Photographer brings 'rocket science' to artistic images

Published: Sunday, July 6 2014 11:20 p.m. MDT

Moon In Arch

Bret Webster

ARCHES NATIONAL PARK — Several billion people around the world carry cameras with them every day — in their cellphones. And tens of billions — perhaps hundreds of billions — of photos are taken each year.

So how is it that one man in Utah who only took up photography a few years ago can sell his photos for big money and conduct photo seminars as far away as Kuwait?

Perhaps it's because most people are content with snapping off a few "selfies" with their friends or a few tourist shots in Utah scenery.

Bret Webster's pictures are in a whole different category.

"I'm not interested in the little snapshots for what I'm trying to do," Webster said recently while hiking through Arches National Park. "I'm looking for those (photo subjects) that have just deliciously fun, hard, challenging content."

The careful planning and technical know-how that he brings to a photo shoot undoubtedly reflect his longtime career as a chemical engineer for a rocket company. Webster brings some of that "rocket science" to his photography, a hobby he took up a few years ago when he began tinkering around with his wife's digital camera.

Webster recently opened a gallery in Park City where his photos are sold as works of art.

His photos of Utah scenery have struck a chord in desert regions on the other side of the globe. Several of his landscapes hang in U.S. embassies in the Middle East, where he's been invited twice to teach some of his photographic techniques.

One of his nighttime skyscapes — combining colorful Utah scenery with a dazzling view of the Milky Way — is blown up to wall size in a display at the Natural History Museum of Utah.

That sort of picture is one of Webster's specialties — spectacular nighttime shots of the starry heavens with well-lit scenery below.

Part of Webster's secret is that nighttime shots are much easier to create these days thanks to modern, high-end digital cameras. They can capture images with extremely low levels of light.

Webster has found that if he opens the camera's shutter for 30 seconds, a cliff that's an inky-black silhouette to the naked eye can look like it was photographed in broad daylight. All it takes is a hint of moonlight. Vivid displays of stars are visible in the night sky above the brightly lit cliff.

Sometimes while working at night, Webster sets up a shot of scenery and sky above, and then uses a floodlight to splash a bit of extra light on the ground behind him. It provides just enough extra light to make the scenery in front of him show up in a vivid photographic image. When everything works, he gets that perfect blend of red-rock scenery and inky-black-but-sparkly skies.

"It's deeply spiritual for me," Webster said.

As a combination artist, scenery lover and science enthusiast, the shots he likes best are carefully planned, meticulously worked out in advance, and sometimes require a stiff hike. Lately he's been trying to perfect a shot he's not satisfied with — a view of the rising moon seen through an arch called North Window in Arches National Park.

"This is my eighth attempt," Webster said as he hiked to the spot where he planned to set up his tripod.

On an earlier attempt, he shot a pretty good picture of the rising moon, framed by the arch, looming large compared with what the naked eye would have seen.

"People ask all the time, they're wondering, 'Is the moon really that big? I mean, how did you do that?'" Webster said.

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