Denis Smith was struggling in life and had nearly hit rock bottom. His job was very demanding and draining him and his wife. He was drinking heavily, struggling financially, and depressed. Then he discovered a creative outlet that would change his life – photography and light painting. That was 2 years ago.
Today, Denis is turning that creative outlet into more than just a hobby. A true inspiration for anyone struggling in life. Watch his story below and see a gallery of his images below.
Ball of Light Video Documentary
Sam Collins did a wonderful documentary on Denis Smith. He talks about life before and after discovering his creative outlet, how he creates his balls of light and more. It’s a great and inspiring story to watch:
Ball of Light Photo Gallery
Ball of Light Video Transcript
It all takes place at night. It’s the only time I ever see the ball of light. I can’t tell you exactly how I find them. I’m still not exactly sure what they mean. But what I do know is that taking these photographs has changed my life.
I’m from Auckland, which is where I was born. I spent several years over there moving from one high-pressure sales job to another…chasing the wrong things…chasing money…trying to support a lifestyle that I didn’t really want or need, but found myself having to be and killing myself working trying to sustain that lifestyle.
New Zealand was really hammered a couple years ago by the economic crisis and when you’re in the high-pressure sales environment that I was in it just clobbered me like sledge hammer. The signs that I should have seen that things were wrong are things like I’d never pay cash for a car. I always (??) up cars…and silly cars for silly money. The amount of drinking I was doing…obscene amounts of alcohol…not just physically consuming, but financially. I was smoking cigars.
My daily routine would be getting up, two or three red bulls, a couple of cigars, off to work, a couple more red bulls, smoking cigars all day, if we had lunch some beer or wine, I mean pretty much every day into the beers after work, go home more, knock myself out. You know, never bothering about what any of it was costing me because I was just terrified to look. Somehow, I just thought it was going to keep coming.
It was this accumulating thing where you had to stay motivated and pumped and heavy. But what was happening was I was driving to work…feeling…really nervous…and that sor of involved into just this overwhelming sense of fear and depression. I mean I was just falling apart. I was keeping myself together with alcohol and coffee…just trying to numb it really.
I met Kyrie, my wife, at Xerox. We actually worked together there for some time. As things were spiraling out of control for me, she was very strong and supportive but it got to a point where she just couldn’t do it anymore and I was very close to losing my wife and my best friend. It got to a point where I needed to fix what was wrong or I’d lose my wife…and it was just terrifying for me. Kyrie’s from South Australia and we’d been coming to South Australia for some time and so we made the decision to come, pack up, sell everything and move over here…that was…what an enlightening time in my life.
It was interesting because it gave me that little window of time to pick up a hobby. As part of that whole change and move, that’s when I pickedup a camera for the first time. I finally, for the first time in my life, found myself with some time and decided to fill that space with a hobby and that’s where the photography came from.
It gave me the opportunity to spend time alone and that was mainly done with just walking. I would just pick up a camera, put a pair of shoes on, grab a bottle of water and walk…I’d walk for hours. At home in New Zealand everything was the same…it was just always the same. It was always green…it was kind of raining or raining. One of the things I learned really quickly about here in South Australia is that there’s this radically changing evolving environment around me and it was moving from one season to the other and it wasn’t just a subtle change but we had the colors changed, the temperature changed, everything changed so dramatically it fascinated me because I’d never seen it. I’d only ever lived in one city and in the center of that city.
What a place…you drive an hour from thick beautiful green vines to the oldest rocky stone in the world in the Flinders Ranges. I started to realize that not only was it changing in itself and on its own but the whole place was different and so varied. So that got me even more excited about it. I wanted to see that.
Things were kicking along and I was taking a lot of photos of the Barossa Valley vines and trees and stones and stuff, but I realized really fast that that’s the same thing everyone else was doing. I was putting my photos online and joining these groups of the Barossa Valley and there were photos exactly like mine everywhere. So, I realized pretty quickly that I wanted to try and find something a little more radical.
I went online and spent a bit of time hanging around online looking at different types of photography and pretty quickly discovered a light painting. And it was something I’d seen a little bit of, but it just seemed really edgy and it was a pretty tight little community online. And amongst the mass of photography it was really attractive to me.
