Visiting A Saint

It was as black as sin that night, when I found myself alone, miles from civilization, wondering what happened to my ride home.

My friend Paul and I had opted to head into the mountains, attempting to get away from the light pollution of the city to shoot Milky Way photos. After checking the views at a first vista point we headed on to a second, more developed viewpoint. Although there was a good view with more alpine flowers at the initial stop, the paths were less developed and much riskier – a sandy misstep could leave you sliding down a steep cliff, bouncing to a fatal end. As the core of our shooting experience would be in the dark, this seemed a tad chancy.

The evening sunset provided warm light for a few warmup shots: a field of flowers here, the crater of our principle mountain there, the sun making its departure to the west.

(Click on photos for a larger view)

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I was looking forward to seeing the Milky Way. Living in the city, I rarely see anything but the brightest of stars. The prospect of looking into the heavens and seeing constellations besides the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) and Orion; countless smaller, unidentifiable stars; the deep black of space; and that misty milky fuzz that hints at the gasses and stars of our own galaxy – this was a sight I hadn’t seen for many a year and had never photographed.

The setting was a sleeping volcano. Quiet now perhaps, but not so long ago, within my lifespan it was a raging inferno, blowing 1300 feet of rock from its top and much of its north side into oblivion. Valleys and ridges in the area were flattened, huge trees were blown down like matchsticks, topography reshaped.  A gray wasteland showed the extent of its destruction, and early visits after its temper tantrums had calmed left a feeling of awe at the power and range of the eruption. These days, nearly 40 years later, life has returned to many of the valleys: trees have grown back, animals once again run in its ranges, and flowers attract bugs and photographers.

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Dusk. A time after the sun has gone down, but it’s not really dark yet. Photographers call it the blue hour, a time when snapshooters think the sun is down and photos are done, but moody shots are still to be had.

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And in that period before it gets truly dark, it’s a good time to get the tripod and camera set up. Automatic settings on cameras don’t work in the dark: autofocus has nothing to focus on, ISO (sensor sensitivity) goes off the deep end, f-stops and shutter speeds are a wild mechanical guess, and all to the goal of returning a picture that looks like it was shot in daylight.

Um, no. It’s manual settings all the way and some, like focus, need to be attended to while there’s still light.

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In time it got dark enough for the Milky Way to make a faint appearance and astrophotography began in earnest. After a few shots, my friend Paul had a hankering for the angles at our first viewpoint and told me he was heading over and would be back in a half hour or so. I stayed put and continued shooting.

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PETRUCHIO: I say it is the moon.
KATHERINA: I know it is the moon.
PETRUCHIO: Nay, then you lie; it is the blessed sun.
KATHERINA:
Then, God be bless’d, it is the blessed sun;
But sun it is not when you say it is not,
And the moon changes even as your mind.
What you will have it nam’d, even that it is,
And so it shall be so for Katherine.

From “The Taming of the Shrew, Act IV, Scene V” by William Shakespeare

Is it the sun, or is it the moon? Even when sunset was long past, there was still light in the sky. Enough to throw a shadow, or fool a camera set to expose for stars into believing the moon was the sun.

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The yellow light is not the sun rising, it’s city lights, 60 miles away as the crow flies. They were not visible to the naked eye.

But the moon set, and the darkness was nearly complete. By this time it was 12:30 in the morning. I was tired, I’d gotten my shots, but after an hour Paul had not returned.

I could not help but remember the treacherous path at that first site and wonder if he’d be coming back at all. I packed up my gear and looked around the site, flashlight in hand. No Paul.  I was getting worried.  Was it time for a divine intervention? Was there a saint around to help out?

Another pass around the grounds and I found what I thought was Paul’s car in the parking lot. He must be around somewhere in the near black void. Eventually, we crossed paths, much to my relief.

There was a saint around that evening, watching over us. Surrounded by the splendor of the heavens, the mountain itself provided a saintly presence: it was Mount Saint Helens.

