Light Painting on a Grand Scale

Night photo showing the Milky Way over Badlands National Park with streaks of light in the foreground from a passing car.  Fine art photograph by Craig Stocks

I love light painting night scenes so this was a good opportunity to use our car as the light source to paint light on the road and the surrounding hillsides. And a big “thank you” to my wife Debbie for getting up with me in the middle of the night so I could get the photo of her driving by.

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A Firefly Flurry

Fine art photograph by Craig Stocks showing a flurry of fireflies in the woodsA flurry of fireflies flitting about. This long seven minute exposure captured hundreds of lightning bugs flying around in my backyard.

When I was a kid in the 1960’s lightning bugs were a childhood staple of summertime entertainment. Kids today seem far more interested in video games and iPods than chasing bugs in the dark. I can’t help but think they’re missing out of something.

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The Color of Invisible Ink

Fine art photo by Craig Stocks showing the colors of northern lights over Badlands National Park

I’m convinced that the fundamental purpose of photography is to allow us to capture a view that couldn’t be seen otherwise. There are lots of reasons for taking a picture; we might want to capture a scene or an image of a friend to look at later or to share with someone else, we might want to use photographic technologies to reveal a scene in a way we can’t see it with our eyes, or we might want to create an image that expresses our unique way of seeing the world.

I took the photo above on a recent trip with my wife to Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Besides providing a brief get-away I wanted to spend some time doing night sky and Milky Way photography and The Badlands provided a wonderfully dark sky.

Because of the moon phase and position of the Milky Way we generally went out shortly after the moon set in the early morning around 1:00 AM. This was the our last night in the park and I had two locations in mind but as soon as we got out of town we noticed a glow in the sky to the north. At first I wrote it off as a glow from the moon just over the horizon.

Eventually it dawned on me that I might be seeing northern lights.  By eye I couldn’t see any color but I did notice the shimmering nature of the light. I quickly turned the camera around and took a 30 second exposure just to see and lo and behold the preview on the LCD revealed the green and magenta colors of the aurora.

The night sky as it looked to the naked eye

The night sky as it looked to the naked eye

I quickly packed up the camera and tripod and we moved to a location that offered some interesting foreground structure. Once I was set up I did an exposure for the sky and a separate exposure for the foreground using an LED flashlight to “paint” with light. During that exposure a car dove by and added to my light painting.

That brings me back to the fundamental purpose of photography. I have fond memories from the trip and especially our excitement at seeing the northern lights, so this photo is a memento.  I also enjoy sharing my images on this blog, on Facebook and occasionally in an art gallery and this image will soon be realized as a large print ready to be shared.

This is also a good example of using photographic techniques to bring out the unseen. I couldn’t see the colors with my naked eye but they were definitely there. When I painted the beam from the flashlight over the mounds I only saw a moving spot of light, but the camera captured a broader band of light and then combined that with the reddish glow from a car’s headlights. The photo also shows more stars than I could see including the glow of the Andromeda Galaxy to the right of the Milky Way.

Lastly this photo is an expression of how I like to see and remember the experience. I chose the location and composition to show something of the park along with the sky and added light with a flashlight because I like that look. The colors in the sky were rich but I want to see them a little richer.

There’s no right or wrong answer to the question of how to best express the colors in the sky. You might feel it’s best to simply show the scene the way it looks in person, but I find that boring. Besides, we’ve already seen that, I want to show something we haven’t seen. The camera defaults to a certain set of colors but they’re not any more correct than any other rendering of the colors. In the end it’s a personal artistic decision to decide how the colors should be represented. We can all choose the color of our invisible ink.

There are lots of photos of the northern lights and lots of photos of The Badlands but this reveals my own unique way of experiencing that early morning as we explored the park and enjoyed the night sky.

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Reach for the Stars

Fine art photograph by Craig Stocks showing the Milky Way over a set of grain silos on a farm in Illinois

I’ve been driving past this farm for the last 20 years and I’m always captivated by the arrangement of silos. Recently I contacted the owner and gained permission to come photograph the scene in the middle of the night to capture the stars and Milky Way as a backdrop. It just feels more “right” in black and white.

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About Face

Fine art B&W photo by Craig Stocks showing a woman's torso and buttocks

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