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.


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.


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!

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


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


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

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 – Fill Light To Reduce Contrast in the Mid-Day Sun

You’d be surprised how many people will ask, “Why are you using a flash? There’s plenty of light!”  Here’s how flash can help your mid-day photos.

Wagon of the Old West

A photo of a Wild West wagon, using a fill light to minimize the harsh contrast of the mid-day sun. Nikon D90, 18-200mm VR Nikkor lens, 18mm ISO 200 F/6.3.

You can’t always shoot photos during the “golden hours” (early morning, just before sunset).  And you may not always want this. Sometimes, you want to capture the look of something at mid-day.  But as anyone who has shot knows, this can create harsh light and harsh contrasts, particularly with subjects that are in the shade, as shown below:

Wagon with no fill light as an example

Our Wild West wagon with no fill light as an example of how mid-day sun can create harsh light and harsh contrasts in photos, particularly with subjects that are partially in the shade. Compare this with the other photo which uses the fill light.

So, what to do?  Use a flash as a fill light.

For this photo, I used a Nikon SB-600 Speedlight Flash in wireless mode.  I placed it down on the ground, just out of frame on the right side, facing up at the wagon, with a Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce OM-600 Flash Diffuser Unit to diffuse the light.  I like to use off-camera flash because I have more control over what area of the subject my flash lights (and if shooting portraits, it’s a great way to avoid getting demonic red eyes!).  Here’s another look at the photo using fill flash:

Wagon of the Old West

Have another look at the photo of a Wild West wagon, using a fill light to minimize the harsh contrast of the mid-day sun.  Nikon D90, 18-200mm VR Nikkor lens, 18mm ISO 200 F/6.3.

Equipment:  Nikon D90, Nikon 18-200mm VR II Nikkor Telephoto Zoom Lens, Nikon SB-600 Speedlight, Sto-Fen Flash Diffuser.


Photo Tip of the Month – 5 Reasons Why Compact Cameras Rule

Five Reasons Why Compact Cameras Rule
I own a Leica DLux 4, although there’s a Panasonic equivalent, the Lumix DMC-LX3, which is considerably cheaper and has the same body and lens.  This camera does quite well in low light situations for a compact camera.  There’s also four thirds and interchangeable lens cameras, other high quality compacts, such as the Canon G11 or G12, and iPhones or other phone cameras which can take quality photos.  I always prefer to bring a compact camera when i travel.  And a lot of professional photographers will bring a compact camera with them when they are on assignment.  Here’s five reasons why:

1.  It Ain’t a Great Photo If You Don’t Take It.  If you don’t have your camera with you, you’re not going to get the shot.  But with a small camera that can fit in your pocket, you can always have it with you for those unexpected fantastic opportunities.

2.  Mobile and Spontaneous.  Clubs?  Hiking?  Street Photography?  Concerts?  It’s always with you.  Take it out, start shooting instantly, and even upload it to your Facebook page if your camera allows you to do so.

3.  Make People At Ease With Portraits.  People are often more at ease with smaller cameras than large SLRs.  They’ll relax more, perceiving the smaller camera as less “formal”.  And with most cameras being smaller than DSLRs, that can help quite a bit in getting your subject comfortable with your photography.

4.  “Macro” Photography.  A lot of smaller cameras can also focus on objects much closer.  This can be a lot of fun when doing quick photos of…well, just about anything, whether it’s flowers, animals, or every day objects, bringing a new perspective that your SLR may not be able to do unless it has macro lens.

5.  Safety.  With a small pocket camera, you are far less likely to attract attention.  You’re far less of a target for theft.  This quite possibly can save your life.

The Window
Good portraits can be taken with modest or small cameras, such as the one with a Brazilian girl, taken with a Leica D-Lux 4 (the same as a Panasonic DMC-LX3 – see link below) compact camera.  I can keep this in my pocket, perfect for the photographer on the go.

Paulinho of the pandeiro
Paulinho of the Pandeiro, Brazil. This photo illustrates a close-up low-light photograph that many high-quality compact cameras can achieve. Photographed with the Leica D-Lux 4 (the same as a Panasonic DMC-LX3 – see link below), which I kept in my pocket except for occasional photos, increasing my safety and people’s comfort level…perfect for the photographer on the go.

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