Painting with light
JanLeonardo is a pioneer in light art photography. With his creative ideas and spectacular pictures, he is setting new standards. When taking his pictures, which are extremely complex to create, he uses only ZEISS lenses — most recently the Otus 1.4/28.
When photographers talk about light art photography, one name always comes up: JanLeonardo Wöllert, these days known by his artist’s name JanLeonardo. He didn’t invent light painting, but for the last ten years he has lifted this fascinating genre to a higher professional level thanks to his creative ideas. In light painting the photographer doesn’t use natural ambient light; instead the pictures are created in complete darkness. The light comes from flashlights, which the photographer uses like paintbrushes, while the camera is set for exposure times lasting minutes. In this way images are created with unusual color compositions, and pictures emerge with artistically completely free forms of flowing light.
JanLeonardo likes to tell the story of how he discovered this exotic type of photography. During a photo shoot, he was accidently locked into an old barn at night. To kill time, he started taking pictures with the light of his flashlight and headlight. Over the years, he has added more and more styles, and has developed most of his equipment himself — except for the camera and lenses.
JanLeonardo switched to the Sony α7 series as its digital viewfinder works like a night vision device, making it ideal for his style of photography. He’s equally convinced about the merits of his ZEISS lenses, in particular the new Otus 1.4/28, which can easily deliver the exposure for the 42 megapixels of the Sony α7R II chip, including all the way to the edges and when using a large iris. Even when zooming in on a 4K monitor, you see no out-of-focus areas. “An incredible lens.”
A canola field, a cherry tree – there are certainly hundreds such images at photo agencies. But none like the image JanLeonardo took in early May 2016 in the village of Weihe near Bremen. With Google Maps, he had searched for a place with a tree standing in the middle of a field. Such places are rare because farmers don’t like to drive around trees. But in the photograph above, everything was just right. Yet it took JanLeonardo a lot of effort and many hours to create this image. There was no moon that night, so the field was completely dark. Only his headlamp provided some orientation.
The picture was created in various steps. First, JanLeonardo put the camera on a tripod, focused on infinity in order to make the tree sharp, and opened the shutter. With an LED flashlight and special filters, which he focused very narrowly, he illuminated the tree in the color of lilac. With the shutter still open, JanLeonardo now focused on the foreground, using a different iris setting. Equipped with a cold light lamp, he walked all round the field – a hundred meters to the left and then the same distance to the right – and painted the light on the rape blossoms from different directions.
Working at night like this is extremely stressful due to the distances in total darkness and because I have to watch out for what I illuminate and not where I’m walking.
Naturally, this night owl makes sure he works in a way that respects nature. “I don’t destroy anything, I don’t crush anything with my feet and I never leave behind garbage. Unfortunately, others who have been there have not done the same.”
The picture at Teufelsmoor (Devil’s Swamp) was created in much the same way, but was even more arduous. JanLeonardo had gotten stuck with his car and had had to call a hauling service. He used the time to walk through the nearby nature reserve and take this picture. Again, it was pitch-black, even though the image looks as if it were taken at sunset. The radiance on the horizon comes from the city of Hagen, Germany. The camera collects enough light during the long exposure time so that the city lights become visible. The light in the foreground – not only from the beech trees, but also along the entire edge of the water in the background — also comes from a flashlight. The high grasses along the water’s edge are white; the color comes from hoar frost. (That night, the temperature dropped to minus 10 degrees Celsius.) “The photo radiates peace, yet it was a huge effort to create it.”
In this photo, too, JanLeonardo drew from his long and rich experience by changing the distance settings and iris several times. As a result, the entire image is sharp and perfectly illuminated, and the stars paint fine lines with a distinctive light dot at the end. JanLeonardo, the light art pioneer, won’t reveal how exactly he did that. Some colleagues have copied his techniques in the past and then claimed they invented them. “Some people can be pretty arrogant. There’s a high level of envy in the community.”
