Photographer Denis Smith creates light sculptures from water

Splashing a light tool around in open ocean at sunset? “It is the most free I have felt,” says light painter Denis Smith, whose latest series, “Liquid Light,” was made in the warm, shallow waters off the coast of his South Australia home.

The tools: Smith designs, creates, and sells his own light tools. For “Liquid Light” he needed waterproof torches hardy enough to withstand smacking against the surface of the water. “What we are doing is very aggressive,” he says. “I destroyed dozens of torches in the water before I found one that would work.” The tools are acrylic with either a flat or tube shape. Drawing the tool out of the water creates a spray that results in a glassy, illuminated image.

The process: Smith uses weather-sealed Olympus cameras set on tripods in the ocean. Since there’s nothing for the camera to focus on in open water, he sticks PVC piping into the sand and sets the camera’s focus to the tip of the tubing that juts out just above the water’s surface. He stands in front of that tubing about three meters away from the camera for the photographs. Set to intervalometer mode, the camera makes a series of 1- or 2-second exposures over a period of 60 to 90 seconds while Smith whips around his light tool in and above the water. He makes the images at sunset in waist- or chest-deep water, and after each take makes adjustments for the transitioning light. Out of as many as 1,000 shots, he’ll select the gems.

The challenges: Drowning cameras, for one. Positioned just two to three inches above the surface of the water, the camera can be swamped by a strong ocean swell. Fortunately, the weatherproof sealing on the Olympus is very effective, Smith reports. The other concern: Great white sharks, which are plentiful in the area and always in the back of Smith’s mind. So far, he’s been safe. “I have been nipped by a crab on my toe. That is it,” he laughs.  

Amanda Arnold is associate editor of Professional Photographer.