Earth & Sky

Shooting at the edges of the day, Art Wolfe pursues an ongoing photographic quest to unite the heavens and the landscape

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Art Wolfe The result of a previsualized idea, Wolfe had to imagine how an eight-hour exposure of star trails juxtaposed against the landscape of a Namibian desert would look—and he had to do it in the afternoon light.

Art Wolfe has made a career of photographing at the margins. Whether it’s documenting disappearing rain forests or the customs of tribes around the world, Wolfe finds fertile creative soil in these overlooked places. One of his favorite rare landscapes is found by looking upward, deep into the night sky, well beyond the bounds of earth.

“I love trying to elicit emotions out of people and make them feel some sort of impact,” Wolfe explains. “We see a lot of bright, sunny photos, even beautiful mountains and dramatic light. But with this body of work, I was trying to connect the heavens to the earth. That was the mission.”

Wolfe has found a way to visually connect our little planet to the galaxy beyond. Unlike straight astral photography, though, his work is all about context. Conveying these otherworldly events—moonrises and star trails and the aurora borealis—would be interesting in any case. But when Wolfe sets them against the recognizable environment of the earth, suddenly the context for the stars—and our place within them—becomes clear.

Art Wolfe
Palm trees in Bora Bora frame the foreground and lead the eye to the moon, which, though smaller, becomes the actual subject of the image.

“One of the intentional perspectives that I try to incorporate is to make people feel that they’re standing next to me,” says Wolfe. “I want the ultimate viewer to feel a connection and the power of the moment. I want to bring people in and make them feel that connection. And when you look at the work that I’m talking about, the only way I could have done that was to incorporate a perspective that made people understand that, okay, we see an agave in the foreground, we know where Art was standing when he took that shot. It connects them a little better to the moment, and that’s what I’ve always tried to do.”

Though he always has pushed boundaries with his photography, Wolfe says his desire to photograph beyond the earth simply stems from a need to keep challenging himself. After decades photographing the natural world, it can be easy to feel like you’ve seen it all.

“I started in Seattle as a photographer in the late 1970s,” he explains, “and I photographed everything that was in the environment—from wood ducks to elk to mountains and streams and all that. But 30 years later, if I was still doing that same work, I think I probably would have retired and gone back to doing something else. I’ve always tried to evolve in my work, and it continues to this day. I’m shooting subjects that I didn’t shoot five years ago, just to keep relevant and interested and moving forward. This body of work was something that I hadn’t done to an extent at the time when I was working on the book.”

The book is 2003’s Edge of the Earth, Corner of The Sky, for which Wolfe spent a considerable amount of time peering through a camera at nighttime skies. He sometimes finds himself on assignment in a location that may be fortuitously conducive to this type of photography, but for the most part these unique images are the result of significant planning and effort before the camera is even out of the bag.

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Art Wolfe
In order to capture a desert solar eclipse, Wolfe journeyed to the wilds of Australia to catch the sun eclipsing at the lowest possible point on the horizon.

“It’s not like you’re just going to walk out the door and shoot that,” Wolfe says of a total eclipse. “You have to get yourself into position and do a lot of work. I flew halfway around the world to Australia and then out into the desert. It had to be the right total eclipse in the sense that most eclipses that you’ve seen are very tight shots of the eclipse without the context of being connected to the earth. Most of the time they occur very high in the sky; this particular one occurred 40 minutes before sunset, which meant it was very low to the horizon, which enabled me then to incorporate trees in the foreground. And that’s an unusual perspective—to see it within the context of an earthly element.

“The eclipse in Australia,” he continues, “was an attraction simply because it was occurring in the desert, so I had a reasonable chance of a clear night, and it was low to the horizon and that was unusual. So, yeah, I flew all the way to Australia for that one shot. Some are well thought out. The aurora was a flight to Fairbanks, getting in a truck with some biologists and driving eight hours north into the Brooks Range. That was specifically to do that. Others are serendipity—okay, we’re here, we have a clear night, I didn’t know the moon would be full, let’s see what we can do with it.”

Wolfe has made these compelling photographs all over the planet. The consistent link to the locations, he says, is clean air and clear skies.

“I have the most luck where I get this consistency of clear evenings,” he says. “Desert environments, dry air, clear nights, away from major metropolitan areas where the air is somewhat compromised by the pollutants—those places are dynamite. I’ve been to places in the Sahara or Namibia or Madagascar, where, when the stars are out—especially toward the equator where the Milky Way is directly above you—you literally cast shadows from the stars.”

Because these otherworldly elements are in fact moving, photographing them, particularly in context with the earth, presents many challenges. But for photographers willing to put in the time and effort to master the techniques, it also can lead to amazing opportunities. Like the time Wolfe made an all-night double-exposure to create rotational star trails against the landscape of a Namibian desert.

