Every year, more than one million photographs captured in some of the harshest conditions on the planet arrive at National Geographic magazine. From our trials and tribulations, learn how to conquer your own digital photography challenges.
Shooting Stonehenge
Posted May 14,2008


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 Gilde_220 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.   

Ken Geiger 

Stonehenge Photo Gallery



alex nunes
May 14, 2008 11AM #

SureFire M6 Guardian shines for Stonehenge.

May 14, 2008 11AM #

WOW! I never realized that it could be s-o-o difficult to get a good photo.

May 14, 2008 11AM #

thanx very much for taking the time to post about what went into the making of these great pictures. Very interesting. I admire the chance like that to produce images under difficult conditions. Looking forward to seeing more in the future.

jeanette houx-smith
May 14, 2008 11AM #

Wonderful photo! Thanks for all the technical info. I love the use of light painting. I told my daughter how it is done and she now wants to try it. She suggest light painting smiley faces.

cindy wheeler
May 14, 2008 11AM #

What an ambitious undertaking and what outstanding results! Simply stunning.

Sara Andrea Vera Beltrán
May 14, 2008 11AM #

Well done!!! The cover photo was absolutely gorgeous and the story behind it was very entertaining. It also shows that being a photographer can be a very hard work. It's not just point and shoot as many people think.

John Wilson
May 14, 2008 11AM #

Great to hear the story behind the photo. Sensational results!!

Ivo Hula
May 14, 2008 11AM #

Faboulous photos. Great description of the technical to get the shots.

As a panorama freak and an owner of an Ex-Pan system, I am wondering if anyoune has ever heard of or tried to modify this camera for digital?
I know digital stitching is much cheaper, but Ken's stitching shows some of the drawbacks of this method.

May 14, 2008 11AM #

You are a talent...thank you and the Henge has always fascinated me...hope I can visit someday...my travels are always within the ngm...Edith

May 14, 2008 11AM #

Wonderful photos of this fascinating place. Thanks.

Mark Johnston
May 14, 2008 11AM #

Looking at your picture of Stonehenge taken from the air, it occurs to me that the roof is missing. The double ring structure seems engineered as the base of a wooden roof. A roof makes it more of a temple, and consistent with Diodorus of Sicily. (Most Greek temples had a double ring and a wooden roof.)

Reuben Chircop
May 14, 2008 11AM #

I like the idea of this shoot even though very technical it really brought out the simplicity in this place but the marvelous history behind all this. I live in Malta and we do have a couple of similar archaeological remains like this and I must say Photographing these places is like catching a snapshot of history in history.

Bill Mitchell
May 14, 2008 11AM #


They could have saved thousands of dollars and gotten a better image just by renting one of Paul Caponigro's B&W photographs.

Shari K
May 14, 2008 11AM #

I just want to say how exquisitely beautiful these pictures of Stonehenge are. You truly are creative, talented and dedicated when it comes to turning out the perfect photo....Can I buy these somewhere?

May 14, 2008 11AM #

This is perhaps the best photograph that i have seen. And the microscopic details involved in getting this one is simply stunning. I have also learnt a lesson or two from these details. Great sir hats off to your effort and the result that it has produced

May 14, 2008 11AM #

These photos of the stonehenges are EXTRAORDINARY!!!
The captivation and patience for taking these photos would unravel the MYSTERY and SECRETS of the stonehenges to viewers all over the world. Also, it would provide a better understanding of the topic for this National Geographic topic.


Michael Covisi
May 14, 2008 11AM #

The creators of Stonehenge might find it difficult to understand what you were doing there, but would no doubt be pleased that their accomplishment was being given such respect. Let's hope our generation leaves something behind that will equally inspire artists in the future.

Dan Clark
May 14, 2008 11AM #

Hi Ken -

Even since we got this issue, Mimi & I have been wondering how you shot it. I didn't realize the PhaseOne would do 15 min. exposures. The shots are really beautiful. Nice job!

May 14, 2008 11AM #

What a great story.
I am truly understand now that photo is a an art of work. And need a lot of creative ideas to make it a beautiful to see.

Chris Oquist
May 14, 2008 11AM #

I know this is an old post, but I just came across it and wanted to thank you. It's amazing to learn about the insane amount of work that goes into some of these truly breathtaking images.

"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."

That's just ridiculous - you guys are like secret-agent mad scientist traveling photographic nomad geniuses..

I can't wait to read another post like this one. Maybe one day I'll get to shoot for you guys - it's clear I have a mind-bending amount of work to do.

Addict Free
May 14, 2008 11AM #

Wow, keep it up! I love the examples and it gives me a few ideas to try out.

x-ray fluorescence
May 14, 2008 11AM #

Nice photos.I like the idea of this shoot even though very technical it really brought out the simplicity in this place but the marvelous history behind all this.

Maria Kurmlavage
May 14, 2008 11AM #

It was much easier to just enjoy this dynamic image...my tech-less head was spinning while reading your ingenious solution!

May 14, 2008 11AM #

I would love to do something like that...really creative! Light painting seems a very cool thing and its nice to see the results after working so hard on it. Love it!

May 14, 2008 11AM #


Its amazing how much work goes in to a project like this. Great write up.

Thank you.

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