Making Photographs: The Story of Pierce Point Cypress, Barn & Stars

On a clear moonless night I set out to visit the historic dairy ranch at the end of Pierce Point Road in the Point Reyes National Seashore. My goal was to photograph the Milky Way rising above one of the old white-washed barns there. I couldn’t imagine what I would find there. It was early in my series of night-time star explorations and all I knew was that conditions were promising and that the Milky Way should be visible overhead. I was also excited to use my new wide-angle lens to photograph the starry night.

I felt hopeful as I drove toward the end of Pierce Point Road. It was very clear in the dark night sky above. I already could see a multitude of bight stars. Conditions were promising! I parked in the visitors lot and gathered my tripod and camera. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I beheld a beautiful sight just a few yards from where I parked. A sparkling river of light, the Milky Way, rose above and slanted at an angle near the massive old milking barn.

As I thought about where to set my tripod, I noticed activity at the old victorian farmhouse a few hundred yards away, to the right of the barn. The resident park employee was walking from the porch toward her truck. In a moment, she was driving down the long service road toward me. As she approached where I stood, I quickly tucked myself out of sight,  behind the large cypress. I wasn’t certain if my late night visit there was forbidden by the park service. Soon, her headlights disappeared over the southern hills and I had the place to myself. This near-encounter added to my expectations, creating a delicious sense of adventure and mystery.

I resumed moving around the parking and looked for a good spot to set my tripod and camera. During this time of finding the right view, I paid close attention to both my thoughts about the elements of composition as well as any feelings arising in my heart. There is always a slow dance between both. I’ve found that both my mind and my spirit need to be accessed in order to have a chance of making a worthwhile photograph. I moved around and looked through my viewfinder until I found & felt this harmony. Then, I stopped.

As I looked at the image being projected by my wide-angle lens, I may have noticed a distortion of the objects at the left and right borders of the frame, which is characteristic of this lens. Both the tree and the right side of the long barn seemed to lean in toward the center of the image. Normally, I would attempt to avoid this effect by reframing my composition. However, the view seemed right to me and so, I went ahead and recorded the image. I did wonder, though, how I would feel about the effect when I saw it again on my larger computer screen.

Surprises in an image are often discovered later during the editing of what was captured in real time. I suspect this is a matter of two kinds of seeing. In real time, while making the original exposure, there are simply details that go unnoticed or unheeded. Also there is the emotional or psychological reaction of the photographer that affects vision. I simply cannot take in everything that is going on during the picture-making moment. But, the camera does not lie! These unnoticed details show up later as I look at my image, during a quiet, more thoughtful examination. Some surprises are not necessarily negative. In fact intuition, unnoticed at the time of exposure can provide very good results.

Later, at my computer, I was pleased to discover that the parallax distortion, the convergence of lines which I normally would’ve avoided, had added to the emotional impact of the image. The towering cypress to my left leaned in parallel to and mirrored the angle of the rising galaxy, while the barn’s exaggerated lines seemed to point at the place where the galactic band of stars disappeared into the sea. I liked very much the effect the wide angle had on the composition. But, since it was new territory I was plumbing, I felt I needed another version of this image for comparison. So, I made an image correction on the file which removed the parallax effect. The “corrected” image lost all of it’s energy and beauty. So, I returned the photograph to the way the wide angle lens had originally captured the image––the way you see it here, and never looked back. Some things were never meant to change.

5 comments on “Making Photographs: The Story of Pierce Point Cypress, Barn & Stars

  1. I love the “spiritual” aspect of this. I feel the same way — there are official “rules” and well-known “judgement,” but the underlying intuition & experience win out, tending to be the final arbiter in what is or is not a great image.

    … which this is. Thank you

  2. I love the twinkling stars, the cypress tree and the dairy barn. It’s an image that represents the look and feel and mood of Point Reyes.

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