For a few years now, I’ve wanted to take a photograph of a fire lookout tower at night. My grandiose thought was to have a lookout with a small light inside, dark skies, and an arching Milky Way over the top. Of course, most lookouts are on an outcropping of rocks with little or no place to put a camera that isn’t right next to the building – thus not enough room to get the building and Milky Way into the same shot.
Some of this comes from a time I worked as a fire lookout right after I got out of the army. I enjoyed the views of not just the terrain that you look down on, but also the complete view of the night sky. The other part is my enjoyment of night photography of course.
In search of this goal, I have been visiting lookouts throughout the area over the last few years. Most of these were in person, driving up long, dirt roads which have different levels of maintenance or lack thereof. Some have been through Google Earth searches and zooming in on the immediate surroundings of the tower. This included looking at the terrain directly next to the lookout, specifically looking for viewing in the direction of the Milky Way (southeast to south). Of course most importantly, how much ground was available in the right direction. Is there enough that I could get the tower and the Milky Way into the photograph?
This was only one of the hurdles. If I could find the magic formula above, I then need to find a cooperative person working the fire lookout to take the night photos. Some lookout personnel don’t allow you at the lookout at night. They either lock the gate down the road leading to the tower (I’m not packing all my gear a mile or so up the road), or just don’t want anyone around at night. Even if they allowed you there, then they would have to cooperate with lighting issues while you are taking the photos. I know, I know – I’m not asking for much!
As luck would have it, my brother recently retired from his job and was fortunate enough to land a summer job as a fire lookout in the Klamath National Forest. Even though retired, he was looking for a part-time job to supplement his pocketbook. I told him my ideas for this project and he invited me to come up to the tower. He even told me you can see the Milky Way going right over the tower.
I picked a day, figured out the directions and took off for the tower. Naturally, it takes a while to get there from my house. As you can imagine, it is deep into the forest and atop a high mountain top overlooking as much terrain as possible. This lookout is at approximately 6,500 feet above sea level, with great views in all directions.
My first trip up there was merely a scouting mission. I was pleasantly surprised to find a large, mostly flat area leading up to the tower. Unfortunately, I opened up PhotoPills to check where the Milky Way would be found in the dark sky. As you can imagine, it was on the opposite side of the flat ground. I checked the other side and found a relatively steep, uneven, rocky terrain. Plus the Milky Way won’t be in position for well over a month.
The decision was made to come back during the new moon phase and try to get some star trails over the lookout. During my research, the direction I would be taking the photos has the North Star over the top of the tower. Thus for star trails, the stars rotate around the North Star and would make a nice circle pattern in the sky above the tower. Even though I would not be able to get my vision with the Milky Way, this would hopefully still work out.
When I drove back up for the photos, I naturally first made sure it was supposed to be clear. I arrived up there while it was still light out. This definitely makes it a lot easier to set up without worrying about falling off a cliff in the dark. I found what I thought would be a good location for the camera and composition. Another consideration was the ease of access to get to and from it during the dark hours. I also set up an LED panel light off to the side to light up the tower itself. Now I just waited for darkness.
Once darkness fell, it was time to complete the project. I have a wireless intervalometer to trigger my camera. After a few test shots to make sure of the exposure settings, the game was on. I took one photo of the tower itself with the LED light panel lighting up the outside and a small light, lighting up the inside. Then I took 20 photos of the star trails.
It was great having a cooperative lookout at the tower. He was very patient and went along with any and all lighting experiments to make this work. Not to mention I kept him up until about midnight to accomplish all of this – thank you brother! In retrospect, I doubt I would have talked someone else into being so patient and cooperative.
Once back home, I was able to edit all the photos with the use of Lightroom and Photoshop. I know the Milky Way wasn’t part of the photo, but I can’t believe how pleased I am with the final result!
Lookout – single shot, 24mm, f8, ISO 800, 10 secs. Sky – 20 photos, 24mm, f2.8, ISO 640, 2 mins ea.
If you would like to see a video of this adventure, check out my YouTube channel -https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K-qOtDgyUQQ&ab_channel=DonHasemeyer