So with normal photography, the shutter opens and closes a photograph and you get a snapshot of what’s there in front of the camera. With light painting what you do is the shutter stays open for a long period of time and so when it’s a dark environment it brings more light in and if you move a light around in front of the camera it stays embedded in the picture, like a sparkler when you write your name as a kid. With a sparkler, it’s exactly the same process. But it is slightly more technical than normal photography, just the long exposure part of it.
I started looking up some lights and ways of moving it around and getting some really neat sort of rainbow effects and pieces, but like the other photography it quickly got a bit boring for me so I started learning a little bit about electronics and how to make the lights brighter and dimmer and just experimenting with moving these lights around and ended up just waving it around one night and all of a suddent it just turned into a circle. And it kinda went from there.
I started getting a rhythm and a cycle about it and it was just a little more organized and it started looking really nice on the screen, just changing it from being random to an ordered circle.
And then I’ll never forget the one night that circle turned into a sphere. I still got that photo and I look at it often. That’s when the ball of light was born really.
So, what I’m doing is I’m swinging the light source in a circle but I’m turning around so it turns the circle into a sphere which is quite a simple thing but often people say, “well how come I can’t see you in the picture?” Well, if you think about this – when you see a photograph of a car going down the motorway you can see the white and the rear lights it’s quite a common thing, but you can’t see the car. It’s exactly the same thing. I’m moving constantly around in the image which takes a lot of practice whilst spinning the light around and so that’s how I’m not seen in the image at all, and yet you still see the sphere. It takes a lot of practice, it’s not an easy thing. And there are sometimes when you do see me.
The most critical thing when I’m organizing a shoot for the ball of light is just preparing for the event. In the week or two leading up to it I’ve got to be checking things like is it near the water tide, I need to check if the weather’s going to be okay because I need a full moon really to get enough light, so that’s no good if there’s clouds. So, preparing all of those things leading up to it is critical because they all have to come together in one short period of time.
The moon is absolutely spot on. It couldn’t be on a better angle for where we are…just with the walls, there will be a bit of shadow, and it’s really nice. The location’s perfect here to have a crack at the world record for the number of balls of light that stands at five. So, we’re gonna have a crack at six. I think we can do it.
Start the clock…and they’ve done it. The world record is broken and the crowd goes wild. One, two, three, four, five almost perfect balls of light. We got a couple of (??) ones in here but that’s alright, they’re usable. That’s fantastic. It’s incredible. Absolutely mind-boggling. My work is done here.
I never plan about what color is going to happen there. Often it’s about how I’m feeling, what the night’s like, if it’s cold or if it’s hot. I never know until I get there what the actual colors are like and so each location gets a unique ball of light. It’s almost like a fingerprint. Sometimes it will be a really sharp, bright ball of light. Or sometimes, especially when I’m on the beach it will be a soft ball of light.
I never know what it’s going to be like. Often it feels like solidication that determines how the ball of light’s going to be, but they’re always different.
It’s something not a lot of people see or have seen. It’s amazing how people, and even myself sometimes, I look at them and they have this real sense of surrealness about them and uniqueness about them. I often feel like they’re a portal into another place or time or I often feel like they’re a portal for some other entity or other thing coming into our world.
There’s often a story or two that goes with some of the images about that. And other people have said that to me as well. They look at them and think wow, it looks like a portal into another world or another time.
Our kids just love it. When I have prints out at shows or whatever, the children come up and they grab them…it’s amazing. They never look at them in confusion. They always look at them in wonder and make stories about them. That fascinates me.
There’s something about spheres…we’re constantly surrounded by them – the planet, the sun. Spheres seem to bring out a sense of strenght and power. We’re surrounded by them everywhere and so much of what we have around us and we create as humans are very ridgid and square and so that’s why I love the sphere.
If you’d said to me two years ago that I’d be in a situation now creating what some people describe as art and someone would want to have it and pay for it, I would have laughed at you two years ago. And now it gives me more joy than anything I’ve ever felt.
All the money I’ve made and jobs I hated have been substituted by something that gives me so much warmth…and other people as well. And that’s changed my life.
One of the things I think about all the time is going overseas and looking maybe to see if there’s a ball of light somewhere else. There have to be exciting places to go and search for them. I think often about Egypt and I think about exciting places like China and other great countries and searching and finding balls of light there. South Australia can’t be the only place where there’s a ball of light. They have to be somewhere else.