A 90-minute exposure captures a variety of lights. The stars mark their clockwork passage across the sky of course, but civilization also leaves its mark. Airplane beacons flash as they pass through, distant towns show on the horizon, and local traffic finds its way along the private road below. Private, but not unseen, and when the headlights aim in my direction, with the lens wide open, the film captures their flare.
The stars follow their gradual southern arcs parallel to the terrain during this 90 minute exposure. The water is unusually high this season, catching and reflecting starlight during its freefall down to the valley floor, the long exposure creating a flowing river of mist not possible to capture during the bright daylight hours.
Mike eventually left me to the finicky procedure of finding the focus. It took another thirty minutes by the time I was satisfied. I had several targets I wanted to shoot this night, and the first one was M80 and M81, a pair of galaxies that could fit in a single view, faint swirls of light framed by the foreground stars of the Big Dipper. I attached the camera back, connected the cable release, started my timer, held my breath, and tripped the shutter. It was midnight, and I was catching my first photons!
I now had a moment to break from my equipment-demanded trance. From my position at the top of the boat ramp, I had a great view of the lake, its island silhouetted in the surround of the mirrored sky. At the shore I could make out my fixed camera tripods, a small indicator light showing the nearby battery packs powering the dew heaters that kept the lens clear from condensation. All of my film was now open to the sky, each exposed frame collecting the faint trickle of photons gathered by lenses and mirrors.
There was nothing for me to do! I gazed across the lake in a state of unexpected idleness. I wondered what my cameras at the lake were recording. I had intended to leave them open all night, but now that the lake surface was so calm, should I start over? I started to mentally compose other shots. I could reposition the cameras. Should I? Or should I do something else, like change the lens aperture? Or should I just re-shoot the scene with the exact same settings, trying to build insurance that one of the frames will turn out?
Not an ideal night for star pictures! The moon is full, clouds and haze fill the sky, and nearby lights conspire to wash out the darkness. Even so, the pattern of the Big Dipper constellation behind the palm trees is enchanting.
In most star trail pictures a fixed camera records a static landscape and the only motion is from the clocklike rotation of the stars. In this case the palm trees are turned into flowers waving in the wind, even as the star trails keep their sharp focus. The rising full moon and the lights of this Hawaiian island color the clouds, furthering the dreamlike quality in this picture.
A windfall is a sudden, usually unexpected, influx of wealth. Winning-the-lottery windfalls are rare. Smaller, but still welcome, are an employee bonus, an inheritance, or a lucky run at the casino. People react in different ways to the experience of unexpected wealth or “found money”. It tells something about a person: the easy-come, easy-go gambler versus the frugal saver who salts it away for an indefinite future.
I have experienced a windfall not of money, but of time. A new company benefit designed to attract and keep employees in a climate of dot-com employment frenzy was announced. It seemed like an inexpensive benefit to advertise: employees of five years or more could take a one-time additional 3-week period, a sabbatical, of “disconnect time-off”. Combined with conventional vacation time, one could be absent for six weeks! But it would never happen. What high-tech California company had employees that stayed long enough to collect such a benefit?
But I wasn’t a California employee. I had held on for over twelve years in stoic Scandinavian style at a small Minnesota company, a company whose flicker of success first caught the attention of, and then was acquired by a Silicon Valley company desperate for people to help it grow, and eager to retain them. It was an unexpected gift, and I now had the dilemma of how to spend it.
I made an expedition to northern Arizona in November of
1998. It was partly to find out what is involved in transporting photo and
telescope guiding equipment to other parts of the world. Although cumbersome (I
shipped a 90 lb crate ahead to be available when I arrived), it worked.
On the first night I found a remote site in the high desert.
The map showed what looked like paved roads to a fishing lake. Evidently the
map notations are different in Arizona; at least there were ruts where earlier
vehicles had found their way.
The lake was remarkably calm and I marvelled at the darkness
of the sky as I watched Orion rise in the east. I could hear wildlife including
coyotes, owls, and yes, ducks. But they were far away and the water remained
like a mirror. The sky glow here is not from aurora, but instead from distant
Flagstaff, a city with an ordinance to use sodium vapor street lighting. The
color is strongly yellow, but easily filtered and removed by the astronomical
observatories that are hosted by the town. My film however captures all of it.
Although Orion is spread out into an unrecognizable form, he
can be identified by the bright orange star, Betelgeuse on the left, and bright
blue star Rigel on the right. The triad of belt stars makes a catscratch-like
trail, and you may notice a distinctly red star that is even more obviously red
in its reflection. This is the famous Orion nebula, a glowing region of gas and
dust where new stars are being born.
There is a progression of techniques in taking pictures of
the night sky. The simplest is to place your camera on a tripod and open the
shutter for a while. The stars form streaks on the film as the Earth rotates
under them, creating a startrail image. As I considered what I would need to
take more advanced astrophotos, I found that there is plenty to learn and much
opportunity for pleasing compositions even with this simple method.
I pondered how to capture that feeling I once shared with a
friend seeing the stars from zenith to horizon, then continuing beneath us as
we looked out over their reflections in an alpine lake. This became the
inspiration for my quest of the ultimate startrail picture: a full semicircle
of startrails reflected in the calm waters of a lake. I have not achieved this
goal, but the pictures in this series are some of the rewards along the way.
Kinnikinnik is the closest I came to making my target image!
The conditions were perfect: a clear dark sky, no aurora, a calm lake with no
creatures disturbing it, but my timing is off. This is my first and only time
at this site and I arrived late after a day of traveling. I was unprepared to
last the night, and after a few one and two hour trial exposures, I succumbed
to the cold and returned to my distant hotel room to recharge. I never made it
Although not successful that year, I am looking forward to
more adventures in future years. In a way, I hope I never quite find full
success in this project!
To find truly dark skies, go north. My friend John Walsh, an avid backpacker, headed to the northernmost part of our state for a fall weekend adventure. I convinced him to take my camera and film, explained how to attach chemical handwarmers to the lens to keep it from fogging over, and asked him to open the shutter for six hours when he got there. Among his other nice photos of aurora and bright stars, is this beautiful picture across a gently flowing stream, reflecting the night sky and the northern lights.
This night had brought together nearly all the elements for
my target picture: a lake far away from
city lights and radio towers, one with no cabins or roads on the north while I
had access from the south, a long night to contain a long exposure without the
lake being already frozen, a stagnant high pressure center stalling the winds
and keeping the lake surface at a mirror finish. And my schedule had allowed me to take a
night away to make the shot! All these
prerequisites had been met.
I set up my equipment and busied myself with other
activities while the camera recorded the motion of the sky. A loud KERSPLASH startled me. Who would be throwing boulders into the lake
in the middle of the night? I peered out
onto the lake to see dark shadows swimming back and forth directly in front of
my camera. Each traversal left a wake
breaking up the reflected starlight.
Occasionally a shadow would suddenly turn over end and dive, slapping
its tail onto the water surface to make the boulder-throwing sound.
I cursed the beavers.
They filled the night with constant gnawing sounds as they busied
themselves around me. About halfway
through the night I was startled again, this time by the sound of a tree
crashing to the forest floor next to me.
One more hazard to add to my list.
The picture I obtained was almost perfect, accented by the
glow of the northern lights, and the intermittent breaks in the reflected
trails as the beavers swam across the view, oblivious to my intent.