“Every now and then I have to prove that I’m still capable of developing new ideas.” Spectacular are his newer compositions that have been created from various techniques, such as this picture, which was taken in the Bürgerpark in Bremen. One of the techniques is called the “drunken boy”. In order to illuminate the path that leads into the park in a light and absolutely consistent way, the photographer walked along the path like a drunk, all the time holding a flashlight in his hand which he holds in the direction of the bushes on the left and right. That was only the first stage in creating this image; but the longest one, lasting several minutes.
Next, the lens is darkened with a cloth. Then he turns his attention to the strange blue flashes on the ground. JanLeonardo creates these flashes by using electro-luminescent cables, which look like clotheslines illuminated from the inside. They are available in various pre-defined colors, but JanLeonardo has also developed a variation whereby he can freely mix the color from RGB (red, green, blue) color parts. These cannot be bought in a store – like so many of the technical tools that JanLeonardo has designed and constructed himself. With the light cable, he performs a kind of witch dance as he whips the cable on the ground in the center of the image, creating hundreds of flashes. Once again, the lens is darkened and AnnaLeonarda (another artist name) enters the image. AnnaLeonarda is JanLeonardo’s muse, assistant, girlfriend and model. The cloth is then removed, and for ten seconds the light is painted on the person. Now the picture is done.
For every one of these images you need absolute concentration. JanLeonardo must never stand still between the lights and camera, and never illuminate his face. If the lamp lights his body, that’s not so problematic because JanLeonardo always wears dark clothing and is always moving.
JanLeonardo’s pictures are becoming more and more intricate. One reason is to stay ahead of the competition. Classic light painting images with free-standing illuminated figures in front of a dark background are becoming more and more rare in his portfolio. But if a client wants something like that, the artist shows that he can set standards in this area, too. An example is the Motus series (‘motus’ is Latin for movement, performance, emotion) for the world’s largest PC maker. This series tries to visualize the power and high clock speed of the PC maker’s computers through impressive stroboscope images. For the Motus disk above, the photographer mounted various LED flashlights in different colors on a self-built rotating disk with a diameter of 60 to 100 centimeters. In the picture below, JanLeonardo moves the lamps around by hand. The light from the light diodes is reflected from strips of acryl, which seem to shine from inside. This complicated mix of stroboscope effects is created because the light diodes are flashing at different frequencies.
For these images JanLeonardo needs his girlfriend as assistant. She darkens the lens as the artist changes the lamp or light tool. Because, as in all light art photographs, these pictures were also created from layers of lighting captured on the chip during an exposure time. JanLeonardo refuses to do multiple exposures or compositions on the computer. All his pictures are created in one exposure. “Getting this level of perfection is hard.” You realize just how perfect his images are when you look at them in detail in the highest resolution. During one night, one, maybe two, perfect images are created. Everything else is preparation. The individual stroboscope flashes are stunningly and distinctly recognizable, as well as razor-sharp. He also attributes the richness of detail and sharpness to the Otus 1.4/28: “It’s a truly exciting and unique lens.”
Jan Leonardo Wöllert was born in Cuxhaven, in northern Germany, and grew up in Worpswede. In 2005 he started to use his pseudonym JanLeonardo. The 45-year-old lives with his girlfriend and assistant AnnaLeonarda (also an artist name) in Bremen. Wöllert is self-taught. Later he trained to be an assistant for landscape photography with large-format cameras. Around 10 years ago JanLeonardo, who describes himself as a performance designer and light art photographer, discovered light paint photography. His images are known across the globe and have been published in many blogs, forums and well-known international magazines. Global companies also hire him to take light art photographs and develop light painting performance concepts. He has also worked, for example, for the band Coldplay in this field. JanLeonardo is the initiator of the International Light Painting Award. In 2016 he is organizing the first-ever “photokina LightArt Congress”, which will take place on 23-24 September at photokina in Cologne.