Lightpainting Tips, My Secrets Disclosed?

Dear Friends,

I stand at a cross-road today after reading a beloved email inquiry about my lightpainting techniques from LA-based photographer Chris Michikazu Hori. He writes:

I just wanted to say thanks for offering such a cool site for other photographers to check out. Your outlook on life is refreshing and its great to see such positive energy.  I’m a 2nd year photographer from Los Angeles and I’m always trying to learn more and shoot better. Anyways, just wanted to reach out and tell you how much I appreciate your site!  I actually had a question as I look through some of your past posts. I was wondering what types of things you use for your long exposure effects. I just notice that a lot of your “glow” streaks are very clear. Being new to all this I have been doing the trail and error process and have been having a great time! Its totally understandable if you don’t want to disclose your secrets, just had to ask!

When in doubt, I turn to Ancient Chinese proverb:

Give a man a fish and he won’t starve for a day. Teach a man how to fish and he won’t starve for his entire life.

I ask myself: Do I disclose my lightpainting secrets?

Awesome Jeff Newsom won’t.

Alt-F John Michael Cooper will.

HUUUGE question for me. Why?

In 2007, I experimented with my first lightpainting on cactus (too embarrassed to show)
In 2008, I taught free workshops in coffee shops on the subject.
In 2009, I won my first award on the subject.
In 2010, I taught workshops in New Orleans and Palm Springs on the subject.
In 2011, I won another international award and got published in a magazine on the subject.
Today, I continue to shared my thoughts on the matter.

That’s 4 years of exploring, experimenting, messing up, practicing, perfecting lightpainting to arrive where I am today.

Do I give it away for free?
Do I give it away for a $10 downloadable PDF?
Do I give it away for a $100 DVD tutorial?
Do I give it away for a $600 private mentoring session?
Do I give it away for a $2200 inclusive workshop?
Do I (dare) give it away on sale for $16,500 (Sorry, Jesh)

How I do I share what I’ve learned for so many years when some new photographers want one thing: a free fish.

At what point is giving away too much of a good thing???

It is better to teach someone how to do something that to do it for them. Giving them the simple answer (a fish) is good for the short term, but teaching them the root of inspiration and how to find your own tools in the aisle of REI or Home Depot is better (teaching how to fish).

Meanwhile, momma cooks for her babies. She can’t do it forever, so she teaches how to make cookies, bread, and stew. Eventually, Martha Stewart or Julia Childs goes big.

If this post receives more than 20 comments, Mr. Hori will receive a 30 minute mentoring session from me, along with one lucky commentator. Win-win-win.

25 Responses to “Lightpainting Tips, My Secrets Disclosed?”

  1. Gino Siller — April 8, 2011 @ 1:15 am (#)

    You bring up many interesting points. Perhaps it needs to be handled on a case by case basis. Someone emails you and asks “how to do that or this”, then I don’t think its worth giving away your knowledge. If someone takes the time to know you, wants to assist you, or has something to offer you, then why not. I really am not a fan of many colleagues who are charging huge $$$$ to spend a day with them to be lucky enough to talk to them. Sure its a business, but if you want to be a mentor, then be a mentor, and help someone who you have confidence in, and want to share your knowledge with. I have been down the road, and have asked, “how does this photographer do it?”. But not once have I just sent an email and said, “Hey, I’m new at this, and can you tell me what to do”. If there is someone I am dying to meet, I do my research. Is there an opportunity to meet this person and actually get to know them, not just sit in the crowd and listen? Find that common ground and run with it. Most people, even photographers are actually pretty friendly. If someone wants to buy me a beer and talk shop, I would pretty much never turn them down. The more rapport I build with them, I start sharing my thoughts and ideas. I say don’t do it RJ. Your one of the hardest working photographers I know, and you should not give it away for free. Your only as good as you are because of your hard work. Someone who just sends you an email should not be entitled to it. I can understand their curiosity, but they are going about it the wrong way. Should I email Mark Zukerberg and ask him if he has any good ideas????? I’m sure he would understand. Thats is all……

  2. Paul Manke — April 8, 2011 @ 6:53 am (#)

    I have been so impressed by your photography and the explosion of your creativity!

