Monsters at Borrego Springs
Photographing the Milky Way
By Jim DeLillo
A warm wind blows across me, but I still feel a chill run down
my back. I'm alone in the desert. I’m at one of the darkest
places on earth according to my map. It's a little scary,
especially while visions of coyotes, scorpions, and roving gangs
of desert hares dance in my head. I'm here to photograph
monsters. It isn't my imagination. I saw them as I drove in
during the day. Standing as tall as two stories, I could make
out their rust-colored silhouettes against the arid sand.
Fortunately for me these monsters are made of iron, sheet-metal
sculptures by the artist Ricardo Breceda. Fantastical shapes
depict serpents and dinosaurs. Breceda makes his home in
Temecula, but due to a land/lease dispute he may soon be moving
his workshop. Breceda owes his muse to an accident about ten
years ago. Urged on by his small daughter, he created dinosaurs,
mastodons, great eagles and more. His works are seen in
worldwide locations. But Borrego Springs remains the game
reserve, corralling the most metal giants in one location.
While impressive in daylight, I am here to make them look like
they are from another world. I specialize in Milky Way
photography, so I juxtapose these monumental characters against
a sky filled with stars in vibrant colors. Sky glow from nearby
towns helps outline the shadowy beings.
Meanwhile, I set my camera in position. A sturdy tripod, a fast,
wide-angle lens, and full-frame DSLR make up my equipment. I
locate the Milky Way, first with an application on my iPhone,
and then visually, as my eyes adapt to the darkness. I dial in
the magic formula...ISO 3200, f/2.8 30 seconds. Playing a
flashlight along the weird shapes, I paint them with light
during the long exposure.
Light painting is an art unto itself. It requires a little
practice and finesse. But after a few trial exposures, I get it
dialed in. It only takes a second or two during the exposure,
sweeping the light in an arc across the subject. On occasion, I
use a Speedlight for a bit more contrast, often running and
ducking behind the subject to backlight it. I don’t show up on
the image, as long as I keep moving and no direct light falls on
my body. This is no easy feat, considering it's pitch-black with
rocks, and cactus threaten to draw blood.
The work doesn’t stop there. The camera has captured more than
what I see. The Milky Way appears as a band of white sparkly
stars against the black sky. My job is to coax the color out the
camera's sensor and into an expression of photographic art.
I open the images in Adobe LightRoom (although any photo editing
program will work). The first thing I do is brighten the overall
exposure, bringing out the stars in all their glory. I open up
the shadows, brightening my foreground objects, the monsters.
Playing with contrast and clarity, I watch the image burst into
life on the screen. I boost the colors with saturation, and now
it's almost a work of art. But shooting at a high ISO comes with
a price…noise. I must adjust this carefully; if I push it too
far it will look overly smooth, like a watercolor painting. I
know I can adjust the color noise more aggressively than the
The result is seen here in the images from that night in Borrego
A close-up of the Serpent’s head brightened by the Milky Way.
The Scorpion and Locust face off in a battle for Borrego
Springs, lit by the Milky Way.
A departure from the monster theme, a jeep high-centers on a
rock pile while following the Milky Way for navigation.
Another monster is awakened by the Milky Way hovering over
Earlier: Getting There
Getting to Borrego Springs is easy, it's less than two hours
from San Diego. It must have rained recently. I drive past
stands of ocotillo, usually brown sticks, now dressed in green
like proud soldiers. The mesquite and manzanita also add a
splash of color to the desert with their flowers.
I stop at a farm stand and get some local honey and a couple of
ripe peaches. The juice drips down my chin as I leave the
Located halfway between the Salton Sea and Escondido, it's
accessible via the 78. A short stop in the gold-mining town of
Julian is in order. I pick up breakfast at the Miner’s Diner and
Soda Fountain, one of the quaint eateries in town.
Arriving in Borrego Springs in the daytime is important. I have
to scout the sculptures. There are over 130 statues to choose
from, as this prolific artist is given free rein to populate
Galleta Meadows with his welded statuary.
Carlee’s Place was quite literally an oasis in the desert. There
wasn’t much else open. The pickups, motorcycles, and smoking
locals parked outside belie the quality of food and service I
find inside. A homemade gazpacho brimming with little shrimp and
bright with cilantro introduces perfectly cooked grilled
shrimp…in the desert!
The real value of Carlee’s is the information I receive about
the location of the figures. Specifically, I am looking for the
Serpent, which crosses the road, and the Giant Scorpion. I had
seen these images in daylight photos of Borrego Springs. I want
to make them key subjects of my nighttime photos. The waiter,
Chino, gives me accurate directions to both and then some.
There are several hotels and villas located in Borrego Springs,
but I opt for an AirBnB listing. A couple of turns into a
residential neighborhood and I arrive at the house. It's a
spacious three bedroom, providing much more room than I need.
It's clean and comfortable and has a crystal blue pool. I decide
a nap is in order since I left my home in NJ at 4 am. I have a
lot of work to do at hours when I would normally be sleeping.
Milky Way photography is a night owl’s beat. On any given trip,
I wake up at 11:30 pm, work until 3 am, sleep until check-out at
11 am, and drive six hours to my next location.
I use two iPhone apps to help visualize where the Milky Way will
be when I get there in the dark. The two apps are Photopills (http://www.photopills.com/)
and SkyWalk (available on iTunes Apps. Do not get version 2).
These nifty applications give me the ability to see the Milky
Way on my phone, align it with the foreground object, and
forecast what it will look like at the time of night I will be
Scouting during the day gives me the confidence to find the
statues at night, some located a distance from the road. Even
with scouting, I missed some of the subjects I was interested in
photographing. Headlights don’t shine that far in the desert,
and all the little sand roads look the same. I always carry a
map and compass, and an electronic GPS. Cell service is not
reliable in the desert.
Prints of Jim DeLillo’s photos used in this article, and more,
are available at:
Jim DeLillo is a travel and adventure photographer who
specializes in creating transporting imagery.
...Capturing local color in travel, editorial, and commercial
His expansive landscapes are layered, narrative, and rich in
tone. They are lit from within having a luminous quality and
show a strong attention to detail, composition, and production.
His 35+ years of experience includes international publications
including Woman’s World Magazine. His photojournalist,
reality-based, eclectic style provides a refreshing break from
Jim has recently added Milky Way photography to his skill set.
His portfolio can be seen at:
Jim DeLillo is based near NYC and is available for assignments