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51 thoughts on “Visiting A Saint

  1. Those are such incredibly beautiful photos of the sky and Mount Saint Helens – the whole series. For such pictures alone, I’d like to learn to use my camera better. I’m glad nothing bad happened!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a dramatic place, and shooting at night made it even more so. Here’s the recipe for Milky Way shots: tripod, wide angle lens to avoid star movement (20mm or less prefered), 30 second exposure, f4 (f2.8 even better), ISO 3200. Post processing helps a lot too.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Your photos were well worth the scare Dave! I like the combination of sunset shots with the night time ones, which are very dramatic and so beautiful. Looking at them I really can get a sense of that vast sky over the volcano. What a wonderous setting!! Glad to hear the angels were watching over you 🙂
    Thanks for sharing these!
    Peta

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wasn’t thinking alpine flowers or blasted stumps when we headed up, but once there I thought, the mountain can wait, the sun will not. It does make for a dramatic pairing.

      Like

  3. Stunning, inspiring images Dave. And as nicely written as we’ve come to expect. What a fantastic location! I think if I won the lottery I’d take a short photography course, buy some nice gear and head off into the wild blue yonder for a year or two.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We can thank Paul, he’s a more serious photographer than I am and the outing was his idea. Once I heard it and did some checking it was a no-brainer. I’m glad I’m able to share the results. Good luck with the lottery…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The pictures are amazing! We dream of being in a place where we can see a blanket of stars. We see stars so rarely that when we do we tend to stay up later just to stare at them. Always feels like magic – seeing an open sky.

    We are working on an ebook about traveling without a car, it’s suppose to be a companion to our blog. In the back there’s going to be an area called : A Few of My Favorite Bloggers. Is it ok if I list your blog?

    Not sure when it’ll be done. Was hoping it would be done by now but Vic hates reading and I need his eyes to edit the ebook before we send it off to Create Space to edit it again. Aiming for Fall.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s the problem with living in the city, and the bigger the city the worse it is. Seeing the night sky in all its glory was a real treat.
      As for listing my blog, feel free, I’m flattered that you would think to include it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wonderful Milky Way shots David, particularly for the first time, wow! The flowers are beautiful too. That is on my list of things to try this summer, but maybe while camping so I don’t have a scare. Glad yours turned out well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Amazing how much it helps to study up on something before you try it, isn’t it? And since it doesn’t require that much physical coordination even rookies can get good early results. Look into post processing too, it dresses up the muddier shots.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. pinklightsabre

    My god, those photos. Though I like them all, the very first one the most, I think. And the story, and Shakespeare quote: top form, mister! Well done. Happy Fourth, enjoy yourselves. Thanks for sharing your eye with us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Bill. There’s nothing like the out of the ordinary to catch people’s attention, and I’d have to say most of these shots qualified. Happy Fourth to you and your family as well.

      Like

    1. The flower pics were an unexpected bonus. When I saw that stump, with those flowers, in that light I kind of forgot about the Milky Way goal for a while – ya gotta take advantage of serendipity when it comes. For what it’s worth, I’ve made a B/W version of the stump shot I may post one of these days.

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  7. Dave, I’m always excited to see your photos, but I’m doubly pleased to see this night sky photography! It’s so beautiful, I’m a bit awestruck. Well done, sir!

    Also, happy that Paul hadn’t taken a misstep and you all lived to get into more mischief another day.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I enjoyed the word pictures as much as the photos you’ve shared Dave.

    Also kinda jealous of the camera. My iPhone takes horrible night pics. But I suspect the difference in photographer skill is a big factor here as well.

    Really great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Gabe, that’s always a writing challenge for me – showing rather than telling.

      Low light is a weakness of cell phone cameras. The sensor is so small and the pixels are packed so densely they just don’t have enough space to capture the sparse light photons. Photographer skill can’t fix that. For what it’s worth, your phone’s camera is better than my phone’s camera, and a lot lighter to lug around than my DSLR, lenses, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Denise. The title and opening tend to drive the story for me. I usually don’t have more than a very rough idea of what I’m going to say until I say it – I just try to follow the theme and the pictures. Kudos for spotting the volcano name early. I gave lots of hints, but Mt. St. Helens isn’t exactly in your back yard.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There was a lot of coverage of the eruption on the news here, plus I’m pretty sure my sister was living in Montana at the time, and had ash on her car.

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    1. Technically it’s not hard if you have the right gear, I laid out the recipe to lexklein further up in the comments. For me, the hardest part was getting away from the light pollution, and needing a photographer friend to give me a figurative kick in the butt to get me going. Also a heads up, the center of the Milky Way tends to come up in the middle of the night and the moon can get in the way. Check out an app like Sun Surveyor to find out when and where it (and the sun and moon) rises and sets, and what the best nights for shooting are.

      Liked by 1 person

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