Photographer Captures the Fascinating World From Dusk to Dawn

Art Wolfe documents animals, nature, and people in the dark.

monuments and full moon

Art Wolfe / Night on Earth

Art Wolfe has documented so many corners of the world when the lights were out. The American photographer and conservationist traveled to every continent to explore and record animals, nature, and people, watching what they do at night.

His new book, “Night on Earth,” is a collection of photographs taken from dusk until dawn. 

Wolfe talked to Treehugger about his interest in nature, how things are different in the dark, and why it’s important to get up off the couch.

ice and moon by Art Wolfe

Art Wolfe / Night on Earth

Treehugger: You’ve been a photographer for five decades. How did your focus turn to nature and the environment?

Art Wolfe: Growing up in the Pacific Northwest grounded me in nature. From the time I was young, I loved identifying plants and animals. There was a greenbelt in the West Seattle neighborhood where I grew up (and live only a mile from today) and I would head down to the creek with my little guidebooks. You could say I didn’t have a choice—I was born with that focus on the natural world.

As a family, we did a lot of camping and that outdoors spirit remained as I grew older. As soon as I got a car and was independent, I headed for the Cascade Range and Olympic Mountains with friends. We were serious mountain climbers and I hauled around camera gear to document our exploits. Encouraged by my mother, I began to paint and studied art at the University of Washington. It was then that photography, nature, and art came together as my true vocation.

cactus night sky

Art Wolfe / Night on Earth

What was the impetus for “Night on Earth”? Did you set out to photograph every continent in the dark, or did you realize you had already taken some great photos and went on to finish the collection?

My publisher, Earth Aware Editions, came to me with the idea. My photo editor and I scrambled to put together a proposal and found that over forty years I had amassed quite the collection of imagery captured between dusk and dawn. Of course, the image quality greatly varied over the years, and I made a push during my travels to include more night photography with the latest available Canon cameras.

I never want my books to look like I just slapped together a bunch of old photos so I always work like mad to photograph new subjects, places and phenomena and try to reshoot familiar subjects in new ways. I am never satisfied and always try to push myself artistically.

big cat in tree at night

Art Wolfe / Night on Earth

How is the environment (nature, people, animals) different in the dark?

It is very different. You have to refocus and rely on other senses than just sight. Forty minutes after sunset or before sunrise is a great time to photograph; the colors are still a bit visible. I prefer to use ambient light such as candlelight while photographing people and I like to establish a sense of place for wildlife images.

And it’s not just the environment being different at night—it’s also a matter of finding truly dark places. Now more than ever we have to contend with light pollution when attempting to photograph the night sky.

What challenges did you face artistically and maybe also physically?

Photographing at night is technically challenging. In the days of film, all star shots were star trails since they were timed exposures. You could never get a fast enough shutter speed to capture pinpoints of light. Now with higher ISO cameras we can create images of the night sky like never before.

Safety was also a bit of a concern; scrambling around on the lip of an active caldera in the dark was very hazardous. One misstep and whoops, there goes Art into a cauldron of lava!

Mount Everest expedition by Art Wolfe

Art Wolfe / Night on Earth

What were some of your favorite moments, photographing in the dark?

There are so many. Photographing festivals involving fire and alcohol is always fascinating and unpredictable, but sometimes it’s just a small moment that stands out. While out on a night shoot in Kenya, we had a beautiful, sinuous serval follow us. Was the vehicle we were in flushing out small game for the cat? Who knows. Our driver would move a bit forward as would the cat and so on.

I think the oldest photo in the book is one of the most meaningful to me: base camp at Everest. In 1984 I was part of the Ultima Thule expedition attempting Mount Everest from the Tibetan side. I had one of my fellow mountaineers run with a flashlight from tent to tent, illuminating them under the great peak that was illuminated by moonlight.

crater by Art Wolfe

Art Wolfe / Night on Earth

You’ve released  more than 100 books of your work, including tips for photographing nature and books for children. What do you hope people take away from your images?

I want people to love this planet and respect it. Earth isn’t there just for extraction or its usefulness and monetary value. There are many photographers who are great at creating hard-hitting work that shows degradation and pollution. My aim is to promote conservation through uplift and beauty. I also want to inspire people to be creative and explore their inner artist.

bridge at night

Art Wolfe / Night on Earth

What is one key tip you can share for people who want to make their nature photos so much better?

Get off the couch and get out the door. It doesn’t matter whether you are using a smartphone or camera, though if you are serious, an investment in good gear is a must. You can get amazing photos in an exotic location or in your neighborhood park through experimentation; try out different angles, don’t be afraid of motion blur.

I could also say take a workshop from your favorite photographer, some of us aren’t getting any younger! Explore what creates joy and beauty for your soul. Photography isn’t just about ‘getting the shot.’