Chasing Darkness: Dark Skies with Jack Fusco and Jeff Bartlett

Dark Skies, Alberta Canada: Jack Fusco

Dark Skies, Alberta Canada: Jack Fusco

How did you get your start in photography? How long have you been shooting?

Jeff: Early in my career, I strived to become a travel writer. I soon realized my query letters would be accepted more often if I paired my stories with images, so I worked to improve my photography. Over just a few years, my work flipped from being 75% writing and 25% photography to the reverse. Since 2014, I’ve focused exclusively on photography but, in 2017, began another transition into video.

Jack: Before I became a photographer, I quit my first full time job to play guitar in a touring band. One of the last things I did before leaving was purchasing a camera to take with me to Europe. Initially, I didn’t use the camera very often, but after a while I found myself wandering around with it more and more. It wasn’t until I left the band in 2011 that I finally started to learn a bit about photography. Throughout the year, I accidentally took my first photo of the stars and I was instantly hooked. Although my photography mainly focuses on photographing and timelapsing the night sky, I’m looking forward to working on more video and educational material in the year to come.

Why Dark Sky photography? What are the biggest benefits or unexpected drawbacks of shooting dark sky parks?

Jeff: I’ve dubbed myself an adventure photographer and have a rather diverse portfolio that includes everything from landscape images to action sports. Despite the wide range of genres, I truly love shooting night sky images for two key reasons:

  • I live in the Canadian Rockies and often shoot in both Jasper and Banff National Parks. The best landscapes are surprisingly easy to reach and they’re extraordinarily busy during the day. By shooting at night, I often have these spots to myself. The solitude allows me to focus on my creativity and explore different compositions, rather than compete with other photographers for a bit of tripod space.

  • There is a beautiful simplicity to shooting at night. Once I have my settings dialed in and focus set, I am left to seek out compositions. When conditions are good, which means few clouds and no moonlight, I know the light won’t change for hours which gives me more time to explore different creative options.

Jack: I was living in Toms River, New Jersey when I took my first photo of the night sky. New Jersey isn’t exactly known for its dark skies. I often joke about being able to count the stars I could see on a single hand when I would stand in our yard. Still, like so many other people, I grew up looking toward the sky at night. I wasn’t overly fascinated with the stars, because there were so few, but that really changed the first time I found myself under a truly dark sky. It’s a really hard feeling to properly describe. You go from struggling to pick out a constellation because of it gets lost in light pollution to having a hard time finding the same constellation in what looks like an endless sea of stars. My absolute favorite thing about shooting the stars is being out during blue hour. It’s the time right after sunset where it’s not quite dark yet. As you look up at the sky, you’re slowly surrounded by more and more stars as the last light of day fades. It’s really a magical feeling, just watching the sky that time, and before you know it you’re surrounded by stars.

I think there’s so much wonder that we feel when we look up at the night sky. I love being able to capture moments like that. Knowing that these dark sky parks actively protect the view of the stars and allow to have those moments is something I want to be sure I support.

Dark Skies, Alberta Canada: Jack Fusco

Dark Skies, Alberta Canada: Jack Fusco

How has your style changed from when you started to now?

Jeff: The first few times I shot at night, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know my gear and I didn’t understand the importance of the moonphase. I remember trying to shoot stars during a full moon and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t see the milky way. I couldn’t even manually focus my lens, so I would shine a really bright light at a distant object to use auto-focus.

Now I am dialed in with my gear and can quickly setup when the timing is right. I also understand when that it, too, factoring in the moonphase and time of year. The added confidence and planning leads to much more success in the field.

Jack: When I first started, I had a lot less varied landscape to work with. Most often I would find myself driving a few hours to a different, but similar, spot along the New Jersey shoreline. There wasn’t a lot to work with compositionally, but it would often include beach pathways, lighthouses, or piers. I don’t actively avoid those types of compositions, but I do find myself looking to frame things with more natural subjects.

Along with the change in compositions, my editing style changed over the years as well. The night skies in my early images were a bit more unnatural in color whereas my more recent work tends to be closer to the actual color in the night sky.

Before, 2012 — Sea Isle City, NJ

Before, 2012 — Sea Isle City, NJ

After, 2018 — Alabama Hills, California

After, 2018 — Alabama Hills, California

What do you look for when you “see” a shot? Is there a common thread beyond the darkness?

Jeff: I look at a night sky images like any landscape image. Ideally, I’ll have a foreground, midground and background to give the image depth. When I am shooting at night, the foreground and midground elements often play a smaller role, as the focus is on the night sky, but they’re still critically important. Because there is limited ambient light, I often seek foregrounds that either reflect the night sky or midgrounds that are naturally bright, like snow capped mountains.

