• January 5, 2016

Piecing Together Time in the ‘Ultimate Brain Puzzle’

Alexa Keefe

A single image in Stephen Wilkes’s “Day to Night” series is composed of an average of 1,500 frames captured by manual shutter clicks over a period of anywhere from 16 to 30 hours. During this process, Wilkes must keep his horizon line straight and maintain continuity, which means keeping his camera perfectly still.

He then spends weeks in postproduction, piecing the best frames together into a final composite of layered images, essentially compressing time. For Wilkes, the excitement is in showing people something more than a photograph, something that provides a multidimensional experience, a window, as he describes it, into a world where the full spectrum of time, light, and experience plays across the frame. We’re treated to a view we’ve never seen before—one our eyes could never take in on their own.

New York Public Library, New York City
New York Public Library, New York City
Click to enlarge

Out in the field, Wilkes commits himself to a tiny perch high above an urban or natural landscape. From here he’ll watch a narrative unfold: living beings interacting with their environment as light and time progress. He calls this vantage point the “ultimate catbird seat” —where he can partake in the joy of looking while being unnoticed by the players in the scene below him.

His process is meticulous and precise. “I look at a single place in a grid,” he says. “And then I decide where day begins and night ends.” Whatever that angle is—whether it’s diagonal, up and down, front to back, back to front—becomes what Wilkes calls the time vector. “My eye moves through the scene based on time. My focus changes based on where time is.”

Wilkes fixes his camera on that angle, then trains his eye on the scene before him, pressing the shutter when he sees a moment he wants to capture. “It’s the ultimate brain puzzle,” he says, “like a sudoku on acid.”

During the photographing of these images, Wilkes doesn’t sleep, aside from a brief meditation here and there (though his assistant is instructed to shout if he sees anything). He doesn’t take breaks unless the sun or moon are in the right position and missing a few frames wouldn’t create a gap as the light transitions throughout the day.

Regata Storica, Venice
Regata Storica, Venice
Click to enlarge

There are no do-overs. He is at the complete mercy of the elements, riding out a thunderstorm in a crane full of electrical equipment or hoping that an advancing weather front won’t obscure a sunset on what was an otherwise perfect day. “I go out with real positive energy,” he says. “And I don’t really give it up. Because I just never know. And sometimes when it can be the most dire situation in terms of the way the weather looks, it can bring you the most spectacular things.”

And what gets him through these extreme tests of mental and physical endurance? “I am a collector,” he says. “When you are a collector and you are missing that one piece of that collection, you will go through unbelievable lengths. I will wait. I will do whatever it takes. I love collecting moments of magic. That’s what I do.”

What began six years ago as an urban project—a “love poem to New York City,” as he calls it—has evolved to include places around the globe, including natural environments. Below, Wilkes shares some of the stories behind the photographs featured in National Geographic’s January cover story celebrating the power of parks.

Animals converge at a watering hole in Seronera National Park, Serengeti, Tanzania
Wilkes and his assistant spent 30 hours perched on a platform 18 feet in the air, behind a crocodile blind so the animals wouldn’t see them. The elephant family marched across the frame just as he and his assistant had resumed shooting after taking a break to back up their files (each shoot takes about 20 gigabytes of storage). Had they passed five minutes earlier, he would have missed them.
Click to enlarge

Seronera National Park, Serengeti, Tanzania

For the image above, Wilkes spent two weeks in the Serengeti scouting locations and getting permission from the park to photograph—not an easy task, as security around the park at night is tight on account of poachers. He initially wanted to photograph the peak migration but arrived during a five-week drought, when the animals weren’t following their normal patterns. What seemed like a bad card ended up being a boon when he found a watering hole that attracted elephants, zebras, wildebeests, meerkats, and hippos.

Photographing an animal narrative, as opposed to a human one, was a first for Wilkes, yet in doing it he discovered a valuable lesson.

