September 23, 2007

Pure Magic, by Dan Johnson

I'M STANDING HERE, GAZING UP AT ANOTHER PLANET. VENUS IS BRILLIANT TONIGHT; it deserves a special photograph. Over the last few weeks I've been watching it chase the Pleiades, (a bright and pretty star cluster located along the ecliptic and in the constellation The Bull) running up alongside them, trying to run them down. According to "Sky & Telescope", tonight is as close as they'll get.

But there's more to it than that---the dusk is settling and coming down around me and the sky, the sky is just so right. The sun has set---has gone down and taken the sharpness of true light with it. But the horizon out and beyond the tree line glows rich with white, red, orange, then fading farther up into purple, blue, and finally black. And right up there---right along the division between the purple and the black---here come the stars...

It's been a lovely day and it's winding down into a lovely night. Chores are finished, and my other photography work is finished for the day---stopped by the lack of light. I photograph rural life and animals for books and calendars and magazines and so much of what I shoot depends on light-- and fast light-- light that lets you work at high speeds and low ISO's. You shoot a lot of film, and you shoot it fast, with a lot of time given to the shoot as a whole, but not that much time given to a single frame. But tonight---tonight the work is done. Time to play with the stars.
I take out my clunky, heavy tripod, an old Miller movie tripod with a fluid head and enough beef to hold steady against a hurricane (cameras don't go anywhere when they're attached to it) and set it up carefully in the growing dusk.

Again, the beauty of the evening settles onto me. One cannot----just cannot---be a photographer, be an artist, without appreciating nature and the skies and the wind and the sight of a bright star cluster glowing along side a brighter planet...
I fasten the camera to the tripod---a Canon Elan IIe that's seen better days---with a 28-80 zoom and assess the scene.

Immediately I see that I should not use the lens at it's shortest focal length---28mm gives too much space, shows too much blank sky---35 is better and I switch to that, manually focusing to infinity in the process and framing the shot with some foreground trees and some nearby horse fencing...both will end up nearly black but that's the idea.

Metering is next, and the meter lies right through its teeth at me: 3.5 @ 20 seconds. I shake my head. That can't be right. The meter is being tricked by the fading afterglow. I decide to open up one more stop---dodging reciprocity failure---to bring out the true brightness of the stars and Venus. Yeah, one stop should do her. f/3.5 @ 30.

I'm losing sharpness by keeping the glass wide open like this. (At least in theory I am: All lenses lose sharpness when opened up as far as they can, but in reality the problem is not all that bad, is in fact difficult to notice at all.) But I don't have a choice: The automatic shutter on my Canon only goes up to 30 seconds and I don't have a cable release with me for a bulb setting, and even if I did, stopping down to f/8 or something will force my exposure time much longer than it is now. Something around 6 and a half minutes, rough figuring, almost sure to cause streak blurs from the very earth turning. Imagine! Having a photograph ruined by the spinning of the very planet you're walking on...

All this takes less than 5 seconds to figure and yet I'm not rushing. I'm not hurrying as I work, but soaking it in, enjoying the coolness and the light breeze on my face as the evening continues to sink in, the wind waving the shoulder strap hanging off the camera. I wrap it around the legs of the tripod and tie it off to avoid any shaking it may cause the camera.

This shot is never going to sell. I have no markets for such a view---no people who would pay to publish the picture, and yet that's exactly why I'm doing it. I'm doing this one for myself, for me, simply because I enjoy the slow, methodical process of taking your time and shooting a scene just because it calls to be photographed.

Finally, I'm ready. Venus, Pleiades, girls, smile and hold still. Ready? I push the shutter button, which doesn't actually take the shot, only activates the self timer. (On very long exposures, if you don't have a cable release, you let the self timer take the picture because the very motion of your hand on the camera will blur the shot.)

And so the countdown begins.

10, 9, 8, 7, goes the LCD, barely readable in the dusk.

Beep, beep, beep, goes the Canon, counting each beat...

3, 2, 1...

Half a click---the mirror locking up---the shutter opening...and freezing there.
We're on.

I get up, the viewfinder now blank, and stretch. I always love this part, always love the thrill of a long exposure.

I walk around to the front of the camera, look at Venus, look at the lens looking at Venus, and smile. The picture is being taken. This is fun.

The whole night grows around me. I imagine the film down there, behind the lens, growing the scene. Slowly building and pushing the bits of silver halide around, working with low light levels, obediently forming the picture the lens is sending to it...beautiful.

A plane flies by. Man, how perfect can this get? A high flying jet plane out of nowhere---leaving a thin streak of smoke, still high enough to catch the last rays of the hidden sun. I do a quick calculation on the brightness of the plane and it's path: with a little luck, they might both be bright enough to come out as a pleasant streak across the right side of the photo...if they're in the photo at all...

The dials on the LCD remain locked on their settings: 3.5, 30, ISO: 100. So simple. So technical. As if everything in the shot can be described by those three little numbers. As if the whole of all I'm seeing---the whole of the sky and the whole of the dusk and the whole of the colors and the whole of the stars and gosh---the whole of another planet's light, the light of another world flying through space and sailing through our air, dodging clouds, just to be bent through the glass of my lens and fall onto the emulsion---as if all that could be driven down into those three little numbers that will tell the world how this shot was accomplished. Not at all. This is one time when the settings will tell nothing. You would have to be here to know this shot, to see the way it is done, the way it was, to feel all the feelings.

I look up at the sky, then back to the camera. The thirty seconds are almost up. Then another week or so until my slow processor gets them back to me. It doesn't matter. This photograph doesn't matter at all. Tonight---tonight is all about the experience.


It's over.

And everybody on earth missed it, probably watched TV right through it, probably did something they'll never remember, while I was outside watching magic happen.

Pure magic.

I love photography.

No comments: