Tag Archives: Greenwich

What Makes An Image Memorable?

Perhaps the highest praise Steven gets as a speaker is this:

Wow, his passion is infectious. I’m now eager to try night photography.”

Almost every photographer makes pictures to SHARE with others so praise of passion is high praise, indeed. Not everyone will have similar interests or feel the connection you feel with your work, but there are some questions you can ask yourself to strengthen the broader appeal of your work, that is, make your image more memorable.

My friend and mentor, Kip Evans sold his photography from a gallery in Carmel, California. One of his laments to me was: I don’t really sell what I find beautiful and compelling, I mostly sell what others have a connection to – often touristy things like images of the Golden Gate Bridge. What drew us into Kip’s gallery was an image of a large breaking wave called Winter Swell. We have print of Winter Swell hanging in our bedroom (and so does at least one coastal hotel).

        Kip Evans: Winter Swell

My wife loves waves – and I share her affinity. She will stand in awe and clap as huge surf crashes on to our coast. There is a visceral connection with the spectacle and power of the scene.

If we spend a little time thinking about what causes that kind of connection, we can endeavor to put elements of it in our work.

From my perspective, images need the following:

  • Scale that inspires awe, grandeur
  • Connectedness – intimacy in the viewer caused by an emotive reaction to the image
  • Interest – an alignment with the passions of the viewer – even if only tangential
  • Revelation – an innovative view that illuminates something either unnoticed or unseeable.

Of course these characteristics are inter-related and if only two of the four are strongly present that may be enough to wow the viewer.


Before you move on to the explanations, consider the following 4 images. Decide which image is the one that best reveals scale, the one that speaks to you (connects with you), the one that is most in line with your interests, and the one that reveals something you’ve not seen or understood before. The answer to each question may be a different image. Indeed, we would love it if you’d answer the four questions in the polls below… If you want to elaborate or leave a comment listing your choices (e.g. “A,B,B,D”) that’s fine, too. And yes, we realize we have mixed in a photo of a cute dog that has nothing to do with Night Photography.

The images are
A: Sky from Orion to the Pleiades, B: Trona Pinnacles with Orion and Canis Major, C: Mount Whitney in Moonlight; D: Pierre Grazin’ in the Grass.




Fortunately for Night Photography, the last part – Revelation – is the easiest. Few people have seen a truly dark sky with starry heavens. If you can connect the viewer by linking Earth and Heaven you can draw people in.  Even fewer people realize that the Milky Way is awesome, and that stars have discernible colors. It is not hard to enchant viewers with a revelatory image.

Revelation can take many forms, however. For example: showing an unfamiliar but interesting place, illustrating a relationship that was not obvious before, revealing unexpected or unobserved colors or details. The camera is very good at seeing color, even in dim light – so it’s almost easy to be revelatory in a night image. In my opinion the single most significant mistake that people make in night images is in not selecting or not providing sufficient interest in the foreground – either because the foreground is boring, or because it is not well enough illuminated to speak on its own. My personal bias is to tune out a photo of a car under the stars, for example, unless the car is really, really sexy looking. My wife, who is a car fan, feels a little differently. I am also not a fan of junkyard scenes with garish colors, but my judgments (biases) are not about revelation, but about Interest.

Perhaps one of the revelatory aspects of image D is the “on-eye-level-ness” with a furry little creature.

Photon Worshippers **Winner Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2010 - People and Space **

Photon Worshippers **Winner Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2010 – People and Space **


How many images of sunsets have you seen? Most of them are immediately emotive, colorful, and often compelling… but are they different enough to hold your interest?

People are all over the map in interests: favorite colors, past-times, subjects, hobbies … It is impossible to create an image that will be interesting to everyone. The point here is to think about your audience.  The photo that won Astronomy Photographer of the Year in 2010 (above) garnered interest because it was not a run-of-the-mill, same as everyone else night sky photo indeed it wasn’t a night sky photo at all! The image was something that I calculated would be of interest to judges in the UK. In the UK Stonehenge is an ancient, human-made edifice apparently built to measure seasons. My Photon Worshipper image is of a natural formation that does a similar thing – it only forms a beam of light during the winter solstice.  The image is also unlike the many existing images of the same phenomenon: it is a different view, and includes people to give it human scale.

