If you’re afraid of the dark and the wilderness, you probably don’t want to wander the edge of the West Coast of Vancouver Island at night. The surfers have gone home, and the beaches are empty of humans. The Pacific Ocean roars and heaves and crashes. The Northern Lights, Milky Way, and the moon, dance madly above. And when the clouds are dense–far, far away from city lights–the blackness feels total.
But if you want to see all this, you don’t have to actually go. Check out the photographs by David McColm, a specialist in night sky photography who spends most nights, no matter the weather, capturing the coast from his base in Ucluelet.
McColm, 64, is best known for his decades of dark sky photographs from atop the mountains around Whistler, B.C. But two years ago, his family moved from Whistler to Ucluelet and now the massive waves and vast skies of the Pacific Ocean fill his portfolio.
“There are only so many full moons in my life,” McColm told West Coast Now, so no matter the weather, he tries to never miss a night shoot. Read on to hear what else he had to say about photographing some of the province’s wildest landscapes.
What drives you out into the cold or wet dark when others are snug indoors?
“I just love watching the energy of mother nature, doing her beautiful thing.”
On his unusual focus on night photography
“I guess I’ve always, since I was a kid, loved outer space. I remember in 1969 my parents waking me up to watch the first moon landing and Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. To this day, that’s one of my first memories, sitting in front of that black-and-white TV watching this crazy guy.”
“It blows your mind when you think about how small we are in this whole universe. I love watching the universe doing its thing.”
On becoming a photographer
“I was a structural engineer, doing photography on the side. Over the years, photography became more important. Eventually, it became the majority of what I do. Now it’s all I do.”
How do you cope with wild West Coast weather?
“The weather is a challenge and an opportunity, even in the rain I’ll be out there with a rain cover, sometimes an umbrella, for 10 hours or more, just shooting waves. And when it’s clear, you can see the Milky Way and Northern Lights.”
On the business of art
“I’m the worst marketer of my own stuff. I just want to be shooting, but the problem is, you gotta market it a bit because you’ve got to make a living, too.”
His cards, art prints, and jigsaw puzzles are for sale at the tourist information centres and several businesses in Uclulet, Tofino, and Whistler, and he sells art prints via emails to his website.
On being a “Real Photographer” when everyone with a camera takes pictures
“The kind of photographs I shoot, I couldn’t do it with a phone,” says McColm, who uses Nikon’s traditional, heavy, DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras as well as Nikon’s new and light-weight mirrorless cameras.
What advice can you give others who want to photograph the coast?
“You have to get out there when stuff is happening: sunsets, the moon, storms. Just get out there for those magical moments that the West Coast presents all the time. It’s all about the light. And when you’re out there, start thinking about composition.”
Phone cameras are nowhere near the quality of a good Nikon or Cannon, he notes, but echoes the common tip that the best camera is the one you have with you, even if it’s a phone camera.