INTERVIEW: DAN BARR

Here at the Lights from Dreams blog we had the pleasure of interviewing one of our favorite night photographers: Dan Barr.
On top of having some really great looking photos, Dan Barr has also some very interesting ideas about Night Photography, talks about his gear and creative process, and gives some very useful tips for people who are trying to develop their photographic skills.
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1. Can you tell us a little bit about you?
Sure, I am a self taught photographer based out of San Diego California. I am married and expecting my first child in January. My number one hobby is spending time outdoors and I take almost every free opportunity to go hiking, backpacking or camping. I grew up in Wyoming and have lived in a bunch of different places, including North Dakota, New Mexico and New York either for work or to pursue an education. I have a bachelors degree in Anthropology/Biology from the University of New Mexico and a PhD in cell biology from SUNY Stony Brook. Although my professional background is as a research scientist in cell biology I am no longer working in this field.

Photo of star trails by Dan Barr

Guardian of the Patriarch, by Dan Barr

2. How did you get started into photography, especially into Night Photography?
Early on photography never held much interest for me. I had several film cameras over the years but I was never much of a photographer. I’d take photos and would end up with these rolls of exposed film that I was usually too lazy to get developed. I still have some undeveloped rolls in a box somewhere.
Everything changed with the advent of digital cameras. I bought my first point and shoot digital camera in 2005 while I was living in New York state and working on my graduate degree. I bought the camera mostly to document my life in New York and to take with me on hiking trips in the catskills and walks on long island beaches. I soon discovered that I really enjoyed the process of making a photograph and I began to see photography as something more than just taking pictures, but something that required forethought and composition. I took the camera along on a weeklong camping trip to Maine and that did it for me, I was hooked.
I didn’t get involved in night photography until 2008, after I had relocated to California. I loved the open spaces of the desert and began spending all of my free time hiking and camping. I rekindled a lost love of star gazing, a hobby I was never really able to enjoy on the east coast due to what seemed like perpetual clouds and excessive light pollution. Around this time I also bought my first DSLR, a canon 40D and a tripod. From here it was a natural progression for me to point the camera skyward. I was absolutely blown away by what the camera could capture at night. Making images of wilderness landscapes at night soon became and absolute obsession for me.

3. When did you think that photography could become something more than a hobby, and how did you make that transition?
Photography became an absolute passion for me sometime in 2008 after I purchased my first DSLR, however I don’t think it was until 2010-11 when my photography began to really improve and I started to think this could be something more than a hobby. I am still in the process of making that transition, and I hope to move from photography as part time endeavour to a full time career in the next year or so. One of the hurdles in moving from photography as a hobby to photography as a profession is building a business around your artwork. That business aspect still mystifies me.

4. Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process?
My creative process has evolved over the past few years. I used to go out and spend the daytime scouting out locations. When I found a nice spot I would set up camp and then begin shooting. I’d stay up all night and try maybe a dozen different compositions. I’m finding now that my process is more planned and deliberate. I’ve normally done some scouting in advance. If I have never visited a location before I’ll do a lot of research into the area and spend a good amount of time looking at topographical maps, google earth and photos of the area. I normally have a specific vision in mind, or at least an idea of what mood or feeling I’d like the final photo to convey.
For example, I recently shot at Trona Pinnacles, a location I had never photographed before. I learned from research the general size of the area and where to find the taller pinnacles. My goal was to photograph under ¼ full waning crescent to illuminate the landscape. I had a compositional plan to place pinnacles in the frame to show a near-far separation with a backdrop of the milky way. My hope was to highlight the strangeness of this location and convey a mood of mystery. I knew that my final image would have a portrait orientation and I had hoped to shoot a vertical panorama (a technical challenge for me) to capture more of the milky way, which I knew would be vertically oriented in the at the time of evening/season I was shooting. The final photo came close to what I had in mind but it still wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. I will probably go back and shoot this location again.
I think pre-visioning a photo really helps me plan my photo trips. I’ll usually spend the first few hours before nightfall setting up for this pre-visioned shot. I always hope it will be the one great photo of the trip. Often times it isn’t. An unfortunate consequence of this pre-visioning approach is this it will sometimes lead to photographic frustration in the field. There have been times that I just can’t get the landscape elements to work for a composition I had in mind, or I get to a location and it’s not quite how I imagined. At that point the pre-visioning nonsense usually goes out the window and I try to work with what I have.