“There’s such a beautiful message in this photograph,” he says. “The animals essentially were starved for water, and they all shared. I watched them for 26 hours [as they] literally all [took] turns drinking, bathing in this single resource. And they never so much as even grunted at each other. You realize the animals really get it. And we have really yet to understand the idea of water [as] a shared resource.”

Vista in Yosemite National Park
To capture this view, Wilkes spent 26 hours at a 45-degree angle on a platform tethered to the side of a rock outcropping.
Click to enlarge

Tunnel View, Yosemite National Park

The inspiration for this frame was the Albert Bierstadt painting “Yosemite Valley.” Wilkes brought a print out with him when scouting the location. Getting this view required perhaps the most challenging setup he’s had—tethered, along with two assistants, to the edge of a rock outcropping at a 45-degree angle on an area the size of a four-by-eight piece of plywood. The slightest misstep could have toppled the camera over the edge. “My assistant scouted for me, and we hiked up on the prep day,” Wilkes says. “And I said, ‘Jesus, Brian! You didn’t say it quite was like this! I’m not 14 anymore. Are you kidding me? Twenty-six hours on this ledge? Are you crazy?’”

But once the shoot began, Wilkes’s focus was solely on the ebb and flow of light and people in front of him. “Once I frame the image, what comes over me is a singular focus—the drive to make the image takes over,” he says. “Once I get infected, the sheer beauty of what I’m doing overtakes everything. Whatever my fear is, once I see the scene through the lens, everything changes. I become disconnected from whatever the physical reality is.”

Wilkes spent 16 hours atop an 80-foot cherry picker on a softball field—just the right place to capture the most action he could during the blooming of the cherry blossoms.
Click to enlarge

Tidal Basin, Washington, D.C.

Capturing the cherry blossoms at their peak is tricky, especially given the changeable spring weather in Washington. “You could spend five years saying, ‘This is the year we are going to go,’ and never get the blossoms right. The fact we got them on the peak day—no cold snap, no rain—was astounding in and of itself, with winds that didn’t go over ten miles per hour.”

Wilkes and photo editor Kim Hubbard scouted for just the right location, eventually finding this vantage point that shows off the Tidal Basin, the people enjoying West Potomac Park, and a view of several monuments. “I was looking and said, ‘If I were to get above this I could see sunrise over the Jefferson Memorial and twilight over the National Monument,” he says. “I knew I was going to get a great human narrative.”

Wilkes wasn’t allowed to bring in his heavy, truck-mounted lift, so he used a less stable 80-foot cherry picker that was high enough to both capture a wide view and be buffeted by planes taking off and landing at nearby Reagan National Airport—a challenge when trying to remain absolutely still for long-exposure night shots.

In all, Wilkes spent 16 hours photographing—with no breaks. Asked about how he handled nature’s call, he mentioned a collection of red bottles before summing it up: “The extent of it is, you don’t want to drink too much, you don’t want to have too much coffee. I am going to donate my bladder to science when I am done with this project.”

View of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon
Photographing from the Desert View Watchtower, Wilkes made this image of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in 27 hours. This vantage point allowed him to see the scale of the people along the overlook.
Click to enlarge

South Rim, Grand Canyon

“When the sun rose I had probably one of the greatest cloud formations you could ever ask for,” Wilkes says of photographing this image.

“[It] was like a ‘dial-a-sky.’ I specifically went and shot this at the end of July, hoping to get the beginning and middle part of the thunderstorm season. We were very lucky at the end of the day to get a capture of a lightning bolt.

“You can actually see the rain clouds building. That narrative—the ability to capture the changing of the cloud formations and the sky and how the day evolves that way—is a very profound thing in the parks. Because part of the magic of the parks is that no matter when you go, something really exciting can happen.”

Exhibitions of Stephen Wilkes’s “Day to Night” series are on display at the Bryce Wolkowitz gallery in New York City until January 30, 2016, and at the Monroe Gallery of Photography in Santa Fe, New Mexico. You may also see more of his work on his website.

