Unusual and forgotten places in the city outskirts become a surreal scene for photographer and visual artist Hannu Huhtamo’s light creatures. With his camera as the observer, dark surroundings become the canvas, and his lights become the paintbrush. Inspired by nature, he experiments with different shapes and forms, balancing the artificial and natural light to ultimately create other-worldly creatures.
Can you give us a little background on how you got into visual art and photography?
As a child I was really into drawing. I created a selection of super heroes, weird monsters and colorful graffiti-style texts. I also filled my school books and every piece of paper with various characters. Later on I got more inspired about guitar playing, which led me to study in a conservatory.
After graduation and working a few years as a musician I got interested in photography. A friend of mine introduced me into light painting by showing his experiments with small LED lights and long exposure times. I was totally blown away about the whole concept. Seeing all those colorful light trails in various locations made an impact. How can the person who did the light trails not be seen in the picture? It felt magical, mainly because there was no photo manipulation involved. Every image was straight out of the camera. I’ve always liked the idea that everything you see in the image has really happened.
Later on I started searching for more information about long exposure photography and light painting techniques. I bought myself a DSLR camera, a few flashlights and some kids light toys. It was so fun and addictive to experiment and learn how to create different kinds of shapes and forms. A whole new world opened to me.
When do you feel most creative or inspired to work?
It depends on the situation, but since my art requires dark surroundings I usually work late evenings or night time. Ideation, planning and sketching process happens mostly at day time. Ideas might hit randomly during the day, so the most important part is to write them down. On the other hand I tend to improvise a lot. I go to a studio environment or any darkened room and just start drawing shapes in the air and combine them with each other.
How would you describe the kind of art you create?
It’s light art. The light painting technique is a combination of long exposure photography and painting where darkness is the canvas and light is the brush.
How did you discover long exposure light art? Was there any formal education involved or was it by experimenting?
Originally I’m self taught and started my own experiments with light painting in 2009. Later on I studied visual arts and got a Bachelor of Arts degree. When I started the light painting scene was really small. At that time one of the best net communities for photography was Flickr. It was THE place to find tutorials for light painting tools and techniques, chat about light painting and have supportive comments about your own work. What made it special was the small group of humble and enthusiastic people who shared the same passion for light painting and long exposure photography.
What are the tools/equipment you work with the most?
I primarily use various sizes of optical fibers, which give smooth transparent light trails that have a nice organic texture. These fibers require sufficient power to be effective, so I attach them to 1,200 to 2,500-lumen flashlights with custom adaptors. For drawing lines and stripes I have a selection of small LED pens and keychain lights.
Can you explain what light painting is?
Term “light painting” can mean several things in long exposure photography. Usually photographers use this technique in dark situations to illuminate selected parts of the image with handheld light sources while the camera’s shutter is open. This requires the camera to be set on a tripod to avoid any shakes or unintended movement during the exposure. Camera’s exposure times can vary from seconds to several minutes, or even hours.
In my case, it’s better to call it “light drawing” since the light source and its movement are seen by the camera. This way you can use the lights as brushes or pencils to draw lines and shapes within the frame. But, it can be used the other way around too. You can move the camera while the light sources are still.
What is the process that goes into setting up and getting the shot?
First, I do some simple sketches on paper. Then I try to figure out how to do all the elements by using my light tools. I usually divide the form or a shape into sections and then practice each part separately. Finding the proper location for the life form is the most difficult step in the process because the environment needs to feel natural for the intended creature and be dark enough for the light trails to appear clearly.
How do you come up with the shapes and designs for your light creatures?
Nature offers so much inspiration. All the plants, microscopic world or bioluminescent creatures of the deep sea. I take shapes from here and there, and then combine some of them into a single creation.
Does the final product often differ from the original idea you first have in your mind?
In some cases yes. I might change the whole concept or parts of it in the middle of the process. It can happen accidentally or there might be a technical reason to do so. Usually I do several versions and then choose the final afterwards.
Do you have a favorite location to shoot at or a shot you’ve gotten so far?
Yes, mainly forests and outdoor recreation areas. One of my favorites is a forest research area where you can find various atypical wood species as you walk through it. During the summer I also travel in eastern parts of Finland and visit many beautiful lakeside locations.
It’s hard to pick just one favorite image. I’d say that every shot where I’ve managed to create a clean shape and find a nice balance between the artificial and natural light.