Blinded By Light, In The Middle Of Night

 
Multimedia eLearning program by: David A. Johanson © All Rights  — Second Edition

The author is a multimedia specialist, CTE instructor and a former Boeing scientific photographer. For an alternative formatted view of this program, please visit — www.ScienceTechTablet.wordpress.com

 

My photo wingman, Rick Wong and I headed into the heart of darkness in a quest for the Perseid meteor showers. Mount Rainier National Park, was our destination to use its iconic landmark for framing an infinite field of stars—far from the glare of city lights. Traveling at night in Rick’s new hybrid Ford Fusion, equipped with “information technology”—voice navigation, made it easy finding the park without using a map.

Arriving at our location, luminous stars lit up the night as expected, but we were surprised by some uninvited competition, which nearly stole the show.

A stunning view of Mount Rainier reflected in Reflection Lake, with the summer stars overhead. The pink and orange glow on the left side of the mountain is light pollution emitted from the City of Tacoma, approximately 65 miles northwest.

We found an ideal location above Reflection Lake to begin our photo shoot, with one of the Cascade Mountain’s most famous stratovolcano in the background. An unexpected warm light was glowing behind Mount Rainier, which I reasoned, was a faint remnant from the earlier sunset. However, the sun had set at least four hours earlier, so it couldn’t be the source of the illumination. Rick suggested “its light coming from the City of Tacoma,” located about 65 miles away. During a 20-second long exposures used to take an image of the snow-capped mountain, I began thinking about the effects caused by light pollution.
With a bright moon rising, we worked fast to keep up with the changing light, until its intensity eventually overpowered the stars.

Just now, the moon was rising higher into the night sky, it too was causing us to shift focus on what to photograph. Like a giant diffuse reflector, the moon reflected soft, filtered light onto a previously dark, formless landscape. Moonlight was beginning to compete with the canopy of stars’ brilliance, partially masking crystal clear views of the Milky Way, along with some meteor sightings. So being photo opportunist, we used the moonlight to illuminate shadow-detail on Rainier’s south face.

Like some sorcerer conjuring an intense cauldron of red light, the photographer adjusts his digital settings before Mount Rainier and her crown of stars above.

A Peaceful Paradise Lost                                                                                             There’s a tranquil feeling while in the process of taking long exposures at night; it’s normally quiet and not many visual distractions overwhelm the senses or interrupt your focus. I personally enjoy these rare opportunities of solitude, to visualize an image, using a minimal, Zen like perspective.

 

When a distraction, like a car suddenly rounding a corner occurs, it’s often an annoyance, which takes you out of the moment. My moment was taken by clusters of cars, with glaring lights as they came around a turn… just as the moon illuminated the mountain, as it was reflected onto a perfectly still lake.. Their headlights flooded the calm mirror-like water and stands of old growth trees beyond with glaring intensity— as I used my hands in an attempt to shield the lens from light flare. Finally, the cars diapered into the darkness with no more approaching vehicles until dawn.

Photo-illustration of micro light sources, which can cause light pollution by unintended spill-light.

Moving above the lake to find new angles for interesting compositions, I took notice of something not seen before. Lights of various colors were coming from photographers bellow me, created by their digital camera’s preview monitors and infrared sensors for auto focusing. With the low light-sensitive Nikon cameras I was using, these multicolored monitor lights, appeared like a bright flare on the long exposure images. Now, I had one more unwelcome light source to avoid, which required strategic timing in the photo’s exposures to minimize glare.

Again, my thoughts returned to the issues of light pollution. Recalling the time back home, when I attempted to photograph some constellations at night, only to have a neighbor’s motion sensor flood light, overwhelmed the backyard with brightness. The piercing light  forced me to find the last remaining, isolated shadowed corner of the yard.

My reminiscing was cut short by a distant, but bright, pinpoint of light from bellow Mount Rainier’s summit. Flashlights from mountain climbers near Camp Muir shined bright—like lighthouse beacons from the semi darkened rocks and glacier fields on the mountain. Even the faintest light can shine bright at night as was noted during World War II, when warships were forbidden from having any exterior lights on at night — including a lit cigarette, which posed a risk of being spotted from great distances by enemy submarines.

