Monday, November 2, 2015

Starry Lighthouse Nights

Yaquina Head Lighthouse, Oregon, by Ben Coffman

Most of us choose to take pictures of a lighthouse during the day---a time of golden sunshine, clouds floating overhead backed by an impossibly blue sky, sparkling seas crashing against the shore, and seabirds wheeling around the tower. Colors are vivid and eye-popping, and photography seems easy. Almost every lighthouse calendar I've had has featured lighthouses as they appear in the daytime.
Yet, lighthouses, for the most part, are structures of the night. Though equipped with daymarks, suggesting diurnal value, and sometimes on duty in fog and murk, lighthouses are mostly about night shift work. The optic is the all-important element, the true purpose of a lighthouse. Without it, a lighthouse is just a tower that fails to tempt the nighttime photographer.
Taking photos at night requires skill. You need a good camera with low light settings, a tripod, a shutter-control device, a relatively calm evening, and patience...lots of patience. And maybe you need a jacket if it's cool or mosquito repellant if it's one of those sultry summer evenings....and some snacks. (Milky Way bars anyone?)
Under an umbrella of stars, with lighthouse beams cast into the darkness, you realize the difficulty of traveling at sea during the night. In the days of sail, it wasn't for the faint of heart. Sailors calculated position by the stars and knew the placement and signature of every lighthouse. Even then, there was still a good deal of "sailing by the seat of the pants."
Today, those same stars and beacons have been upstaged by satellite navigation and a toolbox of sophisticated electronics. They are now the sought-after and coveted destinations of shutterbugs--both amateur and professional--with equally sophisticated cameras.


Above top, Fisgard Lighthouse, British Columbia by Wild Drake Photography. Above bottom, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse by  Murray Hadley.
I won't go into the technical aspects of night photography, as I'm not that good at it. Instead, let's talk about those amazing night images of lighthouses seen on  posters and the internet. Some of them look fake, and indeed a few have been "manipulated," but a spectacular shot like the ones above and the others in this blog, are not only possible but frequent opportunities.
These images are breath-taking, mostly because we've become distanced from the night. We spend the majority of our time in buildings and vehicles. When we're outdoors, we seldom look up, especially at night. We scurry between covered spaces with artificial ceilings. A few of us even fear the night and leave lights on 24/7--an unfortunate situation that scientists say is affecting our circadian rhythm and the ability of our eyes to adjust to darkness.
Thus, pictures of starry nights and brilliant lighthouses make us gasp because we are unaccustomed to communing with the night.
The images in this blog contain much more information that you might think. What do these pictures reveal about the night sky? I worked as planetarium teacher/lecturer for about a decade in the 1980s-90s, and many of my fans and blog followers know I love the stars as much as I love lighthouses. (Stars, in my opinion, are little lighthouses nature put in the sky to guide and delight us.) So let's talk about these starry night lighthouse pictures!
Above, In Ben Coffman's image of Yaquina Head, thousands of stars dapple the night sky, the Milky Way arches upward, and the beacon sends out its signal like spokes on a giant wheel of light. This is how the beams of a Fresnel lens appear from underneath the lantern, each one cast through its bulls-eye and fanned out as the light encounters moisture and dust in the air.
Would you see this many stars with your own eyes, or be able to observe the diaphanous river of the Milky Way as it spills across the sky? It's not likely. Some of us are more photosensitive than others; we can see more in the darkness. But none of us can see as well as a camera lens. Cameras can pick up much more faint light. Thus, a camera goes deeper into the night and sees more stars, more nebulous stardust, and it sharply defines the beams of light coming from a lighthouse lantern.
Even so, Ben Coffman's image looks slightly smudgy. Look closely and you'll notice the stars are blobby (is that a word?), not sharp pinpoints of light. That's because the Earth was turning under the sky when the photo was taken. (It's still turning, of course--it never stops, lucky for us. At the equator, it turns about 1,050mph, though we cannot sense the motion.) In the time Coffman left the shutter open on his camera to capture this image--maybe twenty seconds or so--the Earth moved a little under the stars. Movement, as we know, makes photos blur. I'm not saying Ben's image is flawed. It's fabulous! I'm doing a little throw-back teaching, as if explaining the night sky to a group of students at the planetarium in the late 1980s. I do miss that!

Here's another night photo, this one of Cape Schanck Lighthouse in Australia, taken by Thomas Williams. This is the southern hemisphere sky, which for some peculiar quirk of nature has fewer visible stars than the northern hemisphere. It has something to do with the direction of the Milky Way, which has many more stars than other places in the sky. Notice there's a very bright star on the left. That's actually a planet, probably Venus or Jupiter, the brightest planets. The blanking panel on the lighthouse lantern gave Williams a chance to shoot the image without much glare. Notice how the stars seem like little dashes. Williams did a longer exposure on this image than Coffman did in his image of Yaquina Head Lighthouse. The effect is that the stars began to make little trails, small lines that showed the Earth movement under the stars while the camera shutter was open.

The longer a camera shutter stays open on the night sky, the longer the little star trails will be! Check out some images below of Little Sable Lighthouse by Joe Gee and Lime Kiln Lighthouse by Chris Cook. These have awesome star trails!

In both images, you can see there's a center, or hub, to the wheel of star trails. Since these pictures were both taken in the Northern Hemisphere, the hub of the sky's apparent rotation (remember, it's really the Earth rotating under the sky) is the North Star, also called Polaris or the Pole Star. It is located almost directly over Earth's North Pole, so our planet seems to whirl around under it. Polaris makes its own very small star trail, since it's not exactly over the North Pole of Earth. But to our eyes, and for mariners, it works as a guide star to locate the Celestial North Pole. Why is that important? Polaris' distance above the horizon in degrees equals our latitude. Bingo!!! It's a star for finding latitude. This is why Polaris, or the North Star, is so famous.

