A photograph is a modicum of truth as it captures an instant in time, a scene reflective of precisely how everything appeared the moment the shutter was released. True? Not exactly. The realm of photography is filled with all sorts of trickery and inexactness. In fact, as early as there has been photography, there have been those using the medium to alter the way reality is captured and presented. Images on film do not appear precisely how even our own eyes view them. This is because of the effect of optics—cameras, as well as our own eyes, are merely just optical sensors. Both take in light photons and use them to gather information about the world. For our eyes, photons fall upon our retinas and are manifested by our brains into our vision. For a camera, the photons fall upon the film (or in digital photography are recorded on a computer) and render what we call a photograph. Under most circumstances, the images generated by a camera are similar to what we’d view in real life. But when the level of light gets low, a whole new world of photography opens up, one where the varying levels of light can create interesting scenes through different levels of exposure.
The following photographs I took at night as a few experiments in capturing the scenes of light and darkness around Camp Burgess.
The night sky is full of the light of stars. It’s beauty causes us to gaze heavenwards with wonder. Though our brain can process the combination of light and darkness just fine to render a starry image, a camera cannot simply point and shoot a scene from the night sky. The level of light is just too low to record anything but blackness. In order to photograph the night sky, the shutter of the camera must remain open longer than an instant. For as long as the camera’s shutter remains open, light falls on the sensors and the image being rendered is evolving. For this photo of the Big Dipper through the trees, I left my camera’s shutter open for 30 seconds. In the dimness of night, leaving the shutter open for that long enabled the stars, as well as the trees in the foreground, to appear in the scene. (If you’re having trouble seeing the images, then turn up your computer’s brightness)
The following four photographs all were shot from the same location.
Here is the night sky again, with the forest in the foreground. The exposure time was set for 30 seconds, which allowed the stars time to emit enough light to be captured in the image. The outline of the Milky Way can be scene across the sky. This is pretty standard night sky photography.
But I decided to use the optical sensing of the camera to my advantage to create some digital trickery. The night sky is great, but I wanted to see how some artificial light would look in the exposure. This is the same image as before, except that I shone my green star laser in front of the camera while it was recording the image. The streaks of green that were only temporary flashes in the sky look as if they were shining beacons from within the cosmos.
Instead of adding artificial light to the sky, for this image, I added extra light to the trees in the foreground. This is a photographic technique known as light painting. The additional light shone on a nearby object is captured during the long camera exposure, causing a highlighting effect on that object. With this, the details of the trees in the foreground can pop out.
For my final photograph of the series, I increased the exposure time from 30 seconds to a few minutes. The increased length that the shutter is open permits an accumulation of light to enter the camera sensor and be recorded in the image. The wonderful thing about exposures at night longer than a few minutes is the ability to capture star trails. Since the Earth is continually rotating, the placement of the stars changes in the course of the night. This change is below our threshold of perception, but not the camera’s. In a star trail photograph, the stars themselves appear to move across the sky, leaving a curved bright streak showcasing where they have been. I absolutely love star trails. Unfortunately, from my location in Sandwich, Massachusetts, the light pollution was too much to capture star trails. After just a few minutes, the light from the nearby city dominated the image. The resulting photograph looks like a foggy forest captured during daytime. But remember—this photograph was taken in the dark!
Some more fun with artificial lights here, and some more light painting. Here, I used my high-powered green star laser to write some words on the trees in the foreground. The light emitted from the laser is strong and concentrated enough to appear like a neon tube-light in the trees. “Base Glamp” is the nickname of where I’m working this summer.
More fun with lights in the dark. Similar to star trails, any moving artificial light that falls upon the camera’s sensor gets recorded as a streak in the image. Here I had a few friends walk through a field in the darkness as they shined a few flashlights and headlamps around while the exposure time was set for 30 seconds. The resulting light streaks and spotlighting effects always cause an unexpected result. Though the scene itself is nothing much, the very process of recording the image provides a good artistic flair.
Low levels of ambient lighting at night provides an opportunity to capture scenes highlighted by a single light source. Here, the scene in the composition is dim and the only light source is from a single headlamp. Hence, the hands are illuminated while everything surrounding them fade into darkness of the nighttime.
Fire can also provide a source of light at night. The beauty of flames and glowing embers is pleasing to look at as well as to photograph. Compared to the stars, the light emitted by a fire is bright. It takes an exposure of only a few seconds to capture an image like this.
Finally, using my zoom lens, I can safely get close to the fire to photograph a macro of the glowing coals. Just a few seconds exposure captures the soft, glowing light of the embers but blurs the flames crawling from under the log on in the middle.
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
–Wendell Berry, “To Know the Dark”
There is a certain phase between day and night, a time of transition, where the diurnal blends into the nocturnal. These periods of emergent light and shifting darkness make up the twilights of the day—the bimodal intervals between dawn and sunrise, and between sunset and dusk. This is a time on the edges, on the border of binary classification. Organisms that make their way about in these in-between times are known as crepuscular. Those active strictly in the morning twilight are the matutinal; those active solely in the evening twilight are vespertine.
Many familiar creatures make their way about in this altered level of light, taking advantage of both the dimness and the illumination. This is the time to be crepuscular. Under these conditions, a multitude of large forest dwelling creatures emerge—bear, deer, moose—along with their small mammal compatriots: skunks, raccoons, possums, rabbits. Many creatures of the air take flight. The insects—mosquitoes, moths, fireflies. The birds—the owls, the nighthawks. The charismatic bats also take wing. It is now that the active behaviors of these creatures peak. To bear witness to these crepuscular awakenings, the intrepid observer must come join the experience, without light, as a member of the dark.
You are in the middle of it now. Let your feet and voice be silent as you travel in deeper. You will find that the woods are alive with sounds and movements. Careful! Listen close! You too will hear and know the character of the fading light. Though the growing darkness distorts your human vision, fear not. There is nothing to be afraid of in these woods. Nothing in the night is any more dangerous to you than during the day. With transformed senses and unfamiliar sensations, your mind fills in the gaps and imagination runs wild. Yet don’t be alarmed. These crepuscular creatures are more afraid of you than you are of them. Relax. Stay a spell. You may become privy to the hoot of an owl or catch the gliding wisp of a bat overhead.
This twilight journey has been a distinctive experience for you, for humans are not crepuscular creatures. We are largely diurnal, adapted to the brightness of day. Our main sensory experience, our vision, works best in broad daylight. As the day fades into twilight, our eyes begin to cope. The iris expands and the pupils dilate to allow in the dissipating light. Inside the eye, the cones—the sensory cells that detect color and detail—begin to shut down in the dimness. Colors begin to fade, details blur. The acuity of vision diminishes. Yet within the eye, the counterpart of the cones—the rods—begin to become engaged. With the activation of the rods, contrast and shadow become keener, movement more detectable. The silhouettes of trees overhead begin to pop against the dimming sky. The rods readily pick up movement in the periphery of your vision. What was that?!? Did something move? In your periphery, you may detect movement, but oh what tricks your mind may also play on you! The darkness is unfamiliar territory; you are more wary, more attuned to sudden movement.
Yet there are creatures about. There is an abundance of life that is indeed adapted to the crepuscular world. The fading light offers a veil of protection for easy prey, yet illumination enough by which to forage. Predators, too, make use of the twilight as a time of feeding. Equally adapted to the hunt, the crepuscular predators seek out their crepuscular prey. In the twilight, the never-ending battle of evolution ebbs on. Owls, marauders of the night sky, have large eyes adapted to gathering the few rays of light available; binaural hearing, also known as asymmetrical ear placement, allows the owl to detect differences in sound occurrence down to 30 millionths of a second, letting them pinpoint even the tiniest rustle on the forest floor. Overhead the sky is filled with the noise of sound waves, inaudible to the human ear. The bats have emerged and fill the night sky with their echolocation. By emitting their sonar in flight, bats are able to precisely locate the abundance of crepuscular insects upon which they feast. It is a world of eat and be eaten.
All daylight has now faded. At astronomical dusk, the light from the sun no longer can reach over the horizon—it is now as dark as it can get. The period of crepuscular animals is ending. Patiently they will wait again until the next time of twilight. Truly nocturnal animals now make their way about the forest. Take a moment to gaze up now. The sky abounds with a brilliance of stars. Even in the dark, light from a thousand distant suns still caress the planet with their brightness. Even in the darkness, there is light. Even in the darkness there is knowing.