Night Photography

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.

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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.

Torching at Heʻeia

IMG_2242 To live on the water at Heʻeia is to know the ocean differently.  The white sandy beaches and crashing blue surf typical of the rest of Oʻahu are not found here.  At Heʻeia the ocean is lapping bay water, sticky mudflats, and ancient fishponds.  This shore is the ancestral home of generations of fishermen.  They lay their nets off the reef and dive with the sharks at the drop off.  And some nights, at low tide, in the dark of the moon, they come out to go torching.  This is when Heʻeia becomes more than a shoreline; this is when Heʻeia is magic.

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Anciently, Hawaiians fished Kāneʻohe Bay with olonā nets, hard wood spears, white bone hooks, and (at night), with torches made from kukui nut.  On still nights they walked the reef with their torches and speared the sleeping fish in the firelight.  Today, locals have evolved from torches to propane lanterns and high-powered headlamps, but they still call it torching.

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The light in the midst of the black ocean is what makes torching feel magical.  As you walk in the dark water, the small circle of light at your feet reveals an alien world where little red crabs flit in and out of the coral heads, feeding on sea snails and limpets.  In the silt, tiny phosphorescent squid burrow down for protection, a trumpetfish brushes your ankle, and an eel broods nearby. The colorful reef fish are half-asleep and reluctant to flee from the light, making them easy prey for the fishermen.

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Nighttime at Heʻeia is the time of the scavenger.  When the tide retreats to slack water and the reef fills with the strange crackling noise of the skittish crustaceans, then the fisherman appears at the shoreline -- his lantern strapped to a harness on his chest and a three prong spear in his hands.  He steps onto the mudflats and becomes a part of that alien world, a participant in the great feeding frenzy of low tide.  He wanders the reef back and forth and the lantern bobs with him as he walks; until finally, from far off, he merges with the darkness and becomes another pale light on the horizon, a vague point of reference in the black, a final piece of the great cosmic tapestry reflected in the glassy water of the bay.

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A New Year, A Barrel Stove, & A Telescope

IMG_2200 New Year's Eve 2013 again found me in the middle of a hayfield attempting to light a fire in freezing temperatures.  But this year, because of the extreme dry weather and fire hazard, we could not build a bonfire.  Instead, we hauled an old barrel stove out to a place in the field where the cattle had beaten the ground to bare earth, and stoked the fire until the old stove glowed.

The stove itself has an odd story.  It originated from the years when the ranch was a fully functioning sheep and cattle operation, complete with cowboys and old ranch hands. According to my dad, one of those ranch hands one day decided that he wanted to have a stove in the shop to warm his coffee in the mornings.  With a little bit of ingenuity and a lot of welding, the old ranch hand turned an empty Standard Oil drum into a fine little wood stove.  Eventually, the old ranch hand moved on and my grandfather retired from cattle and sheep and turned the ranch into a horse breeding outfit.  The shop fell into disuse and the barrel stove became lost under four decades of junk.

But last October, in a cleaning frenzy, I cleared the debris from the shop and found the barrel stove hidden under the detritus--slightly rusted, but still strong.  When we went to build a fire in it on New Year's Eve, we found kindling and newspaper already set.  The newspaper was from 1964 and had a feature story on the trial of Jack Ruby, the man who murdered Lee Harvey Oswald.  We burned the fifty year old kindling and saved the newspaper.

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Along with the barrel stove, we brought my telescope with us to search the sky for planets and constellations.  In all my life I have never known a night sky so vibrant as is found in Lake County.  I have seen darker skies with less light pollution and I'm sure at some point I've seen a sky with more visible stars, but none of them had the magnetism of the Lake County sky.  It's as if the stars in Lake County have each been ground down to their most essential brilliance - the brilliance of pure light - and then expertly arranged onto a profound canvas of inky black night.

I used to think I was just biased, as anyone tends to be when thinking about home, but I found that I'm not the only one impressed by the Lake County night sky.  In 1880, Robert Louis Stevenson spent his honeymoon at an abandoned mining town on the western slopes of Mount St. Helena--about fifteen miles from the hayfield where I took this photo--and he described the night as he saw it back then.

"The sky itself was of a ruddy, powerful, nameless, changing color, dark and glossy like a serpent's back.  The stars, by innumerable millions, stuck boldly forth like lamps....  I have never seen such a night.  It seemed to throw calumny in the teeth of all the painters that ever dabbled in starlight....  The nameless color of the sky, the hues of the starfire, and the incredible projection of the stars themselves, starting from their orbits, so that the eye seemed to distinguish their positions in the hollow of space - these were things that we had never seen before and shall never see again." - Silverado Squatters

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(Final photo taken in March 2010)

Cason/Tateoka Wedding - Utah Reception

IMG_0469 Three days before they were married in Louisiana, Charlotte and Ryan had an open house/reception for all their friends and family in Utah.  They held the event in an old dairy barn that the city of Draper has restored and turned into a community event center.

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Charlotte and Ryan decorated the barn with a simple, natural theme.  Charlotte made small stone bowls with succulents that were used for centerpieces, and Ryan hung a few strands of lights and flag banners from the trusses.  They did not cover the walls or take down the existing decor (small plaques and old photographs detailing the barn's history hung on the walls).  They wanted to make sure that their decorations would not interfere with the organic ambiance of the barn.

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It turned out that their simple decorations were the perfect compliment to the barn's unique character.  Though it was a large building, the reception felt bright and warm, which only increased as the old barn slowly filled with  guest and family.

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Farewell on Fulton

Three weeks ago we moved away from San Francisco.  I had finished my final semester of classes at USF, and though it was difficult to say goodbye to the city, it made the most sense for us to move back to Middletown for the summer. On our final night in the city, I took my camera for a walk on Fulton Street - our cross street.  I'd always wanted to photograph Fulton at night, and this photo caught the late-night number five bus speeding away from the avenues back towards downtown.  It was a fitting farewell.

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