There are 72 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Samsul Huda Patgiri
    June 10, 2016

    The poetry of life on Earth unfolding…what a dedication in capturing the beauty of life on the Earth.Keep rolling stephen…you are indeed a Champ….

  2. Sira
    April 22, 2016

    I’ve saw them on my NG magazine and they are … I don’t have words to describe them, maybe amazing?, specially Serengeti one. Very, very, very good work.

  3. evan malott
    April 4, 2016

    that dosnt look good at all

  4. Regina
    January 23, 2016

    simply spectacular

  5. Hema
    January 22, 2016

    They look like painted art. I think its beautiful.

  6. Linda
    January 20, 2016

    Absolutely fantastic!

  7. Gabi Fulcher
    January 19, 2016

    Beautiful images showing the passage of time. Well done.

  8. Scott
    January 19, 2016

    You guys should check out peter funch. He does the same thing but with street scenes and each piece has a theme. http://peterfunch.com/works/babeltales/

  9. Jim Tetro
    January 18, 2016

    I thought about some of the negative comments with regard to these pictures and what came to mind were the many transitions that photography has made..from dagguerotype, to paper negatives, to glass plates, to film and really, all Stephen Wilkes is doing is using the medium at hand in a very unusual way. More power to him.

  10. Phil Oneacre
    January 18, 2016

    Very interesting and creative work gives an unique perspective – kinda composite time lapse work. Not a photo but many photo do create rewarding photo art. I try on a regular basis to do HDR photos using 3 – 5 photos and that can be a challenge. This is very much more so.

  11. Meredith
    January 18, 2016

    The Serengeti is my favorite. I would love a way to have a canvas of this for my office. It’s almost like time travel to see the view when our ancestors arrived on the world scene. WOW!!

  12. Patrick
    January 18, 2016

    The Serengeti photo is reminiscent of the wildlife photo of Krypton in “Man of Steel”:


  13. Elaine
    January 17, 2016

    It is exactly what they said it was-a beautiful pictorial document of time. Awesome!

  14. vm303
    January 17, 2016

    Great looking art. But like all manipulated photos they should be labeled as such preferably on the image itself. There was a controversy before if I remember correctly where NG made a cover photo where 2 pyramids in egypt were moved closer together and it was not pointed out that it was an edited image

  15. Dave Gresty
    January 17, 2016

    Very talented. Look at his website and see how his photography captures the essence.

  16. Janet
    January 17, 2016

    These are very clearly presented as exactly what they are. There is no attempt to deceive. Therefore I think the should be acknowledged and appreciated for the artistic expression that they are. I just spent 2 hours in freezing temps trying to get a shot of eagles feeding on a river. After that time I had 2 very pathetic grey pics. So each of this artist’s 100 pics per scene are to be admired.

  17. Mark Safron
    January 17, 2016

    The artist clearly states that he wants to capture more than one instant. Accept that. If you think this is easy, even in Photoshop, you’ve never used the program. Trust me.

  18. George Clark
    January 17, 2016

    Being told upfront that these aren’t untouched single frame compositions works for me! If you’re so against this kind of production, you must also except that a filter in of itself is tweaking reality and therefor should not be used in NG. The argument is lame and I applaud NG for giving these works of beauty a platform to be seen. As technology advances so should we all. Great work Stephen!

  19. Robert Armstorng
    January 17, 2016

    how do you perform that process??

  20. Laura
    January 17, 2016

    Exquisite pictures, crafted meticulously. I applaud your efforts and admire the results. It’s very satisfying to look at one picture of a beautiful scene, that has captured a lapse of time; a complete thought!

  21. Fran
    January 17, 2016

    Simply beautiful and splendid photographic compositions!!!

    Haters are going to hate whether based on jealousy, envy, spite or pure pettiness….

