Can you photograph at night with lousy eyesight?

I was recovering from surgery for a detached retina in my right eye. Here’s what I found.

Flashes and floaters

24 hours after the surgery I experienced floaters and flashes in my right eye, I was on the phone with an eye doctor. When I saw the first flash of light in my peripheral vision, I had thought, “That was strange. Was that the reflection from a car whizzing past?” The second time, I knew something was wrong.

The doctor said that I had lattice degeneration. This is a thinning of the peripheral retina, the tissue that lines the back wall of the eye. This also helps maintain sharp vision. Lattice degeneration is a cause for concern. Here, the retina is more susceptible to tearing, which can lead to retinal detachment. The doctor made an appointment for five more weeks.

Night photo of an enormous sculpture by Ricardo Breceda, located in Borrego Springs, CA.

Distracting

The next time I went out to the Arizona desert to photograph at night, my vision had grown increasingly worse. The flashes and floaters were more prominent than ever before. Worse than that, my vision in the right eye had grown a little hazier. 

The squeaky wheel

I called the doctor again. I wanted to see him now, not in several more weeks. However, the receptionist said that he was out of town. I kept the old appointment. However, thinking it over, I felt I really should see a doctor, so I called again. Same message. So I called again, saying the same thing again. This time, I got an appointment with a different doctor the following morning. Sometimes, the third time really is the charm.

Uh, oh!

Night photo of dinosaurs battling. Sculptures by Ricardo Breceda, Borrego Springs, CA.

It didn’t take long. The doctor said, “You have a detached retina.” He explained that since I was nearsighted, I was more susceptible to lattice degeneration and detached retinas. Swell. He made an appointment with another doctor specializing in retinal surgery. In particular, pneumatic retinopexy and a scleral buckle surgery, would be done during the same visit. 

Recovery

Recovery involved staying face down for eight days all day and all night. Yes, that means while sleeping. Or attempting to sleep. I am very active and kinetic. Therefore, I was convinced this was one of the Seven Layers of Hell. My face hurt. My back hurt. And of course, my eye hurt. And with that, I also had headaches for the next three weeks. I rarely looked at myself in the mirror for the first few days. I looked like I had gone 15 rounds with Mike Tyson.

The blob

No, this isn’t the blob from my eye. In fact, it was larger than this, and yes, right in the center of my vision. This is one of my macro experiments during the pandemic.

I had a weird bubble in my eye from one of the procedures. This air bubble slowly pushes the retina back into place. However, to me, it looked like an enormous blob. Slowly over two weeks, the blob diminished, then broke into several smaller blobs, then went away completely. I was overjoyed when it went away.

Blurry photo near sunset, Borrego Springs. While my vision in my right eye isn’t quite this blurry, it isn’t far off either.

Choosing the location to do night photography

A month after surgery, I was ready to get outside and enjoy some night photography in the desert. I chose Borrego Springs. One of the reasons was that the magnificent sculptures that I was going to photograph were only between five to 10 minutes from the motel. The other reason was that the ground near the sculptures was level and didn’t have many sharp pointy plants. 

And of course, I love Borrego Springs. Borrego Springs was where I had floated in the pool while looking up at the Milky Way, a magical experience I still remember vividly. 

Night photo of a sculpture by Ricardo Breceda in Borrego Springs, CA. April 2022.

Other strategies for doing night photography

While my right eye was healing quite well and I was told I could drive, swim, and exercise, my vision was still blurry. To compensate for this, I began using reading glasses. Rather than fumble around in the dark for them, I purchased eyeglass straps so they could hang around my neck when I wasn’t using them. 

I also used a Coast HX4 80-lumen Clip Light with the red light on to see my way around. Surprisingly, I didn’t need this too much because it was during a full moon, and I could see reasonably well. 

When reviewing my photos, I blew them up more than I usually would just to make sure I had focused properly. I used my reading glasses to make absolutely sure. I often used Live View. With Live View, I found I could also use my reading glasses effectively. If I needed to, I could also shine my light around to see what was going on more.

I also used the autofocus in my camera. I shined a light on the sculpture I was photographing, used the autofocus, and then switched back to manual focus so the camera wouldn’t keep attempting to acquire focus again.

Other thoughts

I was rather pleased that I could photograph so easily in the dark, even with one eye having rather blurry vision. I was able to photograph again the following month as well. I again photographed during a full moon, photographing some unusual art installations in Wonder Valley. And this time, I had also gotten some specially made glasses from the optometrist, so driving at night was much better. I was very specific with what I wanted with the glasses, and they made them with this in mind.

eye on the end of the world
Night photography at the end of the world, or at least Wonder Valley in California. May 2022.

I found that one of the challenges was the extremes between bright lights and dark. If it were mostly dark, I didn’t have that many issues at all. But if there were large bright signs and storefronts in an otherwise very dark environment, that sometimes caused haziness. My new glasses corrected for this. I didn’t have them when I photographed in Borrego Springs, so that’s largely why I chose to photograph a location that was only minutes from the motel.

Technically, my eye has not recovered fully. That takes about six months after surgery. Shortly after that point, I will have cataract surgery. After that, my vision in my right eye should be considerably sharper, and not the blurry mess it is now.

Dragon head. Ricardo Breceda. eye.
Night photo of part of the enormous rattledragon sculpture by Ricardo Breceda. April 2022.

And yes, I did swim at night. While the Milky Way wasn’t arching over the sky, the full moon and the starry skies were. And that’s still magical. And I felt particularly joyous after spending such a long time staying face down in the house.

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!

NIGHTAXIANS VIDEO YOUTUBE PODCAST:

Night photographers Tim Little, Mike Cooper and I all use Pentax gear. We discuss this, gear, adventures, light painting, lenses, night photography, creativity, and more in this ongoing YouTube podcast. Subscribe and watch to the Nightaxians today!

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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