Lights in the Sky

I took this shot deliberately while I was framing up different angles of the Split Point Lighthouse in Airey’s Inlet, along Victoria’s southern coastline. On an earlier exposure I could see the different light-sources colouring the image, and it appealed to me greatly.

There are five different sets of light in the image. Balancing them was part of the joy of the photograph.

To the left, and a bushfire burning over the northern horizon behind a crest of hills was reflecting its light onto the clouds above. The wide angle of the lens (about 120 degrees) captured the clouds over that portion of the sky and the red-orange glow which they soaked up.

Moving to the right and the lower horizon, the light transitions gently from orange to yellow. These are the man-made sodium-tainted lights of Geelong, also catching in the clouds. The transition and contrast between the two colours really caught my eye, and I liked the way the sky took on the different hues.

Above both, of course, are the stars- tiny pinpricks of light which the massive eye of the 16-35mm lens was able to pick up in just half a minute or so of exposure. I shot with the aperture stopped wide open (f/2.8) and at maximum sensitivity (ISO 1600), and with the relative lack of ambient light (nearby towns and moonlight) the stars shone through brightly. I especially like the blue hues of the bright star just to the left of the top centre- possibly not a star at all but the planet Venus? But I’m not sure.

Next, of course, is the artificial light of the still-functioning lighthouse beacon- a yellow-white light tinted red where the red glass of the lighthouse window catches in the beam. This light was in a way the hardest to expose for, being the brightest of all (by many orders of magnitude, at that proximity). The saving grace was the fact that while the other lights were constant, the lighthouse beam flashed on and off, with long periods of darkness between, so that while overall it was still the brightest light in the sky and the limiting factor on how long I could leave the shutter open for before it burned out that portion of the frame, I was still able to get up to a minute’s worth of usable exposure when I wanted it.

There is a fifth light source in the image which is far subtler, and that’s the light which is painting the side of the lighthouse. If not for this light (catching on the left-hand or land-facing side of the lighthouse), the whole tower would be a black silhouette of the same level as the right-hand (sea-facing) side of the column. The light illuminating the lighthouse tower is in fact from the headlights of cars passing on the Great Ocean Road a couple of miles away in either direction, where the lighthouse’s high vantage allows it to capture brief seconds of light from cars turning exposed corners of the route. As I was shooting, the faint glow of the lights could be seen moving from left to right or right to left across the inland face of the tower, casting mobile shadows which turn into a gently graduated glow in the static frame.

Photography quite literally means the writing (or recording) of light. Ultimately it’s the photographer’s job to read the light coming from a particular scene, and try and capture that light through a balance of variable mechanisms within the camera itself- the size and type of lens, the aperture of that lens, the length of time the sensor/film/plate is exposed for, the sensitivity of that sensor/film/plate, and the addition of any other artificial light sources. Framing up a shot with a diverse range of light sources can be a challenge (although a joy of the digital photography revolution is the fact that there is some room for experimentation and instant feedback)- but when the pieces fall into place (as I humbly feel they have done so here) it’s an immensely satisfying experience. This particular shoot (I spent 2 nights up at this lighthouse taking these photos) was an absolute joy and goes into my list of memorable photo ops.

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