Night Among the Ancients

Photographing Bristlecone Pines using the technique called “painting with light.” This took place in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest within Inyo National Forest, White Mountains, California, USA


The night sky provided a dazzling background for an old Bristlecone Pine..

It was about 20°F at over 11,000 feet in elevation in California’s White Mountains.  The sky was inky black, dazzling with uncountable stars, and we were photographing a dead Bristlecone Pine using the universe as a background.  This tree had fallen, perhaps centuries ago, and the root system made a graceful shape against the sky.  The pine itself may have stood for 2,000 or more years before a high wind toppled it from its ridgetop perch, and the pine lay preserved by the dryness and cold through the untold years.  Karen found this pine during the day, and we decided to return and photograph it after dark.

The sliver of moon set shortly after sunset, so we had a perfectly black sky..

Our challenge was to light the tree in the foreground using a flashlight, while attempting to balance that exposure with the light of the distant stars.  We needed to “paint” the tree with just the right amount of light and to get a short enough exposure that the stars appeared as points of light (and not arcs of light, which longer exposures show because of the earth’s movement relative to the stars).  Karen moved the flashlight over the roots while I worked with the camera settings and counted the passing seconds out loud.  We did about 40 exposures, of which about a third were excellent.

By the time we finished, we were chilled to the bone from the frosty temperatures and still had to set up camp.  But we were pleased with the results.

This type of photograph would have been much more difficult before the advent of digital photography, and technically would not have been nearly as effective.  With digital, the ISO speed can be set at 3200 and provide good results, and the exposures and composition can be roughly checked on the LCD screen after the photograph is taken, so adjustments can be immediately made in the exposure.  For even more control, the camera can be cabled to a computer to check the results on the spot at higher resolution, but we were traveling light and didn’t bring a laptop.

Bristlecone Pines are the oldest trees on earth, and I find that these photographs take me to a place in the mind where I can contemplate the meanings of the universe and life on earth.

A vertical photograph emphasizes the magnificent sky.



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Author: leerentz

BS and MS in natural resources, with early career work as an artist and nature center director. Became a full-time photographer in 1990. Sells photographs at art shows nationwide. Publication credits include National Geographic, Alaska Magazine, National Wildlife, Audubon, and scores of other magazines, books, calendars, and electronic media.

2 thoughts on “Night Among the Ancients”

    1. Hi Monika, when I left the shutter open for 30 seconds at ISO 3200 and the aperture set to f4.0, the results were the best. During this exposure, Karen painted the stump with a headlamp for about ten seconds, but that would vary with the strength of the light and the distance of the subject. I’m glad you like the photographs; I was really pleased with the results of that cold night.

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