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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.

The mistake many tourists make, he said, is to attempt a shot of the moon framed by an arch when they're much too close to the arch.

"They take that shot," Webster said, "and they're disappointed because the moon was so spectacular when they saw it, and they get it home and it's just a little white dot."

Webster's secret is to hike a long way away from the arch on a trek that's carefully planned in advance. He spends hours at his home computer with mapping software calculating distance, elevation, azimuth, the angle of the rising moon and the timetable for moonrise. On his hike, he carries data on his cellphone and on a laptop in his backpack.

It may not be obvious why a photographer's distance from the arch will make the moon appear bigger. Webster explains that it's because the moon is vastly farther away than the arch. No matter where a photographer stands, the moon seems relatively small. It appears to be about the size of a fingernail held at arm's length. Whether the photographer stands close to the arch or miles away, the moon will always appear to be about that same size — a fingernail at arm's length.

As Webster hikes away from the North Window, the arch itself seems to get smaller and smaller as it recedes into the distance. Since the moon's apparent size remains unchanged, a rising moon will fill a larger and larger portion of the arch. If a photographer zooms in with a high-quality telephoto lens, he can get an impressive image of a looming moon filling the arch.

"If everything goes right, we can get a nice shot of it," Webster said. "It's delightful to try and do."

Getting to the right spot, though, is a big challenge.

"We are right on it," he said as he arrived at the spot indicated by his calculations about a mile away from the arch. "We are looking pretty good now."

Webster knows from experience that he doesn't always find exactly the right spot for his tripod.

"I have gone home completely empty-handed sometimes," he said.

Disappointingly, as the moment of moonrise arrived, the moon did not appear in the arch. Webster waited tensely, hoping his timing calculation was slightly off. Moments later, his hopes were dashed.

"Oh, there it is," he exclaimed. "Gosh! We missed it! We missed it!"

To Webster's dismay, the moon could be seen rising above the cliff a bit to the left of North Window arch. Webster realized he and his tripod were about 20 yards north of where they needed to be. It was apparently due to a slight error in correlating map data with features on the ground.

Webster took it in stride.

"More often than not," he said, "I've gone home with nothing."

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