    I guess I am on the other end of your situation. I’ve been trying to teach myself how to recreate similar images and would love to get some help or suggestions. My attempts have been miserable failures so far. I am a self-taught photographer so all my photography has been trial after trial, test after test.

    But I also understand Jeff’s and your position. You can’t just give away what you have worked so hard to learn. I mean, Jeff’s Gold Records…leave me absolutely speechless. Your images from NOLA give me chills! Heck, I had to share those on my blog. They were just mind blowing!

    I would love to learn your lighting techniques, not to copy you, but to understand the formula to be able to create images that are mine with my imagination.

    I am so blessed that I had the opportunity to meet you at PartnerCon. You are truly an inspiration to me and others.

    When you do some classes or sessions in California…you can count me in!

  3. Tom deBruyn — April 8, 2011 @ 8:01 am (#)

    Hi RJ!

    This is some seriously cool stuff, it’s something that I am working on right now actually. I hope my first test will be up on my blog in the next couple of weeks and I would LOVE any pointers if you happen to choose me! Thanks so much!


  4. Brooke — April 8, 2011 @ 8:29 am (#)

    Hmmm… well, I’m at the other end of the spectrum from Gino and you – I’m the one that wants to learn. 🙂 However I don’t just email people, expecting them to tell me exactly what to do. I read incessantly and try to draw my own knowledge from what I read. I meet with other photographers and do something completely crazy, get this – LISTEN – to what they have to say. (So many people don’t LISTEN, it drives me crazy!)

    I do believe in sharing knowledge though, because that’s how things are improved upon, and appreciated by others for years to come. I don’t think it would be a bad thing to share your knowledge.

    I love your work and love to read your blog, and try to learn whatever I can from it. And I feel like I don’t have a ton to offer you in return, but I try, by commenting! It’s always nice to have comments. I don’t have a ton to share with others yet, but I will, and I fully plan on doing so when I get there!

  5. Kerinsa — April 8, 2011 @ 9:29 am (#)

    I don’t think it has to be one way or the other. Take Jonathan Canlas for example. He uses formspring to answer any and almost all questions for free {he won’t reveal how he up-res’s his images through this forum}, he sells a PDF book for about $100, and he leads workshops for thousands of dollars. It’s in the workshop where he’ll reveal his up-resing secrets, and the free knowledge through formspring doesn’t seem to hurt his bottom line. I hope Mr. Hori gets the 30 min. session.

  6. Alec Vanderboom — April 8, 2011 @ 9:29 am (#)

    You know what. I think mysteries are really really exciting. I would never go pay to see David Copperfield perform his magic if I knew how all of the tricks worked. But, at the same time, I know that I have been curious, much like Gino is saying, so Im going with a case by case basis as well, with it weighing more on the side of remaining a secret. If everyone starts doing lightpainting like RJ, or gold records like Newsom, then the magic will cease, and the mystery shall be no more. Live in the mystery I say. Boom

  7. Scott Stebner — April 8, 2011 @ 12:13 pm (#)

    I love your thinking RJ. You have spent so much time perfecting something, it’s getting noticed on big scales, and now you are at a crossroads.

    As a teacher, I love what I do. I teach people how to fish, but I don’t do it for free (well, almost lol). I have a passion for teaching kids how to do something and I’d do it for free, but I’m fortunate enough to get paid for it.
    I’m reminded of a story about Picasso (he was photographed painting with light by Nat Geo I believe) and a man sent a very large check to him for a private lesson. He scribbled on the back of it and sent the check back….the man in turn sold his scribble for even more.

    Also, the more you give things away, the less value is placed on them (think Thomas Kinkade). I’d love to see a series of DVD’s or a workshop RJ. Not just on Light Painting but also letting your lighting define you as an artist.

    But in the end, it’s about being Happy. If sharing your information truly blesses you and makes you happy, that is better than any financial reward. I know it’s cliche, but it’s cliche because there’s truth in it. However, don’t feel guilty for wanting to charge something that you are passionate and invested in. Asking money for something isn’t greedy, it’s business. If you think maintaining the business aspect of your light painting would diminish your enthusiasm for it, there’s your answer.

