SoWal Aerial and Night-Time Dune Pics, Part II

The Milky Way with a series of dunes in the foreground. Photograph taken at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.
The Milky Way with a series of dunes in the foreground. Photograph taken at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.



By Nic Stoltzfus


Intro: Last week Dad and I came down to Topsail Hill Preserve State Park to do more work for the upcoming Coastal Dune Lakes project. We accomplished a lot over the four days that we were down: interviewed George Langstaff, long-time resident of Four Mile Village,for a story about the creation of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park; filmed freshly blooming lupine (side note: the deep lavender blue of the lupine is how “Blue Mountain Beach” got its name; sailors would see the flowers along the dunes in this area and it looked like a blue mountain to them); set-up a jib shot of carnivorous pitcher plants in a bog close to Morrison Lake; and went out to Western Lake outfall to get some shots of small plovers scurrying along the beach. I really enjoyed all these things, but my favorite part about this trip was the chance to do aerial and night-time photography.


After we got done from doing an aerial fly-over we ate at the Donut Hole for a late lunch, took a catnap at the cabin, and then hurried back outdoors in the afternoon to shoot Dad’s introductions for the shorts we are working on. We met up with Jeff Talbert, the park ranger, and we told him that we plan on photographing the night sky starting at 2 AM tomorrow morning. We invited him to come and he agreed to pick us up at our cabin at 2.


After coming back Dad and I chatted a bit over a salad dinner, and went to bed early. It took me a bit to fall asleep, but I dozed off finally around 10. I woke up to my alarm at 1:50 and hurried up and got dressed. I saw lights flash and heard a guttural cycling growl outside and knew that Jeff was outside in the “gator” (a beefed-up golf cart, aka utility vehicle).


He picked us up and we headed down to the no-name-lake outfall (side note: this is the first time it has broken through in recent history; this is due to the recent torrential downpour of rain). Dad set up the Nikon D800 on the tripod with the dunes in the foreground and the Milky Way arcing between two of the dunes. It was a nice shot. But…we had a bit of technical trouble at first. It wouldn’t snap the picture! Oh, right, we needed to click the automatic zoom on the camera lens from automatic to manual. Right (We didn’t think of that right away—it was 2 am, after all, and we normally aren’t night owls). We clicked the lens off of automatic focus to manual focus. Okay, let’s try again. CLICK. Pause. It was…blurry. Oh, that’s right. When we switched the camera to manual focus, it didn’t have the foreground in focus anymore. GAH! How do we fix that?! By now our feathers were ruffled and eyes wide with stress. 2 am is not a good time to troubleshoot.


Luckily, Dad brought an LED light with him that he uses for interviews. It has a dial on it and you can change the strength from dim to oh-my-god-don’t-shine-that-in-my-face-bright. I twisted the dial to OMG-Bright and shone it on the dunes and it was bright enough for him to see the dunes in the viewfinder and turn the lens’ focus dial so the dunes were in focus. Okay. Third try. Third try’s the charm. The camera took the picture and we looked through the camera monitor and….Got it! We hooted for joy and clacked our beaks with excitement. It worked! Great shot. That’s the keeper!


Two dunes in the foreground and the Milky Way in the background. Photo taken at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.
Two dunes in the foreground and the Milky Way in the background. Photo taken at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.


We hiked back a little further and set up to take shots behind a standing pool of water to catch the reflection of the dunes in the water. We took a few shots there and then hiked back to the gator.


As Jeff drove us back the sliver of a first quarter moon was tipping westward towards the end of her journey across the heavens. I blinked twice and yawned, I am no night-owl. We arrived back at our roost at 5 am and the sky was just beginning to brighten from twilight blue to the Berlin blue of Hokusai’s ocean in “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” The sky was the ocean and stars speckles of sand.


My body was tired, but my mind was still energetic. I thought of all I did the previous 24 hours—aerial photography, night-time photography—WHEESH! I finally calmed down and soon fell asleep. Goodnight Stars, Goodnight Dunes, Goodnight Moon.

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