Interview With Professional Night Photographer: Alister Benn

Nikon D3x Nikkor 14-24/ F2.8 @ 60 minutes - Single exposure

Nikon D3x Nikkor 14-24/ F2.8 @ 60 minutes - Single exposure

 

If capturing a vision from a dream, an unreal beauty, a surreal image, seems unthinkable, photographer Alister Benn has done the impossible. His photographs of landscapes, seascapes, and mountains exemplify the true, unimaginable beauty of nature that so many of us have forgotten exists. Inspired by nature since childhood, Benn launched himself into an amazing and astounding photography career.

How and why did you become involved in Night and Nature Photography?

Growing up in Scotland, surrounded by nature, Alister Benn fell in love with star gazing and the outdoors at a very young age. He went on to be be influenced by other factors and credits much inspiration to other photographers.

“Early on, Galen Rowell heavily influenced me; his writing, sense of adventure, and his articulate passion appealed to me, as of course did his dramatic and powerful images. I also studied the work of Phil Douglis, an expressive travel photographer, based out of Arizona. He’s well into his 80’s now, and he came to visit us in China in 2005. His techniques and thoughts on motive and expression have had a lasting impression on me”, says Benn.

With so much inspiration and a pull towards photography, he left his previous career and began to teach himself this new art.

“I am completely self-taught – I worked out a lot of things myself, and of course, the Internet is a hugely valuable resource of learning material too”. Benn also learns quite a bit from observing other photographs and photographers, “I have some really amazing photographers as friends, so we do shoot together and tend to learn from each other as we do so”.


What achievements have you made within your career in Nature and Night Photography?

Besides the most important achievement of producing incredibly beautiful images, Alister Benn has additionally been quite successful in his career. Much of his work has been published though publishing is not his main goal.

Anna's Hummingbird - Canon 1Ds EF 500/ F4 with Fill flash

Anna's Hummingbird - Canon 1Ds EF 500/ F4 with Fill flash

“A lot of my bird images from China were used in various birding magazines around the world, and quite a few ended up in books”.

Besides this, he has compiled a generous and helpful eBook that can be downloaded at http://harvestinglight.net/introduction-to-night-photography/

In the future, he hopes to begin offering workshops in wild places by 2013.

Your Night Photography eBook has an incredible download rate of more than 2000 times. Can you elaborate on this book?

“Firstly, thanks for the compliment – The eBook is flying off the website, I am both surprised and delighted by that. I wrote the first draft back in Feb 2010, and it floated around the web in various forms since then. Recently, I wanted to produce my first eBook and thought initially of just re-formatting that original article and releasing that. But I wasn’t happy with it as a learning tool – it was very dense and not so clear in its sections so over a few days, I simply re-wrote it”.

Benn’s eBook gives a detailed overview of how to overcome the fear of shooting night time photographs, what settings, cameras, and techniques to use. With such success, he has plans of publishing another book.

“There are going to be more, but this will be a commercial product. I am compiling the most detailed and significant guide to Night Landscape Photography, and that will be released at some stage in 2012. It will be more than an eBook for sure, because in it, I cover processing, and I don’t believe writing is the best way to learn that side of things”.

Can you give a brief overview of Night Photography techniques and low light photography gear you use?

Essential to producing such beautiful images, is the time of day which Benn shoots.

Twilight is a good time to shoot and many call it Blue Hour. As the sun sets, we see less, but the camera can pick up a lot of light scattered by the atmosphere. Depending on where you are and the season, this twilight can last from half an hour to many hours, like when you’re up north in the summer. As the sun has set, I still call this night photography. Obviously, the more dark it gets the more stars can be seen. This is a great time for blended exposures. Taking images before it is dark and adding them later to images taken of stars after dark”.

Once Benn has shot the images he wants to play with, he works them all in Lightroom 3 and Photoshop CS5.

“ I don’t really use many filters, but I do use actions, especially those by Tony Kuyper. But, that again, is a whole book in itself”. In his eBook he elaborates on his technique and equipment, Chances are if you own a DSLR you already have 90% of the tools required to take brilliant night images”.

However, he also mentions that a good lens and tripod are necessary. “Wider Aperture lenses like f2.8 and wider are best, but f4-f5.6 lenses are fine too,” and for tripods he says a very sturdy one is necessary as it can often be quite windy during exposures of 30 seconds through to 2-3 hours.

His bird images require slightly different equipment. “Most of the bird images in my portfolio were taken with a Canon 1Ds and a 500/4,” however as he does not have the time he no longer owns these cameras or photographs birds very often.

What is the path one should follow to become a professional night photographer?

Though Benn thinks photography is an excellent discipline that adds a lot of discipline to one’s life, he does not recommend it as a profession.

“Honestly, there are very few people out there who make a living from full time Night Photography. If you live in California, you could get by on running workshops all the time and writing, but that market is already quite saturated”.

“In terms of getting good at it, that is the same as most aspects of photography, most of it is technique that can be learned. Attention to detail, being very self critical in terms of what you consider to be acceptably sharp, or an acceptable level of noise. And finally, composition is still king. A great comp by daylight or night light will be more appealing than some random scene thrown together without thought”.

As a professional Night Photographer, how do you continue to grow?

Though he seems a master at his trade, Alister Benn continues to grow as a photographer. “The most important factor in growth as a photographer is having the guts to harshly critique your own work. Too many forums exist where all you get is “great shot” and it is of limited value. Ego stroking does not make you a better photographer, and if anything, can actually hold you back.

“When I am in the field I am asking myself: Why am I taking this photograph? And when it is finished after processing, I try to objectively decide if it has answered that question to my own satisfaction”.

 

Do you have any goals for your future as a photographer?

“I’d love to shoot wildlife at night, and yes, I have some plans to do that. It’s on my bucket list.”

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