Lights from mountain climbers on the approach to the summit of Mount Ranier.

Encountering the Universe’s Brilliance                                                                       The improper, overuse of outdoor lighting has erased one of our basic and most powerful human experiences—encountering the universe’s brilliance with its galaxies and billions of stars shining in the night sky! Making visual contact with our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is one of the greatest shows seen from Earth.

 

In less than a century of civilization’s reliance on electric technology: two-thirds of the U.S., half of Europe and a fifth of people in the world—now live where they cannot see the Milky Way with the unaided eye. You can appreciate how we lost our stellar view by seeing aerial photos taken from orbiting spacecraft and the International Space Station. These startling images taken of the Earth at night, reveal a man-made galaxy of artificial light, which cancels out much of the real one in the sky above.

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Some years back, I was a part-owner in a small recreational ranch, in Eastern Washington’s, Okanogan County. Brining friends over from Seattle, it was often nighttime when we arrived. The instant of exiting the cars, was a startling event as the Milky Way’s intensity of light overwhelmed your senses. The “ranch” was remotely located, at about 5,000 feet in the mountains, near the Canadian border and 30-miles from the closest town. Days would go by where we didn’t see a car or even hear a small airplane go overhead… it was one of the most refreshing experiences of my life, to perceive nothing except wind going through trees and seeing only starlight at night for hours at a time.

Image courtesy of NASA

A television interview with the director of a major observatory in Southern California recounted when Los Angeles had its last electrical blackout —people were calling 911 and his observatory, with reports of strange, bright objects in the night sky. Actually, what the callers were seeing for the first time, was the Milky Way’s canopy of shining stars.

   

Image courtesy of NASA.

Besides forfeiting a life inspiring, wondrous view of the cosmos, there’s tangible losses associated with light pollution. Conservative estimates are—30 % of U.S. outdoor lighting is pointed skyward in the wrong direction, which wastes billions of dollars of electricity. The unnecessary practice of lighting clouds, burns more than 6 million tons of coal, which adds: harmful greenhouse gas emissions, along with toxic chemicals into our atmosphere and water.

Further scientific studies indicate wildlife is suffering the ill effects of excessive urban lighting. The City of Chicago has taken measures to turn off or dim its high-rise lighting to enable migrating birds to continue normal migration patterns. An increase in species of insects attracted to light along with rodents, which are drawn towards bright city lighting, is a growing concern to many scientists.

Heavy equipment product shots never look quite this good. Scheduled improvements to the viewing area above Reflection Lake, had some equipment, taking a nap, before going to work when the sun came up.

Education Is the Solution to Light Pollution                                                                    The reason light pollution continues to expand is, we have grown accustomed to its seemingly benign presence. After all, probably no one can point to a single case of a person killed from overexposure to light pollution. However, there is a growing correlation of health risks associated with overexposure from artificial light. Some of the main symptoms include, physical fatigue and damage to eyesight. This lighting health risk was recognized in 2009, when the American Medical Association officially established a policy, which supports the control of light pollution.

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Municipal lighting codes are beginning to help define and eliminate unnecessary light pollution. Lighting enforcement can create a more pleasing environment, by reducing excessive urban lighting, which causes fatigue from glare and cuts down on unnecessary electric utility cost. Redirecting outdoor lighting away from the sky where it is needlessly wasted is a simple and easy solution.

Installing motion detector security lights are another efficient and productive mitigation strategy. For security purpose, a light, which is triggered by motion is much more effective for crime prevention than a continuous floodlight. Motion detector lights have a clear advantage of focussing our attention onto an area, which is triggered by a sudden change from darkness to bright-light.

The light intensity of the Milky Way is a breathtaking wonder to witness at night —` unrestricted light-pollution has faded this wonder from what was once a valued human experience. You can see the Andromeda Galaxy in the right 1/3 of the frame. Nikon D700 – Nikkor 28mm lens @ F3.5 @ 20 seconds August 11 11:48 p.m.