Now we're talking rudimentary astronomy and celestial navigation. I could go on and on! Instead, lets look at more images.

Here are more shots of beautiful lighthouses and the Celestial North Pole--

East Point Lighthouse in New Jersey, photographed by Jack Fusco, looks incredible under its canopy of star trails. Fusco undoubtedly took this image on a windless night and left the shutter on his camera open for maybe an hour. Look how long the arcs of the star trails are! Polaris' small arc also can be seen very near the pivot point of the star trail wheel. It makes a complete circle in 24 hours, as do all the other star trails.

Another sky phenomenon you can see in this image is meteor streaks in the lower left, shooting through the star trails. If you try a night shot like this, don't be surprised if one of two meteors photo-bomb your effort. On most nights, three or four of them steak overhead every hour. They are sometimes called Falling Stars, but they have nothing to do with the stars. Meteors are bits of space debris swept up by Earth's gravitational field and pulled down through the atmosphere. Friction from our planet's envelope of air causes them to get hot and ignite, streaming a trail of fire behind them. They only last a few seconds, and very few of them reach the ground.

During meteor showers, there are lots more of these extraterrestrial interlopers! Check out the image below of the Geminid Meteor Shower over St. Mary's Lighthouse in the United Kingdom. Geoff Robinson took this terrific image. Exposure time was short for his camera, just a few seconds I think. You can see some stars in the background, but not nearly so many as would be seen in a long exposure image. Robinson definitely took the advice of poet John Donne: "Go and catch a falling star!"

FYI--There are nine major meteor showers a year. They occur when Earth passes through debris areas left behind by comets that have swung through our solar system. The Perseids and Leonids are usually the best showers for sheer numbers of meteors. The Leonids are coming up in a couple of weeks. Go out and look for them, camera or not. They're amazing! If the sky is clear, after midnight you might see thirty or more meteors per hour. They're called the Leonids because the constellation Leo is where they seem to originate. Seem is the operative word: The dome of night sky over us is all about direction and perspective. The stars of Leo are actually at different distances from us--very great distances indeed!--but they appear to be together, side-by-side, in the night sky. The Leonid meteors are close, maybe a few hundred miles up, shooting down to Earth against the backdrop of the constellation Leo.

Some photographers delight in lining up a lighthouse beacon with the North Star. Check out these next images that place their lighthouse beacons at the hub of the starry wheel of natural nightlights!

Bodie Island Lighthouse, Outer Banks, North Carolina, by Kevin Adams.

St. Marks Lighthouse, Florida by Mark Wallheiser.
Compare the two images of Bodie Island Lighthouse and St. Marks Lighthouse. Can you see that Polaris is higher in the sky in North Carolina than in Florida? That's primarily because North Carolina is at a higher latitude than Florida. (We also have to factor in the height of the two lighthouses and the photographer's distance from them.)

I love the pink glow on the northern horizon of both of these images. It's likely due to ambient light from nearby towns.

Have a look at this next image. Something's different here--

This is Cape Leuuwin Lighthouse in Western Australia. (Image by Random Lights Photography.) The Southern Celestial Hemisphere shines over it. There's no South Star, unfortunately. Navigators and stargazers look, instead, for the Southern Cross, a crucifix-shape of stars near the Celestial South Pole.  The next photos of Barrenjoey Lighthouse in Australia, taken by Sarah Morphett and Yury Prokopenko, provide a glimpse of what's in the hub of the sky in the Southern Hemisphere.

The hub is relatively empty--no bright star there to steer by. No Polaris of the South, no South Star. Notice how many more stars trails Mophett captured than Prokopenko. The time of evening probably was later for Mophett's image, and her camera settings may have been different. Prokopenko, however, caught a nice meteor streaking behind the lighthouse.
There are many, many stars in the sky, from wherever you look upward--"billions and billions" as Carl Sagan liked to remind us in his authoritative but mellifluous voice. There are, indeed, more stars than the eye can discern, or even a good camera for that matter. Astronomers tell us there over 100 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy alone; our sun is one of them. And there are billions of galaxies in the universe, each with billions of stars. That Sagan word, "billions," does get a workout when talking about the cosmos!
If it makes you feel small and inconsequential, some ways you are. But you have company, I think, here and elsewhere. Nature programmed us to love a starry night, a light in the darkness. Possibly, in some other galaxy, far far away, on some planet like ours, other beings have built lighthouses and invented cameras...and they are taking pictures of their starry lighthouse nights too.
All this discussion of lighthouses and stars--pharology and astronomy--urges me to head out to a lighthouse the next clear night and have a look for myself. It's free entertainment, you know. No tickets are needed, no admission fee. Totally free, courtesy of nature the star maker and the U.S. Coast Guard, which keeps our lighthouses shining. Look with your own eyes, or look with your camera's eye. Either way, you'll feel uplifted and reassured. The stars are constant in our heavens, as Shakespeare reminded us, and the lighthouse, to quote the old lightkeepers, is "watching properly."

Michael Blanchette's photo of the glorious sky over the old North Light on Block Island, Rhode Island.
Footnote: If you live in Florida, you might enjoy my book The Florida Night, a guide to amateur astronomy and stargazing in Florida. You can find it on Amazon, or email me to purchase an autographed copy for $25:

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