Impossible Photography

By Ole Utne Back to


Michael Ross found a way to merge the nerdy techno freak side of him with his interest in photography. Today he is one of the most well known artists in the light painting community.

What is your background, and what is the reason you got into light painting?

I was raised around electronics and computers, so I have a good background in both hardware and software. I ran the IT department in a large Home Health Care company with 11,000 employees across the state of Texas. I have always had an interest in photography, but in 2008 I decided to get myself a decent camera and concentrate on learning it for real.

My first meeting with something similar to light painting was when I took some long exposure images of my nieces playing with sparklers. I also ran into a few other light painting photographers at the time, and from that point I was sucked into it. I started to dream about a way to control light to the point to where I could literally make a painting out of light, just like an artist does with oil and canvas. That was my dream. I envisioned being able to light paint the Mona Lisa or a Picasso in the air in the midst of a landscape.

Big goals make big men or so I’ve heard. In the light painting community it seems like you are already walking around as a living legend, true?

I think what sets me apart from most other light painters is that I have a much more structured approach. I concentrate on trying to perfect different techniques to get the exact effect I am looking for. I have caught a lot of attention from other light painters through some of the tools I have made. For example, what I consider to be the ultimate light painting tool: a digital light strip that can be programmed to turn lights on and off in a sequence using an array of colors to help paint the picture for me in a more structured manner. When I finally created the first version of that tool, it caught a lot of attention from other light painters.

The ‘Straight Out Of Camera rule’ is something that light painters pride themselves on; what do you think of the SOOC rule in light painting?

I think the most important thing with the SOOC rule is that it helps others understand that light paintings are photographs and not computer-generated graphics.

With that said, I think every photographer should strive for taking SOOC pictures. It is a drive for perfection that I think applies very well to all kinds of photography. But it is especially challenging with light painting. Imagine having a blank canvas and invisible paint, and that you can’t see what you have created before you are finished. It takes a lot of planning and thought to create an image that starts off in your head and you won’t see it until the work is complete. It is probably as far from WYSIWYG as you get.

The technological aspect is important to you I guess?

Definitely, even though I am an artist in other ways as well, including painting with acrylics and pen and pencil drawings. I think what makes me enjoy it so much is that I am able to use my technical abilities in the art. Being able to think of a specific light painting challenge and then coming up with the tools and techniques to meet that challenge is a large part of why I enjoy light painting. I get a kick out of the reaction other light painters get when I throw something new at them.


It’s interesting that you mention that. I have often speculated on the link between light painting artists and magicians. I guess it must be awesome tomake an image and have your audience baffled as to how it was created−am I onto something?

I love to show others how my light paintings are created. A lot of people will look at a light painting and think that it is some sort of computer trickery. Many still do not understand even if you explain it to them. But when they watch a light painting being created, the look on their face when the image shows up on the back of the camera is priceless! It’s like a light has turned on in their heads and now they understand.

There are some light painters that do not like to give away their secrets and that’s fine. To me, light painting tools are like brushes to fine art painters. It is how the brush is used that matters. Everyone has their own techniques and styles in the use of those tools. It is great to see how others use the same tool to create completely different images.

SOOC Triptych

Many artists choose to settle for a small, specific project over a longer period of time, often over several years. Do you think you are ever going to do that?

No, that’s just not me. I will always be trying new tools and techniques. I have so many ideas written down on new tools I want to create and new things I want to do that it is going to take a lifetime to achieve all of my plans. Some tools in my idea box are very simple and some are much more complex than the programmable light strip I’ve created.

So I guess we have a lot to look forward to, then! Where are you in two years from now?

I will of course continue experimenting with new techniques and tools. Light painting with an airplane across the sky (like skywriting with smoke) is something that has crossed my mind several times. Besides experimenting, I also love to spread the word about light painting, and get new people involved. Light painting has gained a lot in popularity the past year or so, and there is always room for more people to try it.

Teaching is one of the best ways to learn about something as far as I am concerned, I continue to explore the unexplored corners of light painting, and share my discoveries with others.

What is your number one tip for the aspiring light painter?

One thing I like to emphasize with new light painters is to remember that the camera is used the same way at night as it is during the daylight. Aperture and how it affects DOF, shutter speeds, ISO settings, etc. all still need to be used the same as you would in composing and creating an image during the day. The only basic difference is the amount of light that is available for the photos that you are taking. And in the case of light painting, you will introduce a lot, if not all of the light in the photo. Keeping all that in mind, what I usually do is start with a vision or an idea of the finished photo in my head or even sketched on paper.

Think about what light tools will be needed for each element to obtain the effect you are looking for. Also think about the flow of how the image will be created with each light element. How will you arrange your tools in the dark so that you will be able to keep track of which tool you need for the next part of the image? Consider how you’ll keep track of where you are with every step of creating an image.

Here is the best advice I have ever been given myself and that I like to pass on to others: Don’t be afraid to shoot for the moon, even if you miss and land among the stars, you still have made a great achievement!

Some of Mike’s light painting tools

10 Tips For Inventing Brand New Light Painting Tools

1. Anything that emits light can be used as a light painting tool.

2. Anything that modifies or diffuses light can be used with any tool that emits light to give different textures or effects in light painting.

3. Moving a light tool in different ways or even aimed in different directions can change the way a tool looks in relation to the camera during light painting.

4. Learn a little about the basics of electricity and specifically LED circuits.

5. Don’t assume that an idea will not work until you have tried it in front of a camera. It may surprise you.

6. Put a key light on a long stick to extend your reach.

7. Use a battery powered drill to spin lights in a new way.

8. Use cardboard and cut out a shape that you can use as a guide to help with hand drawing, or as a stencil.

9. Use fireworks or even gunpowder and smoke to add special effects to a photo.

10. Mechanical things such as bicycle wheels, levers, hinges and light stands can come in handy in creating a new tool.

About the Author

Ole Utne
Ole Utne is currently studying his third and last year at Westerdals School of Communication to complete his bachelor degree in Art Direction. He has also completed three years in Media & Communication and has one year working experience from the advertising agency DMT in between the two schools. Starting next semester, he will be working as art director with a fashion photographer based in Norway.