I’m sometimes asked about the experience of getting a photo in National Geographic books. I’ll describe photographing the image, how National Geographic contacted me and some common questions people have.

About the photograph

I was on the tail end of a weeklong night photo journey that took me through the deserts of Nevada. I had left Gold Point ghost town and drove through several mountain ranges. 

Ghost in the Machine: an old abandoned iron workshop, Gold Point, Nevada, prior to driving to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.
Ghost in the Machine: An old abandoned iron workshop, Gold Point, NV, prior to driving to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.

On the way, I stopped at a radio telescope array. I spoke to some scientists who worked there. The universe smiled upon me. I had arranged a visit to return later that night to photograph their enormous telescope dishes. I was excited even though this would be a very long day.

Going to Patriarch Grove

I then drove up into the White Mountains to the Ancient Bristlecone PIne Forest in California. There at Patriarch Grove, at 11,000 feet/3,350 meters in elevation stands some of the oldest trees in the world, many eerie, gnarled, stark and timeless.

Arriving at Schulman Grove at 10,000 feet/3,048 meters, I saw their scary sign, warning that it might cost more than $1000 for towing. I kept going along the 12-mile dirt road. I was prepared in case I got a flat tire.

After photographing Patriarch Grove, I left, driving back down the long bumpy road. I still needed to photograph the radio telescopes, after all!

Changing my mind again and again and again

I wanted to photograph one of the bristlecone pines at Schulman Grove. But of course, it was already past midnight. I vacillated between continuing to the radio telescopes and photographing the tree. Finally, the tree won out. It was quite beautiful. I would stop.

Photographing the tree

The Forever Tree: Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. The strange night photo that made it into National Geographic Books.
The Forever Tree: Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. The strange night photo that made it into National Geographic books.

I hiked the quarter mile to the tree quickly. The tree was on the mountain slope, and covered with slippery shale-like rock. I slipped a few times while walking around the tree in the dark, trying to frame my composition. However, I was happy to be here. No one else was around, and the tree was beautiful. I set up my Nikon D610 on the slippery slope. 

I wanted the tree to have a lot of texture and dimensionality. In short, I wanted it to feel visceral, like you could reach out and grab it. The moon lit the tree beautifully. I decided to illuminate the tree from the same angle, trying not to slip down the mountain while doing so.

Also Forever Tree: a photo of the ancient bristlecone pine I took just after the one that appears in National Geographic Books.
Also Forever Tree: A photo of the ancient bristlecone pine I took just after the one that appears in National Geographic books.

After a few setups, I felt satisfied, thinking I had decent images. I drove on, arriving after 2 a.m. at the radio telescopes. I photographed them until 3 a.m.

Radio telescopes, taken probably around 3 am after photographing the ancient bristlecone pine trees. The clouds had begun to move in, especially at this lower elevation.
Radio telescopes, taken around 3 a.m. after photographing the ancient bristlecone pine trees. The clouds had begun to move in, especially at this lower elevation.

Then, in what was arguably complete madness, I began driving home to Los Angeles, thinking I would pull over and go to sleep if I became fatigued. However, I was so excited from photographing everything that I was fully awake. Los Angeles greeted me with an onslaught of rush hour traffic. 

National Geographic 

A few days later, I looked at the images of the Bristlecone Pine in Schulman Grove. I liked one of the compositions a lot. I decided to upload that to Your Shot on the National Geographic website. My photo didn’t exactly light the website or social media on fire with responses. 

However, a year later, to my surprise, a couple of friends contacted me. “Your photo is on the Daily Dozen on National Geographic!” And later that month, I was one of two featured photographers on the National Geographic Your Shots Page. This was a great honor. I could have stopped right there and been happy.

However, it got weirder. An editor for National Geographic Books contacted me and said, “We really love your photo, and would love to use it for a National Geographic books publication entitled ‘Greatest Landscapes.’” 

National Geographic Books - Greatest Landscapes.
National Geographic books’ “Greatest Landscapes”

Later, they asked me if I could send a RAW copy of my photo. This was apparently to make certain there was no manipulation and that I had actually taken the photo. I complied.

My photo of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in National Geographic Books "Greatest Landscapes"
My photo of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in National Geographic books’ “Greatest Landscapes.”

Eventually, I was paid via check. They also sent a copy of the book. They were very nice and professional every step of the way.

Common questions

Did you know that this photo was something special?

I was excited about it, but felt I had taken several other good photos as well.

Is this tree alive?

No. Another common variation is, “How do they know it’s actually alive if there are no leaves?” Curiously, no one actually said it was alive. It’s not. But it’s still standing. They often stand for hundreds or thousands of years after dying due to the density of the wood. 

National Geographic Books "Greatest Landscapes"
National Geographic books’ “Greatest Landscapes”

Why is this photo so weird looking?

The tree is already weird looking. Then it’s also a night photo. However, many might not realize it’s a night photo. Indeed, In National Geographic books, they don’t mention it’s a night photo.

Also, some may not notice the stars. And of course, there’s the usual amount of people who think that it’s digital art and not an actual photograph. They clearly don’t read my articles here in Photofocus or they’d know how to create photos like this!

Is this Methuselah?

No. This tree is definitely not Methuselah. It’s not even in the same grove. 

Nevertheless, some people got mad at me for exposing where it was. This was funny to me since it was not only Methuselah, but I had never actually mentioned where this tree was. Others have commented, “How unknown can the location be since you can see a road behind it?” 

Why aren’t the stars trailing?

Because the exposure was 128 seconds long, people often wonder why the stars don’t look like they are trailing. This is because I am facing north, where the stars don’t tend to appear to move as much. And it’s also because I’m using an ultra wide-angle lens.

Has being in NatGeo changed your life at all?

National Geographic Books "Greatest Landscapes"
National Geographic books’ “Greatest Landscapes”

No, and I didn’t expect any change. I still have some family members and friends who don’t know that I’ve had my photograph in National Geographic books, Omni, the Los Angeles Times, Westways and various other publications. 

I don’t believe that appearing in National Geographic books has opened doors for anything such as my book publishing deal, writing for Photofocus or subsequent publications. However, it’s certainly an amazing honor!

Is this photo your bestselling print?

No, although it is popular. There are other prints that sell more on my website. Milky Way images tend to sell a bit more. And my day photos of animals and water tend to sell quite well.

Is this photo in any of your books?

Sadly, no. My books are about abandoned locations, planes, trains and automobiles. They are about the history of places, albeit ones with surreal looking night photos with light painting. Consequently, there are no trees or mountains as the main subject.

How did it feel?

This is a question that no one asks. I was stunned when I received the email asking about this photo. Although I knew a couple of the editors at National Geographic liked it, I still couldn’t believe it. 

In elementary school and beyond, I looked through all the National Geographic magazines in the library. I loved seeing the exotic lands. The photos were some of the greatest photos I had ever seen. 

To have a photo appear in this publication means the world to me. I am immediately transported to that kid sitting in the aisle of the library floor, too excited looking at photos of Ghana, Peru, Ladakh, Chile and more to even bother walking over to the tables.