Sparks Ignite the Sky Under Light Painter Jamie Rabold's Inventive Techniques

The night was pitch black when photographer Jamie Rabold climbed the rocks at Gooseberry Falls in November. Armed with pockets full of lighters and reels of steel wool, he created a spiral of spinning sparks for dozens of onlookers as they captured it on camera.

This is the second year the Duluth photographer has created such a spectacle for this group. The Great Lakes Aurora Hunters invited him to share his talents at their annual gathering in Two Harbors, while they waited for an appearance of the Northern Lights.

"He is amazing," says Amber Nichols, of Esko, Minnesota. Nichols followed Rabold out onto the rocks that Saturday night, spinning steel wool for the first time on his cue.

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"It's a lot harder than it looks," she says. The perspective is different when you're literally under the fire. "Try to imagine yourself in the middle of a fireworks display, and you might get close to what it looks like from the inside of that circle."

All it takes to create the glowing circle is to bundle steel wool in a regular kitchen whisk, tie the whisk to a chain, ignite the steel, and spin the chain through the air.

"I've used everything from cable wire to dog leashes," says Rabold, who has sustained blisters and burns on his hands in pursuit of a striking image. "There are some real safety concerns. That's molten metal flying through the air, so you really have to pay attention to the area that you're in."

For Rabold, that includes wearing a canvas coat so it doesn't catch on fire, and keeping buckets of water or fire extinguishers nearby. But he's been doing this so long, he's found a better way.

 "It's driven me to make my own tools," he says. "Now I make everything I use."

Piecing together light painting equipment from standard hardware, Rabold has created an arsenal of night-photography gear. He often shoots his own photos, setting the timer on his digital SLR camera to take long exposures of his creations.

He's been doing this for nearly three years, and he enjoys it so much that he's taking it up a notch. Instead of merely spinning wool, where he started, he now pursues light painting in all its forms.

"The steel wool is not so tricky, but getting into light painting, it's a challenge to learn how to make all the different images," he says.  

Rabold uses light gadgets of many shapes and colors -- including twinkle lights, EL Wire, and remote-controlled LEDs -- to create the objects in his photos. He makes orbs, domes, haze, and the illusion of fire, all from techniques involving light toys. Together with his right-hand man Kirk Schleife from Trego, Wisconsin, he's captured some absolutely mind-blowing shots.

Outside of light-post processing, there's no Photoshop involved. Rabold makes the objects by hand, or in some cases by arm, leg, and foot. He creates numerous objects in real time, sometimes leaving the camera shutter open for more than 20 minutes at once.

His record? He once caught 19 orbs and 31 domes in one photograph.

Rabold has light painted against a variety of backdrops, ranging from natural landscapes to towering bridges and industrial parks. Winter doesn't deter him, either.

If there's one shot he wants to capture more than any other, it's light painting atop Palisade Head, a natural rock formation that towers several hundred feet above Lake Superior.

"There's one spot on Palisade Head that juts out from the cliff, but it's a sharp drop," says Rabold. "There's absolutely no way I'm doing it by myself!"