How I find interesting foregrounds and locations for night photography

Composition is key

My philosophy is that regardless of whether it you are photographing the night sky or not, it’s all about the composition, where the subject matter still counts. And rarely for me is the night sky the subject matter. I’m particularly fascinated by the marriage of sky and earth. Astrophotography and deep sky photography hold less interest for me personally.

What I use to find new locations

I devote quite a bit of time to finding interesting areas. When researching new locations and determining how to approach photographing them, I use a combination of Google Maps, the history of a region, looking at old photographs, driving around the area, other photographer friends, blogs, old maps, and Facebook groups about a particular subject matter. If I think there are some ghost towns or abandoned houses in a particular region, I’ll also try to see if I can find abandoned places on Google Earth.
I try not to copy other people’s photographs. Also, I don’t actively seek to photograph some locations there despite it having great subjects if 1.) I feel like I can’t say anything that hasn’t been said before, and 2.) they are too crowded, which isn’t the sort of photographic experience I’m after. Locations like this would include Mesa Arch at sunrise, Kanarra Creek Canyon, the sun shining on Horsetail Fall in Yosemite in February, Horseshoe Bend, and Antelope Canyon. This is not a condemnation of anyone photographing these locations. They are stunning locations for photography. Because of #1 and #2, they simply hold less interest for me.

Scouting the location

Ideally, I hike around the area during the day and return at night, although that doesn’t always happen due to time constraints or life throwing one challenges. When I’m in the area during the day, I usually try to make notes about where the moon might come out, how the foreground subject will be illuminated, or where the Milky Way might be, things like that. I use apps such as PhotoPills to help determine things such as this. And of course, I am always thinking about how I might “light paint” the foreground so that I can create visually strong and creative images. “Light painting” is illuminating the foreground while the camera shutter is open, acting almost like the director of a movie, determining what to illuminate, and what to keep in shadow. This helps the image to tell a story about the place.

On the lookout for anything weird or interesting

I photograph a lot of abandoned items that I found interesting, but really, anything that’s interesting is something that I love to photograph, including fantastic natural landscapes or unique features. Often, the weirder, the better. Sometimes, I’ll look for something of historical interest. I also love locations that have captured my imagination as a kid, such as anything with dinosaurs or the house from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”


I also look to see whether there might be streetlights in the area or there might be some danger in walking. I look for sharp cactus, floorboards that are about to give way, the potential for for animals or people, homeless encampments, or anything else that makes me wary.

Inspired by themes

Finally, I am working on two more night photography books on abandoned sites, both of which have themes. Themes are fantastic because they drive me to seek out these things more, and make it a lot of fun! I also record music this way by having this sort of theme, and it serves as a guidepost for what one seeks out or does. I often find myself thinking about the approach in novel ways, and that can create additional creativity.
What foregrounds interest you? What methods do you use to find fascinating foregrounds and cool abandoned sites? Let us know in the comments section!


Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure photos.  My latest book, “Abandoned Southern California: The Slowing of Time” is available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review.

Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)

Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

Conversation about night photography and my book with Lance Keimig of National Park At Night

A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols


4 thoughts on “How I find interesting foregrounds and locations for night photography

  1. Nicely done sir. On my recent drive along the 15 to SoCal I made several notes of abandoned buildings that looked interesting. Finding time to photograph is another challenge.

    1. Thanks, Tony! Hopefully you have the GPS coordinates marked as well on a map or otherwise know exactly where it is. Anyway, hopefully you have a chance to circle back and photograph some of them. Are some of them somewhat close to Nevada?

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