nativity photo with bright star, wise men, Mary and Joseph in silhouette with night sky
“One Night Under Starlight” is a concept I had burning in my mind for awhile. While I’m not a traditional churchgoer, I do appreciate the reason we celebrate. I wanted to capture the essence of love, faith, and new beginnings in this Christmas art.

Abstract Christmas art sets the mood

If you are like me, your inbox got dumped on: Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday, and someone sent me a new one — a Wellness Wednesday message.

It seems endless and feels materialistic. What happened to the real spirit of Christmas?

Take a look at how this photo shoot progressed. As you’ll read below, there were some real moments of concern. All ended well, but my heartbeat was racing.

What is the true meaning of Christmas?

Last year, I envisioned a photograph I wanted to create: a silhouette of the Wise Men en route to Mary and Joseph. And I wanted this image to showcase the true meaning of Christmas.

About mid-December, I read about the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. For a few days, the two planets would look close according to our eyes, even though they’d still be 456 million miles apart. Scientists speculated that such an astronomical event could explain where our traditional vision of what “the Christmas star” looked like came.

So now I added the planets into the mix for my photo project.

The conjunction would only be visible for a short time on a few nights. This alignment only happens once every twenty years. So I had to get the shot done in short order. We decided that December 21st would be a good opportunity. The conjunction would be visible that night right after sunset. That left enough light from the sunset to accomplish a silhouette shot. But I’d need to time it right so I didn’t lose too much light.

Nativity scene art

Next, I needed to summon Mary, Joseph, and the Wise Men as silhouette models.

I grew up with a beautiful nativity set which my mom still sets out every December. The stable had natural hay for the roof and wood beam supports, complete with the bark intact. The angel, animals, and people were plastic. But that doesn’t paint the right picture of them.

Manufacturers in the ’60s spent more time and cost on finishes and elaborately painted embellishments than manufacturers would produce today. My mom purchased this set when I was merely a tot. Smart of her since she knew I would enjoy moving the pieces around on their many adventures along the way to Bethlehem throughout my childhood.

The Wise Men were exotic, tall, and represented diversity in skin tones; Joseph was exceedingly handsome; and Mary was beautiful even though theoretically, she was recovering from childbirth. She beamed a proud smile at her tiny, swaddled Baby Jesus. So did I.

I asked my mom to borrow the characters for a day or two. She agreed but questioned, “what are you up to now?” I didn’t want to explain until I’d achieved my vision for my Christmas art scene.

Off to the Imperial Sand Dunes

My vision for this Christmas nativity scene required sand. I wanted to create terrain similar to what aI envisioned the Wise Men journeyed through. And there’s no sand like that in Phoenix.

I know most people would think driving four hours one way for a photo is crazy. And doing that plus driving home on the same night, crazier still. But in the thick of COVID without vaccines yet, we knew we wouldn’t be doing a big Christmas with family or travel. So, it wasn’t as hectic a time as it usually would have been for us. And getting out and away, anywhere, sounded great.

So off to the Imperial Sand Dunes we went. The area is on the California-Arizona border and part of the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness, which has plenty of sand. In the winter, it is teeming with sand buggies and dirt bikes. However, neither of us thought about that.

Imperial sand dunes near sunset with dune buggies

The tire tracks at Imperial Sand Dunes should have been the first clue, but as we trudged through the sand to find the perfect hill for the nativity scene, we started noticing all the dune buggies and dirt bikes. 

Setting up the photo.

We arrived with plenty of daylight to find the right dune. We trudged through deep sand, down steep hills, and up even higher hills, all the while carrying a backpack of gear and a coat for nightfall. Finally, we found a spot.

I needed to set the figurines up on a dune ridge with the western sky in the background. We used a star navigation app to figure out where the planets would appear once the sun had set and the sky was dark enough to see the first stars.

I set my camera up on the downslope of a dune, looking up at the nativity characters. That meant I’d be laying in the sand, virtually invisible. I started working with my camera settings so I’d be ready to fire away at the right moment. Once the light began dwindling, there wouldn’t be much time. That didn’t leave much room for error. Oh, one more thing. The earth moves. It wouldn’t take long, and Jupiter and Saturn would drop below the horizon. Then the shot with the “Christmas star” would be another 20-year wait.

The obstacles in setting this up.

