An unexpected hazard of night sky photography
Taking pictures at night is often a solo experience, and while it is true that there are times when one is quite alone, there are plenty of times when the abundance of humans on the planet provides company, desired or not.
In my pursuit of reflected star trails, I encountered Trillium, a small lake near Oregon’s Mt Hood. The old volcano presides over a scene resembling a carefully arranged terrarium: duck families diving for underwater nourishment, fish swimming secretly, exposed by sunlight flashing off a silver scale, herons silently hunting among the cattails for frogs, whose vast numbers are never seen but must be the source of the dominant sound that fills the air, a summer sound that includes the occasional flyby of buzzing insects on patrol. The cattails strengthen their ranks at the far shore but are stopped short at the edge of the lodgepole pine ocean that is interrupted by this island of water.
I watched the activities subside in the lake at sunset as the sky changed into its evening colors. One by one the stars emerged: Vega, Arcturus, Deneb, the summer triangle, landmarks to help find familiar constellations. The Big Dipper and Cygnus made their distinctive patterns apparent from their early brightest stars. Polaris, my all-important indicator of true North was indicated itself by the Big Dipper pointer stars.
A high-pressure weather system had stalled overhead and the daytime breezes, starved of their solar propellant, died, letting the surface of the small lake settle to a mirror finish. I gathered my cameras and eagerly made my way to the boat launch at the south end of the lake. I scouted the area and, in the dark, found an access trail that would provide a solid footing for my tripod with a clear view of the sky and its mirror. The northerly view would yield the star trail arcs I sought, and Mt Hood would be the center of attention. Here was the ideal location for my picture and apparently the ideal conditions to take it.
As I unloaded equipment from my car, a fully occupied, muffler-deficient vehicle drove into this dead-end road and parked next to me. Its boisterous occupants piled out and gradually noticed me as they tried to organize themselves for the next phase of their outing.
I have a mixed response to unexpected company while shooting night pictures. Initially I am quite wary of people out in remote locations at late hours. I know my own purposes, but I wonder about the motivations of others in these unusual situations. Often the approaching headlights belong to a patrol car; officers or rangers monitoring their checkpoints and ensuring that all is well. I am accustomed to this interruption: they want to see your permit, or they want to look at Jupiter.
Cars without patrol lights and markings are unnerving. I’m never sure what to expect. On this occasion, it was a group of young people enjoying each other’s company on a night in the woods, almost oblivious of my presence. It is not always this benign.
“Hey, howarya? You by yourself? ‘Ryou a cop? ‘Cause we’re not drinkin’ anything y’know.”
Their effervescence subsided momentarily as they tried to figure out why a lone man with a red flashlight would be at the end of this road at midnight. Josie, one of two women in the group introduced herself, and after confirming my non-relationship with law enforcement explained, “We’re going skinnydipping…so what’re you doing? Wanna join us?”
On the other hand, having other folks around is a reassurance against even greater uncertainties. I am always a bit uncertain about large predators, or humans with less innocent intents. If I can strike up a congenial connection with these people, I at least have the momentary protection of their company. With this group, already in a festive mood, it is not difficult to find a topic to connect us.
“Are you guys serious?” It was a summer evening, but here at this elevation the evenings aren’t exactly balmy, and I had already started to fend off the nighttime temperature drop. I explained that I was there to take some pictures of the night sky, and I was just about to setup my cameras. I also mentioned I was hoping the smooth surface of the lake would reflect the stars. I didn’t want to believe that my plans were about to be foiled by a midnight swimming party. Maybe they would realize their impact and change their plans.
“Cameras?” You’re not going to take pictures of us, are you? What kind of film ‘ryou using? Is this night-vision stuff?”
Josie’s sudden concern about my possible role as voyeur slowed her down momentarily until I could reassure her that I had no such equipment, and my film would never be able to capture their moving shapes in the dark.
“Hey Jo, come on, the guy’s ok, get your stuff,” said one of the guys in the group urging her toward the beach. The “stuff” was her towel and beverage.
As I set up my tripod and framed the picture I had so dearly sought, the party continued at the shore, their jokes and laughter flowing out over the lake surface, but otherwise not affecting the composition in my viewfinder. I opened the shutter, hoping to get an hour’s worth of star trail arc. Maybe the group would forget about swimming, now that they were actually at water’s edge. It’s one thing for someone to make the suggestion, quite another to carry it out.
One of the guys came over to see what I was doing. He explained how dark the skies were at his grandmother’s house in Illinois and how he enjoyed watching the stars at night when he would visit. He asked about taking pictures at night, and now that the shutter was open and there was nothing more for me to fuss over, I could spend some time talking with him about it. I didn’t get very far.
A sudden splash followed by an excruciating scream interrupted us. Another splash, another scream, then two more with associated hollering.
“Hey Brad, get in here!”
Brad excused himself in a lowered
voice, confiding “I’ve been working all night to hook up with this girl,
“Hey camera guy!” It was Josie. “Come on in!”
I hadn’t been working toward this at all, and I made my apologies for not joining in.
“Are you sure you’re not getting pictures of us?” Josie was still unsettled.
The group was right in front of me and I couldn’t see them. But I could see the reflections of the distant resort lights change from delicate points to tall rippled columns. The mirror was broken as the energy from the party propagated across the lake’s surface.
I had learned better than to close my shutter and pack up. With nighttime pictures one is never certain of the results, and even though it was certain that my intended shot had vanished, the possibility remained that some other, unexpected effect might be captured instead.
I also knew that I would not be able to get another exposure in tonight. Even if the party suddenly realized how cold they had become and exited the water now, there was not enough time before the moon was scheduled to rise and wash out the sky. Closing the shutter now would leave the trails already captured too short. I kept the shutter open. I get what I get.
I listened to the frolicking in the water and watched the reflected lights bouncing on the lake’s surface. It was a nice evening to be outside, and I relaxed a bit, enjoying the scene and my vicarious midnight skinnydipping party.
Eventually, the gang did get cold and climbed out. More shrieks and commotion as towels and clothing were located in the dark, eventually settling down to a quiet pause between activities. The occasional flare of light as a cigarette was lit showed a brief face, but otherwise the party continued in visual anonymity.
After recovering their breath and warmth, the group gathered themselves and started moving toward whatever next adventure the night held for them. They stopped to check on me, still curious about my purpose.
“Are you sure your camera didn’t see us?”
One more round of reassurances, and the party headed toward the car. I urged them to refrain from turning on the headlights until the car was aimed down the road. A glimmer of understanding took hold, and with the same gusto as on their arrival, they noisily arranged themselves in the car; someone had to ride the trunk. There was no shortage of instructions to Josie on how to manage the lights as they maneuvered from the parking spot. Consistent with the entire night’s experience, I heard the percussion of the car’s bad muffler for a long time before seeing a peek of headlights through the trees.
Josie’s fears were not entirely unfounded. The camera did capture them. Their activities were exposed by the patterns of light recorded over the hour that the shutter was open. An interesting combination resulted, the prelude of calm allowed the reflection of the mountain to make an impression on the film, and then, when the rough surface finish dissolved its image, the reflection of the lights from the mountain’s ski area distorted into flares of color. The film adds all the light together to make the picture.
One final detail was captured. Though I could not see the partiers as they splashed around, evidently there were favorite resting places in the water. A close look at the lake surface reveals their shadows, as they paused to enjoy the sensory experience of swimming under the stars at midnight.