BARNEGAT, N.J. - It's one hour before sunrise and Albert Horner is driving east through the still, black night.

The glare of his headlights picks up the pine trees. There is a freshly killed deer on the asphalt, but otherwise the road is empty.

Dressed in a heavy ribbed sweater and jeans, Horner, 66, recounts the journeys he's taken - to the Scottish Highlands, Navajo reservations in the Southwest, the high desert of eastern Oregon - to photograph some of the world's most dramatic landscapes. But he always ends up back here, in New Jersey's Pine Barrens.

"I'd go on these trips, but I wasn't getting the results I wanted. And the truth is that all the people who are really good at this shoot where they live," he said.

"When you're off in Scotland or the Southwest you don't know where to shoot from, where to go when the light's a certain way. It's just luck. And I don't shoot by luck."

This morning, Horner is out to capture an image of the full moon setting over a pond in what is known as the East Plains, an undulating sea of four-foot-high pines and modest ridges from which Atlantic City's casinos are visible in the distance.

His preparations started weeks earlier, at home in Medford Lakes, when he checked the lunar cycle. By the time Horner read the day's weather forecast, he knew exactly where he would position himself.

The retired fishing-tackle salesman has spent his whole life roaming the Pinelands. From deer-hunting outings with his uncle and years driving to the Shore on sales trips, he knows the roads that snake through the region as well as anyone.

The barrens cast a spell over him. And back in the 1970s, he got to thinking he would like to photograph them.

With a camera given to him by his then-wife, he started with the usual things - cranberry bogs and cedar swamps. Over the years, Horner has developed a more artistic sensibility and acquired some renown for capturing what the Noyes Museum of Art, part of Richard Stockton College, has described as "small niche areas of our environment that are beautiful but rarely paid much attention." His work has been shown there and at M. Thomas Galleries in Haddonfield.

In his images, he seeks a certain "moodiness, something people don't normally see," Horner says.

"A lot of people say my photos have a painterly quality," he explains. "I like the mornings when everything is damp and wet so the colors tend to be much more saturated and the light from the sun is low. That clarity you can get is part of the moodiness."

Shortly after 6 a.m. Horner pulls up to what he calls Watering Hole Pond and immediately runs into a problem.

He has planned to shoot from an inlet on the pond's eastern shore and capture the reflection of the moon on the water. But there's a tree in the way, something he couldn't see when he scouted the location using satellite photos.

He positions himself on the gravel road at the pond's south end and selects a shutter speed so low that when he climbs onto his SUV's luggage rack to shoot, he can't leave the engine running because the vibrations would blur the image.

A thin layer of ice stretches across the water, and steam rises through gaps. A trickling sound can be heard in the dark.

As Horner stands atop his vehicle, he watches through the small screen on his camera. The eastern sky is slowly turning pink and blue, the black dissipating with each passing minute. It still isn't time.

As he waits for the trees on the far side of the pond to light up, Horner surveys the clouds hoping for the "puffy ones" he likes, but he finds only the "streaky ones."

"I'm sure there are scientific names for them, but I don't know them," he says.

In quiet moments, Horner sometimes thinks about his life, about how his salesman father walked out on him and his brothers and sister and mother, leaving them to go on welfare and him to work 40 hours a week at a deli in his senior year of high school in Camden.

About how, despite the animosity that created, he still is a little like him. The old man had a gift for gaining people's trust and following through, and Horner was that kind of salesman, too.

But right now, he is concentrating on catching the moment sought by photographers the world over - when the sun breaks the horizon, cascading light across the landscape at an angle that creates shadows and contrasts. He starts to shoot, one long fraction of a second at a time, until . . .

Clouds drift in front of the sinking moon, robbing Horner of his intended subject. Eventually, he will climb down through the sunroof and drive home without his quarry.

Yet in this moment, with his fingers starting to go numb and frost forming on his camera lens, he is hopeful.

"Now we have to wait and see if the moon comes back," he says.

Contact James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @osborneja.