If no one else had been there at Imperial Sand Dunes, that’d make everything easier. Positioned on the sand, I looked out at a set of dune buggies with lights on, poised at the edge of a ridge in the distance. There’s an absolute terror of knowing you are hidden from sight while fast-moving vehicles race and bounce off one dune hill to the next.

We hadn’t thought of having flags to warn of our position like a scuba diver would do when diving. So the best we could do was position Bill at the top of a dune to act as both a flag and a lookout. After that, all I could do was listen to the roar getting closer.

I shuffled the nativity characters around. I tried putting the stable in the scene, but it didn’t work for me as a silhouette.

Then I began taking test shots, making slight adjustments to my camera. Although the sun wasn’t very bright, I would have to wait until after sunset to start taking my “for real” shots. I hoped the dune buggies and dirt bikes would stop by then. They didn’t. They just turned on their headlights.

Then that sinking feeling.

After looking closely at one of my test shots, then another, I got a sickening feeling. There seemed to be a sensor spot spoiling the image. That means you have gunk on your lens or, worse, inside the camera. When that happens, it creates distortions in the photo, which can ruin what you’ve taken. So the whole trip might be a bust. And sand is no place to be trying to remove anything from glass.

I got a hand blower out and tried to clean the front of the lens by blowing air over it. I took another shot, but the spot was still in my image.

I got a lens wipe to try cleaning off the glass. I took another shot. But the weird blob remained.

nativity-scene-art-not-in-focus

See? This is what I was so baffled by. I had to focus on the nativity characters to get them in focus, but it would take a second shot focusing on the planets to get them sharp. I was just a little scattered since I thought I might get run over. And not by a reindeer.

Um, I’m embarrassed to admit.

I started laughing. I had the nativity figures in focus. Unfortunately, my depth of field, which determines what is in focus, was pretty shallow because of the lens I used. Therefore, the nativity figures were crisp, but everything beyond those figures was out of focus. In the excitement of waiting for the planets and the stress of listening to the engines zooming over the hill, I forgot about that. Finally, I adjusted the focus ring to see if my “um, you dummy” theory was accurate.

Yes, those were the planets. But, unfortunately, they were just out of focus.

Christmas-star-conjunction

Here are the planets in focus. What a relief. We talked about this for days and it still makes us laugh since neither of us figured it out for so long.

nativity-scene-art-with-quote

Since I originally took this photo on December 21, 2020, I wanted to show what the conjunction looked like since it was the talk of the news at the time. I added the words because so many people were far away from those they would normally have spent the holidays with.

Expectations of Christmas.

I hope you’ll spare me a break from this huge photographic embarrassment. When you think of all the Christmas imagery we’ve grown up surrounding the “Christmas star,” I think you’d have the compassion to understand my miss. I had imagined that the two planets joined together would create a stunning display of starlight. Doesn’t the “Christmas star” conjure up visions of angels singing, halos, rays of light coming down from heaven, a 5-pointed star. Right?

Now that I could see Jupiter and Saturn close together, it made sense that they looked the way they did. But my imagination created an expectation. Since I had been waiting for this epic, unrealistic star event, now I had to quickly take the shot before the planets drifted below the horizon and out of view.

I initially showed people the photo with the two planets included. But I decided this year, much like Christmas, to follow tradition, and I added a star that seemed more like the Christmas star we expect during the holidays. In addition, my original capture wouldn’t have had enough dark sky to see a lot of stars because there was still light from the sunset. So I found a photo from this past year in a series I’d done for night skies and dropped real stars in behind.

While some people take issue with altering photos in this way, I liken the edits to a painter that switches from a brush to a palette knife to add texture. It is art, and I’m not pretending to portray this scene as realism. It is abstract, and if you know me, I love creating abstract art.

The real question is, did I capture the spirit of Christmas?

This image, which I named “One night under starlight,” is simple and layered with deep meaning. You don’t see the baby Jesus, but his birth is the beating heart of this nativity scene. Shooting this as a silhouette, we can’t study much of the individuals’ details, but those who went to bible school know inherently who the characters are. We view them as a group coming together out of faith and respect. There’s a journey implied with mystery in the dark. I feel connected to ancient wisdom with twinkling stars in the vast universe. The night sky with deepening blues promotes calm. There is tradition and expectation in the imagery. For me, I see the message of divinity and humanity joined.

Modern minimalist Christmas Decor.

Silhouette head and camera with Grand Canyon photo inside

What intrigues you about “One Night Under Starlight?” Let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear.

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