The full moon behind dusk clouds above and eastern Sierra Nevada meadow
This will be another short post — things are quite busy right now! The photograph is from almost a decade ago, when I accompanied my brother, his wife, and three sons on a backpack trip into a favorite area of the eastern Sierra Nevada. Our trip began with a hike to a picturesque lake between two high ridges, where we spent several days exploring… and surviving “interesting” weather. We found a beautiful campsite on a bench above a meadow and lake. In the evening I set up on this high spot and photographed the near-night darkness with the moon shining from behind the broken layer of clouds overhead.
Ambient light floods the side of a building and old railroad tracks with green-tinted light, Mare Island Naval Ship Yard
A friend recently shared a photograph of a bit of curving railroad track, and I recognized it as being the same track that appears in this photograph from seven and a half years ago. I went back to look it up to share it with him, and in doing so I realized that I seem to have not shared it previously — so I’m rectifying that with this posting!
I have been photographing this location at night for over a decade now. I’m pretty certain that my first visit was back in 2003, when I happened to see an announcement of an event sponsored by The Nocturnes the San Francisco Bay Area night photography group. I had seen photographs made at night, of course, but it wasn’t anything that I had ever done, so I showed up. I was quickly hooked, especially when it comes to photographing urban and industrial areas in ambient light. This photograph is fine example of what attracts me about that light. If you were there in person, you would not really see anything quite like this — it was so dark that most of the details would be lost in shadow, the intense colors would be invisible to your eyes, and the only real details would be on the small lighted wall in the distance. But the camera can see what the eyes cannot. Here that includes not only the details in shadow areas, but also the wild colors that are produced by artificial lights.
On this evening I finally got to seriously try out something that I had been thinking of doing for some time — handheld street photography at night. Current digital cameras are providing low-light capabilities now that were almost unimaginable just a few years ago, to the point that it is possible to shoot at very high ISO setting and shoot in urban darkness almost as if it were daytime. (To be sure, there are some issues related to things like dynamic range, the need to use very large apertures, narrow DOF, dealing with noise in post, etc.)
We had just left a club where we heard a musical performance and we decided to head over to Washington Square where yet another performance was going on. Almost as soon as we left the first building it hit me that this was my opportunity to give this a shot, so I worked with a 23mm (35mm equivalent) f/1.4 lens and cranked up the ISO and started shooting. I quickly noticed that I actually had some exposure headroom, and I could lower ISO stop down a bit. I also quickly became fascinated by the nighttime shadows, which are nothing like what we see during the day. I started looking for bright “pools of light” under artificial lighting and then constructing compositions and waiting for an interesting juxtaposition of people and other elements.
Looking straight up into the fly space of the California Theater, San Jose
As I work on my three-year project photographic classical musicians, I spend a lot of time around their rehearsal and performance spaces. In addition to photographing the people, I have also photographed the environment within which they work, and not always the obvious parts that are visible to those who attend concerts and see the formal appearance of the stage.
A lot of interesting things exist in the backstage world. In contrast to the stage itself, at least as viewed from the perspective of the audience, this is a world seems as much industrial as artistic, but even that “industrial” aspect is an interesting combination of some very modern technology (such as lighting and sound systems) and some very old technology (the equipment for hoisting sets and other equipment on and off the stage). This photograph looks straight up into that equipment and the catwalk near the highest point in the backstage fly space.
Numerous sources of artificial light illuminate an industrial building from outside and inside
I like night photography for a number of reasons. I enjoy the very slow work, finding subjects and compositions in near darkness and then waiting patiently for long exposures to complete. “Normal” photography can be a slow and meditative process, but night photography must be. Given so much time to stand and wait, I cannot help but notice the stillness and quiet of the night, and to feel the cool and damp air. In fact, as a person who does night photography, these things are almost as much part of the experience as the visual elements.
In the visual context, there are a few things about the appeal of night photography that might not occur to a person who has not done it. When photographing in very low light, what we photograph is often very different from what we actually see. Often the subject is quite dark, even when lit by the moon or nearby lights, but the camera doesn’t care—a long enough exposure can collect more light that our eyes can, and a dim and drab subject can become bright. Also, the illusion that the camera stops time is not quite so strong when photographing at night. Over the course of a many minutes long exposure stars move, lights of cars appear and pass, clouds blur into soft streaks, and the edges of shadows from moonlight blur. In industrial areas such as this one, the lighting is a mixture of things glowing from within and lit from without, and the diversity of lighting—tungsten, fluorescent, sodium vapor, LED, mercury vapor, moonlight—paints the nightscape with wild colors. This building is an excellent example. The upper windows emanate a glow from yellow interior light. Relatively colorless light hits the upper walls, but the light takes on an odd blue/pink tone on the lower building, and the shadows head toward blue.
Green doors to an immense industrial shop building, Mare Island Naval Ship Yard
I’m intrigued by doorways, especially doorways painted in interesting colors, or which suggest a size different from their reality, or which hint at something beyond the doors. These doors, both the obvious small door at the left, and the larger three section doors to its right that you’ll see if you look a bit more closely, are along the front of a gigantic shop building at Mare Island. Many years ago they were, no doubt, devoted to work related to the ship construction that went on here for many decades. That work ended decades ago, the facility was decommissioned, and much of it was left vacant for a long time.
More recently things have begun to move again on the island. While some areas still lie dormant and others have succumbed to weather and vandals, many others still stand and quite a few of them are now used by small operations. Looking through the windows on this night, portions of the interior were dimly lit and it appeared that a few workers were busy inside. Incongruously, it looked like at least one computer screen glowed on a desk near a window.
A gigantic ship yard crane extends high into the night sky, Mare Island Naval Ship Yard, Vallejo, California
For many of us, these gigantic cranes, towering above the historic ship yard buildings and docks, are the iconic structures of the Mare Island Naval Ship Yard near Vallejo, California. The facility has been here since the 1800s, when it was the first naval ship yard on the west coast of the United States, and its history is quite remarkable. I won’t even begin to try to recount it here since a) it is so extensive and b) I’m far from an expert! In the 1990s it was decommissioned and since that time parts of the facility have fallen into ruin, others have been maintained in more or less their condition at that time, and some have been converted to other uses ranging from industrial to housing.
I have photographed here at night for about a decade. It used to be that these towering structures were mostly just parked in somewhat inaccessible locations behind fences along the waterfront. (The folks I photograph with here have a policy of not going into areas that are off-limits, and this had led to generally very good relations with the folks who oversee the place.) More recently the dry dock facility has been put back to use to dismantle very old ships from the “mothball fleet” that had been moored nearby, and now when I visit I often find the cranes have moved and may even be in more accessible locations. The first thing that struck me on this night’s visit was the effect of the security lights playing over the structure—and the fact that the lights are still the older and very colorful lights rather than the newer, more energy-efficient, and very boring LED lighting!