Over the course of five decades, renowned photographer and conservationist Art Wolfe has scoured every continent to unearth visuals of our multifaceted world in all its splendor—from natural phenomena to urban hustle, time-honored rituals to majestic, and endangered, wildlife. Among many accolades, his prolific career has yielded award-winning television productions and more than 100 books. His latest tome, Night on Earth, will hit the shelves in November and is currently available in a preorder special.
We recently asked Wolfe for a peek behind the scenes of this latest endeavor to help celebrate B&H’s Night Photography Week. In our conversation below, Wolfe reminisces about the relative ease of his early long exposures on film, discusses the perks to his current camera of choice, offers tips for helping to keep night skies dark, talks about the book production process and his publishing relationship with Earth Aware editions, and more. For further details, and to learn about his favorite dark sky haunts, as well as his photography bucket list, read on below.
Photographs © Art Wolfe
Above photograph: Old Faithful geyser under the Milky Way, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Jill Waterman: The images in this book are a result of your travels to every continent on the globe. How many years of your photography do the images in this book represent?
Art Wolfe: There are photographs in Night on Earth that go back to 1984, when I took part in the Ultima Thule Everest Expedition.
Do you find that your approach to photographing at night differs at all from making pictures during the day?
Except for the few film captures in the book, I am using DSLRs with more sensitive sensors for higher ISOs. I tend to use natural light instead of flash, so, when photographing people I prefer firelight, lantern light, or candlelight. Wildlife is certainly better photographed as the sun is going down.
Is there any one aspect of nighttime on earth—whether a natural phenomenon, a particular quality of darkness, a specific time or place, etc.—that you find most enjoyable to capture in images?
Definitely dusk—about a good 40 minutes after sunset is a great time to photograph. The colors are soft and still visible, and it’s just before it gets so dark that there is a blackness behind the subject. Conversely, just prior to sunrise is a good time, too.
The foreword to your book was written by the executive director of the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), a global movement to protect and restore dark skies. How long have you been aware of the IDA and the concerns associated with light pollution? Does your involvement with the IDA extend beyond the book’s introduction?
I’ve known about IDA for nearly a decade, and I was really pleased to get them involved in the book. I always like to have an environmental tie-in with my books, when possible, as a platform to build awareness about conservation issues.
There are currently more than 170 protected International Dark Sky Places spanning 23 countries across six continents. Have you been to many of these sites and, if so, do you have a favorite in which to photograph at night? What makes it most appealing to you?
One of the last places I photographed for the book was Natural Bridges National Monument, which has the distinction of being the first designated IDA site. Utah has an amazing number of IDA sites, among them Zion, Bryce, and Arches National Parks, and Goblin Valley State Park. The light pollution in these areas is minimal, making for terrific nighttime shooting.
Do you have any recommendations for changes people should consider making to nighttime lighting to help mitigate light pollution and allow them to enjoy the benefits of responsible outdoor lighting?
Shielding outdoor lights is a great idea, so you don’t share your yard lighting with your neighbors. When camping and stargazing, the red light setting on headlamps is great to use because it preserves night vision. Glaring bright lights at night are intrusive, as well as emotionally upsetting, especially when trying to photograph at night.
In David Owen’s introductory essay, “Let There Be Dark,” he describes sitting in darkness on his porch with his wife and remarking that the call of a barred owl seemed louder and closer than he had previously noticed. What is the most remarkable perceptual sensation you’ve had when photographing the world at night?
With decreased sense of sight, the sense of sound certainly becomes heightened. I recall my first trip to Tanzania back in the early 1980s; my fellow travelers and I were camping in the Ngorongoro Crater. A pride of lions walked through our camp in the middle of the night, and I have never felt so powerless and alert just thinking of that thin tent fabric that separated me from these apex predators.
Do you ever plan trips to photograph exclusively at night, or are you also scouting and photographing daytime scenes when you travel? If the latter, do you have any tips for stamina when photographing both day and night?
I photograph day and night, and very intensively when on a trip; time and travel are not cheap, especially when you’re my age, and I try to make the most of every opportunity. Two items I pack are a French press and a pound of coffee. I also am pretty good at taking catnaps.
What are your current favorite camera(s) and lens(es) for night photography in nature, and what are the most important attributes of these tools for this type of photography?
I just love the Canon EOS R5 with the RF 100-500mm f/4.5-7.1L IS USM lens. I can react quicker and shoot handheld with this combination. Certainly, the quality of the mirrorless capture is remarkable. The camera is better ergonomically, as well, with an LCD that can be adjusted at various angles. This makes for unexpected ease when shooting subjects low to the ground or above your head.
Some of the pictures in this book were made with analog cameras on film. How has your approach to night photography evolved since the days of long exposures on film?
I’m glad to have analog shots of star trails in my archive. Back in the day I could make a simple eight-hour exposure. It’s trickier with digital cameras, where you need to use software, which is not as effective. On the other hand, it’s nice to be using higher ISOs to get pinpoint stars.
Since you’ve been photographing nighttime images for many years, have you found the effects of climate change to have hindered or changed your approach to any of the scenes you seek to capture, or to have had an impact on your resulting images? If so, please elaborate.
Climate change has not really affected any of the shoots I’ve done for Night on Earth. However, climate change—and political unrest partially resulting from it, perhaps—certainly has affected other projects I’ve been working on, such as an upcoming wildlife book. It has affected wildlife behavior and populations, as well as the ability to travel safely to certain locations.
Are there any essential accessories that you always pack when setting out on a night photography shoot?
I always pack a tripod, a cable release, a headlamp with a red light setting, gloves, and a hat, since it’s often chilly. If I don’t own one when I need it, I will borrow a faster 1.4 lens to capture lower-light situations.