  22. Bill
    January 17, 2016

    I agree w/Bryan(an early post). I expect to find/see real pictures from Nat’l Geographic.

  23. Izzy
    January 17, 2016

    Phenomenal. This is a movie compressed into a still, and done well! LOVE the creativity and initiative. Want more!

  24. Jo Cheramie
    January 17, 2016

    These photographs are amazing. The time and skill it takes to compose them makes them true works of art.

  25. Dan Downing
    January 17, 2016

    Great work!

    It would be interesting to see the work of those posting negative comments such as “Been there done that.” , and “…not a photograph.” They either have none or it’s so “artsy” that it’s never been seen by anyone.

  26. Joseph Thomas
    January 17, 2016

    Beautiful art, but this is quite the paradigm shift by NatGeo. Until very recently, they wrongly refused to accept images created using modern tools that do nothing more than help a photographer overcome the failings of camera technology. For instance, they’ve refused to accept images made using HDR software that, when used judiciously, enables a photographer to accurately render a scene more as the human eye actually sees it. Now it appears they’ve gone to the other extreme by accepting photographs where a scene is created by the photographer that never actually existed. How can readers of the magazine trust what their eyes are seeing? I think the credibility of NG is now at risk unless they are careful to always prominently disclose when this kind of extreme manipulation is being used.

  27. Heiner Kolb
    January 17, 2016

    Such a fantastic work. Thank God that he is able to plan and handle this workflow in such a perfect way. Thank you.

  28. Robert Moran
    January 17, 2016

    Beautiful and creative work. Hard to believe the haters stupid criticisms. He’s successful… you’re probably not.

  29. Bryan
    January 17, 2016

    I’m not a fan. The images are eye candy that make me feel nothing. Too much tech dilutes the soul and robs each image of it’s essence. To each their own. Great commitment and detail though

  30. Julie
    January 17, 2016

    Goodness me! To the haters I say “Let’s see your work and we’ll judge it”. It’s art, and very beautiful art, not just photography. If it was as simple as you seem to suggest, then everyone would have a portfolio a foot thick. Put your big boy pants on, grow up and thank heaven that someone is out there showcasing the fact that there is a beautiful world out there for the seeing…

  31. Sampath Kumar
    January 17, 2016

    Absolutely stunning in its details.

  32. AliH
    January 17, 2016

    All of those who are saying this is not Photography are missing the whole point of the project! Do you know about another technique that will show the activities/atmosphere during a specific period of time within the frame of a single still image? He is using Photography to accomplish just that and this is achieved by using the techniques he described. I say “Well done!”

  33. Shraddha Nayak
    January 17, 2016

    I wonder if we can ever completely appreciate the grit you had to collect innumerable shots for hours in probably very unsuitable physical conditions. Congrats… the results are priceless.

  34. bryanm
    January 17, 2016

    I like it. It seems to transcend spacetime.

  35. wyper
    January 17, 2016

    Fascinating images

  36. Ana Lucia Coelho
    January 17, 2016

    Looks fake. Photographer wants to impress with his juggling efforts not with his photography.

  37. Tom
    January 17, 2016

    Why are a few disgruntled folks on here so negative? Are they jealous or such purists that they can’t appreciate something they didn’t do? Yes, potentially hundreds of images partially stitched together. And yes, done meticulously and perhaps over-produced for some. But what I see is an interesting range of light, action and conditions (esp Grand Canyon) over a short time span. I enjoyed them as a very amateur photographer, scientist, and educator.
    Stop being so grumpy people.

    January 17, 2016

    Simply stunning. I have never imagined this kind of filming and juxtaposing. Excellent sir, hats off to you

  39. Tamara
    January 17, 2016

    Beautiful pictures. Made me to want to be there even though I could tell that there were part of the pictures that were perhaps man-made. A reminder of beautiful places on earth.
    I respect when people take time and put effort into work.

