I had another chance to go north this weekend to try my hand at a little night sky photography. The last “Super Moon” of the year arrived on Thursday. As a bonus, mid-August is the peak of the Persied meteor shower. So, I planned a shot of the full moon the following night right between the silos of the D.H. Day Barn at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. I used the Photopills app to determine where I needed to stand and the time I needed to be there to shoot the moon in all its glory above the barn. I was able to reserve one of the last available campsites at the D.H. Day campground and headed north.
In the afternoon, I used the augmented reality feature of Photopills at the D.H. Day farm to confirm that the shot would work. The photo below hints at the problem I would encounter. The wispy clouds in the sky are cirrus uncinus clouds. In Latin that means “curly hooks.” The clouds are commonly called “mare’s tails,” and are precursors of rain.
The sky was filled with mare’s tails. Things weren’t looking good, but I had several more hours before sundown and moonrise.
I decided to watch the sunset from Van’s Beach in Leland, Michigan. While waiting for the show, I snapped some photos of the boats in the harbor. The reflection of a sailboat’s mast caught my eye. I watched the reflection as it morphed with each passing boat.
It became clear that there would be no great sunset show and likely no shot of the moon over the D.H. Day barn. The clouds in the west were headed my way, fulfilling the prediction of the mare’s tails. I took a photo of the entrance to the harbor and then set upon my way, hoping the skies would be clear 20 miles to the southwest.
No such luck. At the D.H. Day farm, the sky was thick with clouds. I determined to go with my plan B, a shot of the Point Betsie lighthouse. Point Betsie was another 24 miles to the south. On the way, I stopped by the beach at Empire. There’s a small lighthouse there in the middle of a parking lot. When I got there, the parking lot was full of revelers enjoying the evening. The night was dark but there was a faint reflection on the water. An 11 second exposure looking into the darkness revealed what was barely visible to the naked eye.
Finally, I made it to Point Betsie. My goal was to get a shot of the light house with the lamp lighted. The challenge is that the lamp is so bright compared to the lighthouse itself that if you expose for the lighthouse, the lamp gets blown out and has no detail. But, I had a plan.
Every lighthouse has its own “signature.” Some lights rotate, some are stable. Some flash, while others stay lit constantly. The Coast Guard publishes a list of the signatures of every lighthouse and buoy in the country. I knew from the list that the Point Betsie light flashed white for one second every ten seconds. After much experimentation, I discovered that a 3.5 second exposure allowed for a proper balance between the lighthouse itself and the lamp. But the key was not having the shutter open for the full one second the lamp was on. I learned to open the shutter shortly after the lamp lit so that it was on for probably just a half second or less during my exposure. I was helped in getting a proper balance by the moon, which peaked through the clouds, lighting the side of the building. I augmented the moon’s light with a small light panel.
The photo reminds me of an Edward Hopper painting. Hopper, of course, lived and painted for many years on Cape Cod, an area that resembles the Leelanau Peninsula in many ways. His work has influenced many photographers.
Mission accomplished, I drove back to the campground and crawled into my sleeping bag about 1:30 a.m. I was awakened briefly at 3:00 a.m. by the sound of raindrops hitting my tent fly. Never doubt those mare’s tails!