Ben Canales grew up in Philadelphia with a nickname that described his sleep pattern – “in-bed-by-ten-Ben.” Surprisingly, after moving west to Oregon, he fell in love with the night sky and its stars that were often hidden behind light pollution on the east coast. The result? A budding career as a star photographer.
While he’s still learning the business end of a photography career, he’s mastered high ISO shooting and captures landscapes few ever experience in person. You can check out more about Ben and see samples of his work on: Facebook ,Twitter, Flickr and both his website & blog.
The imagery is inspiring and I am not the first to tell him. In fact, he’s blown away with the immediate connection to the night sky that evokes responses from around the world. It’s one thing to stay up all night to make an image but to hear about a fan’s reaction in Korea makes the countless sleepless nights well worthwhile. He even made this great tutorial to help others get out and shoot at night:
I asked Ben to answer this interview on short notice and he managed to fit it in before work on Monday despite spending the entire weekend downing caffeine and shooting images. Here’s what he had to say:
12 Questions with Star Photographer Ben Canales
1. I’d like to start out with that “ah” moment when you realized your life would be tied to a camera instead of a more tangible career. How did it happen?
BC: Honestly, the idea of this being a career was a slow transition for me. I’ve always enjoyed creative pursuits as a hobby, but my star photography has grown in ways that none of my other interests have. Plenty of friends and family were giving my photos great reaction, but when magazine editors and commercial businesses started asking to use my images, then I started looking at this whole pursuit differently. After a few images got published and licensed, then I started to realize this could be really happening.
2. You have a pretty specific niche in that you only shoot star-filled nights. How do you market your work and who are your biggest clients? Is it editorial, stock, or commercial use?
BC: I am currently trying to figure that out! I’ve had interest from many different directions, but am trying to find a consistent element and direction of use. Up until this year, I have doggedly pushed and pushed my abilities and techniques in the field to better the shots. Now, I am shifting some of that effort and attention to marketing and sales. The business end of things is completely unknown and intimidating to me.
3. Do you have another job or are you living directly from your photography?
BC: I currently have a full time job and push that around to accommodate photography opportunities.
4. You’re website you’re advertising workshops beginning in July. What made you decide to begin teaching?
BC: Over the last 2 yrs, more and more people have asked how I shoot stars so I made the free, short video tutorial giving tips and techniques on doing it. But, beyond that, I got more and more interest from other shooters asking if I was doing any workshops on shooting stars. People have asked, so I’m trying to fulfill those requests. I’ve had mixed results since posting the announcements of workshops. I am excited to pass on all the things I’ve learned about shooting stars to someone else and for them to be able to go out and take their own images of the night sky.
5. You seem to be gaining some career momentum with upcoming workshops, demand for online tutorials, and website views. How does that sort of success make you feel about your photography and how will you use it to your advantage moving forward?
BC: It really excites me! I just wish I had a marketing and business background to know how to best take advantage of it! It’s exciting and intimidating. I’ve been amazed at the reception and connection my images have had with people.
6. When I first discovered your photography, I loved your imagery but thought it might have a limited market. How do you come up with new ideas to keep your images interesting and fresh?
BC: Hmmm…for me this is the easy part. I thrive on the challenge to innovate and discover. When my Dad took me fishing as a kid, he taught me how to fish in the places that had the best chance of catching big fish and were the easiest locations to access. After I got the basics down from him, I was always drawn to the furthest corners of the lake or swampiest parts of the stream to go try and fish. I was more motivated by the curiosity of what could be lurking in the spot that no one fished, rather than what was the biggest fish in the hole everyone fished. So, applying that same personality to my photography, “stars” is a limited market, but it’s a corner of photography that is still relatively new and undiscovered. To me, this is so exciting and inspiring. My head is always dreaming up new scenarios, techniques, locations, etc. There will always be a far off idea, an “impossible” concept to wrestle with- and that keeps me going.
The contrary is actually difficult for me- to keep my work on a track and consistent direction.
7. A lot of your images are shot in the winter. Why?
BC: I think that’s a misperception based on some advances I’ve made over the last year. Before, I’d go out on a weekend and come back with 1 or 2 keeper shots from a trip. Now, I’m getting better and better at coming home with 5-10 keeper shots from one night out. This last winter I was very productive on just a few trips, so it probably does seem like I have more winter shots. And, those shots have been my best because of the progression of my techniques, so they’re at the top of my website. But, here in Oregon where I shoot, the winter months are usually 85% clouded over. It’s a rare occasion to have a clear night of stars in the winter to shoot. I’d say the majority of my photography is done June-September because the weather shifts and clear skies are much more predictable. Oh, one more factor about winter- longer nights! In the winter, I can start shooting at 8pm till 4am. In the summer, my window is 11pm to 2:30am.
