This is the second of a two-part interview with California-based night photographer Ron Pinkerton. Click here to read part one.
Determining the length of exposure
For photography near a full moon, Ron’s default is to shoot at f/8 with ISO 200, noting that a little technical discipline can serve you well.
Test exposures to save time
“First I will shoot a scene at ISO 6400 as a quick test exposure. Then I do the math to adjust the shutter speed accordingly,” he said. “If the scene looks properly exposed at five seconds at ISO 6400, I know that I can get the same exposure with 150 seconds at ISO 200. There are times I will adjust my final ISO or f-stop, but the basic math principles still hold up for doing your test shots.”
Although he considers himself more of a full moon photographer than a dark sky one, he notes that the same principles of test exposures apply.
Finding interesting locations
I asked Ron what attracts him to locations. “Geometry, atmosphere, access. The chance to take fun, weird, technically sound pictures.”
While some of the locations require four wheel drive and can be far, he considers this part of the fun.
Locations near or far
The distance to locations also determines the approach. “If it’s a six-hour drive to a new location, I want to have some sense of what I’m getting (and getting into) before I leave the house. I’ll do a lot of online research when I can. But I live just 30 minutes from the Mojave, so an interesting squiggle on Google Earth might be worth checking out. In those cases, I’ll typically have a dozen or so small unknown objects/sites to explore. In that case, I make sure to do my scouting in daylight beforehand.”
Additionally, Ron also mentions how grateful he is for the generosity of his night photographer friends and shooting partners, and pays it forward by sharing information with others as well.
Most night photographers have had unusual encounters. Ron shared a couple of his.
“I’ve never had any encounters with aliens or spectral beings. I’ve had a gun pointed at me, and I’ve had desert burros startle me with their braying and scare the wits out of me.”
Mechanical sounds drawing closer
Late one evening, Ron had set up his tripod on a rutted dirt track that paralleled the railroad berm that rose about 10 yards behind him. Engrossed in his photography, he suddenly noticed a mechanical sound approaching from his right.
He was puzzled by this sound, recounting, “It seemed out of place. It wasn’t a train. Perhaps it was a truck on the rarely used Yermo Road, about 20 yards away. As I turned my attention from the visual to the aural, trying to interpret the growing sound, a light suddenly blinded me from the right. In an instant, a helmeted rider on a quad was racing down on me. I snatched my tripod and stepped back just as he screamed past. Just barely. I gasped involuntarily, and my heart was racing. He never showed any sign of slowing. I don’t know if he ever saw me.”
Ron notes that neither party had any reason to expect anyone else to be on a narrow decrepit track in the dark of night.
Bucket list destinations?
“Yes. All of them.”
The obligatory equipment question
“I shoot with a Nikon D850, usually with a 14-24mm zoom lens. It’s perched on an Induro tripod with a Slik ball head with pistol grip. I light with a Protomachines LED2 flashlight. I shoot with Nikon because … well, because Nikon. The 14-24 zoom gives me a big sky in the image. The Protomachines light is a versatile, precise, highly portable light source (beats the endless flashlights, gels, and strobes I used to tote around). I use the pistol grip ball head because I find it easy to use. It just makes sense to me.”
“I start by importing into Lightroom and then do a quick once-over, flagging the ones I think show promise. Then I’ll go through the flagged ones. There’s always some Lightroom settings to apply. From there, I may take them into Photoshop if I think there’s a reason. A smaller number may find their way into Nik Color Efex or Nik Silver Efex.”
Advice for someone who wants to get into night photography
“‘Night photography’ is a big term. There’s light painting, dark sky (Milky Way) photography and urban night photography, to name three popular areas. Each requires a fundamental understanding of the relationship between ISO, aperture and shutter speed. Each requires developing a comfort with the manual settings on your camera. Each requires a decent tripod. After that, the technical requirements, location choices and aesthetic considerations diverge.
“Select one path to start. Spend some time with it. Things you learn in one area will not be exactly what you need to know in another, but those things will inform and facilitate your understanding of the next area. Explore. Experiment. Be patient. And have fun.”
Book and museum exhibition
“‘The Last Stand’ is a monograph of some of my work in the Mojave Desert. It was released in conjunction with my participation in the ‘Made in the Mojave’ show at the Lancaster Museum of Art and History a couple of years ago. It didn’t make the bestseller list, but it was a proud moment for me to see many years’ worth of work under a full moon assembled into a single volume.”
Night photographers we should know about
“For three very different approaches to night photography, check out a few giants: O. Winston Link. Todd Hido. And my friend and mentor, Troy Paiva, for sure. Beyond that, visit Flickr, or Instagram, or wherever the cool kids are posting their pics these days, and search out night photography. Look at lots of pictures. You will find people shooting in a style you admire. Message them. Ask them about their work. I find people in the night photography community to be friendly and generous with their knowledge. Everyone loves to talk about their work.”
To see more of Ron’s work, visit ronaldpinkerton.com.