Behind the scenes of night photography

Decided to write describing what goes behind a shot at times. Not that the above photo is the most extreme out there, but one thing that gets lost in translation on social media is an appreciation for the work going behind a quality photo. Night photography is a great example of this because so many people do composites. Before I go any further, I have no problems at all with composite photos. I respect it as an art form, and I especially appreciate it when an artist/photographer is upfront enough to say that what it is from the beginning. With night photography though, so many people do it that it’s hard to tell when a person actually shot everything at a scene or just made some creation from multiple photos from different sites.

As a lover of night photography, it discourages me from showing my work at times because there are so many over the top night photos out there that make a photo you worked really hard on almost irrelevant. The average viewer would have a hard time telling the difference between the two.

In the photo above, I arrived at the spot around 5:15 AM after being out all night/morning teaching a night photography class. I was on my way home and I knew about this butte but did not know how the MW would line up with it. The previous year I had hiked out to the spot with my friend Eric so I knew there were several ditches to go through. It looks pretty close to the highway but looks are deceiving in vast areas. I began my journey out to the butte carefully navigating through the brush to make sure I did not run into or step on, any cacti. I still managed to run my foot into one, which felt great. In Big Bend, you also have to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes. Thankfully in March, I have not encountered any both times that I have been. However, I never let my guard down. I arrived at the spot Eric and I had shot from the year before, but it was lining up with the Milky Way arc very well. I needed to continue forward for a while.

As I am finding my way to the right spot, I also have to pay attention to my surroundings due to other animals that could possibly be lurking. Mountain lions are always a concern in this park, along with black bears and Javelinas. So it’s all a lot to process on top of being alone while trying to line up a photo. I finally made my way to a spot that I liked and began to set up my lighting. It’s always a comforting feeling to use lighting at night to alert everything where you are by the way. Like “I’m right here apex predators. Just follow the light.” I would never attempt this at other parks like Yellowstone or Glacier due to the volume of large animals present that could kill you.

After all of this, I’m finally ready to start taking photos. With a nice clear sky, it does not take me long to get the shots I need. When it comes to introducing a foreground though, it is more time-consuming trying to figure out the lighting. Whenever I light paint, I’m not trying to flood the scene with light as if it’s daytime. The trick is accenting features. This normally takes me a little while to figure out because it is different every time. After an hour I finally had all of the shots I felt I need to bring this image to life. Total, it took 10 photos. Five to capture the sky and five more for the foreground. Each one is a different photo that overlaps the details in the next one so that my program at home can “stitch” them together.

At this point, I’m kind of feeling a rush because I’m almost safe. All that is left is the long walk back to the vehicle. I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t have ideas in my head like “some animal set up an ambush by your vehicle” when I started walking back. Anyways, there is no trail so I’m following the path that my Garmin GPS device is showing me. Through the washes, I went and I fell going down into one of them. Thankfully my landing was on small rocks and not a cactus of any type. Eventually made it back to the car so I felt good.

One of my best memories of my beginning stages of night photography was with my good friend David Kingham. He took me to Rocky Mountain National Park to for a class. The second spot of the night was at Sprague Lake. As we were walking, I was the uneducated southern guy just enjoying the walk, when all of a sudden he is telling me to stop immediately. Of course, my curiosity prompts me to ask why. His response was that there was a moose in front of us. My dumb self thought it was cool but David disagreed! Ha. After we froze momentarily, we slowly backed up and went back to his vehicle to grab some bear spray. By the time we went back, it had moved on but we kept an eye out for it for the rest of the night.

So anyway, I could tell you many stories about shooting at night enduring single digit temperatures, being around bison when all you can do is hear them, or having random gunfire in the distance. Ticks, mosquitoes, and poison ivy. All comes with the territory also to bring images back to share with others. So next time you see a great photo, just know behind is probably a lot of hard work.

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