8. Your website sticks out to me, as you are the first photographer I’ve seen using WIX for a professional application/sales point. Are you ever tempted to upgrade to a system like Livebooks or Photoshelter? Should more aspiring photographers look into WIX instead of spending their limited funds on web design?
BC: I am currently in the process of shifting from WIX to a custom made website. WIX gave me the benefit of having a website address to direct people to. I wanted something other than my Flickr page to showcase my work. My girlfriend was a huge help in getting my work public in the social media arena, and while researching websites, costs, etc- WIX emerged as the cost effective way to have a web presence outside of Flickr. WIX has some real limitations and problems for websites looking to expand into commercial use. I’d say go the route of sites packaged for photographers.
9. Are you happy with your current work – both its style and quality – and how do you see it evolving in the next 2-5 years?
BC: I’ve given up an insane amount of sleep to be out shooting stars so many nights, and I feel very pleased with the results, progression and pace. How will it evolve? That’s a big question for me As mentioned before, I thrive on discovery and innovation. In my opinion, the map of landscape photography still has many unknown, unmapped areas. I am excited to push the boundaries further into new concepts and images. I’d like to involve more people and pre-planned scenes into my future nights out. But also, I’ve recently joined up with a video production company, Uncage The Soul. For now, my primary contribution has been time-lapse work. In the immediate future, you’ll probably see a hefty amount of timelapses from me as I explore and figure out this technique.
10. What three people – be it friends, family, photographers, athletes or anyone else – provide your greatest source of inspiration?
BC: The first and most prominent that comes to mind is Masahiro Miyasaka. When I first got into shooting stars, I researched what everyone was doing. Masahiro quickly emerged as an inspiration and challenge. His technique is refined but the extra bit that sets him apart is his artistic expression in his images. His images are expressions and self-imposed challenges. If you scroll through his images, it will be an unending reaction of, “oohhhh…” “aaahhh…” “woooowww” “no waaayy” “what the…” He has certainly inspired me from the very beginning.
11. How often do you shoot alone at night and how do you stay motivated to spend long hours in the dark & cold shooting on your own?
BC: I mostly always shoot alone, but in the summer (when it’s warmer) my girlfriend will usually join me. The hard part isn’t to stay motivated there on location, it’s to get out of town after work or a long week and accept I am about to spend the next 1 to 3 nights not sleeping. Once I’m there, under the stars with a camera and tripod in from to me- ha! You can’t stop me! I’ll start shooting an hour and a half after sunset and I’m shocked when hours later the coming sunrise is already starting to blow out my stars. Time just flies by for me. I think, going back to that thrill of discovery, at night in the dark it’s ALL unknown and open for possibilities. And, since all my shots are 20-30 second exposures, I have time while standing around to be constantly looking around for the next composition to try. I LOVE it. It is ironic because I’m not a night person! Back home, my friends nicknamed me “in-bed-by-ten-Ben.” Crazy, huh?
12. Any other comments you’d like to add?
BC: A extra comment to your readers, based on the reception of my work, is find your own voice in your work. Use other people’s work as lessons and challenges to better yourself with, but strive to find your own unique take and spin on the world around us. Believe in yourself and what excites you- and then go find a new way to take a picture of it.
And, a “behind the scenes” insight into shooting stars, it’s exhausting! Since this isn’t my full time job, I’m giving up 1-3 nights of sleep at a time and then going to my full time job. Sometimes, it completely wrecks me. It can have really negative effects on my own personal life in regards to my health, relationships, and job. I’m learning I need to take into consideration what’s coming up in the week ahead before I go stay up 2 nights in a row, because it will take all of next week to recover. Losing sleep isn’t like climbing mountains. It doesn’t make you stronger as you do more of it! This interview is a great example. I went out shooting this weekend up in the mountains. It was AMAZING. But, I had to climb and carry a ton of gear to get there and then stay up all night shooting and then get back home for holiday plans with friends. It wrecked me. Now, this morning, I am struggling to keep my eyes open and answer these questions before I rush into work. It is frustrating because I am excited to answer these questions and be presented to you, the readers of this blog. So, here’s great opportunity to share my work to you now, but due to the demands of night shooting, I’m struggling to meet the requirements of normal life. Purposefully skipping entire nights of sleep is a stupid thing to do! But, I haven’t found a way to shoot stars in the daytime yet, so it’s just how it goes So be warned, shooting stars is awesome, but you’ll feel “hungover” the next couple of days.
As always, I owe a sincere Thank You to Ben for taking time to answer these questions. His style of photography is demanding and exhaustion is a constant companion, so I’m thankful he found enough caffeine to answer this interview for all of us.