Last year about this time David Griffin, National Geographic’s director of photography, and Elizabeth Krist, a senior photo editor, walked into my office and asked if I had any ideas on how we could photograph Stonehenge in a way that would be new and different. It was a natural question. David was already thinking about high-dynamic-range photography, and I’m the digital-tech guy at the magazine. I had an idea, but it came with a catch—I wanted to be the photographer, anything to get out of the office and into the field.
My idea started with a hand-built camera that had caught my interest at Photokina two years earlier—a panoramic film camera that had been adapted for digital use by Dr. Kurt Gilde in Germany. The camera can make a digital image that’s 49x90 millimeters wide using a sliding adapter mounted with a Phase One P45 digital back; three images stitched together result in a file with over 100 megapixels of resolution. I wanted to use this technology to capture three unique exposures at different times of the day and night, then stitch them into a continuous panoramic that showed Stonehenge over the course of time. Coincidentally the panoramic would fit perfectly on a magazine gatefold—three pages of a spread where one page folds in as a flap.
My first attempt at shooting Stonehenge was on three consecutive nights in September 2007, timed to coincide with the full moon. English Heritage, the government agency entrusted with preserving historical sites around England, had granted NGM special access to Stonehenge. I planned to set the Gilde camera in one place from 6 p.m., after the last of the tourists departed, to 8 a.m. the next morning. The object during that 14-hour window was to capture multiple images from dusk to dawn, select the best three, and then stitch them into a panoramic triptych.
I thought I had a good idea, but the cosmic forces of serendipity didn’t want to cooperate. Not to mention that I wasn’t trying to concentrate just on making one good photograph of Stonehenge. I was trying to shoot a cover—ON MY FIRST NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ASSIGNMENT! Talk about turning up the heat in the pressure cooker!
Have I set the bar low enough that you’re ready for my excuses? The first night on the Salisbury Plain the wind started blowing, and a storm front moved in, complete with sheets of rain. Since over $60,000 worth of borrowed equipment was sitting exposed, I had to pull the gear and find cover. Move the camera, no photo.
Day two was a little better, my hopes buoyed by a diversity of atmospheric conditions that could lead to success. The image above is a rough stitch from the best images of that day. Not bad, but not good enough for National Geographic magazine. Still, I was on a roll, with day two better than day one. Bring on day three.
Have you ever watched a sunset on a bluebird evening? Kind of boring compared to a sunset with a few wispy clouds that linger in the sky long enough to catch the last brilliant colors—colors that linger in your memory like a peppery cabernet lighting up your taste buds. Day three was seltzer water: flavorless clear blues skies that refused to yield even an adequate image.
Forty-two hours of all-night shooting time, and I had to leave with one triptych that wasn’t good enough to run in the magazine. I was bummed out.
Yet between the exposures with the Gilde camera I’d done a lot of experimenting with my 35mm equipment. I learned that the best angles of Stonehenge are shot from six inches off the ground, to minimize the security fence and the two highways that run adjacent to the site. I also discovered that light painting with one light didn’t give consistent results, and that trying to light-paint Stonehenge in less than a minute was nearly impossible.
Two months later I was back at Stonehenge for another go at the stones. I was more prepared this time and on a slightly different mission—the triptych idea had been replaced by the idea of lighting the stones more evenly, giving them a more regal presence. I was also armed with 11 cases of gear, including a Phase One P45 back and a Hasselblad Flexbody that would allow me to control the perspective when shooting the stones from such a low angle. I also had a case of 15 modified SureFire M6 Guardian flashlights, each of which could put out 500 lumens. The modification, compliments of our photo-engineering department, allowed the flashlights to be wired in parallel, so I could turn all 15 on and off with the flip of a switch.
Here is the final formula for the cover shot: Hasselblad Flexbody with 15mm of drop dialed in to a Phase One P45 back, ISO was set at 100, the lens was a Hasselblad Distagon 40mm set at f11, there were 12 SureFire lights aimed at the stones which were on for about 12 seconds during the 15 minute total exposure. Dressed in black, I then walked through the scene painting additional light on the stones to create some of edge highlights.
I’d be remiss not to mention and sincerely thank Joseph Huxley, a recent Oxford graduate, who volunteered to assist me on both shoots—that’s him silhouetted in the photo above, after a long night of shooting.
Update: If you find yourself in the vicinity of Amesbury, on your own Stonehenge outing, I have to recommend Reeve’s bakery for breakfast. It’s a lovely little bakery that we’d invade every morning after our all-night shoots—their selection of pasties is delightful and the macaroons are killer! The bakery is right around the corner from the George Hotel, but mind your choice of room if you stay at this 13th century inn—karaoke night in the pub below permeates through the floorboards. And finally, the rumor about me getting dressed up like a Druid and sacrificing one of my old film cameras on the Slaughter Stone, is unfounded!
Update 2: The image (above) that’s used as the double gatefold in the magazine was shot at 11:19PM, using a little different technique than described for the cover. Instead of multiple lights, I locked the camera shutter open and then walked into the scene with a single hand-held flashlight. Hiding behind one of the stones, I then turned on the light and carefully painted a portion of a nearby stone in need of a highlight. With the full moon illuminating the site it was easy to walk amongst the stones. I repeated this process in about 25 different locations—all in one 15-minute exposure. I’m sure it was quite a sight; I defiantly kept the security guards amused.
If you’re interested in learning more about light painting, take a look at Dave Black’s web site. He’s a master of the technique and teaches at several workshops around the country. His unique skills graced the magazine in June 2007, for our story on Arlington National Cemetery.
Update 3: If you'd like to learn more about Stonehenge, here is a shameless promotional link to a National Geographic Channel special which is airing June 1st at 9:00 PM.