  40. Fornik Tsai
    January 17, 2016


  41. don
    January 17, 2016

    stupid cool. african water hole tops.
    all the rest at least second

  42. Bob
    January 16, 2016


  43. Ron
    January 16, 2016

    Spectacular 18hr time compression into one still photo

  44. Fotodonatas.lt
    January 13, 2016

    Excellent pictures, so much work on this project !

  45. debjit
    January 12, 2016

    It shows, sometimes too much is too much.

  46. Harsha
    January 12, 2016

    Can see perfect shot of ART… its beautiful as hand painted

  47. Silas S
    January 11, 2016

    Brilliant pieces of artistic documentation. Pictures which transport you to all these places of interest and interesting people in one frame. First of it’s kind.

  48. Calvin Hodgson
    January 10, 2016

    Had similar ideas about this. Only thing you lose is your time and some work in Photoshop. Clearly layered and masked. Been there done that.

  49. emythmakers.com
    January 10, 2016


  50. emythmakers.com
    January 10, 2016

    I see some freedom.

  51. victorjr
    January 9, 2016

    F A N T A S T I C!
    This is a work of art. No doubt about it.
    Congratulations. Could you tell me something about the camera and lens used? Thank you.

  52. Roel Hendrickx
    January 9, 2016

    A few comments:
    1. They look fake/clinical
    2. It is more about the concept than about the photography.
    3. It is more a matter of graphic design than of photography.
    4. Whenever someone feels the urge to accompany any photo or work of art with a detailed description of the amount of work (hours, gigabytes, numbers of shots, discomforts, etc) that went into making it, I always feel like I am expected to be impressed by the result, because of the effort.
    Like someone said : very similar results could be achieved by photoshopping existing photo material – the photographer in this case wants to distinguish himself by emphasizing his efforts and that is never a good sign.

  53. Richard
    January 8, 2016

    These are great!

  54. Not Impressed
    January 8, 2016

    wow…how totally non-original…I wish everyone had a copy of photoshop so they could make their own “super awesome” masterpieces….

  55. Francisco Lozano
    January 7, 2016

    These works are as magnificent as a painting by one of the grand masters.

  56. leland hummel
    January 6, 2016

    would make nice jigsaw puzzels

  57. Kandie Rosales
    January 6, 2016

    These photos are the most beautiful I have ever seen.

  58. AUDRY
    January 6, 2016

    All of these are heavily photoshopped and layered. He shoots a dozen or more and then picks out the elements he wants in the picture and his photo retoucher inserts the images into the picture. I was a bit let down when I heard he did that. Taking a picture and showing it is one thing. Taking 100 and taking the best bits out of each one to make another picture entirely, not captured through your lens is artwork but it is not a photograph.

  59. Nomar
    January 6, 2016

    Stunning idea and pictures.

  60. Madeleine
    January 6, 2016

    These photos have absolutely inspired me to continue my pursuit of photography.

  61. Mauricio
    January 6, 2016


  62. Nigel Brown
    January 6, 2016


  63. sharon hyatt
    January 6, 2016

    Magnificent ! Artistic photography taken to a new level…and no photo-shop !!!

  64. Ernie Stevenson
    January 6, 2016

    The guy must be one tough nut to endure these shoots. It produces an alternative most people will only see once. Excellent work.

  65. Yash
    January 6, 2016

    Amongst the most beautiful photography I have seen! Great work!

  66. raghu
    January 6, 2016


  67. Ada
    January 6, 2016

    That’s so cool! It takes so much dedication!

  68. aditi das
    January 6, 2016

    Simply Amazing !!!

  69. Tajum
    January 6, 2016

    Hats off to the efforts for taking the perfect shot

  70. Sukanta Kalai
    January 6, 2016

    This is serious ART

  71. Joe Aliotti
    January 6, 2016

    Amazing work. So glad to see this. More please.

  72. Donald
    January 5, 2016

    Exquisite works of art. Thank you

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