Some of your night photographs of wildlife appear to involve lighting. Please describe your equipment setup and the approach used in these situations.
For the most part, I use natural light to photograph wildlife. In Africa, I have shot from blinds where artificial lights were in place. Very occasionally I would use fill flash when I was shooting film.
Do you ever add supplemental light or light painting to landscapes captured at night?
I’ve used light painting a few times to illuminate foreground elements like cactus. I also did this with the Moai on Easter Island. I had a friend walk with a small light in front of each one of these tufa sculptures and bathe them in very low light. I emphasize this because in a long exposure, bright light would have washed out the subjects. It took a couple of passes before we were able to dial in the proper light that would allow both the Moai and the Milky Way to shine.
A section of your book depicts people involved in a wide variety of nighttime rituals. What is the most memorable situation of this type that you’ve encountered over the years?
A couple of years ago I photographed at a fire festival in Japan. There were hundreds of white-clad Shinto practitioners, drunk on alcohol, running with torches up and down a mountainside. They were part of a purification ceremony, which had begun earlier in the day. It was a primordial moment, a throwback to another time, and an authentic moment that is getting harder and harder to find.
The last section of the book, titled, “The Intuition of Light,” begins with nighttime landscapes featuring architectural elements and builds to scenes in busy urban settings. I’m curious about the use of the word “Intuition” in relation to these images/scenes. Please elaborate on the meaning of the word in this context.
As humans, we are drawn toward light, especially that which we make ourselves. In urban settings the pinprick stars are blotted out by a brightly lit cityscape or something as small as a streetlamp. Bright light catches our eye, we perceive a flash, and we instinctively know what it is, that it is man-made and, in a way, it provides a barrier against darkness. It’s in our genes to want to make dark light, to extend the day and time.
Have you ever found yourself in a precarious or dangerous situation when photographing at night? Based on your own experiences, do you have any tips for other photographers about working safely and efficiently in nighttime conditions?
The most dangerous situations I’ve been involved in at night were working around volcanoes, especially on the lip of a crater where you are not entirely sure of the soundness of the ground you are walking on. You can look for cracks during the day, but at night, footing is dicey. One misstep and you are sliding with an avalanche of cinders into a caldera. When working around wildlife, knowing there are predators about makes you a little extra cautious. It’s also true with elephant herds. When they walk, they pass silently on their big, padded feet. It’s not so much that they are aggressive, but it’s good to know if there is a huge mammal walking right behind you. It’s always good to have a local guide, especially if you are in an unfamiliar area.
How did putting this book together compare with past books you’ve done? How long did it take to identify and select all the images?
Over a course of years, I amass photos in various categories that are of interest to me. Once I realize I have a core of a book, I start drilling down and photographing more of the subject as I can fit it into my schedule. When the book is contracted, I do even more shooting to round it out.
Night on Earth was a bit more serendipitous. The publisher approached me to do it. Because of my style of shooting and constant travel, I found I had more than enough photos in my archive already. However, I am never satisfied and, over the course of nearly three years, I reshot many subjects with better equipment and results. In particular, I was determined to get back to Easter Island, and I also researched total eclipses and comets, and I was able to photograph a couple of those occurrences, as well. All books are long-term projects, even the ones for which you think you have all the images.
Your book Night on Earth is published by Earth Aware Editions, an imprint of MandalaEarth. How long have you been working with this publisher, and what is the extent of your collaboration with them in going from the raw materials to the final publication?
I have found a true partner in Earth Aware Editions. We have a very sympathetic relationship, and we are interested in doing the same genre of books. We share the same aesthetic as well as the same interests. Our underlying concerns about the planet are in line with each other. The collaborative process benefits everybody, from me to the publisher to the book collector. My staff and I work closely together with our assigned editors and designers on all aspects of book production, from design and image selection to the text.
In the book credits, it notes that the publisher, in association with the humanitarian organization Roots of Peace, will plant two trees for each tree used in the book’s manufacturing. Do you have any idea how many trees are planted as a result of your books’ print runs? And, on that note, what is the print run for this book?
Honestly, I have no idea how many trees have been planted just to offset my books. Roots of Peace is an organization that Earth Aware Editions works with; their focus is aiding small farmers in countries deeply affected by conflict. Not only do they assist in planting trees, providing agricultural income to poor farmers, but their partners remove landmines, as well.
There was a time when a print run would be 25,000 copies. If the book didn’t sell, the publisher took a big hit. Now print runs are smaller—5,000 is common for a photo book—and then they reprint as needed. The print-on-demand nature of publishing makes reprints so much easier, and the potential for waste so much less.
You mention in the acknowledgments that Night on Earth is dedicated to two fellow explorers, Ken Carroll and Kevin Coghlin, with whom you’ve shared some of the book’s best memories. What roles did these two people play in your journeys and where did some of your favorite memories with them take place?
Ken and Kevin are two of my greatest patrons, as well as being dear friends. From chasing eclipses to dangling on the edge of a caldera in the Central African Republic, they are game for adventure and photography enthusiasts of the highest order.
Are there any locations on Earth where you’ve not yet photographed at night (or photographed as extensively at night as you’d like), which you’d like to add to your bucket list?
The Earth, although small as it floats in space, is big for us on the ground. There are many, many places that I would have loved to photograph for Night on Earth, but the opportunity never arose. The Middle East, Oman and the Arabian Peninsula, Kazakhstan, and the rest of the ’stans. All would have been amazing locations, but those will have to wait for future books! When working on book projects that require international subjects, I need to be pragmatic. I can’t get everywhere, so I must choose wisely, and at times, let photographic dreams continue to be just that.
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