Scale / Grandeur

Likewise my runner-up image in 2012 (below) was arguably the least well executed of my awarded work: focus is soft, color is off. But the scale and human interest of Lost In Yosemite is hard to miss. The contrast of tiny figures – once you recognize them as people – against towering trees and an immense sky was not lost on the judges.

I love this photo because it illustrates how humbling, even frightening, both the natural world and the cold depths of space can be for us as tiny, fragile human beings. ~ Olivia Johnson

Lost in Yosemite [C_033706] Runner Up - Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2012

Lost in Yosemite: Two tiny hikers in flashlight against the enormity of the environment.

If you’ve seen it in person the scale of the Grand Canyon is inspiring. If you’ve seen it in photos, the Grand Canyon is LESS impressive. Why? My thought is that most photos lack human-scaled perspective of the kind in Lost in Yosemite above. Image A, above, is an image in which you likely found no sense of scale – unless you’re an astronomer. Image C shows rugged mountains (Mount Whitney, in fact). Hikers and mountaineers will implicitly understand the scale. Image B, however has formations that are of indeterminate size unless you have first-hand experience with them. Image D also gives scale clues… You see the size of the ears in proportion to the dog (named Pierre), and the size of the dog in proportion to the grass and flowers. But it’s not likely that it was the scale or size revelation of the dog that drew you in, is it?  If you found affinity with Pierre, it’s because you have – or had – a pet you are fond of, or wished that you had a pet. But we will address connectedness in a moment.

My suggestion is to be sure that something in your image imparts an easily recognizable scale.  In fact, putting a human in the shot can be powerful – Ben Canales won a National Geographic competition with an image featuring himself and Crater Lake – and a bit of whimsy.


Connectedness, or perhaps better term intimacy is not a single characteristic. By connectedness, I mean that involuntary emotive sense of drawing your attention – either as awwwww or that’s beautiful, or that’s disgusting, or my heart hurts. Sunsets, puppies, and kittens are perhaps the most photographed items of all. Why? Because most of them come laden with affection and fond memories – or sadness, or whimsy.  I immediately feel connectedness with well crafted night skies because I have many fond memories of sitting out in the dark under a horizon-to-horizon Milky Way.

I am reminded that compared to the enormity of the sky I feel small, but somehow embedded in that smallness is always a feeling of importance and one-ness with nature.

I assert that connectedness is usually a product of scale, revelation and interest, but connectedness can also occur spontaneously out of past experience and the human condition. My wife would put it this way:

Life is not measured by the breaths you take, but by the moments that take your breath away.

Technical Competency

I gave thought to avoiding discussion of this important aspect of an image. Some of my most viewed, appreciated and commented images are NOT images that exhibit technical mastery! I purposely chose images B and C because they are older work, and lack technical robustness. Indeed, I have much better images from Trona Pinnacles (Image B), but none have been as popular as image B!

In summary, while technical mastery is a great goal to seek, if you work too hard on making your image sharp, color balanced, and so on, you may neglect choosing environments and images that have more compelling characteristics: Scale, Interest, Connectedness and Revelation.

So What is My Favorite Image – And Why?

If you’ve been paying attention you’ll understand that images, like aromas, colors and words carry different weights due to our personal experiences. I always gravitate to the image below. It’s my wife on our last evening in Santorini, Greece.  We had just finished a fantastic meal, I had given her that ring, and our view was awesome. And, it happens to be a sunset I shot with my cell phone.

Last Evening in Santorini

You probably wanted to know what’s my favorite Night Image, though.  It’s hard to choose, but it’s probably one of these two. I’ve never uploaded the first one, though it’s predecessor was released.

“South Side,” Red Rock Canyon State Park, California

“Like Grains of Sand,” Pfeiffer State Beach, Big Sur, California

If you ask my wife the same question about my images, I am pretty sure she would pick this one:

Famous III [C_035478]

This is all part of a larger talk I am planning for a local Astronomy Club.  I appreciate your votes on the images above so I have a good set of data to go on. Also, please comment on an image that really inspired you – mine or anyone elses!

