Land and nightscape photographer David Kingham picked up his camera to quench his burning desire for something more in his life when he felt he was slowly dying within the confines of his cubicle walls. He said goodbye to corporate life, sold most of his belongings, changed his address to the great outdoors, and set out to make photographs of nature. He lived in his 4x4 van for 18 months before recently upgrading to a trailer, but he’s still living among the trees and sleeping under the stars—and making photographs of them. We asked him to share a bit of what he’s learned along the way.
We have both the benefit and the burden of images being available to us at the end of our eager fingers as they tap out titles and terms, searching and scanning to see how others have framed, exposed, and post-processed whatever thing we’re so avidly scouting. So when we find ourselves standing at the foot of that awe-inspiring and well-photographed icon, how do we metaphorically avoid putting our tripod in everyone else’s holes to create our own vision?
For David Kingham, it means constantly searching for new subject matter in locations he knows well to help keep his creative juices flowing. For the most part, he tends to shy away from iconic locations, but if he finds himself at the rim of the Grand Canyon or at Bridalveil Fall, he works to find a unique story, striving not to re-create compositions that have already been done.
Landscape photography is in his blood. His mother’s scenic prints hung in and around the large basement darkroom of his childhood home but held no significance for him. Her influence was unknowingly and obviously felt by a young David; he became obsessed as he finally found his creative path in photography nine years ago.
It seems his mother continues to inspire his art, as he believes that people respond most powerfully to a landscape photograph when the photographer creates an image with emotional meaning. He believes that most photographs are snapshots of a place or a thing, but when you connect with the landscape on a deeper level, you impart your feelings and emotion into it.
And while an emotional connection is important, the key to getting there lies in the basics of photography. Kingham says there are many aspects that make a photograph compelling: a well-crafted composition, methods that create depth, subject matter, dramatic conditions, and a subject the viewer connects with. That aside, he maintains that it is essential to connect with your subject and convey a mood: “This is something that cannot necessarily be identified by the viewer, but they are compelled to examine the piece over and over.”
Some of us use shot lists or follow other guidelines/principles when we’re making photographs, but Kingham believes that guidelines stifle the creative process. “I’m always experimenting with new subject matter, different processing techniques, etc. I believe a unified body of work evolves as you find your style. There are no shortcuts to finding your style: just keep working and doing what you love and it will emerge. I have found working on a group of images that work together cohesively to be a satisfying endeavor.”
Taking that practice to heart, after Kingham found his rhythm working with the natural light and subjects of landscapes, he found himself drawn to capture the mystery of the cosmos when he turned his lens toward the night sky. “It’s not something that many people get to experience in our modern society, which is a tragedy. When I started night photography, the technology was just emerging that allowed me to take photos of the night sky. My camera lacked high ISO abilities, and it was frustrating not being able to create what I wanted.”
But he successfully persevered. In 2014, his first eBook, Nightscape: A Complete Guide to Photographing the Night Sky, was released by Craft & Vision. It’s a comprehensive guide that includes everything Kingham learned both before and after teaching himself the specific nuances of making photographs after sunset. At 120 pages, the book is a deep dive into the subject, and from it, we asked him to distil the top three things he would advise a photographer keen to know how to make those “How’d he do that?” photographs. Primarily, before going out in the field, he advises you learn the main functions of your camera—blindfolded: Aperture priority, Shutter priority, ISO, Manual focus, being able to intuitively switch to Manual focus, Manual mode, zoom into the image, etc. “You’ll be lost without knowing your camera inside and out,” he says.
“Don’t be scared of the dark; it’s not as scary as we’ve been taught in today's fear-filled media and society. And learn all about the phases of the moon and how the Milky Way moves throughout the sky. Without this knowledge, you’ll be guessing where and when to be at a location, which will most likely lead to failure.”
But, he says, the key to making a compelling image is in the planning. “Planning and pre-visualization are the most important aspects. Unless you visit a location in advance and plan where the Milky Way or other subjects will be, it’s very challenging to create something compelling because you can’t see what you are photographing.”
The other component? Post-processing. Night photography has its own challenges of knowing how to use properly white balance and handle light pollution. Nightscape includes a bonus of 22 Lightroom presets that Kingham developed for images made under the night sky. “Post-processing is exceptionally important for night photos and presents unique challenges. To create a natural-looking sky, your white balance must be perfectly set. I’ve found a white balance that works for 90% of dark night sky photos that is included in the presets. Light pollution can also create an unnatural look that can be hard to remove without knowing some basic color correction techniques. I’ve spent enough time doing this that I’ve developed a method to remove simple color casts caused by light pollution.” Even with expert technical knowledge of typical landscapes, night photography takes a different understanding to create and finalize the images that match your vision; Kingham’s presets may be an integral part of moving from inception to completion.
If you’re working to advance your landscape (or nightscape) photography and wonder why you’re not necessarily moving forward, Kingham believes that the biggest oversight of most photographers is in not spending enough time learning how to properly process their photos. “I know most of us get into photography to be out in the field shooting because we love it, but I would argue this is only half of what photography is. When you get over the hump of learning it, post-processing is creatively satisfying and fulfilling for an artist. Just think of it as the digital darkroom, but with infinite possibilities that the darkroom didn’t offer. I was resistant to spend the time myself; now I get as much satisfaction from sitting in front of the computer as I do out in the field.”
But despite his success at taking, selling, and teaching photography that reflects the beautiful nuances of everything under the sun and the moon, Kingham found it challenging to move from his former corporate role to full-time photographer. “Marketing myself is always the biggest challenge for me; by nature, I’m quite humble and a bit of an introvert. I love teaching others and seeing them advance in their photography, but finding them in the first place is always the hardest. I don’t have a bigger-than-life personality, so self-promotion is not my strong suit.”
Kingham describes himself as a quiet, thoughtful, mindful photographer, and as he continues his nomadic photographic trek, he hopes he’ll be remembered as a “steward of our land and our craft.” We, for one, believe he will.
Want to learn more about night photography? David's eBook, Nightscape: A Complete Guide To Photographing The Night Sky, is on sale for 35% off until 11:59 pm PST on June 20.
David Kingham is a landscape photographer who specializes in photographing the night sky. After a successful 12-year architectural career, David discovered his passion for photography, left the office confines, shed the excess of his consumer-driven lifestyle and now lives as a nomad, exploring the American West with his partner, Jennifer Renwick, and his dog, Emmie. Along the way, he shares his love of photography with others by teaching workshops. Learn more about David and his adventures on his website.