Jack: I find myself switching back and forth between how I frame my images. With certain photos, I really want to show off an incredible night sky and will work to make that the focus of the image. I’ll still look for an interesting or unique landscape, but I’ll often plan around being able to show off a larger portion of the sky than what a typical landscape would consist of. In other cases, my approach might be a bit more similar to that of a landscape image taken during the day that just so happens to have a great view of the stars over it.

Dark Skies: Arizona

Dark Skies: Arizona

There are specific challenges for what you guys do. What tip/practical gear/shooting or editing technique do you wish you knew about dark sky photography when you started, that you now use every time you shoot?

Jeff: Just understanding the importance of good gear. Night sky photographs are all about sacrifice, as we are forced to use high ISOs that introduce noise and wide apertures that limit depth of field. Camera lenses are expensive and it isn’t always necessary to buy the fastest aperture lenses; however, night sky photography is the exception. I can’t think of a situation where the difference between f/1.4 and f2.8 is as noticeable. The faster apertures not only lower exposure times to freeze stars in place, but they also make it possible to shoot at lower ISO’s to reduce noise in an image.

Jack: Night photography definitely presents a whole set of different challenges than many other genres. It has all the dependencies you come across in landscape photography with an extra set on top of them. I think one of the things that helped me the most was learning to take my time. Sometimes waiting an extra hour means everything will line up better and result in a better end result. There were shoots where I ended up settling for a composition because clouds moved in a bit too soon. Now instead of settling, I’ll plan a trip back for things to line up perfectly. It’s not the easiest or quickest path, but to me, it’s the most rewarding. Having that perfect alignment all come together after planning is a really great feeling.

Describe how you select locations or destinations to shoot.

Jeff: On a typical shoot, my criteria for a night sky shoot versus a daytime landscape shoot isn’t too different. If I am drawn to a landscape, I’ll typically want to shoot it at different types of day, during different seasons and in different weather conditions.

For our Chasing Darkness project, we were more selective. We wanted to focus not just on Dark Sky preserves, but also on locations that were both easy to access and surprisingly dark. We also knew it was important to focus on a few easy-to-reach locations, which we did in our California and Arizona videos, because it will inspire people to get outside and explore the night sky for the first time. We included the bucket-list worthy locations, like we saw in our Alberta and Oregon videos, for the true enthusiast that will travel to experience certified dark sky places.

Dark Skies: Alberta, Canada, Jack Fusco

Dark Skies: Alberta, Canada, Jack Fusco

Show us a recent image you’ve shot and talk about why you love it.

Jeff: One of my favorite images from the Chasing Darkness project came during our shoot in Bishop, California. It’s now available in our Limited Edition Print Shop, too, which I am excited about as I know it’ll look great printed in a large format.

I cannot think of an image that better highlights the uniqueness of night sky photography. At night, that foreground rock really makes the image. It anchors the composition and creates the depth throughout the image that leads our eye to the Milky Way. This composition just wouldn’t work during the day because rather than enhance the image, we would question why the photographer chose to compose the image around a relatively small, dull grey colored rock.

South Lake Milky Way, Bishop CA, Jeff Bartlett

South Lake Milky Way, Bishop CA, Jeff Bartlett

Jack: When I’m not out on a project and taking photos closer to home, my boxer Kona, almost always joins me. He’s about 2 ½ years old and has all the energy you would expect a boxer to have but he loves hanging out at night. He was kind of a last minute addition to our shoot in Arizona and I couldn’t have been more excited to have him there.

So, one of my favorite photos from the project is kind of a behind the scenes photo I snapped in Sedona. Kona was facing the camera with a bright moon behind him, so I ended up pushing the exposure a little bit further than normal so you could make out the details near his face. I have a lot of photos of Kona and I together, but this is the only one of him standing alone.

Epic Kona, Jack Fusco

Epic Kona, Jack Fusco

Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently in promoting your work?

Jeff: Early on, I spent money my money on gear rather than the two most important elements: photography opportunities and a way to display it. If I were to start over again, I’d stick with my current camera gear for as long as possible and spend the money creating a beautiful portfolio. I would also spend time building a really professional website that displays my images properly.

With a good portfolio hosted on a great website, I would be better prepared to send out cold-call emails to potential clients. I would trust that they’re seeing my best work in the best way possible, which should lead to new assignments.