Long Way to Go (Almost No Night Exposures)


I had big dreams. Starry skies over places like the Great Pyramid in Giza, incredible formations in Petra, and so on. But what happened was quite a bit different.

Before I bore you with more words here are some links you might be interested in:

Instead of starting our journey with a few days in Cairo, the Egyptians decided to overthrow Mubarak rendering travel there impossible. How selfish and inconvenient of them, eh?

The good news about the uprising is that it meant that the first 3 days of my scheduled tour were negated. Rather than dropping days out of the tour, my wife, myself and another couple (Bert and Dale) traveled on our own to Jordan. This was fortuitous in that we were able to go more places than the tour would have taken us including the most photographically interesting locations: Petra and Wadi Rum. It was also rather necessary since we had already planned to travel to London to visit the exhibit at the Royal Observatory before the tour was scheduled to start. It was fun being recognized at the Royal Observatory. And it’s probably the first time in my life anyone (about a half a dozen people, actually) asked for my autograph (on postcards and notecards featuring my image, no less).

Royal Observatory Exhibit

Photo 1: Me at the Royal Observatory

Getting back to the travel… Many people recommended Wadi Rum – and I knew I’d want to spend more time in Petra than the 2/3 of a day that the tour provided for. So we made a whirlwind trip to the Royal Observatory and left the next day for Amman, Jordan where we arrived at nearly midnight and then drove almost 4 hours to Petra. The desert road through Jordan was in good shape. Finding a gas station in the night was a bit of an adventure. Filling the tank cost about $80. We Americans are spoiled by cheap gas. Yes, cheap. Jordan has no oil resources and like most of Europe the cost is as much as 1.076 Jordanian Dinar ($1.69 USD) per litre. That’s $6.43 USD per gallon. In a relatively poor country like Jordan, that is an enormous burden compared to the cheaper energy costs here in the US.

One big gotcha on Jordanian roadways: speed bumps. Usually well marked, but sometimes the stealth ones will send you flying into the ceiling of the car. Just ask my wife.  Near the very end of our travel to Petra – at about 3:20 in the AM, we encountered thick, San Francisco-esq fog in the higher altitudes before descending into Wadi Musa and Petra. Petra by-the-way refers to both the name of the modern town AND the ancient Nabataean ruins. The tourism bureau in Jordan has poured a LOT of money into the area around modern Petra. Swanky hotels are everywhere. But the route there is rather depressing for the poverty and severely austere environment.

The fog didn’t descend into the inhabited areas of modern Petra. But as you can guess a 4:00 am arrival and thick cloud layer above made night photography impractical. Unfortunately heavy cloud cover occurred nearly every night during the trip.  My three clear night scenarios coincided with either exhaustion or night time arrival an an urban environment where I was too timid (and tired) to seek out some interesting foreground.

Still groggy from travel, we didn’t even make it out of doors of the Petra Marriott until about 11 am and spent from about 12:45 pm until 6 pm in Petra. One of the nasty little surprises we encountered was that the “about 10 dinars” Petra entry fee quoted by the hotel clerk turned out to be 50 dinar – $75 USD per person. And the Petra admission tickets could only be paid in Jordanian dinar – no credit cards. Not willing to trust the exchange service adjacent to the payment site, and having too little dinar (and too few USD to exchange), I set off for the nearest ATM machine. I was told it was located in the Movenpick Hotel. Finding the entrance proved challenging. Heavy security is everywhere. In Jordan, every major hotel has baggage screeners and metal detectors. I put my photo backpack through the screener and then asked at the concierge desk where to find the ATM machine. I was then told that it was broken but that I could exchange money at the desk. The exchange rate quoted was decent EXCEPT that they also charged a 5 dinar fee for any transaction… and remember I didn’t have enough USD on me anyway. Sigh.  After returning to the Petra entry area, I discovered my wife had enough USD left for me to exchange to gain us entry.  Bert and Dale and my wife all got one day 50 dinar tickets. I bought a 2 day ticket for an additional 5 dinar because I intended to return the next morning as early as I could. It was a wise investment.  During our trip that day we dallied, a lot. I ran partway up the trail to Ad Deir (aka the Monastery) intending to turn around at 4:30 PM. Halfway up I elected to go with a donkey for 15 dinar to cut the time (and the sweat). I got to Ad Deir at a great time as the setting sun broke through some haze and clearing clouds and cast sweet low angle light on the impressive building carved out of stone. To get a sense of scale, those are two people seated in the doorway.

