The illuminating experiences of UAE artists who paint with light

Light painting photography goes back to when Picasso dabbled in the art form in the 1940s and now an increasing number of photographers in the UAE are trying to stand out by using this technique to create magical results without digital manipulation

A light painting by Jahanzeb Aamir. Courtesy JZ Aamir
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When Jahanzeb Aamir wields his self-created lightsaber-style contraption in front of UAE landmarks, with a camera positioned to capture his movements, it seems a bit peculiar.

But the resulting images are so spectacular that the photographer’s art was recently spotlighted by Instagram.

Aamir, who goes by the name JZ Aamir (@jzaamir), is a light painter, an increasingly popular form of photography that uses the movement of light and a long exposure to create striking images that illuminate a subject in different ways. The magical result is created entirely through a manual set up, with very little digital manipulation.

The technique dates back to 1889, when physiology researcher Georges Demenÿ attached bulbs to the joints of an assistant and created the first-known light-painting photograph titled Pathological Walk from in Front. Photographers began experimenting with light painting as an art in the 1930s.

Possibly the most famous light-painting images were created in the 1949, after Pablo Picasso met Life Magazine photographer Gjon Mili, who showed his light painting photographs to the artist. Picasso took his light-pen and began drawing what is known as “Picasso Draws a Centaur”.

Aamir discovered light painting when he moved to Dubai six years ago. He used his calligraphy skills in images to create uniquely designed and colourful Arabic lettering with light, against backdrops of abandoned buildings, monuments, mosques and hotels around the city and in his native Pakistan. His photograph featuring the word “love” in Arabic drawn with lights inside Jahangir’s Tomb in Lahore was featured by Instagram this month and has received more than 800,000 likes.

“ I found this technique that allows you to draw in space in front of the camera,” says Aamir. “It was more fascinating than usual photography, so I started experimenting with it. I started creating orbs and different graffiti work. Then I realised I can bring back my passion for calligraphy through this.”

The 37-year-old photographer, who is also a graphic designer and marketing specialist in Dubai, has been honing his Arabic calligraphy skills since the age of 12.

“Light painting is just a step in the direction of combining my interest of calligraphy and shooting amazing architecture and abandoned buildings,” he says. “I visited the ghost town in Ras Al Khaimah and such places in Pakistan. To me, these places tell the story of light before darkness. From there I got the idea of bringing them back to life with my light calligraphy.”

The process to creating a light painting is fraught with complications, including choosing the right time of the day and exposure. Aamir also had to work out how to get his calligraphic strokes to the right thickness.

“I tried working with LED lights that are available in the market, but it didn’t work,” he says. “In calligraphy, the lines move from thin to thick and then thin again. So typical LED lights don’t work.”

With the help of YouTube tutorials, Aamir built lights into wireless “pens” with different colours of light. He meticulously plans each image by researching historical sites and landmarks.

“I then decide which location and composition would work, making sure not to disturb the area,” he says. “Then I come home and decide what word would suit the history and story of the place. I practice it on paper and then in front of the camera before setting it up on location. Because a camera captures in reverse, I have to practice writing Arabic from left to right.”

George Durzi (@gtdurzi) is another photographer working with light. He started following the work of light-painting photographer Eric Pare a year ago and decided to create similar effects. His style generally features a yoga practitioner, who holds poses while he draws an orb of light behind her.

“The best time to take such images is during the ‘blue hour’, right when the sun is below the horizon and the sky is filled with a blue hue,” says the Jordanian national. He works as a digital marketing manager in Dubai, and also takes photography workshops at Gulf Photo Plus in Dubai and Jordan.

“This is before it goes pitch black and you can include the background but the light is softer. Anything after that is not quite attractive to capture,” he says.

“I used to struggle working with models who couldn’t stay still for that long. Now I work with a friend who is into yoga and she holds her breath while we try to capture the image.”

He also prefers shooting in the desert and near water.

“I try to find ponds and lakes so that there are reflection touches in the images.”

Lina Younes (@lina_younes), founder of the The Animation Chamber, an artist collective for animators and light painters in Dubai, says she was infatuated by Picasso's light-painting portraits and began using the technique in 2012. She.

“We can use any tool to paint, so why not light?” she asks.

“Light painting freezes static light and traces moving light, which makes it unique. It can be achieved by any form of analogue or digital camera. There is no mystery in the technique, yet the outcome is always magical.”

Younes says the required duration of the shutter speed varies depending on the location and intensity of light.

“Usually 15 to 20 seconds are more than enough to achieve a beautiful image. Sometimes more than one person takes part, and people become ghosts,” says the artist, who recently held light-painting workshops at the Sikka Art Fair. She enjoys creating mirror images, using torches in both hands to make portraits and figures.

One of the biggest challenges while creating the images is controlling the light.

“Too much light flooding into the lens could overshadow the light painting at hand,” she says. “Using that to your advantage while fixing the frame is vital.”

Tips from Lina Younes to create a good light painting photograph:

Have patience

Always direct the light towards the lens or it will not be recorded

Use your body as a measuring tool

Experiment with any light source available

Make sure to focus on your subject​