Frightening encounters: meeting people with guns at night

One of the most common questions I get asked is about if whether I have frightening encounters with people when I am photographing at night.

Although I’ve been lucky, the answer is a definite yes. I’ll mention a few.


“You better get that stuff the f*** away from here!”


Sometimes what you think is abandoned is not quite abandoned. Certainly this was the case with an old motel in Ash Fork, Arizona. I pulled up to this dilapidated motel with overgrown shrubs and weeds. I took a quick test shot to see if my light painting was on point. Right after the shot, the office door about five feet from me whipped open. From inside a squatter angrily yelled, “You better get that stuff the f*** away from here!”

While it’s perfectly okay to take photos from the sidewalk, I didn’t argue. Better to leave. I didn’t ask if he had any vacancies either.

What you are seeing is my one and only test shot, so my sky is much darker than usual since this was a relatively short 30 second exposure. Good thing my light painting was okay.


“That’s far enough!”


“Hey, what are you doing?!?” The voice came from the nearby RV that was boondocking near this abandoned structure at Two Guns, Arizona, an abandoned rest stop along Interstate-40.

When you are a night photographer, a lot of questions begin with that question. I waved and slowly walked over to talk.

“That’s far enough! I’ve got a gun!” he said behind the screen door of the RV.

“That’s alright, I don’t want any trouble,” I calmly explained. “How are you?” Asking how someone is often defuses the situation and opens the door for conversation. Sometimes.

“Are you going to be here long?”

I assured him that we would be quiet. “That’s good, I’m trying to get some sleep,” he replied. We began to talk. “You have a nice RV,” I mentioned. A compliment sometimes gets people to loosen up. And sure enough, he began talking more conversationally. He was driving an RV cross-country, and he liked stopping here. He had already been here two days. “Yesterday, some kids were skateboarding in that pool there,” jerking his head toward the empty graffiti-stained pool nearby. “I thought you might be one of those guys again.”

“No, we’re just a few night photographers, just taking photos.”

“We get a few of you around here too.”

We wished each other well. I got on to taking photos. He got on to sleeping with his gun nearby.


“Just so you know, I’ve got a gun.”


I was at Two Guns, Arizona for the second night in a row. Shortly after taking this photo, I walked outside and set up my camera tripod and began looking through it. I had been near the service station for about half an hour.

A guy had been standing there for about ten minutes watching me as I got focus.

“Hey, what are you doing?” The time-honored phrase to begin a conversation at night.

I resisted the urge to reply, “I’m peering through a camera on a tripod. You can’t tell I’m making sushi?”

“I’m taking photos.”

“That’s good. Some people come by here to take photos.”

He was speaking quietly, so I lifted up my head and took a couple of steps toward him.

“Just so you know, I’ve got a gun.”

“Seems like a lot of people do.”

“I thought you might have been one of those boys that was around here last week. They were throwing rocks at my RV.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Not to worry, I’m not a boy. And I have no rocks. I’m just here to take photos.”

“That’s good. I’ll let you do that.” This struck me as hilarious since it looked like he was boondocking.

He began talking some more. He said that he was watching the property for an owner that wanted to turn the place into a glamping area. I almost laughed out loud. Two Guns was just off the Interstate, with constant trucks and cars whooshing by, in the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t particularly beautiful or scenic either. There were far more desirable places that people might glamp. “I watch this place, make sure it’s okay. I clean up too.” The place was not very clean. If he had worked even a day cleaning, the place would have been far cleaner. There were no dumpsters or garbage cans anywhere either. “Hey, that’s great! Sounds like the owner really trusts you,” I said. “You bet.”

He started to walk off, then stopped. “Don’t be thinking about stealing that,” he muttered, waving his hand at two ATVs on a trailer.

“Not to worry, your ATV is safe with me.”


“You’ll have to leave now”


We were photographing at what looked to be an unused former film location. The Antelope Valley has a number of them. This was was called Mojave Tropico.

I had just begun a test shot when a white base-level pick-up pulled up. A few of my night photographers friends and I have an ongoing joke. It seems like every time security shows up, they are driving a white base-level pickup.

I continued light painting and going about my business, then clicked off the camera. Then I casually walked toward the truck. I often walk over to these white base-level pick-ups slowly while waving and smiling. This shows that I don’t believe I am doing anything wrong and that I am friendly. It has worked quite well so far.

“Hi, may I help you?” I said. This is also something I say quite often if someone shows up, security or not. It might indicate that I am helpful, sure, but I do it because it implies that I am supposed to be here and connotes an air of authority.

That didn’t work this time, though.

“Hey, what are you doing here?” The time-honored question.

“Taking night photos! Beautiful night for it. I can show you what we’re doing if you’d like!” I was pulling out all the stops this time, knowing we were just about to be asked to leave.