Ad Deir (Monastery) [5_029970]

Photo 2: Ad Deir (aka the Monastery) in fantastic light

My first opportunity for night shooting occurred at the end of the first full day in Petra, Jordan – in ancient Petra itself (Photo 3). We exited well after sunset and though the skies were getting hazy, I imagined myself staying in Petra for night photography – except that I hadn’t brought by tripod with me!

Nightfall, Petra [C_020077]

Photo 3: Nightfall in Petra with Jupiter and the Moon

I improvised with a carefully propped up camera at high ISO. With a tripod I could have exposed for the foreground and you’d have seen an impressive natural canyon called a “siq” (Photo 4).

Faux Verisimilitude [C_019828p]

Photo 4: Siq in Petra

The next morning I booked a “local taxi (a donkey) for a trek up to the “High Place of Sacrifice”. My guide was a Bedouin named Mansour. For fun I shot a video from my saddle on the donkey. It is a bit bumpy, of course, but gives you an idea what the trip (and a donkey ride are like). See the Petra Donkey Cam!

During the night prior to my second Petra foray I got a few shots, but the moving cloud cover dissuaded me from making a star trail (Photo 5).

Petra Skies [C_020114]

Photo 5: Petra Night Sky - with clouds.

Tours are an informative way to learn the lay of the land and the history… but as I suspected not well suited to photography. Generally we arrived at interesting locations well after sunrise and left well before sunset. And since we were almost never in the same place twice, scouting for sunrise, sunset, or night locations was mostly futile. Remaining in one spot for more than 15 minutes also seldom happens. Indeed the last night of the tour I got lost as the group went ahead in the dark… more on that in the next installment.

After Petra we “self tourers” visited Wadi Rum. Wow. It was a gorgeous and immense place. I would have loved to spend a night there. I imagine it would have been extremely dark with incredible stars. It was, however, mostly cloudy and somewhat hazy.

Now for the Fun Part [C_020338]

Photo 6: Wadi Rum

More on my adventures in the next column.

Oh, by the way the Almost Nothing title is relative to my photography aspirations, not the trip itself!

People and Space – Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2010

I’m really excited to let you know that my image: “Photon Worshippers” featuring sunset along the rugged Pacific Coast in Big Sur, California was named winner of the Royal Observatory’s 2010 photo competition in the category People and Space.  For details see the competition’s Winners page. A two man film crew from Buzz Films, Ltd, London flew out to interview me two weeks ago and was tasked with creating a 90 second piece about my work. I thought they did a great job capturing my passion for astro and startrail photography!

This is the winning photo.

Photo of Pfeiffer Portal, Big Sur, California

Photographers gather at the opening of an enormous rock in the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur. The setting sun shines directly through the opening only a few weeks of the year.

The photo and interview will be exhibited in the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, England until February, 2011 along with the video. Admission is free.  Please email me if you visit the exhibit and let me know what you think. I hope to get there later in the year.

The image has already appeared online at

  1. National Geographic (US and Japanese editions online)
  2. the UK’s Guardian,
  3. in a Science Section of the UK Times (only available via subscription).
  4. And BBC News..
  5. New Scientist
  6. British broadsheet: The Independent.
  7. Gizmodo (including the Polish edition)
  8. Web.DE and DieWelt (German)
  9. … and many more blogs and articles throughout the world …

By the way if you’re interested in taking pictures of the night sky, you may want to join Harold Davis and me for our Alabama Hills Star Circle Workshop in November.

One of the reasons I went to this location was also to get a star trail. These are the results of those efforts – the bright slash is the setting crescent moon.

Pfeiffer Portal with Moon Set at Night

Twilight and Moonset Over Pfeiffer Portal