Thursday, January 7, 2016

Ben Canales: A Sense of Imagination and Wonder

"Make a Wish" - starry night at Crater Lake, Oregon ~ © Ben Canales (click image for a larger view)
"In our youth, the stars were fertilizer for stories and adventures. Shooting stars became wishes. We didn’t know it, but the crazy talk and thoughts, ...with no limit in that big sky, were our dreams forming."   So wrote Ben Canales, describing a photo that went on to win National Geographic's Travel Photo of the Year in 2011 —a big wake up call to the public reaction for night images. (Click the Nat'l Geo link to see behind-the-scenes details about Ben's prep for this shot.) Editor's Note: This January 16, 2013 article is being re-published to coincide with an Instagram "NightScaper" feature I'm doing today on Ben.

Finding satisfaction in night photography: Ben's night pictures started as an attempt to capture and share the things he was seeing that others had never experienced under proper dark skies (Canales is originally from New Jersey). "I love the sense of discovery in night shooting. I never know what a place will look like under the stars until I actually go out there and shoot it. My camera becomes [my] night vision goggles to literally see into the dark. That aspect of 'what's out there' gets me going every time. I also love the difficulty of it. I get bored easily, so the challenge of shooting in the dark keeps me engaged and interested." Ben finds it fascinating to be able to shape 'reality' as he wants to, using light and darkness.

"History Reflected" - Lost Lake, Oregon ~ © Ben Canales
Early photo history: Back in 2010, Ben had his camera on a tripod to shoot a sunset while camping by hot springs. The sunset came and went, and rather than break down the gear, he jumped back into the hot spring. "I was mesmerized with the stars as the sky darkened and got excited to try and take a picture of the stars. I had no clue what I was doing."

Luckily, Ben figured out that he needed as much light as possible in manual mode. The first shot was an out of focus, straight up view of the stars; but his jaw literally dropped when he saw more stars on the back of his camera than his eyes could see! "A few shots later, when I saw the Milky Way resolve out of the image, I freaked out! Talk about the joy of discovery," laughs Ben.

After more research on the Internet, Canales realized this was a barely explored style of photography. It held an untapped potential of discovery, and the challenge to come up with new techniques was extremely captivating for him. About a month later Ben had a traumatic work injury that chopped off a finger and mutilated the others on his left hand! In the down time of rehab that summer, a friend was kind enough to lend him their Canon 30D and he went full time into obsessive exploring and learning night photography.

Behind the Scenes: Concerning the above photo, Ben writes: "The experience of this night was personally unforgettable. I was literally moved to tears when I stepped to the waters edge and saw the scene I was standing in front of. I literally got choked up. Technically, it was the first time using [a] fast 24mm f/1.4 lens, where I realized the game changing power of more light in regards to the Milky Way."

"Sometimes Alone" ~ © Ben Canales — "My new personal favorite. It's so different than my usual of glowing tents, houses, big mountain ranges. The emptiness and [the] intimacy keeps me loving this shot."
 Challenges: Canales faces many challenges in his style of night photography.  In the beginning, it was camera quality. "I used to do s-o-o-o-o much work in post to manage high ISO noise, but now that's quickly becoming a thing of the past. Three cheers for Lightroom 4!," says Ben.  He learned night shooting on a Canon 30D, and when he was able to move up to a Canon 5D Mark II, it literally blew his mind how much better the High ISO was from this camera. The 5D Mark III and 1Dx have gone levels higher.  But other challenges still remain. Among them are:
  • Weather. (Ben lives in the Pacific Northwest, so 8 of 12 months are cloudy and rainy. It's frustrating to be limited to mostly summer shooting.)
  • Locations. Gas is getting expensive! Most people don't realize the cost of driving 2-4 hours away to get a few night pictures. 
  • Lighting the human element (tent, cabin, car, person). 
  • Shooting all night and then trying to functioning as a regular person the rest of the week!
Favorite tools: In the beginning, Ben was always on Stellarium. It was immensely helpful to figure out how the night sky worked and learn the patterns (Canales strongly encourages new shooters to check out this site). Other pieces of equipment he finds it hard to be without:
  • Headlamp! To light those foregrounds and people.
  • A glowing tent (to take pics of — working all night, I never get to sleep in them ;-)
  • 5 hour energy drink
"Finding Oregon" — click image to see the video
Time lapse work: Ben currently lives in Portland, Oregon and works at Uncage the Soul Productions, where he is highly involved with time lapse. Time lapse work has opened all sorts of new doors for Canales. Much of this is the result of teaming up with Uncage the Soul Productions.

Ben originally told them his idea of going around Oregon to make a time lapse video and the team rallied around him to make it happen. They initially did a two-week road trip to make this film. It was an exhausting labor of love, but very rewarding to see it come to life. "Finding Oregon" was produced without an assignment, but has become wildly popular on the Net, helping them to get real, paying jobs. (Here's a behind-the-scenes video presentation Ben and John Walker did at the 2012 TEDxPortland, where you can see Ben "in-person", see their equipment in action, hear the challenges they faced on "Finding Oregon", and their latest film, "Finding Portland".)

You can see more of Ben Canales' photography and purchase prints at his website.


  1. Ben is super talented! I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Ben and his colleagues at Uncage the Soul Productions last year. As a client we were blown away by the quality of their work!

    Josh Bernstein

  2. Congrats on all your success, Ben! Every bit of it is so well deserved. The way you share your approach is both refreshing and an inspiration for the rest of us. Yet at the same time, you've found ways to raise the bar even higher... Keep up the great work!

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