I have cameras to load with film, attach to tripods and then find compositionally interesting locations to place them. The winds are dying, and the lake is approaching that mirror finish that will show stars beneath the depths of its reflecting surface. The conditions are right, but there is yet one more requirement: I need to be able to find a patch of dry land to plant the feet of a tripod that still allows me to compose a view that contains the sky, the horizon, and enough of the reflecting lake to capture the spirit of this place, the recollection of a distant experience. I find that in spite of my wide-angle lenses and film formats, I cannot get enough of the scene in the viewfinder to satisfy me. I make some guesses about how the stars will move over the next few hours and arrange the cameras at the edge of the lake.
There is an interesting tradeoff in making this exacting picture. The height of the camera above the lake’s surface is very important. Imagine if it were at the actual level of the water. The view of the mirror would be very oblique. This is good for the reflected light from a faint star in reaching the film- a glancing reflection from any polished surface is nearly 100 percent, but the perspective would foreshorten the lake to nearly nothing, and if there was any view at all, it would be a reflection of the sky at the horizon, usually a murky soup of air and distant lights.
To get a larger view of the reflection, the camera must be above the lake’s surface. As one increases the height, the area of reflected sky increases, showing the stars that are higher and higher above the horizon. But as the angle increases, the reflected energy decreases, until a point where only the brightest stars can make any impression on the film that is recording it. There is perhaps an optimal camera height for obtaining a pleasing composition that contains startrail reflections. I do not know what it is, but I will be able to perform another experiment tonight in my ongoing efforts to find it!
I’m on my way to rediscover a bit of personal history. As a young man I embarked on a road trip with my best friend Rich McMartin. We were college students with little experience and even less money, but Rich owned a functioning car, and we set out one June to see the Rocky Mountains. It was an adventure that left many lasting and wonderful impressions but, like many of my life experiences, the details of where we actually traveled and when and how we got there have been lost to the decay of aging synapses.
But some of the memories are so permanently etched that there are valuable clues to follow. One in particular has held a certain fascination for me, as it is the motivating inspiration for many of my startrail compositions: I am trying to capture the feeling Rich and I shared after we drove up a mountain pass one night, stopped at the top, and looked out at a sky that was so dark and deep and star-filled that we couldn’t find our favorite constellations! The dome of jewels that filled our eyes extended even beneath us as we momentarily lost our balance at the invisible shores of an alpine lake that mirrored the sky.
In the years since that powerful experience I have often wondered where we were that night, and now whenever I summit a mountain road, I look around to see if a familiar lake is nearby. On this day, leaving Yellowstone and its road construction behind, I realize that there is a famous pass on a road that would not be on any of my usual homeward routes, but it is not very far from here. Beartooth Pass! I’ve not been over it for many years; maybe this is the location of our nighttime trance. Even if it isn’t, it may hold a place for me to setup my equipment and take pictures in a remote alpine setting.
The forecast is for winds, and the clouds are intermittent at medium height. They aren’t the puffy cumulus blobs that evaporate at night; this is a troubling indicator. But I’m here, I should keep going. It may not turn out in my favor, but if I’m not there to try, there’s no chance at all. My task is to place myself at the right place and time, the weather is beyond my control.