You have to completely forget about your comfort zone and do what needs to be done. The process may not be fun, enjoyable, or comfortable, but the results, as well as the story of the process will be incredible.
Of all the things this world has to offer photography, my all-time favorite subject is the sky, particularly the night sky, stars, and the moon.
For months, my friend Christian wanted me to take him out to shoot astronomy photos, which I thought was an excellent idea. Christian is still fairly new to photography, every now and then, I put a camera in his hands and it interests me to see how he progresses each time. Astronomy photography is probably the best test of skill and an excellent method of learning in-camera effects.
So, one cold Saturday night in March, I decided it was clear and cold enough to put Christian through a true photographer’s test, as well as try to capture the stars. The temperature was about 10 degrees Fahrenheit, all the snow from the previous winter storms had melted away, all the trees were still bare, and we had a clear view of the sky. We established a list of locations that would provide excellent views of Route 80, the Delaware Water Gap, and the Columbia Lake Dam.
The first stop was an overpass overlooking Route 80. Christian was curious about long exposures, which is the method of capturing astronomy shots as well as light streaks. I told Christian to tell me what he wants to capture and from there I would instruct him on settings l to play with to capture what he is thinking. Christian told me he wanted shots of the highway with car lights streaking below, a foreground of the chain-link fence that held us back from hanging over the overpass wall, and maybe some of the stars. So I instructed him on how to do so, I gave him an ISO base, low enough that we would not be capturing too much image noise, had him open up the aperture to capture the max amount of light, and began with a shutter speed of 5 seconds. Then I told him to frame up and focus the shot through the viewfinder, and catch his focus.
Once we set up the camera, we began waiting for cars to drive down this quiet stretch of Route 80, especially at 11:30pm. Before he could even hit the shutter button, the cold began to get to him and he could no longer bare to stand around outside and wait for subjects.
When I decided to bring Christian out, I knew this would be a test for him. A test of determination and perseverance, I wanted to know what he was willing to do to get his shots, and the night was not starting off too well.
Christian retreated back to the car while I braved the cold with the camera and waited for cars to drive by.
Finally, there was some action on the highway, cars going to and from Pennsylvania and the camera was framed up for both the east and west side. So I fired a shot.
Astronomy and long exposure photography is all about trial and error; you test your settings and adjust them to capture different effects. Being out in the cold and having to wait for ideal moments to capture, with no certainty of the outcome, is quite a challenge.
But when you truly love doing something, you will do whatever it takes to do it, nothing can stop you. I learned that many years ago and it shows in the images you capture. This is what I was trying to teach Christian.
If you want great shots, worthy of telling others the stories about, you will go to the ends of the world to get it.
I do not consider these shots great, or anything special, but it is the story behind them that made them worth capturing; posted up on a highway overpass in the middle of nowhere in 10 degree weather, waiting for cars to drive by. I was cold, even to the extent of freezing, but that did not bother me, nor stop me from capturing mediocre shots.
“On to the next spot.” I yelled at Christian, who was sitting in the warmth of the car. I walked up to the car with the camera in my hand, laughing about how cool of a shot we had captured of the highway. Christian took a look and was amazed at the actual visual translation of his mental vision.
“You don’t want this life, you want a wife and kids.” I jokingly stated to Christian, mocking him for an Instagram post he had taken of me during the AisleFive Comes Out of Hibernation show.
“This is that life! You break out of your comfort zone to capture these epic shots, and come home to tell the story about them. As a photographer, you are a visionary, a creative, a storyteller, and most importantly, you are an adventurer.”
We got everything packed up and began driving to the next spot on the list; the overlook off of Route 80.
As we drove to the next spot, Christian brought up the concern of the police coming and ticketing us.
“Ticketing us for shooting photos?” I asked.
I began telling Christian about my first encounter with authority while shooting photos,
“It was a night colder than tonight, -15 degrees, and we were up Blue Mountain Lake up in the mountains.
Our friends John, and Cassie journeyed up to the lake with my wife Cynthia and I, in the middle of the night to shoot astronomy photos. We parked in the parking lot, and hiked the 10-15 minute walk to the lake with all our gear.
We were experimenting with long exposures. This was hands down one of the best experiences of my life. We shot some incredible photos around the frozen lake and snow covered ground, mind you, a night much colder than tonight. Despite the cold, we did not think twice about it, we were having way too much fun to let it bother us, and you can see it in the photos.
We all stood around the camera, astonished by the image it had captured. To the naked eye, we were surrounded by pure darkness, we could not see the lake, the island, or the land around the lake, yet the camera managed to capture all of it.
We experimented with posing for the long exposure shots, trying to not let the cold get the best of us, and stay steady for the duration of the shutter.
Then we got our first taste of light painting. Cassie had brought with her LED light gloves, so we took turns trying to draw with them.
This night showed me how much fun astronomy and long exposure shooting could be, and forever made it my favorite method of shooting.
In the midst of all the fun, off in the distance I heard a large clang. I asked everyone if they had heard the noise, I was the only one. So we carried on with our fun, but shortly after, I spotted a spotlight off in the distance, coming up along the trail we had hiked. The light stopped at the lake, and then was pointed at us.
“DO YOU HAVE ANY WEAPONS?” a voice from the SUV yelled. We replied back with a “NO!” and started to gather our gear and walk towards the National Park Ranger.
“DON’T MOVE!” the voice replied. We stopped in our tracks and told the ranger that we were only up here to shoot photos. He got out of his SUV and cautiously walked towards us. We told him we had only been at the lake for about an hour, shooting photos, in which he replied that the temperature was way too cold for us to be atop of the mountain. He then proceeded to take our licenses and told us to return to our car to meet him.
