Among the Ghosts

17 January 2023  |  Abò Salina Pueblo Mission, New Mexico

While showing my work at the Ruidoso Art Festival in New Mexico, I met a wonderful couple who are also from New Mexico. We talked a few times over the course of the show, including about lesser-known photography opportunities in the state. They asked if I had ever photographed the Salinas Pueblo Mission ruins near Mountainair, New Mexico. I had heard of the ruins but had never actually seen them in person. Acting on their helpful recommendation I decided to make the trip and see what was possible. I am thankful I did because I was able to produce some unique images unlike anything else I have done.

The Salinas Pueblo Mission ruins lie in the heart of New Mexico, generally south and east of the Manzano Mountains. The ruins are almost exactly four centuries old; construction began in the 1620s by a Spanish missionary, Fray Francisco Fonte. Working with Puebloans in the area, Fray Fonte directed the building of a convent and church at the site. Later in the 1600s Apache raiders persuaded the Spanish to abandon the site. Eventually the ruins were partially rebuilt, providing us with a view of these magical structures.

After the hour-long drive from Albuquerque I arrived at Abò, hoping to catch a late-afternoon thunderstorm over the ruins. Unfortunately the storms never quite materialized, so I spent time scouting locations and snapping a few photos. Even if I don't think conditions will pan out for a memorable photo I try to use every trip as an opportunity to practice with my camera and eyes.

I shoot in manual mode almost exlcusively so I am constantly working to optimize different settings. I also experiment with different photographic methods. At Abò I practiced high dynamic range (HDR) shots as well as exposing to the right (ETTR) a method for allowing as much useful data (in the form of light!) onto the sensor as realistically possible. I rarely shoot HDR but the ruins were backlit so I thought I would experiment.

Storm over Abó

Late afternoon monsoon clouds build over the Manzano Mountains and the Salt Trail Ruins in Abó, New Mexico. This photo is an example of a high dynamic range setting, where the highlights in the sky are far brighter than the backlit ruins. In order to effectively capture this scene - in other words, in order to simultaneously capture the bright sky and darker ruins - I chose to use a two photo stack.

In addition to the uncooperative monsoon storms the sunset was lackluster as well. I was zero for two and considering packing up for the long drive home, but at the last minute decided to stay after sunset. I was the only person at the ruins and night fell quickly. I swapped lenses, attaching my Sony f/1.4, 24mm GM lens. This thing is a powerhouse of clarity and works wonders at night. I would need it because the night was, well, dark.

Since there was no moonlight I decided to try a little light painting of the ruins and foreground with a flashlight. My goal was to illuminate the ruins while simultaneously capturing the stars -- all in a single image. This is tricky because the camera needs to be sensitive enough to capture faint starlight but not be blown out by a bright flashlight. Success would depend as much on my camera skills as my flashlight skills.

I experimented a few times before getting it right. I settled on an aperture of f/4 as a compromise between speed and clarity. I did not want the stars to streak so I needed a relatively short exposure time (in this case 20 seconds). But f/4 also helped me keep the foreground, ruins, and sky acceptably focused. (I used hyperfocal distance concepts to aid this process and shot in manual focus the entire time). I settled on ISO 500 as a compromise between sensitivity and noise.

I left my remote shutter release at home so I programmed the camera to delay 10 seconds before beginning the shutter. This gave me time to run 30-40 yards to the left or right of the camera to "paint" the ruins and grass with a flashlight. I quickly learned that less was more; about five seconds of painting was sufficient to illuminate what I needed without blowing out the image. I tried this in two different locations that night and the results turned out well. In one image the distant lights of Albuquerque produced a striking orange glow in the clouds, reminiscent of a sunset. In the other image the Milky Way is visible above the ruins.

City lights illuminate the sky above the Salt Mission Ruins of Abo, New Mexico in this night photo.

While at first glance this might appear to be a sunset photo, it's actually the middle of the night. The glow behind the ruins is light from distant towns and cities north of Abó. This is a single, 20-second exposure (f/4, ISO 500). During the exposure I "painted" the ruins and grass with my flashlight to make them visible since they were effectively pitch black in the night.

The Abo Salt Mission Ruins appear beneath the milky way in this night photo.

This is a single, 20-second exposure over the Abó Salt Mission ruins. I "painted" the ruins and grass with a flashlight. This method allows the Milky Way to be visible simultaneously with the (relatively bright) ruins in a single exposure. There are some dark clouds moving across the sky as well, partially obscuring the Milky Way but also giving the sky added complexity and depth. It was a little eerie to walk around alone in the dark.

This was a fun and challenging trip. I learned a lot and practiced making photographic decisions in the field. I also got a chance to confront how superstitious I am. Do I believe in ghosts? Fray Fonte told me not to believe in them and I trust him.