Night at the Meadow Barn (A first draft)


I love night photography.  There's something magical in the the solitary experience of the photographer as he tries to trap starlight in the camera and stamp it onto the frame.  From my first star photo almost six years ago to the random nights driving around looking for dark spots in the dead of winter, the thrill I get from photographing the world at night has never dimmed.  So, during my most recent trip back to California, under the brilliant Lake County stars, I got that old familiar feeling and found myself shaking off sleep and heading out into the night with my camera at midnight.  Almost on a whim, I drove past my usual spots in the hayfields and headed for the Meadow Barn.

You might remember that three years ago I set out to shoot night photos of all four barns original to my family's ranch.  That project got a little sidetracked when I moved away to Hawaii, but the Meadow Barn (the third of the four barns) was always next on my list.

The Meadow Barn is probably the most primitive of the four original barns.  It has never had electricity, and was built mainly to store the winter hay for the cattle.  It sits at the center of a long valley surrounded by low rambling hills and the big open sky.  No electricity means no lights, and no lights means no way to illuminate the barn in the middle of that big darkness.  The stars, numerous as they were, were not bright enough to throw light on the barn and without the added light of the moon the barn structure in my first few shots ended up as just a dark outline on the horizon.  To overcome that, I flashed the face of the barn with a spotlight. Just for one or two seconds.  This worked, but it also gave the barn a kind of blue tint that I didn't care for.  That, combined with the fact that I had to ramp up the ISO which made the photos a little grainy, made we want to regroup and try again properly another night.


Eventually, I'm hoping to haul out a generator and rig up a string of lights inside the barn, take a few really long exposures (my longest of these was ten minutes), and play with different angles.  But on the night I shot these photos I didn't have the time or the help for that kind of work.  Instead, I tried to test out different perspectives and exposure times and get a feel for how I might shoot the barn in the future.  Overall I was pleased with how the photos turned out.

I'm looking forward to getting back and having a second try--set up for a few hours, take my time, maybe shoot with a couple of cameras.  But mostly I'm looking forward to getting back under the stars, opening up the shutter, and seeing what appears out of the darkness. That's the true magic of night photography.

Night Oak

As I was wrapping up my last night of shooting at the Sheep Barn I noticed the setting moon shining through the bare branches of this oak tree.  It was sort of an afterthought to stop and try and get this photo; plus the moon wouldn't hide completely behind the bigger oak limbs causing a little bit of lens flare, but I thought it came out nice anyway.


Sheep Barn #1

Another barn, another night (or nights).  This is the Sheep Barn.  Originally, it was part of the ranch back when Mary Bowcher was the owner.  My dad remembers shearing sheep in this barn in the '50s when his dad, my grandpa, worked as Ms. Bowcher's ranch manager.  Today it belongs to the Luchetti family, who purchased it from my grandpa not long after Ms. Bowcher died and passed the ranch on to our family. We were very lucky to have inherited the ranch from Ms. Bowcher, though with the imposition of a hefty inheritance tax, Grandpa was forced to sell off a significant piece of land to pay the tax.  So in 1969, we sold over 600 acres (which included the Sheep Barn, a hay barn, an old victorian house, and other structures) to the Luchettis.  It was unfortunate to lose such a big piece of the original ranch, but in doing so we were able to keep the remainder (1,700 acres, two other barns, and our house) in our family.  And in hindsight, we couldn't have sold to a better family.  Like us, the Luchettis want to keep the land as close to its original state as is reasonably possible.  Our mutual goal is preservation.  Plus they're just really good people. Beginning with the old barn that I photographed last summer, I have been on a quest to take night photos of all four of the original Coyote Valley Ranch barns.  The Luchettis gave me permission to photograph the Sheep Barn at my leisure, which I did on three different nights over a span of about six weeks.

