Atmosphere – Sights and Sounds
There are few things as awe-inspiring as observing the night sky and so few people ever get to see it. I’ve always been a “night owl” – I can remember sneaking out of the back door of my home as a teenager on warm summer nights to go sit somewhere in my neighborhood to enjoy the sights and sounds of the night. In the past year or so I’ve become increasingly interested in taking my love of the night to another level: capturing it on camera. This short essay covers a few of the reasons why I shoot at night, not how: for advice on camera settings and methods for how to shoot in the dark I recommend folks check out Michael Blanchette’s great 3-part blog posts from last March, June and September. And while you’re at it read Jim Salge’s excellent write-up on viewing the Northern Lights from last August.
The atmosphere of the night, the sights and sounds, are so very contrary from normal daytime hours that it is literally a different world – I know it seems trite to try to explain it but it is a radical world of diffused light, excessive shadows and noises that you will simply never see or hear when the sun is up.
Sights – Keep Your Eyes Open
I live in central Maine and I have been fortunate enough to have seen the Aurora Borealis twice in the past few months. I will never forget when I saw the Northern Lights for the first time: at Pemaquid Point Lighthouse in Bristol, Maine. I went out that night specifically to shoot the Milky Way with the lighthouse in the foreground but I had also heard on the news that the chance for seeing the aurora that night was decent. It was a perfectly clear albeit cold night in March – St. Patrick’s Day morning. I was aiming my camera towards the ocean and clicking away, listening to the sounds of the waves crashing on the rugged coastline when something made me turn around (always look behind you when shooting!) and there, behind me was an incredible scene of shimmering light green and magenta colors dancing in the sky. I had never seen the aurora before. I quickly turned my camera around and began shooting the Northern Lights for the first time. I became giddy and a bit nervous that I was actually capturing such a fantastic light show in the middle of the night – but I quickly calmed down and the pragmatic part of my brain took over: check my camera settings, trust my instincts, and keep shooting.
I simply could not believe the colors revealed on the LCD screen on my camera: pinks, reds and magentas that I had never seen in the natural world at night. I ran around for a half an hour capturing different vantage points as the sunrise twilight hour began taking over the sky; within minutes the colors were disappearing along with the stars, the Milky Way, and the fantastic gift that Mother Nature had allowed me to witness. As the sun was piercing the horizon just after 6 AM, six or eight other photographers arrived, setting up their tripods and grabbing gear out of their backpacks. They were all standing in a straight line, shooting towards the sunrise over the ocean, when I started walking towards them. They all looked genuinely surprised that they weren’t the first folks to be there shooting the morning’s activities. A few of them asked me how long I had been there and I simply showed them the LCD screen on my camera. I told them I had been shooting the night sky for the past 4 hours and they all began shouting about how they had missed a (perhaps) once-in-a-lifetime scene because they showed up late to the party. The possibility of seeing the aurora had been well publicized in the local news but none of these folks had heeded the advice.
Sounds – Keep Your Ears Open
The second time I witnessed the aurora was last week, during the morning of May 18. Again the possibility of seeing the aurora was publicized, albeit this time in smaller, specific astronomy circles – and a good friend of mine called me and said, “Go out tonight and capture it man!” So I drove out to a local body of water hoping that the reflections would be impressive and after taking some frantic test shots and realizing that yes, indeed, there was a geomagnetic storm happening, I picked a vantage point I liked: on the train tracks that run along the Western edge of Unity Pond, Maine. Keeping my foreground elements in mind (train tracks, a single tree, the pond itself) and aiming my camera directly North, I set my in-camera intervalometer to shoot 30 second exposures for the next 40 minutes or so. Again, Mother Nature did not disappoint. The wind was calm and although the cloud cover was thick it was also sporadic so I was able to capture some awe-inspiring images of the atmospheric dancing of lights. They were more green and purple this time, the way I’ve always seen them depicted in photos – it was a gorgeous and awesome sight that literally thrust me into the throe of wonder yet again.
But the thing that sticks in my mind the most about that night is surprisingly not the visual light show going on in front of me – it is the sounds I heard; to my right was the quiet, glass-like water’s edge of the pond. But to my left was a bog that was roaring with the creatures of the night – frogs. I smiled at the sounds of the high-pitched, constant chirp of peepers and the occasional load burp of a bullfrog or two. And then I heard something I’ve never heard before – the sound of an amphibian playing the jug. I know it was just a huge frog singing out into the night, perhaps trying to impress the local ladies, but it sounded like he was on someone’s front-porch playing the jug in an impromptu band. He would do his thing for 10 seconds or so and then be quiet for 3 or 4 minutes, long enough for me to forget he was there … and then he’d catch his breath and blow it out for another 10 seconds. And it was almost as awe-inspiring as the aurora – something I had never sensed before, whether it be with my eyes or my ears.
These are just a few experiences I’ve had while out shooting at night that have opened up my world to something new: these existential awakenings and empirical awareness that have sparked my inner child to marvel at the world again. There is so much to see, so much to hear, so much to enjoy during the dark hours of each day – the moon, the stars, the Milky Way, the occasional meteor, the quiet calm and the sounds of the night. If you’re lucky, you may even catch a rarely seen natural light show as well! I urge everyone reading this to spend more time looking up into the night sky, it is a beautiful and magical sight that too few people ever enjoy. And while you’re out there, make sure you take a camera because you never know what you might see – and always take a second to look behind you! There may be something there that you’ve never seen before.
Text & images by Mike Taylor – Taylor Photography