Meeting Nice People in the Middle of the Night: The community of night photographers

Oct 5, 18 • 5enses, FeatureNo Comments

By Dale O’Dell

If you think rock stars have big egos, you might be right. But rock music isn’t the sole domain of the big ego. There is at least one group of people who can rival the inflated ego of the rock star: photographers. There are a lot of egotistical photographers who act like they invented light or something. They’re really annoying.

But there’s one sub-group of photographers who don’t have giant egos, will actually help out another photographer, and are hardly recognizable in the daylight. They are the night photographers, and in my experience they’re a community of friendly folk.

I first encountered the community of night photographers while shooting (at night, of course) at Mono Lake, Calif. It’s about a mile’s walk from the parking area to the famous surrealistic tufa spires, and just as I’d located the first place I wanted to photograph a light flashed in my eyes.

“Is that another photographer?” I called out into the darkness.

“Yeah, over here,” A man’s voice replied.

“OK,” I called back, “I’m gonna be over here, opposite where you are, shooting to the northwest. I don’t want to screw up your exposures, so give me a heads-up if my light gets in your shot.”

And so it went for the rest of the night. We were respectful of each other and didn’t get in each other’s way. During the night we’d help each other out. I’d shine a light over here for him and he’d shine a light over there for me — helpful, respectful and without ego or competitiveness.

The next time I found myself in the company of night photographers was at Palouse Falls State Park in Washington. I got to chatting with the other campers. There was the Canadian guy, traveling alone, there was the Indian man who had the kids for the summer and took them camping. There was a couple of college boys with cameras who were going to try to get “that night shot like they saw online.”

As I talked with my fellow campers, the college boys said they’d be out shooting after 11 p.m., the Canadian had a DSLR and asked if I’d show him how to photograph at night, and the Indian guy said his kids had never seen the Milky Way and asked if he and his kids could hang out and see how night photos were done. Sure! No problem at all!

So we all met later that night, and I gave an impromptu “night photography lesson.” The Canadian man got some nice photos of the stars with his own camera; the kids had a great time looking at the Milky Way — in the sky and on the back of my camera; I helped out the college boys when they had technical difficulties; and we all had a nice time, talking, laughing, and just hanging out in the dark taking pictures.

The summer is the best time for night photography in North America. One of the best dark sky locations is the Mojave Desert, so I went to Borrego Springs, Calif. to photograph Ricardo Breceda’s giant metal sculptures of dinosaurs, eagles, elephants, camels, scorpions, and a serpent scattered in the desert. I’d envisioned lighting them with colored LED lights and photographing them at night with the stars of the Milky Way in the background. I scouted locations and decided that I would photograph the coolest sculpture first, the serpent.

Scanning the roadside with my flashlight another light shines in my direction. “Is that a photographer?” I asked the darkness.

“Yeah, we’re over here, behind the serpent,” came a voice from the dark.

“Do you mind if I join you?” I asked.

I pulled about an eighth of a mile off the road, parked, and killed the lights. Then I got out to meet the other photographers.

There was a guy and a girl with DSLRs and fast lenses and they were photographing that serpent. I told them I wanted to light the thing and would they mind if I lit it up with LED lights? That was no problem whatsoever, so long as they could get a few shots using my lighting. So we set up lights and shot. We got some great shots of the serpent.

Then the guy asked me, “Have you seen the scorpion?”

“No! I have not been able to find that one. Do you know where it is?”

“Yeah, it’s not far down this road, but it’s a little over a mile off the highway, so it’s harder to find. Follow us; we’re going there next.”

Wow! How nice. I’ve known photographers to be super-secret about this kind of thing, but then, the community of night photographers isn’t competitive.

We were hauling ass through the desert after midnight, my GPS showing no roads whatsoever, just a little icon of a car in a vast, empty desert when up ahead in the headlights of the car was the scorpion — and two more photographers!

There were two guys with the latest Sony mirrorless cameras already on-site. So the five of us photographed the scorpion together. We all worked together like a team. After another hour or so, we felt we’d all gotten the shots we’d come for and it was time to go. Back on the highway we all waved a happy and tired good-bye and I was off to my motel for half a night’s sleep.

Most recently, I was shooting at Great Basin National Park in Nevada. The campground is at 10,000 feet elevation, which is two miles closer to the stars than the just-below-sea-level Borrego Springs. I was looking forward to the night’s photography but the weather was looking iffy while I was scouting locations.

I was waiting for the blue hour at an overlook when a guy on a motorcycle rode up. As I’m also a rider, he and I immediately struck up a conversation about motorcycles (you can always talk to travelers about motorcycles or dogs) as I made a few exposures of the still-blue night sky. After a while I decided an overlook down the road would be a better vantage point and decided I’d drive there. The biker, Dillon, tagged along.

When we arrived at the overlook, sure enough, there was one other photographer already there. Right after parking the car and bike Dillon and I apologized to the photographer for ruining her photo with headlights, but she was cool, as night photographers are, and said, “No worry.”

The sky is really, really clear two miles up and I got a lot of good photos — until the clouds came. It had already been a good night so calling it a wrap at that point meant a little more sleep.

“Oh man, I hope it doesn’t rain tonight,” Dillon said as I was folding up my tripod.

“You don’t have a tent?” I asked.

“Nope.”

“If it rains, just come down to campsite number 21. I’ve got a tent set up but I’m not using it because I sleep in the back of the car. Just crawl in the tent and stay dry if it rains.”

“Oh, thanks, man.” He smiled. “But if the weather holds you won’t see me.”

But I did see him. He rode down to my campsite the next morning. This was the first time I’d ever gotten a daylight look at anyone I’d met photographing at night. Later, I followed him down the mountain to the little town of Baker, on the Utah state line, where we had a hearty breakfast. After breakfast he gassed up the big Suzuki, waved good-bye and pointed the bike westward. I drove back to my campsite and prepared for a second night of photography — which didn’t happen because that night it did rain!

I headed off for Las Vegas. If you’ve ever driven in Nevada, you know there’s a lot of empty space, and knocking back the miles, I got to thinking about night photographers.

They’re an atypically friendly bunch! A lot friendlier than many typical photographers.

Most of the typical photographers I encounter have overlarge egos. The photography business is competitive, and no photographer wants to give another any advantage. Unfortunately our Western culture is based more on competition than cooperation, and we’ve created a society that is afraid someone else is going to get what we’ve got, even if it’s just a picture.

Since I’ve now met four groups of friendly night photographers, I’m going to call it a trend. I’ve yet to meet a night photographer who was a jerk, so I’m going to give credit to the group. And I don’t shoot in groups. Usually I work alone. And I’ve done plenty of night shoots where I was all alone with the stars and coyotes. But, admittedly, it’s nice to have company.

Humans have always found the dark to be a scary place, so it’s comforting to know someone is around to watch your back, even if it’s someone you just met. I’m not sure why night photographers are so friendly. It might be because, well, it is night and we should be tucked in our beds, but instead we’re out in the middle-o-nowhere pointing our cameras skyward, hoping to capture something amazing.

It’s like, “Hey look, here comes another night photographer. So you’ve foregone a good nights sleep and hauled yourself and your equipment out here to do something difficult. Good for you! So have I, so join me and together we’ll shoot the photos we both came here to make. You and I aren’t that different from one another. Look up. It’s a big universe and there’s room enough for all of us. Would you like me to hold that light for you?”

It’s nice to get a great photo, but it’s even nicer to make a new friend — even if you won’t recognize them in the morning. Such is life as a member of the community of night photographers.

*****

See more of Dale O’Dell’s photography and digital art at DalePhoto.Com.

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