A warm wind blows across me, but I still feel a chill run down my back. I'm alone in the desert. I'm at one of the darkest places on earth according to my map. It's a little scary, especially while visions of coyotes, scorpions, and roving gangs of desert hares dance in my head. I'm here to photograph monsters. It isn't my imagination. I saw them as I drove in during the day. Standing as tall as two stories, I could make out their rust-colored silhouettes against the arid sand.
Fortunately for me these monsters are made of iron, sheet-metal sculptures by the artist Ricardo Breceda. Fantastical shapes depict serpents and dinosaurs. Breceda makes his home in Temecula, but due to a land/lease dispute he may soon be moving his workshop. Breceda owes his muse to an accident about ten years ago. Urged on by his small daughter, he created dinosaurs, mastodons, great eagles and more. His works are seen in worldwide locations. But Borrego Springs remains the game reserve, corralling the most metal giants in one location.
While impressive in daylight, I am here to make them look like they are from another world. I specialize in Milky Way photography, so I juxtapose these monumental characters against a sky filled with stars in vibrant colors. Sky glow from nearby towns helps outline the shadowy beings. Meanwhile, I set my camera in position. A sturdy tripod, a fast, wide-angle lens, and full-frame DSLR make up my equipment. I locate the Milky Way, first with an application on my iPhone, and then visually, as my eyes adapt to the darkness. I dial in the magic formula...ISO 3200, f/2.8 30 seconds. Playing a flashlight along the weird shapes, I paint them with light during the long exposure.
Light painting is an art unto itself. It requires a little practice and finesse. But after a few trial exposures, I get it dialed in. It only takes a second or two during the exposure, sweeping the light in an arc across the subject. On occasion, I use a Speedlight for a bit more contrast, often running and ducking behind the subject to backlight it. I don't show up on the image, as long as I keep moving and no direct light falls on my body. This is no easy feat, considering it's pitch-black with rocks and cactus threatening to draw blood.
The work doesn't stop there. The camera has captured more than what I see. The Milky Way appears as a band of white sparkly stars against the black sky. My job is to coax the color out the camera's sensor and into an expression of photographic art.
I open the images in Adobe LightRoom, although any photo editing program will work. The first thing I do is brighten the overall exposure, bringing out the stars in all their glory. I open up the shadows, brightening my foreground objects, the monsters. Playing with contrast and clarity, I watch the image burst into life on the screen. I boost the colors with saturation, and now it's almost a work of art. But shooting at a high ISO comes with a price – noise. I must adjust this carefully; if I push it too far it will look overly smooth, like a watercolor painting. I know I can adjust the color noise more aggressively than the luminance noise. The result is seen here in the images from that night in Borrego Springs, California.
Milky Way photography is a night owl's beat. On any given trip, I wake up at 11:30 pm, work until 3am, sleep until check-out at 11am, and drive six hours to my next location.
Getting to Borrego Springs was easy, it's located in the Anza-Borrego Park, less than two hours' drive from San Diego. I noticed that it must have rained recently. I drove past stands of ocotillo, usually brown sticks, now dressed in green like proud soldiers. The mesquite and manzanita also added a splash of color to the desert with their flowers. A short stop in the gold-mining town of Julian was in order. I picked up breakfast at the Miner's Diner and Soda Fountain, one of the quaint eateries in town.
Arriving in Borrego Springs in the daytime was important. I had to scout the sculptures before nightfall. There were over 130 statues to choose from as Ricardo Breceda has free rein to populate Galleta Meadows with his welded statuary.
Carlee's Place was quite literally an oasis in the desert. There wasn't much else open. The pickups, motorcycles, and smoking locals parked outside belied the quality of food and service I found inside. A homemade gazpacho brimming with little shrimp and bright with cilantro introduced perfectly cooked grilled shrimp – in the desert!
The real value of Carlee's was the information I received about the location of the figures. I had in mind the Serpent, which crosses the road, and the Giant Scorpion as I had seen these images in daylight photos of Borrego Springs. The waiter, Chino, gave me accurate directions to both and then some.
There are several hotels and villas located in Borrego Springs, but I opted for an AirBnB listing. A couple of turns into a residential neighborhood and I arrived at a spacious three-bedroom house, much more room than I needed. It was clean, comfortable and had a crystal blue pool. First things first, a nap was in order as I had left my home in New Jersey at 4am.
Jim DeLillo specializes in creating transporting imagery for travel, editorial, and commercial photography. He has recently added Milky Way photography to his skill set. He is based near New York City and is available for global assignments. Prints of Jim DeLillo's photos used in this article, along with his complete portfolio, are available at his website: Jim DeLillo.com Or, contact him by phone at Tel. 1-201-566-5348 or via email.