Twilight and Beyond (Part 1)

I recently had the opportunity to make a presentation to the membership of the  Vienna Photographic Society in Vienna, Virginia on the subject of night photography.  A friend and fellow photographer suggested that the subject might also be of interest to write about here.

For openers, many people might ask why in the world someone would want to go out and photograph things at night. And they have a point, because everything is more difficult in the dark.  It is hard to see what you are doing or where you are going.  And then there is the inconvenient fact that photography relies on light.

But despite the challenges, night photography opens a whole new world of photographic opportunities.  After the sun has set, the world begins to be transformed into something unfamiliar and strange.

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Moonrise, near Marquette, Michigan

As the above image shows, photographing a scene at night produces a totally different result in daylight. Much of what we see at day has disappeared while things we could not see are now apparent. Even more interesting is how a scene becomes more abstract as the light fades.  And in certain cases, you have the ability to capture the passage of time.

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Washington Monument at Night

These other worldly characteristics make it necessary to adopt a different mind-set when photographing at night.  For example, in a night-time urban environment one is dealing with many, perhaps thousands, of light sources instead of just one. But in a landscape environment, you may be dealing with virtually no light.

Although the scene may be radically different than in daytime, the photographer faces the same technical constraints.  The four factors of   aperture, shutter speed, and light sensitivity are still with us, but at an extreme level, often pushing the limits of our equipment.

There is some disagreement among photographers over the definition of “night” when discussing night photography.  For me, it covers any photograph taken in the time between sunset and sunrise.  One of the most magical aspects of this genre, in my opinion, is the slow transformation between daylight and darkness (evening and morning) which is known as twilight.

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World War I Memorial, Washington, DC (19 minutes  after sunset)

 

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US Capitol and Senate Garage Fountain (30 minutes after sunset)

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Paris, Place Concorde Fountain (73 minutes after sunset)

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Ferris wheel, Madison Wisconsin (Night)

Twilight begins at sunset, and while the sun is relatively close to the horizon, illumination is provided by the scattering of sunlight in the sky.   During twilight, the earth is neither fully lit nor completely dark.  The twilight period actually is divided into three separate phases, Civil, Nautical, and Astronomical, each of which is about 30 minutes long.  For further details on these terms check this link.

During the transition between daylight and actual darkness, the quality of light changes rapidly and close attention to what is happening in the scene is advisable.  This is especially true in an urban environment when artificial lights begin to become dominant, overwhelming the ambient light from the fading twilight.

Night Photos Washington CityscapeMoonrise over Kennedy Center, Washington, DC (20 minutes after sunset)

Night Photos Washington TwilightPhotographed 5 Minutes Later

 

My favorite technique for adding drama to a twilight scene is to include a rising or setting moon as shown below.  Taken in 2001, there was no “app” to guide photographers to the

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Moonrise, Lincoln Memorial (7 minutes after sunset)

perfect location.  One needed a real compass and a source of information on the lunar cycle, such as the US Naval Observatory website.

Today, the easy availability of products such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris, Photo Pils, and others make it much easier.  But there still are a few additional elements that are helpful to know.   That will be the topic of the next installment of this series.

In the meantime,

Keep Shooting…..

Hidden Gem: Mexico’s Monarch Preserves

Well, the Google Doodle beat me to the punch yesterday, marking the 41st anniversary of the discovery of the overwintering site of the Monarch butterfly.  But that’s OK, I’m going ahead with this anyway.

D-11-01-18-0271 (Keynote)Monarchs Overwintering in Mexico (2011)

By the mid-20th century the existence of the monarch migration had been well known for many years, but not its full route.  Every August and September, millions of monarchs in the eastern United States and Canada would start flying south toward Mexico and disappear.   Then, around March, they would reappear on a northward journey. The location where they spent those intervening months was unknown.  It was one of nature’s great mysteries.

Until January 9, 1975.

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In that year, a group of scientists following clues left by tagged butterflies that had fallen on the journey south were led to a place high in the mountains of Mexico’s eastern Sierra Madre Mountains. There they found millions of butterflies clinging to the branches of the oyamel trees that grow at altitudes as high as 11,000-12,000 feet.

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The fact that these small creatures can actually make the trip of several thousand miles is not the most amazing part of the story.  What is most incredible is that none of them had ever been there before. Yet each year a new torrent of monarchs, separated by three or four generations from those that flew there the previous year, finds its way to those same oyamel trees.

I became entranced with this story in 2001, after reading “Four Wings and a Prayer” by Sue Halpern who traveled to Mexico in a truck with legendary monarch tracker Bill Calvert and experienced first-hand the spectacle of the monarch migration.

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My own journey started shortly afterwards with a trip to Cape May, New Jersey,  a key crossing point for the southbound monarchs over Delaware Bay.  Butterfly researchers at the Cape May Bird Observatory demonstrated the technique of tagging the monarchs and how the tracking depends on anonymous individuals who find a tagged butterfly and report the information of where and when to research centers.

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Tagged Monarch Before Release (2001)

A few days later, I caught up with a researcher in Lorton, Virginia who was tagging southbound monarchs in a field of yellow wildflowers (image below).   He had almost

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Migrating Monarch, Lorton VA (2001)

reached his annual goal of 500 taggings, but was despondent over the fact that this waystation for the monarchs was about to become a shopping center.

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Lorton, Virginia (2001)

Seven years later, I was at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, on the south shore of Lake Superior, when I spotted a few flashes of orange.  It was a pair of migrating monarchs just arriving from their 100-mile-plus flight across the great lake from Canada.  They still were over 2,500 miles from their destination.

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Migrating Monarch, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, MI (2008)

In the fall of 2010, a friend called asking if I would like to join her on a trip to see the overwintering sites in Mexico. My answer was quick and the following January, we found ourselves on a long bus ride from Mexico City to the mountain village of Angangueo. But this was just the first of many transportation modes we would use in the coming days such as the back of pick-up trucks, riding horses, and finally hiking on our own at lung-busting (to us at least) altitudes of 11,000 feet and higher.

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Getting Closer, but a Tough Hike Awaits (2011)

But it was all worth it.  Photographs really can’t communicate the scale of the scenes we witnessed.  There are so many butterflies clustered on the trees that the branches bend downward from the weight, occasionally even breaking.The image below shows a small section of a stand of trees in one of the preserves.  Imagine that no matter where you look from this position, all the trees surrounding you are covered from top to bottom with what seem like orange leaves but really are butterflies.

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Monarch Clusters on Oyamel Trees, Mexico (2011)

Mexico does try to protect the sanctuaries, although illegal logging is one of many serious threats.  But on the positive side they enforce strict (5 mph) speed limits on a highway that occasionally is also used by the monarchs when searching for water outside the preserves.

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Monarch Crossing, Mexico  (2011)

An equally serious threat is the loss of habitat in the United States.  Remember that shopping center in Lorton, Virginia? There has been a steady decline in the numbers of monarchs reaching the preserves over the past decade, but there was a slight uptick last

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Chart of Monarch Counts in Mexico (1994-2014)

year.  Preliminary estimates for this winter are cautiously optimistic, with hopes that they might reach the levels of 2011, when I was there.  Keep your fingers crossed and….

 

Keep Shooting….