My first night shooting the barn was pitch black and totally still.  I shot several very long exposures meaning that after about an hour I had three photos to work with.  By the time I ended up taking this shot the moon was starting to come up behind the barn, which gives the photo a backlit feeling.  The brightest star on the right is the plant Jupiter.  15minutes/f7.1/iso200

I shot this photo in my second attempt roughly six weeks later under a waxing crescent moon.  I waited so long to make a second attempt due to the fact that I needed the moon to be in a specific lunar phase and for the weather to be cooperative.  The waxing crescent moon gave off enough light to illuminate the barn without bleaching out the stars as a full moon does.  I also needed the moon in a certain position in the sky so that it would shine on this specific part of the barn.  When all of these factors finally came together I discovered that I had a window of about three days before the moon would be too bright or move out of position and cast obstructing shadows.  Thankfully it wasn't raining or overcast during those three days, though some clouds were moving in as I was wrapping up on the second night.  8minutes/f7.1/iso200

Same night, different angle.  Clouds moving in.  The shot is a little blurry in some spots because of wind.  This was during the period of high winds that moved across the whole western United States and did a lot of damage in Utah.  It was howling all night making it a little difficult to keep the camera absolutely steady.  The wind also blurred the trees and the barn door a little, but not too much. 4minutes/f3.5/iso200

While all three photos are of the same subject I think each one is unique, especially the first two, as the differing degrees of light and darkness change the feel of the image.

More photos of the Sheep Barn in the post below...

Sheep Barn #2

On the third and final night of shooting the Sheep Barn I wanted to focus less on the general profile of the barn and more on capturing smaller structural details.  I tried to use light (both natural and artificial) in varying ways to accentuate those details.

The way the overhead lights came through the slat board construction of barn was especially interesting to me and is a common theme throughout this whole post, but more specifically  in these first two photos I wanted to make the old chimney central to the photograph without separating it from the overall structure of the barn.  In this first photo I used a longer exposure to give it a warmer tone, letting the moonlight more fully illuminate the image.  I also left the flood light on longer to really light up the barnyard and reveal the color of the weathered redwood siding.  10minutes/f5.6/iso160

A shorter exposure and dimmer flood light gave this photo a more natural look, portraying what the barn actually looks like in the dark of night.  1min.45sec/f3.5/iso250

I wanted another photo of the barn's general layout that better captured the light coming through the boards than the ones from the night before.  This was the result.  Also I liked the way the little ribbons of light stretched out so far into the barnyard and shone onto the tree off to the right.  1min.40sec/f3.5/iso250

A different angle here helped to accentuate the light patterns made on the ground as it streamed through the barn's siding.  It also gives more of an intimate view into the barn's interior while still focusing on the outer profile.  1min.30sec/f3.5/iso250

Night Barn (extended version)

Since photography is all about the capture of light, it goes without saying that different lightscapes offer differing impressions of a single subject.  Such is the case with the old barn.  I'd photographed it previously at night, once in winter under a full moon, and more recently in the pitch black of a hot summer night.  I took these photos just the other night under a very bright half moon on a night when a cool breeze was moving in through the barn from the West.  The light of the moon made everything in the images sharper, it created shadows, and illuminated spaces that would have otherwise just been black.  So while the photos are all similar to their counterparts in the previous post, I thought they were different enough to put up here.

Light through the horse stalls.  Southern wing of the barn.  127sec./f7.1/iso200

Breezeway and northern wing.  188sec./f7.1/iso200

Grain Silos in the moonlight.  (no artificial lights used)  105sec./f7.1/iso320

This is almost the exact same photo as the one I put in the last Night Barn post.  It was taken from the same place with a very similar angle, but this time I really tried to use all the lights of the barn instead of just the main overheads.  The moonlight also gives the image a different feel considering it helped sharpen everything and gave the stars a little less brilliance.  That's me in the breezeway flipping on the overhead lights, though for this photo I actually had to flip four different switches to make all the rest of the lights show up.   128sec./f7.1/iso200