there and start shooting. There is no better teacher than experience. Again, it took me eight years to get to where I am so you have to start somewhere. Also, take copious notes while you are out there!

Crystal River, Florida. Taken with Triggertrap! Weee!

Crystal River, Florida. Taken with Triggertrap! Weee!

What do you usually do to your photos in post, and what programs do you use?

I use Photoshop, Lightroom, and a few other third party plug-ins when I work. But in terms of work in post-production, most of the work happens in camera adjusting white balance and using many, many filters on location. Then when I get back to my studio I start adding layer upon layer of exposure together, weaving them together like a digital tapestry.

Do you use Triggertrap in your photography?

Yes! I used it recently to create some time lapse footage and as a remote trigger in Crystal River, Florida on a location shoot expanding my portfolio of Florida’s natural beauty.

In 2012 Matt Stock was asked to give a talk at TEDx Coconut Grove about his photographic technique and this year he won an Honourable Mention in the International Colour Awards Photography Master’s Cup. More of his fantastic light painting creations can be found on his website or on Coconut Grove Gallery and Galerie du Soleil.