Art Wolfe Working the Image: The Night Fisherman

Excerpted from The New Art of Photographing Nature by Art Wolfe with Martha Hill & Tim Grey. Available online at http://store.artwolfe.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=2&products_id=494. 


People sometimes imagine that great photographs are composed in a flash of inspiration, arriving in the world fully formed. While that can happen, most of the time we fumble toward a great shot, refining the composition with each exposure. This was certainly the case with my image, The Night Fishermen. I will lead you through the process of steps it took to get there.

         For centuries, fishermen on the Li River of Southern China have partnered with cormorants to catch fish. Each fisherman has a complement of a half dozen or so trained birds. The light of a lantern attracts the fish, and the cormorants catch the fish and return to the boat, fish in beak. The birds can’t swallow the fish because the fishermen fix bands around their necks, but they eventually get their share.

         While the fishermen are working, they see enough tourists to know that a few minutes posing can yield as much money as a night’s work. After a few moments exchanging hand signals, we came to an agreement. In the first image I grabbed a shot of two fishermen approaching the shore. Unfortunately, nothing works here. A bright background throws the men into silhouette, some of the birds sit with their heads buried under their wings, and the composition is deadly static. I decided to try adding a second light to tame the contrast and provide a better sense of separation for the fishermen.

Night fishermen, Li River, Guangxi, China 16-35mm lens (for 24mm), f/10 for 1/5 sec., ISO 400

Night fishermen, Li River, Guangxi, China
16-35mm lens (for 24mm), f/10 for 1/5 sec., ISO 400

For the second shot, I tried a simple flash but it overpowered the background. Even with gels to match color temperature and knocking down the power by a stop or so, I could tell I wouldn’t get the result I wanted unless I could choreograph everything, which was out of the question given the circumstances. I needed better conditions, not better technique.

Night fishermen, Li River, Guangxi, China 16-35mm lens (for 22mm), f/10 for 1/5 sec., ISO 400

Night fishermen, Li River, Guangxi, China
16-35mm lens (for 22mm), f/10 for 1/5 sec., ISO 400

By the time I was ready for the third shot, a darkening evening sky balanced the light somewhat. A 23mm focal length gave me the depth I wanted and, combined with an f/8 aperture, enough depth of field. Although blurred moving birds ruined most of the shots, they also blocked direct light from the lanterns. I was making progress.

Night fishermen, Li River, Guangxi, China 16-35mm lens (for 23mm), f/8 for 1/3 sec., ISO 400

Night fishermen, Li River, Guangxi, China
16-35mm lens (for 23mm), f/8 for 1/3 sec., ISO 400

By the fourth shot, the light was getting good, but the composition was still too tight. I needed space for the image to breathe. Also, I was getting so close that the cormorants were becoming agitated.

Night fisherman, Li River, Guangxi, China 16-35mm lens (for 23mm), f/8 for 1/5 sec., ISO 400

Night fisherman, Li River, Guangxi, China
16-35mm lens (for 23mm), f/8 for 1/5 sec., ISO 400

The fifth image is a vertical. Everything is working here. The light was coming alive. I still preferred the horizontal composition, but I often license images for magazine covers or ads, which usually require vertical compositions. Never turn your back on a sale, I always say.

Night fishermen, Li River, Guangxi, China 16-35mm lens (for 17mm), f/8 for 1/3 sec., ISO 400

Night fishermen, Li River, Guangxi, China
16-35mm lens (for 17mm), f/8 for 1/3 sec., ISO 400

Finally, with the final shot, it all came together. The cormorants stood stock still, heads up and blocking the lantern light like champions. The fishermen, now bored out of their skulls, were occupied with their tasks, transforming a posed image into a genuine candid shot. The light was in perfect balance: background, foreground, and warm lantern fill. The fisherman received their tips, I had my shot, the cormorants swallowed some morsels, and everyone was happy.

 

The Night Fishermen, Li River, Guangxi, China 16-35mm lens (for 16mm), f/8 for 1/3 sec., ISO 400

The Night Fishermen, Li River, Guangxi, China
16-35mm lens (for 16mm), f/8 for 1/3 sec., ISO 400

Q & A With Astrophotographer Mike Taylor

Mike Taylor has mastered the art of shooting the night sky. His work is truly awe inspiring. We got in touch with him to learn more about him and his creative process. Enjoy!

Tell us a little about yourself.

