A photographer captures the fascinating world from dusk to dawn

Art Wolfe has documented so many corners of the world when the lights were out. The American photographer and conservationist has traveled to every continent to explore and record animals, nature and people, watching what they do at night.

His new booknight on earthis a collection of photographs taken from dusk until dawn.

Wolfe spoke to Treehugger about his interest in nature, how things are different in the dark, and why getting off the couch is important.

Art Wolfe / Night on Earth

Treehugger: You’ve been a photographer for five decades. How did you turn to nature and the environment?

Art Wolf: Growing up in the Pacific Northwest grounded me in nature. From an early age, I loved to identify plants and animals. There was a greenbelt in the West Seattle neighborhood where I grew up (and where I live just a mile away today) and I walked to the creek with my little guides. You could say I had no choice – I was born with this focus on the natural world.

As a family we did a lot of camping and that outdoorsy spirit stayed as I grew. As soon as I had a car and was independent, I headed to the Cascade Range and the Olympic Mountains with friends. We were great climbers and I carried camera gear to document our exploits. Encouraged by my mother, I started painting and studied art at the University of Washington. It was then that photography, nature and art became my true vocation.

Art Wolfe / Night on Earth

What was the impetus for “Night on Earth”? Did you decide to photograph all the continents in the dark, or did you realize you had already taken some great photos and finished the collection?

My publisher, Earth Aware Editions, pitched the idea to me. My photo editor and I scrambled to put together a proposal and found that in forty years I had amassed quite a collection of images captured between dusk and dawn. Of course, image quality has varied a lot over the years, and I’ve made an effort on my travels to include more night photography with the latest Canon cameras available.

I never want my books to look like I’ve collected a bunch of old photos, so I’m always working my ass off to photograph new subjects, places and phenomena and try to reshoot familiar subjects in new ways. I am never satisfied and I always try to push myself artistically.

Art Wolfe / Night on Earth

How is the environment (nature, people, animals) different in the dark?

It’s very different. You have to refocus and rely on other senses than just sight. Forty minutes after sunset or before sunrise is the perfect time to photograph; the colors are still a little visible. I prefer to use ambient light like candlelight to photograph people and like to create a sense of place in images of wild animals.

And it’s not just the environment that’s different at night, it’s also a matter of finding really dark places. Now more than ever, we have to deal with light pollution when trying to photograph the night sky.

What challenges did you encounter artistically and perhaps also physically?

Photographing at night is technically difficult. In the days of movies, all star shots were star trails since they were timed exposures. You could never get a shutter speed fast enough to capture points of light. Now, with higher ISO cameras, we can create images of the night sky like never before.

Security was also a bit of a concern; rushing to the rim of an active caldera in the dark was very dangerous. One misstep and oops, there’s Art in a lava cauldron!

Art Wolfe / Night on Earth

What were your favorite moments, photographing in the dark?

There are so many. Photographing festivals involving fire and alcohol is always fascinating and unpredictable, but sometimes it’s just a small moment that stands out. During a night shoot in Kenya, a beautiful and curvy serval followed us. Was the vehicle we were in hunting small game for the cat? Who knows. Our driver moved a bit like the cat and so on.

I think the oldest photo in the book is one of the most meaningful to me: Everest Base Camp. In 1984, I was part of the Ultima Thule expedition attempting to climb Everest from the Tibetan side. I ran one of my fellow climbers with a flashlight from tent to tent, illuminating them under the large moonlit peak.

Art Wolfe / Night on Earth

You have published over 100 books of your work, including nature photography tips and children’s books. What do you hope people take away from your images?

I want people to love this planet and respect it. The Earth is not there solely for extraction or its usefulness and monetary value. Many photographers are good at creating impactful works that show degradation and pollution. My goal is to promote conservation through elevation and beauty. I also want to inspire people to be creative and explore their inner artist.

Art Wolfe / Night on Earth

What’s a key tip you can share for people who want to improve their nature photos?

Get off the couch and exit through the door. It doesn’t matter if you use a smartphone or a camera, but if you’re serious, an investment in the right equipment is a must. You can get great shots in an exotic location or your neighborhood park through experimentation; try different angles, don’t be afraid of motion blur.

I could also tell you to take a workshop with your favorite photographer, some of us are not getting any younger! Explore what creates joy and beauty for your soul. Photography is not just about “taking the picture”.