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.|
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, well...in 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.