 

The encouraging news is… the key to reducing light pollution is a simple matter of basic education and action. Public awareness of over-lighting requires a minimal expenditure, which will quickly pay for itself in energy savings and perhaps return the opportunity to experience one of the greatest shows seen from earth. ~

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Light pollution glossary:

Urban Sky glow: the brightening of the night skies over municipalities and communities, caused primarily from high-volumes  of collective, reflected light and poorly directed light, which is pointed upward or not shielded properly.

Light trespass: light falling or spilling into areas where it is not intended. Also know as “spill light” – as in municipal streetlights, which go beyond the intended illumination of street signs and sidewalks, causing an unwanted exterior lighting of residential homes.

Glare: A direct, bright or harsh light, which causes discomfort or pain. The effects of glare can be reduced or eliminated with the use of a shield or filter.

Uplight: Light angled inappropriately upward towards the sky and serving no purpose. Uplight washes out the night sky and reduces opportunities for astronomers and star-gazer to enjoy the beauty of the planets, moon and stars.

Light Clutter: Poorly planned, confusing and unpleasant use of grouped lights usually associated with urban or retail lighting. Retail business often trying to outdo the competition by using overly bright, multicolored or pulsating lights.

Links to articles & information on light pollution:

http://news.discovery.com/animals/light-pollution-a-growing-problem-for-wildlife.html

www.darksky.org/assets/documents/is001.pdf

www.njaa.org/light.html

www.skymaps.com/articles/n0109.html

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Light_pollution

ngm.nationalgeographic.com/geopedia/Light_Pollution      

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The Unworldly Splendor of Oregon’s Painted Hills.

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Photo/video and text by: David Johanson Vasquez © All Rights

The sun had just set as I arrived at my friend’s condominium on Lake Washington near Seattle. Rick was loading camera equipment into his SUV, Ford Escape — a gasoline-electric hybrid, which holds the honor of being one of the first American-built hybrids.

We had a long drive ahead, which required us to drive all night before reaching our destination in the high desert of Central Oregon. It was a cool, but clear, May evening, as the SUV climbed steadily up to Snoqualmie pass. After cresting the Cascade Mountains we descended into a dryer, warmer Eastern Washington. After a few hours of driving the glow from a near full moon was illuminating the desert sagebrush outside the town of Goldendale on the Columbia River.

Wind turbines above the Columbia River are lit by the moon.

Our adventure to John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, was planned to coincide with a full moon for illuminating the surreal Painted Hills. Rick and I use digital cameras, featuring full-sized image sensors and fast optical lenses, which are ideal for capturing low light environments. Taking the opportunity to harness some moonlight as it rose above the Columbia Gorge, we made a stop to photograph wind turbines. These wind gathering  monoliths, heavily populate this section of Washington and Oregon. The site is ideal for wind farms, due to the wind tunnel conditions created by compressed airstreams forcefully moving through the constricted Gorge.   

Standing next to a colossal tower is a strange experience. These massive wind catchers are the largest machines you’ll probably encounter on land. And the eerie sounds caused from wind moving massive propeller blades takes some time getting use to.

Driving on the Washington side of the Columbia River and continuing into Oregon, you see legions of wind turbine sentinels as they constantly harvest the restless winds. It takes an hour of driving south on the highway before we see fewer and then suddenly… no steel towers flanking our drive.

Now what I become aware of is not seeing any cars traveling in either direction of a deserted looking highway. Eastern Oregon’s vast size can’t be appreciated unless you spend some time touring its sprawling, unpopulated counties.

After traveling all night and encountering some falling snow as the hybrid SUV started ascending the road to the high desert—we finally entered into the realm of the primeval Painted Hills. It’s totally dark now that the moon had set hours earlier, cloaking the desert from our view in all directions. Fatigued from hours of driving, we pull into a remote area to catch a couple of hours of sleep before our video and photography expedition can begin.

