Ben Coffman is a landscape photographer based out of Portland, Oregon, who specializes in night photography, in particular ‘landscape astrophotography’ featuring the Milky Way. Not only does this give Ben the opportunity to explore the great outdoors, but it lets us city dwellers gain a greater appreciation for the awe-inspiring night sky as well as the breathtaking landscapes of our planet.
I’ve been a fan of the night sky since the early ’90s, when public radio programs like “Star Date” or “Earth and Sky” would inform listeners about meteor showers or visible planets in the night sky. I’ve been a casual stargazer for years.
The other part is that I’m naturally drawn to art with a dramatic, dark aesthetic, so this type of photography fit nicely with how I view the world and I how I wanted to express myself. To me, taking a landscape photo at night is like playing the song “Happy Birthday” in a minor key: The whole tone of the piece changes to something a little darker, a little sinister, and in the case of a landscape photograph, something a little more wild.
There are so many challenges to night-sky photography: light pollution, the luck needed for a clear sky to line up perfectly with the astronomical events I want to photograph, the difficulty of getting clean-looking prints out of files shot at high ISOs, dew forming on your lens. Then there are factors as simple as being cold. Oregon has cold nights year round; I have absolutely frozen while taking photos at night in July.
There’s the “boogeyman factor.” As silly as it sounds, this dissuades many photographers from shooting at night or feeling comfortable shooting at night. It’s especially troublesome when you’re by yourself. I’ve been absolutely terrified by deer crashing through bushes near me, curious porcupines, pigeons that quickly evacuate abandoned houses, unseen owls sitting patiently on fence posts until you’re setting up your tripod right next to them and then they squawk and take flight…or even the idea that I might encounter a large nocturnal carnivore, like a mountain lion, in the woods at night. I try to avoid hiking in the mountains by myself at night, but I still log dozens–maybe hundreds–of solo, overnight miles every year.
I think I prefer to shoot with other photographers, especially at night, although there’s no question that I do better work when I’m by myself. I really dislike shooting with non-photographers, no matter how patient they are. Inevitably I feel rushed and fail to get the shot I really want.
A great deal of the work involved in getting these photos is done in research. Any astronomer will tell you that seeing the night sky is hugely dependent upon moon phases, weather, and the amount of nearby light pollution. To see a really robust Milky Way, like what I often try to photograph, you really only have about four or five nights per month, and only about six months of the year. So I do a lot of research. And I put a lot of stock into weather reports and cloud-cover reports, which can make or break me.
I have a pretty dialed-in workflow once I’m in the field. The photography gear in my backpack is generally ultra-organized. Everything has to have a very specific place, or I won’t be able to find it in the dark. I have memorized every “click” on the manual aperture dials of my lenses. I have memorized the infinity point on my lenses. I can easily change lenses and batteries in pitch blackness, just by feel. I know where every button on my camera is, so I rarely have to turn on my headlamp and destroy my night vision when I’m shooting. The less time you spend thinking about basic technique, about being cold, about being lost, or about being hungry, the more time you can spend pre-visualizing your photo and getting creative.
There’s no better feeling than being in that creative zone, when the images you’re seeing on the LCD screen on the back of your camera are turning out exactly how you had hoped. It’s a pretty intense rush. Conversely, if things are not going as you’d hoped it can be a long night.
I think my favorite place to photograph is Crater Lake National Park, here in Oregon. It’s Oregon’s only national park. It has jaw-dropping beauty, it’s wilderness, and it has amazingly dark skies. Maybe someday I’ll get tired of shooting there, but right now I can’t wait to get back there for some snowshoeing and snow camping this winter.
I would love to capture the night sky over Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail. My wife and I took a trip to Peru five years ago and spent some time trekking on the Inca Trail, and it was an amazing experience. I’m in the process of putting together a night-sky workshop/photo tour for sometime in 2016. I’m really looking forward to some once-in-a-lifetime photography of Inca ruins and Andean peaks under the starry night sky.
I’ve never shot the Milky Way in the southern hemisphere, which has a different view of it than those of us in the northern hemisphere, so my other options would be somewhere in Africa, like Tanzania, Mozambique, or Madagascar. Australia is another place I’ve never visited, but it has been high on my “must see” list for a while. It seems very wild and wide open. And I’m sure it also has very dark skies.
I guess I would advise an aspiring photographer to do what they love, and to treat photography first and foremost as a means of self-expression. If the first question you ask yourself is “Will this win any photo contests?” or “Will this sell well as stock photography?” or “Is this a better photo than so-and-so’s photo?” then you may have lost the plot. I don’t have anything against photo contests, stock photography, or a competitive spirit, but those external influences only serve to dilute or to warp your vision. Please yourself first. Ignore photography trends and what’s cool or not cool to shoot: You can’t go wrong photographing subjects that appeal to you.