Trona Pinnacles, The Wonders of California, Vista del Malpais, by Dan Barr

Trona Pinnacles, The Wonders of California and Vista del Malpais, by Dan Barr

5. What gear are you using currently? What about non-photographic gear, is there something you never leave home without?
I am currently using a Canon 5D mkii as my primary night camera. It seems like my lens collection is constantly shifting. Right now I have a canon 16-35 f/2.8L, a Zeiss T* 25mm f/2.0, and a Canon 70-200 f/4L. I primarily use Canon 16-35mm and the Zeiss 25mm for night photography. I use the canon almost exlusively at the 16mm end and it has been great for catching large swaths of the sky for star trails and milky way photos. The Zeiss 25mm is my favorite lens. It is sharp wide open and the f/2.0 aperture is invaluable for night photography. For camera support I use an old beaten up Manfrotto 055x aluminum tripod, and an Arca Swiss Z1 ballhead with a Really Right Stuff quick release and camera plates. Other essential camera gear are a Canon TC-80N3 intervalometer, a youngnou flash, and an assortmant of B+W circular polizers and Neutral density filters. There are also a number of non-photographic essentials I always bring with me. Foremost are flashlights, both for finding my way around at night and for light painting. I always have a Petzl headlamp, a Fenix LD20 flashlight, and a small streamlight flashlight. I always carry a compass, and since I’m often in remote areas a USGS topographical map. My iphone is also a very important accessory. I use the Starwalk and Sky Safari apps to aid in planning and composing images. Another important app I use all the time is Topo Maps. It allows you to download copies of USGS topgraphic maps and use the Iphone’s GPS to mark waypoints. I really helps with navigation at night and I’ll use it to mark the location of my camera or potential foregrounds, my car etc…

6. In your travels you have visited many amazing places. Is there any one with a special meaning to you? Is there a place where you would really like to go but still haven’t had the chance?
There is a remote area in the Cleveland national forest that is probably my favourite destination for backpacking and night photography. The area is known as the Caliente wilderness study area and is accessed by a 6 mile hike on the pacific crest trail. It is just an amazing location with dark skies and lots of interesting boulders and scraggly oak trees, great photographic subjects. I found a rock formation there which is essentially a Volkswagon van sized chunk of granite balanced on another huge slab of granite. It looks different from every angle and has become my favourite photographic subject. It was featured in one of my first star trails. I think it was at this spot while waiting for my exposure to finish and contemplating the stars that I really fell in love with night photography. I’ve made the hike once a year for the past 5 years and have always revisited this rock formation to photograph the night sky. To this day that first star trail from there remains one of my all time favourite photos.
There are lots of locations on my list that I haven’t yet visited, innumerable really. I would like to take an extended trip to Utah to visit Zion, Escalante, Capital Reef, and Canyonlands. I’d like to go back to New Mexico to visit the Gila wilderness. I have a strong interest in Native American cosmology and astronomy and would love to photograph some of the ancient pueblos/ruins at night. I think the list of potential photographic locations is endless.

Star trails photo by dan barr

Solitude, by Dan Barr

7. Shooting in the night can be awfully tricky. Did it ever happen to you anything funny / interesting during one of your photo trips?
There was a time once when I “lost” my camera for an hour. I was camped along a ridgeline in Anza Borrego desert State park and had set my camera up by a boulder outcropping nearby to take some star trails. I had set the camera up at dusk and had planned on taking about 3 hours worth of exposures so I went back to my campsite to relax and watch the stars. When I went back to collect me camera later that night I couldn’t find it! It was tucked between two other boulders and I knew I was in the vicinity, but I couldn’t tell the exact spot. It took me maybe 45 minutes of walking back and forth before I finally found it. The appearance of the landscape can really change at night and sometimes what might be obvious during daylight is completely hidden at night. Fortunately that has only happened once and was a good lesson to pay closer attention to features of the landscape.