“Thanks, but no. You’re not allowed to be here.” The person was very friendly but firm. They were from the mine, which apparently now owned the property. “You’ll have to leave.”

“I understand,” I replied. “We’ll pack up and be on our way.”

Part of being a night photographers is to know where to go, what to do, and when to leave.



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


Photo Tip of the Month: 5 Ways To Take Beautiful Portraits – Even If You Don’t Speak Their Language

Atacama Father And Daughter

This father and daughter in the Atacama Desert of Chile were joking, having fun, goofing around. I chuckled, and they smiled at me. After a while, we had developed a rapport, and they were only to happy to continue the clowning while I took their photo. Nikon D90 with an 18-200mm VR Nikkor lens, 18mm, 1/125 second, f/3.5.

If you make a connection with people, you’re likely to have them agree to have their photos taken.  You’re likely to get really great photos.  And you just may make a friend or have memories you’ll treasure, whether you take their photo or not.  And much of this is almost a “how-to” on how to have more fun when you travel or even explore your own area!

Smile and Ask First
Sneaky shots and far away shots don’t always come out so well.  If you are exploring a market, at an athletic event or concert, walking around a city, and you see someone that you’d like to photograph, it’s better to smile, make eye contact, and ask first.  It’s more respectful, and people usually respond to that.  And if they don’t, then they wouldn’t have wanted their photo taken anyway. If you want to photograph their kids, who are often more willing to pose for photos at first, ask permission first.  If you don’t speak their language, that’s okay.  The universal pointing to your camera and a smile does the trick.  Show them the photo if you have a digital camera.  Some photographers will offer to send them a photo or bring a camera that allows them to print photos, such as the Polaroid PoGo, a digital camera with a built-in printer.  Great ice-breaker.  Consider shooting with a compact camera first.  Some people find these less intimidating.  Then if you wish, you can move to an SLR or DSLR later.

Show An Interest In People and Their Culture
Good manners and respect for people and their culture goes a long way.  When people see that you are respectful of their culture, they know that you put in the time to learn some of their ways.  That shows respect.  That shows understanding. It shows interest in who they are.  If I don’t know about a certain routine, ritual, custom, or whatever, I find out in a guidebook, ask a local, or stand and watch for a while so I can see what others are doing.  This also allows me to enjoy the moment and not rush through everything as if it were simply a display.

Get Involved
A sure ice-breaker is to join in on the fun.  What’s going on?  Attend a local church or temple service. Join a game.  Go shopping at a market. Watch a local football match in person.  Go rafting, take lessons, do something.  I’ve gotten some of my best people photos when I’ve joined in.  I’ve made friends with sadhus in the Himalayas when I we hiked up to a temple together for three hours.  I’ve met people while getting a shave on the streets of New Delhi.  I’ve helped plant tomatoes and dry food on rooftops in Kashmir.  I’ve tried to learn local dances in a small village in Peru.  I couldn’t speak more than a few words with any of these people, but that was okay.

Don’t be afraid to look silly.  If anything, that only helps break the ice.  People don’t expect you to do everything well or be able to dance their traditional dances perfectly.  But joining in and trying can create memories that will last a life time and make for fascinating stories to tell your friends or family.  And those interesting photos that you take back will remind you of those amazing times.

Establish Rapport
Going to temple or a concert or standing in line or wishing someone happy birthday when they are celebrating or eating at a restaurant are all enjoyable, and all are further opportunities to establish rapport.  I was waiting for food at a budget restaurant in the Atacama Desert in Chile.  I saw a father playing and joking around with his young daughter, making funny faces and having fun.  I chuckled, and they looked up and smiled.  That was fun.  We had also ordered similar food, and asked each other how it was.  We started a conversation.  I took photos of them together, still joking around, still having fun.  This photo still brings back great memories.  I’m not always looking to take photos of people, but I don’t like to pass up great opportunities either!

Learn a Few Words in Their Language
Learn the language of the country you are visiting, or at least a few words. This will often earn respect of people, particularly if it’s a more obscure language, and serves as a wonderful ice-breaker, helping you to connect.  I’ve had people invite me to their homes, their temples, or their place of work simply because I learned a few words in their native language and they were touched.  Making these connections will help you capture the spirit of the people, achieving far better photos…and maybe making a friend.

Think, Know, Plan (Okay, This Is Basically a Sixth Tip!)
You need to work quickly to be spontaneous. Therefore, you need to know your camera and equipment well. If you fiddle faddle with your equipment, adjusting settings, messing with this and that, you risk losing the spontaneity of your subject.

Before you approach your subject, think about what you’re going to do. Plan your shot. Think about the lighting at hand, your composition, focal length, viewpoint, and the position you wish to shoot from based on how the light falls on your subject.

Equipment used for photo:  Nikon D90, 18-200mm VR Nikkor lens