My name is Mike Taylor and I am the owner and photographer at Taylor Photography, a freelance imaging studio based in a 19th-century farmhouse in central Maine. I have been a scenic/nature and studio photographer for over 20 combined years. I am an artist, a philosopher, a musician, a movie buff, and a self-proclaimed connoisseur of beverages made from malted barley & hops ... we all have our bag of rocks to carry. I started my own photography business a couple of years ago in the hopes that I could turn my passion for capturing the night sky into a full time career. All the information regarding my work can be found at my website: http://miketaylorphoto.com 

How did you come to love astrophotography?

There is so much to see, so much to hear, so much to enjoy during the dark hours of each day – the moon, the stars, the Milky Way, the occasional meteor, and the spectacular Northern Lights displays.

I have always been a "night owl" - I can remember sneaking out of the back door of my home as a teenager on warm summer nights to go sit somewhere in my neighborhood and wonder about Man's existence while looking up at the stars. Most folks are so busy with day-to-day life that they rarely contemplate the radical idea that we all live on a small rock which is rotating and flying through the cosmos at a speed we can barely fathom. When I started seeing beautifully processed Milky Way images I said to myself “I bet I can do that too.” And that's one of the main things I try to teach in my night photography and processing workshops: anyone with the desire, motivation and some decent camera equipment can do this. 

I have been fortunate enough to have my landscape astrophotography and scenic/nature images & articles featured on NASA's Astronomy Picture Of The Day, The Weather Channel, NBC News, Viral Nova, Discovery.com, Yahoo! News, Space.com, Earthsky.org, Spaceweather.com, Solarham.net, and multiple other science websites and social media pages. 

What tips could you share that would help someone shoot better night shots right away - or at least get on the right path?

In general, to avoid light pollution you need to drive as far away as possible from any city or town – 50 to 100 miles is a good start. Depending on where you live, this may be a real challenge and could involve a significant amount of travel time, so planning ahead helps. Check out the International Dark Sky Association's 'DarkSky Finder & Destinations' page for suggestions. Plan your shoots by scouting areas during the day to find compositions that you like since you won't be nearly as productive trying to do that in the dark. 

To get the most out of shooting at night take the time to learn your camera's capabilities. Know your gear's limitations. While any 'point & shoot' camera can be used for night photography as long as it has high ISO and long-exposure capabilities, higher end DSLRs are really the way to go.  I have always subscribed to the idea that it's not the camera that matters as much as the person looking through the viewfinder. But night photography is a different animal than daytime photography; the paramount results will be achieved via your passion, commitment, and the best equipment & training you can acquire. 

In general, exposure times for the Milky Way and constellations are anywhere from 15 seconds to 30 seconds or slightly longer. It depends on your gear because full frame cameras can take longer exposures than cropped-sensor cameras without the stars trailing. Specific lenses and focal lengths come into play as well – most times you want to be shooting at f/2.8 or faster. As always, the exposure triangle is the first thing to consider when photographing at night, as long as your gear is capable of capturing decent images at very high ISO settings. 

Use a heavy duty, sturdy tripod. This is an important piece of gear that many people skimp on. Don't place your $3k camera body and lens on top of a $30 plastic tripod – sooner or later, you will regret it. Probably sooner. 

Other tips: Be patient. Think outside the box. Be respectful of your surroundings. Enjoy the process. Allow yourself to be filled with wonder. Have fun!

Your photos tend to be filled with color. How do you capture such vivid color in your astrophotography? 

Post-processing is an integral part of creating a great final image. A good eye for composition and lighting is the most important aspect when capturing images in the field but the way to turn a “good picture” into a “fantastic photograph” is through processing – the time and energy you spend to selectively edit your images in the digital darkroom. 

What is the mission of the International Dark-Sky Association and how can people get involved?

The goal of the International Dark Sky Association is to raise public awareness of light pollution and to work with people to reduce/eradicate it where ever possible using intelligent lighting techniques. I work in conjunction with the IDA and I very much agree with their focus. I encourage folks to check out their site www.darksky.org for more information on how to get involved - YOU can make a REAL difference by doing something as easy as using environmentally responsible outdoor lighting! 

Do you have any upcoming workshops, books, or other events?

I teach night photography and post-processing workshops around scenic areas in Maine and I just returned from an incredible two weeks co-instructing night photography and time lapse techniques in Moab, Utah. Check out my workshops schedule here: http://miketaylorphoto.smugmug.com/Workshops. I also offer presentations of my work and speaking engagements around the country. I am currently co-authoring a children's book called 'The Secret Galaxy' (Tilbury House) which will be released in October. 

Corona Arch at Night.jpg
Blue Spikes Aurora.jpg