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.
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.