The surreal art of ‘unnatural lighting’

Introducing artificial light in a natural environment opens the mind to another way of seeing, says photographer and drone pilot Reuben Wu.

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Reuben Wu created this image by using lights mounted on drones to dramatically illuminate the Pastoruri Glacier in Cordillera Blanca, Peru.
This story appears in the September 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The impressive landscapes on Earth can take a person’s breath away. But for Reuben Wu, that wasn’t enough. Wu—a photographer, visual artist, and music producer—felt that the planet’s majestic mountains, glaciers, and beaches were missing something.

Specifically, unnatural lighting.

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Wu cast a different sort of light on rock formations near Arbol de Piedra, Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve of Sur Lípez Province, Bolivia.

The idea was born from a mistake. One night near Death Valley, California, Wu set a camera to make a time-lapse series in the dark. A pickup truck drove by and washed out the scene with its harsh headlights.

At first, says Wu, “I was really annoyed. But when I looked at the images, I was fascinated. Here was artificial lighting in a natural environment.”

The juxtaposition launched his desire to try adding light to other scenes where it didn’t belong: on lakes, in canyons, on tall rock pillars in the desert. He flew drones carrying lights in front of cameras, taking long exposures—as long as 30 seconds. Then he layered the images into composites and, in some images, retouched the final version to remove the drone but leave the light it cast.

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We programmed lit drones to circle above Utah’s Yant Flat sandstone formations, then combined several long exposures into this composite image.
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Illuminating the Moel Tryfan quarry in North Wales required a methodical sort of painting with drone light, to emphasize the rock faces’ contours.

What emerged were incongruous, otherworldly landscapes, each a visual puzzle daring the observer to figure out how such a scene came to be.

Wu photographs mostly in the United States, where he lives. But in the spirit of exploration, he says, any landscape on Earth is a candidate for such a portrait—any scene, anywhere, that can be captured in a way it doesn’t usually appear.

Wu intends for the series to confound: Is it nature? Is it art? Disorientation, he says, opens the mind to another way of seeing.

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A drone inscribes an oval of light above a rock tower in Blue Canyon on the Hopi Reservation near Tuba City, Arizona.
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Stars blur as the Earth turns in a long-exposure photo of lit stone formations in Blue Canyon, on the Hopi Reservation near Tuba City, Arizona.
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At Crowley Lake near Mammoth Lakes, California, lighting heightens a rock face’s reflection.
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Light bathes these bluffs at Sarakiniko beach on Milos island, Greece.
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Stars shine above brightly lit spires in Valle de las Animas, La Paz, Bolivia.
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A circling drone sheds a halo’s light on Yant Flat sandstone formations in southern Utah.