8. Shooting star trails can take quite some time. How do you spend it?
It really depends on where I am and how many days I have been out. I usually bring a book with and sometimes do some reading. Invariably though the book is left behind and I spend my time by either star gazing, looking at topo maps to plan daylight scouting trips, or if I am in an area with lots of compositional possibilities I might wander around and look for another photo opportunity. If I have been out for a few days I might try to catch up on my sleep.

9. What is your opinion about post-processing, and in what way do you like to use it?
I think that post processing is an essential aspect of night photography and can be used to overcome the technical limitations of camera equipment. It’s worth mentioning that the camera can resolve more things in the sky than what we can see with the naked eye and therefore most night sky images are interpretations; they capture the feel of a place. I always find night photos look pretty muted straight out of camera and require some tweaking in post to get the look right. For still image photos that include stars as points of light I always start by adjusting the photo in lightroom. This will include changing the white balance, increasing contrast, lowering the blacks a little, and increasing saturation. What I do beyond that really depends on the photo. I may make adjustments to the tone curve to better accentuate the sky, modify the hues and increase the saturation of specific colors to bring out features like the milky way. The adjustment brush, graduated filter, and spot removal tool are all on the table as well. I use photoshop for anything beyond those types of basic adjustments. Night photography really pushes the limits of camera equipment and I have found compositing images is a great way of overcoming some of these limitations. For example depth of field issues are a common problem due to the large apertures needed for night photography. I will sometimes create composites of images taken at different focus points to overcome this issue. I also create composites as a method for controlling noise in the foreground elements by photographing the foreground at a lower ISO and compositing with a second image taken at much higher ISO to properly expose the sky. It is not always necessary, but in some circumstances it works great. All of my star trail images are stacked exposures. There are a number of free stacking programs out there for star trails. Personally I have always used photoshop because I prefer the flexibility that using layers provides. Its much easier to clean up things like errant light sources or airplane trails when the source images are opened as layers. There is always a delicate balance with post processing, all photos require some degree of adjustment in post but you never want to push it too far.

10. Do you feel that photography is a “lone wolf” activity or do you often go out with someone else to shoot?
Photography for me is almost always a solitary endeavour. I usually find I work better alone, there are less distractions from photography and soaking up the landscape so to speak. One of the things I really love about the night photography is the unfettered opportunities for solitude. I almost never run into other people when I am in the field.

White Mountains Milky Way and Born of Water, by Dan Barr

White Mountains Milky Way and Born of Water, by Dan Barr

11. Could you name some people that have influenced the way you shoot and see photography?
I am a huge fan of Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell. The painter Nicholis Roerich produced some beautiful work of the Himalayas at night. I often think of his work when I am setting up compositions. There are some great photographers on Flickr whose work has been inspirational. David Thompson and Paul Bruins come to mind.

12. What advice/ tips would you give to other photographers who want to get into Night Photography?
Try to get off the beaten path and look for landscape elements that haven’t been photographed before. Don’t be afraid of the night. I think darkness intimidates many people from venturing too far from the comforts of the automobile. Don’t be brainwashed into thinking you need to have expensive professional equipment for night photography. Good night photography can be done with any modern consumer grade DSLR with an APS-C sensor and a wide angle lens.

13. Do you have some plans / goals for the close future that you can share with us?
I hope to continue working and improving my photography. I think 2013 has been a great year for me in that I have really grown as a photographer both in technique and in style. I hope I can continue that momentum and continue to improve. I am going to begin offering private and group workshops in 2014 where I hope I can help people interested in night landscape photography achieve they’re photographic vision. If I ever have the time free I would also like to begin working on a a techniques e-book for night photography.

The Fallen, by Dan Barr

The Fallen, by Dan Barr

14. Where can we find your work?
You can find me on my Flickr, on my Website, on Facebook or on 500px.

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