Arts + Design

The multi-dimensional beauty of “Day to Night” photography

Jul 12, 2016

Stephen Wilkes explains a technique of photography he developed to combine multiple moments into a single, breathtaking image.

“Photography can be described as the recording of a single moment frozen within a fraction of time,” says Stephen Wilkes. “But what if you could capture more than one moment in a photograph? What if a photograph could actually collapse time, compressing the best moments of the day and the night seamlessly into one single image?” Well, that’s what Wilkes has done, with a series of images he calls “Day to Night.” It is, he says, his version of street photography, only this sees him shooting the same spot for 15 to 30 hours, before heading back to the studio to choose the best moments of the day and night and melding them into one image. It’s complicated, time-consuming — and the results are absolutely stunning. Take a look.

Then and now

“I’m fascinated by the concept of going to a place like Venice and actually seeing it during a specific event,” says Wilkes, who traveled to the Italian city during its annual Regatta, an event that’s been taking place since 1498. “The fun thing about this work is I have absolutely zero control,” he adds. “I never know who’s going to be in the picture, if it’s going to be a great sunrise or sunset — no control.” Once the day and night’s shoot is done, he spends months in an editing suite to seamlessly blend the best moments into one image.

Happy day (and night), Mr President

“Day to Night is about all the things,” say Wilkes. “It’s about landscape, it’s about street photography, it’s about color, it’s about architecture, perspective, scale — and, especially, history.” No more historical moment than the 2013 Presidential Inauguration of Barack Obama. “If you look closely in this picture, you can actually see time changing in those large television sets,” he says. “You can see Michelle waiting with the children, the president now greets the crowd, he takes his oath, and now he’s speaking to the people.” Wilkes spent hours balanced 50 feet in the air above the crowd to capture the 1,800 pictures that make up the image.

The dramatic beauty of Paris at every hour

“Using time as a guide, I seamlessly blend the best moments into one single photograph, visualizing our conscious journey with time,” says Wilkes. “I can take you to Paris for a view from the Tournelle Bridge. And I can show you the early-morning rowers along the River Seine. And simultaneously, I can show you Notre Dame aglow at night. And in between, I can show you the romance of the City of Light.”

The city that never stops

For this shot of Times Square in New York, Wilkes began to see people as giant schools of fish, swarming around the iconic location. “When people describe the energy of New York, I think this photograph begins to really capture that,” he says happily, before sharing a secret from the editing room. “When you look closer in my work, you can see there’s stories going on. You realize that Times Square is a canyon, it’s shadow and it’s sunlight. So I decided, in this photograph, I would checkerboard time. So wherever the shadows are, it’s night and wherever the sun is, it’s actually day.”

Time, passing

Wilkes spent more than 30 hours photographing Yosemite for this picture, which was used on the cover of the January 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine. “I was literally on the side of a cliff, capturing the stars and the moonlight as it transitions, the moonlight lighting El Capitan,” says Wilkes. “I also captured this transition of time throughout the landscape. The best part is obviously seeing the magical moments of humanity as time changed.”

All the fun of the fair

“Once I decide on my view and the location, I have to decide where day begins and night ends,” says Wilkes, who blended the two in this shot of Coney Island. “Einstein described time as a fabric. Think of the surface of a trampoline: it warps and stretches with gravity. I see time as a fabric as well, except I take that fabric and flatten it, compress it into single plane.”

The view from above

“I call it ‘Sacré-Coeur Selfie’,” says Wilkes of this image, for which he spent 15 hours watching people use the iconic church as a backdrop for their own photographs. “They would walk up, take a picture and then walk away. And I found this to be an absolutely extraordinary example, a powerful disconnect between what we think the human experience is versus what the human experience is evolving into. The act of sharing has suddenly become more important than the experience itself.”

Nature, redefined

Wilkes and his team spent three days studying this water hole in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania before choosing their spot, a sealed crocodile blind some 18 feet in the air. “Nothing could have prepared me for what I witnessed during our shoot day,” he says. “Frankly, it was biblical. We saw, for 26 hours, all these competitive species share a single resource called water. The same resource that humanity is supposed to have wars over during the next 50 years. The animals never even grunted at each other. They seem to understand something that we humans don’t, that this precious resource called water is something we all have to share.”