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The Magic of Available Darkness

Wild Ponies Sleeping

In late November, it’s dark just after 5 PM and night comes quickly on Assateague island. Without the glow of a city, darkness can manipulate time, making six pm feel like midnight. The complete lack of light requires a tripod and timed exposures. Standing in the dark, seconds can feel like minutes. And it’s between these dark seconds of pressing the shutter and hearing it snap closed that magic can happen.

I was on assignment for two days and nearly ready to call it quits for the evening; resigned to the idea that all other images would be created the next day. As I put the tripod in the hatch, I noticed a small grouping of what looked like tents. This time of year there were a few other campers on the island. With no light pollution, all I had to see by was moon and starlight. Since I’d already made a few successful frames of sand dunes and boardwalks by moonlight, I decided the tents were worthy, as well.

Retrieving the tripod, I attached the camera and composed by intuition. Guessing the distance from me to the tents, I set the focus and opened my aperture a bit to compensate for focus errors. Instead of fumbling for my cable release, I opted for a two second delayed shutter.

At ISO 400, the camera’s thirty second minimum shutter was not sufficient, so I set it to bulb and counted to 120. One Mississippi, two Mississippi… And so on. Those two measly minutes felt like half an hour. Several seconds after the shutter closed the screen jumped to life. Impatiently I stared into the review screen, it’s brightness in the pitch black might as well have been the sun. I stood breathless, and nearly blind in that moment. What fate presented to me was a group of ponies, asleep in between the tents.

It’s interesting just how exciting any subject can be for me when I’m on assignment. I hadn’t thought about photographing wild ponies in available darkness before, but this night the hunt for unseen photos was flooding me with adrenaline.

I turned off the screen, recovered a semblance of my night vision, and continued to make composition and exposure refinements. I wanted to be sure I had “the” image before something out of my control changed. The ponies gently swayed as they slept, so I decided on a shorter shutter speed, hoping to keep them as sharp as possible. My final exposure came in at ISO 3200 at f4 and 8 seconds. I only had time to make a handful of exposures before they awoke and started to wander off. But magic had already happened.