Art Wolfe
The moon beneath a delicate arch, Utah

“That’s an eight-hour exposure,” Wolfe says of the striking image, “and it’s probably the most difficult photo of the body to execute. It’s something that I previsualized before I went to Africa; I wanted to try to pull it off. I photographed the first exposure hoping that I was getting the Southern Cross in the image, and I had no way of verifying because the first one was in the late afternoon; there were no stars out. I darkened the sky with both a polarizer and a neutral-density filter, and then I intentionally underexposed the image by at least one stop. This was predigital, so there was no verification. I tried to make the sky as black as possible and see the red sand dune and the foreground. If you looked at the first exposure, it would look like an underexposed image—dark and gray, but you’d still have enough of the trees and the sand dunes in the foreground.

“The second exposure, then, was programmed in the back of the Canon,” he continues, “because I couldn’t stand there and execute it. You’re not allowed to stay at this place overnight. We had the camera timed so that it would open up again a good hour and a half after the last light of the sky would have left. And then we calculated when the sunrise would be, and we had the exposure turn off a good hour before sunrise so that there was no chance the ambient light of the sunrise or the sunset would affect the exposure. Then we came back to the camera the next day hoping everything worked, and all I could do to verify something happened was look at the film counter and it had indeed advanced. So it was a month and a half later that I got home, had the film processed and found that one exposure. Would you believe I had, like, 400 rolls of film, and I think it was about the 390th roll where I finally found that photo?”

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Art Wolfe
Cerro Torre, Argentina

Such tricky technique is par for the course if your goal is a single image combining stars and earth. Even for a seasoned photographer such as Wolfe, though, there has been a dramatic learning curve, as evidenced by his experiences photographing one of the strangest and most beautiful astral phenomena—auroras.

“I’m bitter about this,” Wolfe says. “The very first time I started photographing auroras was up in Manitoba. I was up early in the spring photographing polar bear cubs emerging from den sites. The added element that I wouldn’t have predicted was that we had great auroras. I knew nothing about photographing those, and based on all my experience as a photographer, guesstimated on what I needed to do. I was shooting film, so I had no chance to verify at the time what I was getting. I totally blew it. I gave it too much exposure. If you shoot auroras that are moving across the sky with too long of an exposure, it softens it to the point where it looks just like washed-out clouds—which is in fact what I got. So that was a steep learning curve. I came back and looked at some websites and learned what to do. The next time I went out specifically for getting the auroras, I learned from my mistakes and from what those websites offered, and I nailed it.”

Wolfe says the key to photographing auroras is all in the shutter speed—30 seconds instead of two or three minutes. That guidance also holds true with much of these otherworldly landscapes, especially now that digital capture has allowed him to produce previously impossible images. Before the advent of low-noise, high-ISO digital capture, it was impossible to create a readable image of a nighttime earthly landscape with a shutter speed short enough to stop the stars in their tracks. In the last few years, though, as high-ISO capture has been accompanied by relatively noise-free images, Wolfe has been able to adjust his approach and photograph tack-sharp stars in conjunction with elements of the earth. It’s a real revolution.

“I have the latest Canon [EOS-1Ds Mark III],” Wolfe says, “and at ISO 800 or even 1600, that baby is pretty darn clean. It doesn’t have a lot of noise to it, so it even makes shooting stars that much easier. Anything that’s really open enables you to take a faster shutter speed. And the magic number with a wide angle is at least 30 seconds, but you can go up to 45 seconds. The result is the perception of a pinpointed star. Anything beyond that, like a minute, and they become little oblong stars.

Art Wolfe
The moon hovers above desert foliage, Big Bend National Park, Texas.

“There’s actually software now,” he adds, “though I haven’t used it, that can take all the stars from several exposures and make lines from star to star to star. You can actually replicate what we were able to do with an eight-hour exposure.”

The software could come in handy for digital photographers because, as Wolfe points out, if you’re after those eight-hour star-trail exposures, digital capture just won’t do. The holy grail of nighttime sky photography is the ability to capture pinpoint stars within the landscape, and to do that Wolfe advises photographers to stock up on some simple supplies and apply straightforward techniques.

“Definitely at least ISO 400 and a wide-open aperture,” he says. “That’s probably a good starting point. A 30-second exposure is the shortest length of exposure and probably 45 seconds is the longest. Focusing on infinity, make darn sure before it gets dark that it’s set with your eye on the subject. If you’re trying to include it with an element, that’s a critical thing. If you rely on trying to figure it out after it’s dark, it’s just too dark to focus. So I try to prefocus before it gets dark and then make sure that at infinity the closest element is still in focus.”

Adds Wolfe, “It’s absolutely easier with a wide angle if you’re trying to incorporate any kind of element in the shot. If you’re using a telephoto at infinity, you’re focusing on the stars, and you have to be a long way away then from a tree that’s incorporated into the image. A wide angle is so much easier to deal with. The bottom line is a wide angle works because you can incorporate that many more stars.

“If you want to do star trails,” he continues, “and you don’t want to use film, you’d have to use that software to take the collective of 400 single exposures that you shoot over the course of the night, put it in the computer and stitch them all together, and you can replicate what we could have done with film years ago. Or shoot film.”

To see more of Art Wolfe’s photography, visit