Jack: I definitely would have liked to work on how I was presenting my work at a much earlier stage. My first website was a Wordpress template that was an absolute nightmare to try and update or customize. Social media is absolutely essential, but so much is out of our control when it comes to presentation and reach. I’m much happier having traffic on my website where I have full control over the experience and how my work is seen.

What’s your favorite feature of that especially suits pro photographers?

Jeff: Although I don’t focus on fine art print sales, Smugmug makes it so easy it’s become a growing part of my business. Being able to quickly upload images into my print store is great, but the fact that purchases go directly from my website to the printer and onto the customer makes it easy.

Jack: I’ve been using SmugMug to host my site since 2013, so this isn’t as easy as a question as you’d think! I love being able to quickly upload work to my site and send off a private gallery to a client. Being able to control the environment my images or videos are seen in for the first time brings an incredible peace of mind.

Bishop, California: Jack Fusco

Bishop, California: Jack Fusco

What’s your favorite feature of that anyone would benefit from using?

Jeff: The two Smugmug features I love are the ease of design and the behind-the-scenes image optimization. I am a photographer, not a designer. Luckily Smugmug made it easy for me to build a great looking website that is completely mobile friendly. Not only that, but it makes sizing images easy. I can upload high resolution images and Smugmug figures out how to resize them so they load fast, yet look great.

Jack: So many photographers have no idea where to start when it comes to both a website and selling prints. It’s a pretty daunting task to try and sort everything out. Fortunately, using SmugMug answers both of those questions with ease. You can quickly get a beautiful looking site built using one of their templates and link it to a print shop within minutes. As a photographer, these things are incredibly important to me, but not something I want to spend more time on than needed. Thanks to SmugMug, all of those time consuming tasks are handled quickly and without hassle.

Dark Skies, Arizona

Dark Skies, Arizona

Tell me about a time when a shoot didn’t go according to plan. What did you do to turn it around?

Jeff: My favorite shoot-gone-wrong story resulted in one of Jack’s best images. We arrived into Jasper, Alberta, just as a meteor shower was at its peak. We decided to shoot at Lake Edith and each setup a unique composition. I maintain that my composition was better. I had a clear view of Pyramid Mountain, a slight reflection in the lake, and plenty of night sky to capture the meteors. Unfortunately, I missed focus. The result is a 450-image timelapse that is entirely out of focus.

Meanwhile, Jack landed a pretty special image within his timelapse that has four meteors flashing across the frame. It garnered tremendous reactions online, including being nominated as Nasa’s photo of the day.

While I wasn’t able to turn it around in the field. It was a reminder to slow down when working at night, double check my camera settings, focus point, and, if nothing else, to take the missed images in stride.

Jack: Spending the entire day out scouting locations and then staying up all sorts of crazy hours to take photos is a pretty solid recipe for disaster. Doing this multiple days in a row really can be draining.

Jeff and I were had just set up cameras to shoot timelapse in front of the Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park and decided to make our way back to the car. It was well below freezing and the cameras would be shooting for a few hours. We figured that we’d get warm and maybe watch a few episodes of something on my laptop. When we got back to the car my laptop was nowhere to be found. I couldn’t believe it. We emptied everything and it was nowhere to be found.

We had just driven about 7 hours from Waterton National Park and that was the only place it could possibly be. At this point, the timelapse wouldn’t be finished until 2 in the morning. Knowing there wasn’t much we could do, we let the cameras finish and then made our way to the Canmore area. In the morning, I’d wake up early, still freaking out about my missing laptop. After a few phones and waiting around, my laptop was finally located in the parking lot of the hotel we stayed in. I hopped in the car, drove to and from Waterton to pick up my laptop and then back to Canmore. When I got to Canmore, Jeff hopped in the drivers seat and we made our way back to Jasper.

It was an exhausting mistake that I still can’t believe I made. I didn’t think I was in a rush, but clearly I needed to take a little bit more time to make sure everything was in order. It also taught me that the stereotypes about Canadians being friendly was even more true than I had already come to learn.

Sunrise in Canada, Jack Fusco

Sunrise in Canada, Jack Fusco

Finish this sentence: “I shoot because _____________________.”

Jeff: I shoot because I not only love capturing images, but inspiring people to get outside and explore.

Jack: I shoot because I love being able to capture and share a small part of that wonder and incredible feeling you get being under a sky full of stars.

Arizona Dark Skies, Episode 5

Where can we find you?

Jeff Website: IG: @PhotoJBartlett Facebook: Flickr:

Jack Website: IG: @jackfusco Facebook: Flickr: <- started that when I was in a punkband : )

Written by SmugMug

Feb 19, 2019 · 10 min read

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