How to create mysterious night portraits in the desert

I created otherworldly night portraits of a musical group during a winter evening in the California desert. I’ll describe how I went about photographing these surreal images.

Firing up the machine

I was contacted by electronic/psychedelic band Bloomfield Machine, a band masterminded by Brian Kassan, who has also created music with Chewy Marble and The Wondermints. He wanted some night photos that looked, well, like my photos. We chose Joshua Tree National Park for its strange landscape.

Cloudy with a chance of weirdness

After a delicious lunch at Pie for the People in Yucca Valley, we drove into Joshua Tree National Park, one of my favorite places for night photography.

Although the weather forecasts called for extremely cloudy skies, we were happy to find out that it was only partially cloudy. I love clouds at night. They add a lot of texture and interest to photos. I also love the way they “smear” during long exposure photographs.

Deciding on the camera settings

As those of you who read my articles know, I love to photograph near a full moon. It illuminates much of the surrounding area and is perfect for light painting. 

Because the band would need to stand still, I decided to photograph with a 30-second exposure instead of 2 or 3-minute exposures. To do this, I figured I would use an ISO of 800. ISO 800 still does not produce very much noise, certainly not with the Pentax K-1 or Nikon D750. But it would create enough light sensitivity so I could get a decent exposure, even at an aperture of f/8. 

The band said that they wanted a little bit of blur so it would look a bit strange. Otherwise, I could have done a quicker exposure, such as 10 or 15 seconds. But 30 seconds was perfect for me. This would allow me to be able to run around and illuminate the scene from several different areas while the camera shutter was open! Excellent!

Fisheye night portrait in Joshua Tree National Park, CA. Taken with the Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 fisheye lens.

The look I wanted through lighting

I really wanted the band to pop out of the photo and have a three-dimensional quality to them. I decided that I would illuminate them using a handheld Nikon SB-600 Speedlight from the side, popping the flash manually. This would create shadow and depth. Also, this way, I wouldn’t pop a flash right in their face. And it would “freeze” them so there would be less blur.

Beginning the exposure

I positioned the two musicians and focused on them. I did this with two setups. I had the Pentax K-1 with a Pentax 28-105mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. I chose this lens for its clarity and general flexibility with its wider focal range than my ultra wide-angle lens. For weirder fisheye angles, I used the Nikon D750 with a Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 fisheye lens.

I then triggered the camera with a Vello Shutterboss II wired intervalometer (Pentax users, you can use the Canon Sub Mini Connection / Nikon with DC2 connection).

Running around in the dark waving lights

Sometimes, when people ask what I do as a night photographer, I tell them, “I run around in the dark waving lights.” It’s actually reasonably accurate. I used two handheld lights, the Nikon SB-600 Speedlight and the ProtoMachines LED2 handheld light painting device. I also had a Viola Luxli LED panel packed and ready to go, but I never needed to use it. And run around I did!

Adding color and shadows

Night photo with the band, Joshua Tree National Park, CA. Taken with the Pentax 28-105mm f/3.5-5.6 lens.

After triggering the camera for its 30-second exposure, I would run to the side and pop the speedlight manually. By this, I literally mean that I would hold the flash off-camera and pop it by pressing the flash button. PZAWWWW!! This would illuminate the two people in the band.

For some of the photos, I wanted more color and interest. After popping the flash, I would jam it in my pocket and then run to the side and illuminate the rocks in back of the band with the ProtoMachines light.

Fisheye night portrait in Joshua Tree National Park, CA with some extra backlighting in red for good measure. Taken with the Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 fisheye lens.

During one of the fisheye photos, I did all of the above. Then after that, I ran over and stood in back of each of them for several seconds, shining a red light so that it would produce eerie shadows as well. Fun!

As a bonus, running kept me warm and gave me some exercise, even while photographing on a winter night! But of course, I also had to finish my lighting within 30 seconds as well. And I wanted to keep moving so I would minimize my chances of showing up in the photo.

Chimping

Of course, the band kept wanting to check out the photos. Part of this was that they wanted to make sure that their eyes weren’t closed. After all, I was popping a flash at them! Despite counting down, we did get a few photos where one person’s eyes were closed.

I pointed out how their face was sharp where the flash had illuminated them, but a little blurry on the other side. They loved that and wanted to keep it because they wanted the photos to look “extra weird.” Mission accomplished.

Processing the photos

The photos were relatively straightforward to process since they were all single exposures. Although there wasn’t that much noise, I wanted to make sure that the images were clean. The band, after all, might print some large posters. Therefore, I ran the photos through Topaz DeNoise AI before doing anything else. After that, I simply made a few adjustments using LuminarAI as a plugin in Adobe Photoshop, then using Lumenzia luminosity masks for some light dodging and burning.

“Are these composites?”

This is the question I am asked most often by other photographers. No. They are all single exposures. 

Windy night photoshoots in winter

We had arrived at our location in Joshua Tree around 4 p.m. By 7:30 p.m., we were already packing up. I was of course used to this sort of thing by now and had dressed for the cold weather. In fact, I had photographed until 10 p.m. the previous night, stopping because I didn’t want to “stay out too late” and be tired the next day.

But to be fair, the two musicians had been asked to stand still for long periods of time. And it was also windy, which added a real “bite” to the air. 

The band said, “We love what we’ve seen! Time to pack up!” One said that his toes felt numb. Not to worry, though. Before long, we were enjoying a nice hot meal in town.

Altogether, we had created 16 promotional photos for Bloomfield Machine, with six of them being long exposure night portraits. This was for sure a fun, creative, productive night.

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

BOOKS AND PRINTS:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure prints and more.  My books are 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, thanks!

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

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

VIDEO PRESENTATION:

How We Got the Shots: Five Photographers, Five Stories – Night Photo Summit 2022

VIDEO INTERVIEW:

Ken Lee’s Abandoned Trains Planes and Automobiles with Tim Little of Cape Nights Photography
Conversation about night photography and my book with Lance Keimig of National Park At Night

ARTICLES:
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

 

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