The John Day Fossil Bed National Monument is organized into three Units; the Painted Hills is the third Unit, which contains 3,132 acres of wildlife, plants and some unusual geology.

Over millions of years, layers of ash from nearby volcanic eruptions mixed with clay. Through the process of erosion, intense surreal hues and patterns of color explode in every direction.

The following morning was a like waking up in some eye-candy dreamland. The colors just popped out at you like viewing a TV monitor, with the hue saturation cranked up high.  Stunned by the startling beauty, I grabbed my video camera on a tripod and began shooting panorama footage. Attempting to capture the details of the environment, an external microphone was used to record the outburst of chattering songbirds, which had woken up to announce the beginning of a new day.

My first impression was of being overwhelmed by sensory overload — it was challenging to take in all the colors, sounds and surreal shapes of the textured topography. What I was seeing, appeared to be out of this world — like viewing some futuristic post cards of a terraformed Martian landscape.

What I remembered from earlier road trips to the Southwest, was how striking the Painted Desert in Arizona was — that location now seemed pale in comparison to the Painted Hills.  What makes the geology of this site so vivid is the saturated colors, caused by a series of volcanic eruptions, taking place over millions of years. The accumulation of layers of ash, dust and clay mixed together from relentless years of erosion to form the hills of strata of colors, like some massive layered cake.

What remains buried beneath the volcanic soil is a time-capsule preserving the fossilized carcasses of mammals and plants, which lived in the region during the  Cenozoic Era —the Age of Mammals. This era began roughly 65 million years ago, so this National Monument is a target rich environment for paleontologist studying fossils from that era.

After I shot about an hour worth of video from the spot from the spot I started from, it was time to scout other dramatic locations.  Not too far into our drive we spotted a family of graceful antelopes, casually grazing in a large field. Apparently, from talking with one of the NPS Rangers, this National Monument is teeming with indigenous wildlife including: bears, cougars and eagles.

Latter in the afternoon we stopped at the side of a gravel road to take in a stunning view of  one of the larger hills at the site.  The clouds above were opening and closing like a massive shutter on a spotlight — producing lighting effects which were irresistible. We set up tripods along with our video and still cameras to begin shooting right away.

Shortly after we setup shop, a ranger pulled up close to the SUV and was intently watching us. Rick and I shrugged as we looked at each other with a shrug, thinking perhaps we had unknowingly parked in a restricted area. Eventually the ranger introduced himself, he had the impression we were part of a National Park Service video crew, which was schedule to be doing work at the Monument.  We were invited to join his walking tour with a group of  photographers into a restricted area of the Painted Hills.  As it turned out, this special photography tour only takes place one weekend out of the entire year —when the John Day chaenactus (a bright yellow wild flower) begins to bloom, then as quickly as it appears—it begins to fade away.

The photographer’s tour was visually fantastic and can only be experienced under the supervision of an NPS Ranger.  The plant life is so fragile here, you’re only allowed to  walk inside a dried out creek bed while touring this area.  The Ranger was gracious enough to allow me to interview him about the site.  Wind is common and unpredictable in this high desert area, so I came prepared with a wind guard on my microphone; but I did experience a few audio dropouts,  hopefully you’ll be able to hear the main message clearly enough.

Later that evening we photographed the landscapes using a full moon for our lighting. I’ve never seen greater clarity of the stars and moon from this high desert environment, which created a great backdrop for an unearthly landscape. We photographed throughout the night until the light of predawn appeared.

At a little over 2,000 feet in elevation, the high desert can produce cold, bone-chilling weather and as mentioned—windy conditions.  I recommend warm clothing and gloves to help keep your hands comfortable from wind-chill.  For photography, the higher altitude is a great benefit, especially for optical clarity if your focus is on night photography of stars and landscapes.

I definitely plan to go back to the Painted Hills as soon as possible… it’s a dreamlike setting I have rarely experienced, which captivates the senses, with its splendor of stunning colors contained within an unworldly environment. ~

LINKS:

Here’s a link to National Park Service’s John Day Fossil Bed National Monument:   http://www.nps.gov/joda/index.htm