Photo lesson – Stephen Wilkes – Day to Night

Let’s step away from the commentary on social photos and take a quick look at a technique we call multiple exposure.

I came across this article on CNN about a photo book, Day to Night, by photographer Stephen Wilkes. It’s a book of landscapes and they are stunning. What is remarkable about them is they are composites – multiple photos taken of the same subject at different times of day and night and then blended together to make an almost otherworldly photo.

Here is one of his shots and Stephen don’t sue me.

brooklyn bridge stephen wilkes

Brooklyn Bridge 2016 by Stephen Wilkes


If you look carefully, this photo has sunrise in it, midday, sunset, and even bits of night, all mushed together. So how does he do that? Well, in a world were we can’t be bothered to focus on anything for more than 30 seconds, where a photo is nothing more than a quick snap from your cell, with little thought of composition or light, his work is a miracle.

It might take Wilkes 24, 30, 36 hours to create a composite. Now it sounds like he is shooting on film, scanning the photos, then doing the digital manipulation and if so, he deserves a medal. But let’s just stick to the idea of doing this digitally.

First, you might have heard this term, but it’s not a time-lapse photo. You don’t take time lapse photos per se. With a time-lapse, you take a ton of photos over the course of a predetermined bit of time and then make a video of it… you know when you see clouds moving fast…

And this video is bonkers…

 Photos are taken automatically by the camera every 5 seconds or so for hours on end, then compressed into one short video. Math – if a video runs at 30 frames, or photos, a second, and you take one photo every five seconds, you will need 2.5 minutes of time to create one second of video. Hence the fast looking clouds.

What Wilkes is doing rather is a rather thoughtful version of something called High Dynamic Range. Simply, cameras have a hard time capturing the bright parts of a scene AND the dark parts and making everything look great. Think of a bright sky on a summer day and the deep shadows in the trees at the same time.

Cameras can’t capture this well, so they came up with HDR photos. Your phone, I assure you, has this setting. Pros will take multiple photos at different times of the day, then digitally layer them and keep the best parts.

Example…I grabbed this off sorry guys.

NOT a Wilkes photo..

See how the sky looks all sunset-y and the path is not too dark and you can read the camera inscription? How it borders on being more graphic art than photography? This is an HDR, probably 20 or more photos, layered in a program like photoshop, keeping the best parts.

It’s a really cool technique, and yes, to a degree, your phone will do this. Don’t do it to people though – landscapes and cityscapes work best.

So back to Wilkes. He did essentially this technique, but rather than just focusing on lights and darks, he was looking to capture a representative shot of the scene, one that shows people using the spaces, animals, etc.

He was attempting to compress the life, the energy, the usage of a space in one day, and he did it beautifully.

How? Well he picked his shot and the location where he would shoot from, considered the time of year and the weather, then he set up, and camped out. This project took 10 years btw.

Then he took hundreds of photos. Picking his moments, from sunrise to sunset.

Wilkes locked his camera down hard, on a tripod, using sandbags no doubt, so the framed image would not change, leaving him with hundreds of identical photos, the only difference being the light and the activity in front of his lens. And his coffee would get cold.

Then it’s just a matter of taking the digital files and painstakingly, and I mean painstakingly, layer them together, erasing parts of one so the details in another show through. It is quite the process.

It’s multiple exposures, blended into incredible imagery.

Take a look at one more, then  please go back and click the link up top and see more. It is amazing what you can do with a camera when you simply have the patience for it.

NY blizzard 2010 – Stephen Wilkes

blizzard over ny stephen wilkes 2010

Well done man.


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