Footprints on sand dune, Death Valley, California
Footprints on sand dune, Death Valley, California

This photograph is from October of 1995 – deep in the archives.

Most of my photographic ideas arise spontaneously, as I react to the light, weather, and my surroundings. But sometimes an idea pops into my head at home, or while driving, or, especially, while falling asleep.

The idea for this footprint image was one of those occasions when an idea just popped into my head, though I don’t remember exactly where or when. I had been experimenting with light painting at dusk and at night, using flash and flashlights, and somewhere during that time I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to show a line of footprints on a sand dune, and use a flashlight to make the prints glow?”

Sure. But how could I do that?

The first problem was figuring out how to light the footprints without making other, unwanted prints all over the dune. Maybe I could take a step, then reach back and light the previous footprint with my flashlight, then take another step, and so on. But I didn’t think that would work because, first, I wouldn’t be able to make a straight, natural line of prints that way, and second, the body contortions required would make me mess up the footprints.

I finally figured out a perfect solution for that problem. It seemed obvious once I thought of it: make a double exposure. This was long before I started using a digital camera, or even Photoshop, but I had made many multiple-exposures on film. The Mamiya 645 camera I used for this image was designed for this; flipping a small lever allowed you to re-cock the shutter without advancing the film, so I could make as many exposures as I wanted on one frame.

So I figured I could make the footprints before sunset, then set the camera on a tripod and make an exposure for the footprints and dune at dusk. I could leave the camera in place, and then, after dark, open the shutter again and walk wherever I wanted to light the footprints, knowing that my new prints wouldn’t show up on film because it would be completely dark. In that second exposure, only the spots I lit with the flashlight would be bright enough to be visible.

I had a chance to try this idea in the Imperial Dunes in southern California. I found a suitable dune, walked barefoot up the dune to make the line of prints, put my camera on a tripod, composed the scene, and made an exposure at dusk.  I had to wait about an hour for it to get dark enough to open the shutter again and light the prints with my flashlight. When I finished the dune was covered in footprints, but I knew that didn’t matter; only the original line of prints and the light from the flashlight would be visible in the final image.

All that worked as planned, except that when I got the film back the light on the prints looked like shapeless blobs, not footprints. I had tried to carefully trace the outlines of each print, but obviously that hadn’t worked well enough.

So back to the drawing board. How could I make the light take the shape of a footprint?

I realized that I needed to actually project a footprint shape onto the ground. This involved, first, taking the reflector out of a powerful flashlight so that the bulb would be a single-point light source. Then I cut out the front of a small, cheap, portable soft box (the kind that’s typically mounted over a small flash). Next I drew the shape of a bare foot on a piece of cardboard (it took several tries to get this right), cut out that shape, and taped the cardboard to the front of the soft box. I taped an amber gel filter over the cutout, and then mounted the whole rig onto the flashlight.

So I tried again, this time in Death Valley. Again, I made an exposure at dusk for the prints and dune. Then, after dark, I opened the shutter a second time, lit the right-hand prints using my jerry-rigged footprint projector, closed the shutter, flipped the footprint-shaped cutout around, opened the shutter a third time, and lit the left-hand prints.

And this time when I got the film back it looked perfect – just what I had envisioned. It was a lot of work for one precious little piece of 4.5 cm x 6 cm film, but it was satisfying to work through all the problems and make this idea come to life.

— Michael Frye

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Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.