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.
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.
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