    You’re awesome man. Whatever you do, it’ll be for the good 🙂

  8. Steven Ordorica — April 8, 2011 @ 12:38 pm (#)

    This is great. I think you’re decision is a good one. 20 Comments isn’t too many so it seems as though you’re leaning more towards giving him the lesson. I say do it. I’m sure nothing but good will come from this. Your a better person for doing it, and I’m sure Mr. Hori will have a new found respect your the art and your particular technique. Anyway I can get on this session? Doesn’t hurt to ask!

    Keep up the good work RJ.

  9. Mr Hori — April 8, 2011 @ 1:00 pm (#)

    I spent a good amount of time thinking and debating whether or not to ask R.J. any questions about his “tricks” of the trade. I have spent enough time reading through R.J.s blogs and posts to get a pretty good idea about the type of person he is. Knowing he is an educator as well as an artist I felt it was natural for him to want to share, but knowing its his “job” I am 150% understanding of not wanting to disclose years and years of knowledge.

    That being said, there are 2 sides to this and I can see both. I myself would be weary of trading tricks of the trade with random people that have come to admire my work or my website. Either way, I am so pleased that I am able to be apart of such a good outlet for photography and that one day I might be able to in turn show my own “tricks of the trade” to other newb photographers.

    ~ He who asks a question is a fool for a minute; he who does not remains a fool forever. ~

  10. R. J. Kern — April 8, 2011 @ 1:05 pm (#)

    Mr. Hori, I like your final proverb. I encourage my students that “There is no such thing as a stupid question…. just a stupid answer.” The burden of responsibility falls on the instructor to provide an accurate answer, which takes time. 10 more comments to go:)

  11. andre — April 8, 2011 @ 2:31 pm (#)

    well i must say all your information, not just the lighting techniques have be such a blessing to ME! the post on markteting branding materials blew me away. you keep doing whatever God puts on your heart to do for other RJ, and thats why you will continue to be blessed yourself. thanks for inspiring bro.

  12. andre — April 8, 2011 @ 2:46 pm (#)

    well i must say all your information, not just the lighting techniques have be such a blessing to ME! the post on marketing branding materials blew me away. you keep doing whatever God puts on your heart to do for other RJ, and thats why you will continue to be blessed yourself. thanks for inspiring bro.

  13. Tee — April 8, 2011 @ 3:19 pm (#)

    Mr Hori!!!! I want to help you get this session so I must comment! Best of luck!

  14. Nicole — April 8, 2011 @ 3:24 pm (#)

    I thought I’d leave a comment to give Mr. Hori a chance! I really have no clue. When I got started in photography as a teenager I felt like it was a pretty hostile world, actually, where photographers guarded their secrets and didn’t want anyone to “steal” their techniques. It’s a whole new world now with digital and the internet. You’d think that with such saturation the market it would become even more hostile so I’m surprised at how openly photographers share information. I think part of it is that a lot of photographers share information in order to build their brand or expand their income base. More of it is that photography is still art so you can give out fish all you want but that doesn’t mean that people will replicate your vision. Or something 🙂 But with something like light painting that is unusual and signature I personally would sell the information for money or not at all. “Here’s how I paint with light” is something different to me than “I shoot wide open and process with these actions.” But, as I said, I came into photography when it felt (to me) like a much more hostile and privately guarded profession than it is now.

    (Gee, this makes me sound like a dinosaur. It’s like when you say “when I shot film” and people just give you a blank look. I’m only in my early 30’s. Can you imagine how ancient we will seem to our children!?)

  15. louisa — April 8, 2011 @ 3:27 pm (#)

    Hi RJ,

    I like to check in on your work from time-to-time. I think I am in the Mr. Hori camp. Being new in this industry is a tricky business, unless you have good mentors. I loved learning from you at Elevate and it was fascinating to see how you work. I think that artists have a responsibility to themselves, but also to the arts community. Even if you gave your technique away for free, I seriously doubt that anyone in the world would make images the way you do. The technical side is a part of it, but only a small part. If I decided to use light painting in my work, my images would have nothing in common with yours at all. What you do is unique; your attitude, your interaction with the clients, your energy level…all of those things make your images RJ images. Share the wealth of information with those who ask and the help will come back to you 100 fold.


  16. Rachel Darley — April 8, 2011 @ 3:44 pm (#)

    I read this post early this morning but hadnt had the time to comment…. My sentiments are similar to many here… I’m so appreciative and love that you share so much already, but totally understand that there is a value to your knowledge and work, RJ. The last thing we’d want is for you or anyone else to cheapen your work/years of knowledge! If you feel that sharing is what makes you happy, fantastic!!! If you feel like you should be charging for your knowledge, whether it be monetary or some trade of services, then that’s how it is, and that’s fantastic too! I guess it all comes down to how it makes you feel? Share and feel taken advantage of? Share and make a lasting friendship? Charge because you feel there is a value to your knowledge? It’s all at your discretion! =)
    (and thanks for inspiring me to experiment with light painting even more!)
    Oh, and if you ever need a couch in NJ, there’s one available! =)

  17. otto schulze — April 8, 2011 @ 3:44 pm (#)

    wish i could contribute. unfortunately my version of your advanced (and amazing!) light painting techniques is simply to shoot wide open with a D3s – ha. caveman style! really is quite amazing what you do with those speedlights dude!

  18. Kayla Hoffsommer — April 8, 2011 @ 3:59 pm (#)

    I agree with being hesitant about sharing all your secrets with the world on the web. I think offering him a session is super sweet of you and I wanted to help! I always enjoy reading your blog because of your honesty, positivity and energy. I think the dvd might be popular but who knows maybe you would get enough interest in an inclusive workshop. I think I would be more prone to spend $100 for a few tips and then experiment more to make it unique to me personally rather than investing in an entire workshop narrowed in on lightpainting. Whatever you decide, I am sure will be great!

  19. Marci Johnson — April 8, 2011 @ 4:19 pm (#)

    It’s always good to give back to the people that want to learn from you! And, you get what you give, so I’m in favor of Mr. Hori getting his lesson because it might cause him to give to another photographer a lesson about HIS photography and tricks.

    I’m in 100% agreement with Louisa… Your images are unique and even if someone tried to copy your style, it’s still YOUR style… Your amazing RJ and anytime you want to do a lesson for the masses, I’m sure it’ll be packed. 🙂

  20. Rachel — April 8, 2011 @ 4:48 pm (#)

    This is a tough call RJ- what I do know is that you have worked long and hard perfecting and growing your art. And with that comes intellectual property. You shouldn’t give it away at a whim. I love learning from & with other photographers- and I hope to have something I can share with them as well.
    Just know that there is value in your knowledge, and you are a great teacher- so I can see why people seek you out to learn from! Don’t devalue that!

  21. Cameron — April 8, 2011 @ 7:22 pm (#)

    Aww man! Response number 21… guess I’m out of the drawing. That’s what I get for being off line in the White Mountains of Alaska for so long! Ha! Give it to him!

  22. Andrew Schaefer — April 9, 2011 @ 2:23 pm (#)

    I’ve always thought that it doesn’t matter how much you teach people, if they aren’t willing to learn then it won’t matter. You can’t teach experience. All of the years you’ve spent learning, practicing, failing and succeeding can’t be taught to someone in one day or one week or one phone conversation…no matter how great a teacher you are.

    But it brings up a bigger issue…that people aren’t willing to put the time into things to make them successful. People seem to want things done the easy way and I think that is one of the bigger issues with photography. People aren’t taking the time to develop their own style and way of shooting and because of that wedding photography is becoming homogenized. It’s harder and harder to tell the difference between photography and photographers.

    So someone like you, with such a unique style and vision, comes along and everyone loves it and has to do it just like you (flattering for sure but understandably frustrating.)

    I think in the end a lot of it depends on the individual asking the question. If they are people who are genuinely interested in learning about photography and becoming a better photographer then they will take what they’ve learned, apply it to themselves and be successful.

  23. Pingback: Lightpainting: Tips, Tricks, and Secrets revealed | Kern-Photo

  24. R. J. — April 14, 2011 @ 8:21 am (#)

    Hey everyone, I posted the personal mentoring session Q&A for yall here:

  25. Pingback: 101 goals in 1,001 days: v 2.0 | Kern-Photo

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