We packed up our gear and made our way back to the car, concerned with what the ranger was going to accuse us of.
As we got closer to the car, we noticed a second ranger’s vehicle in the parking lot. When we got to the car, we talked with the rangers, who were showing concern due to the fact that they had found another car around the National Park, and could not locate the passengers. They informed us of the negative degree weather and warned us of the danger of being so far from any help if anything were to happen. We apologized for causing concern, wished them luck in finding the other people, and began driving down the mountain and back into town.”
Christian and I began driving up the exit for the overlook, and I explained to him that there is absolutely no reason for us to be ticketed for simply being out here in the cold and shooting photos. Even if they did, that just adds a new dynamic to the story of these photos.
Christian and I drove around the overlook, trying to figure out the best spot to post up and shoot. I simply wanted a view of the Delaware Water Gap with the night sky.
We parked, and I began to unload the tripod and the cameras and walk down the hill to setup. Then I realized, Christian was still in the car. I yelled back at him, to get out of the car, and called him some pretty mean names before he would even grab the door handle. When he saw me start to walk away to setup, he hopped out of the car and followed me down the hill.
The overlook was an excellent view of the Delaware Water Gap and of the travelers coming in-and-out of Pennsylvania. The camera also captured a glimpse of the light over the western horizon, which adds a nice color gradient in the sky over the defined mountain-scape. We would of gotten more, but then Christian and I got distracted.
Christian wanted to try and see if he could stay still for the length of the shutter and capture photos similar to the ones from Blue Mountain Lake. But we also experimented with a small LED light to light him up. In the first shot I held the light on him the whole duration of the shutter.
Then I tried a quick sweep across the foreground, a similar concept to a strobe firing. I was drawing in what I wanted to reveal in the image and it was producing some pretty cool results.
After capturing these few photos, we decided to head to the next spot, Columbia Lake.
Christian and I packed up and walked to the car. He was very impressed with the shots we had captured at the overlook. Still amazed with the last shot where I swept the light across. But little did he know, this was just the beginning of this little light painting experiment.
We drove to Columbia Lake, and all the way back to the dam. I asked Christian what he wanted to catch here. Christian had been telling me how he wanted a silhouetted image of himself from inside a tunnel that passes under Route 80. We decided to go back to the dam first and see what we could shoot back there.
I got out of the car and gathered the gear.
When I realized Christian was not getting out of the car, I told him, “You don’t want this life.” And proceeded to setup. I framed up my shot around a building on the opposite side of the dam from me, and fired a shot. Then I remembered the LED light. I was unsure if it would throw enough light far enough to be able to light up the building.
To my surprise, it captured a good amount of light on the building. But I decided to reframe, and try and capture some of the reflections in the water, and sweep across the frame slower to expose the building more.
I had captured a pretty cool shot that contained several different aspects, long exposure, astronomy, light painting, and reflections.
I yelled at Christian to get out of the car and check these out. I refused to let him stay in the car the whole, he had to learn to get over the cold.
We decided to pack-up and head back to the tunnel. In the process of driving to the tunnel, we got distracted by a path alongside of it. The path led right up to Route 80, but if captured from the right angle, could look like a path to the edge of the world.
Christian had spotted this, and I told him to get out so I could explain to him how to capture it. He just looked at me in a manner that delivered a definitive “No” answer. I told him, “You see the everything the way I do, the potential in almost anything and everything, and can run with it, but you do not want it enough to chase it.”
With that said, I got out and captured the shot.
An interesting shot playing off of perspective. If you can look past the wall, and see it as the edge of the Earth, then it does seem like you would fall into space.
Not a shot I wanted to play around with too much, so I got back into the car and drove to the other end of the tunnel.
At this point, we decided that this would be the last spot, and we would not leave till we captured what we came for. Or at least that is what I tried to make very clear to Christian. I forced him to get out with me and figure out this shot, to compose it right, and test the settings to find the best way to capture it.
This would work one of two ways, either Christian would have to set-up the camera himself while I stood in place of him, or he would have to stand in place while I set-up the camera. Either way, he was going to brave this cold with me, and was not spending the designing of this shot from in the car.
Sadly, the latter of the two is what occurred.
I began to frame up the shot, using the car’s headlights to light up the tunnel, so I could see the perspective and field of view of the frame.
Christian wanted to frame the shot tighter around him.
One of his biggest complaints is that he always seems so unnatural in photos.
So I moved him around to try and play with the composition more, and played around with the LED light as a rim light to define him more.
Christian began to complain about the cold; the interior of the tunnel was way cooler than it was outside. So I began testing shots without him knowing, to try and get down the focus.
I would randomly yell at him to “stop moving,” or “shut-up, don’t move.”
Of the whole night, this was the biggest test of trial and error. The cold, the lighting, and location were ingredients for some epic shots, but when I looked at the shot through the viewfinder, I could not see any of it. Nor could I easily find the focal point.
Then I found it. I found the perfect focal point, effects, and composition. The night was done. That was “FIN” at the end of the movie. This photo had summarized everything we had done to get to this point and capture this shot that Christian had wanted.
I did everything I could to teach Christian how to do this all, but I was unclear as to whether he had learned anything. The biggest lesson I was trying to teach him was if you really truly want to live this life, you have to compete with others who have already gone through all of this pain and suffering, to capture the amazing shots that you see all around you. You have to completely forget about your comfort zone and do what needs to be done. The process may not be fun, enjoyable, or comfortable, but the results, as well as the story of the process will be incredible.
To my surprise, he got it, and then some.
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