Recently we had a special and unusual request for a tulip photo shoot. How would we like to see some photos of our beautiful blooms amongst the stars? Well, there was no way we could say know to that.
Not only did the talented David Zapakta share his passion of filming the night sky but he also shared his thoughts. See below. You can see more of his spectacular photos featuring sunflowers and most impressively, Light Houses on his website https://www.starsandlighthouses.com/ .
A whole bunch of things were to be happening on April 22. It was the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the Lyrid Meteor Shower was just beyond peak and it was predicted that shooting stars were to be highly visible, and it was new moon. Oh, and there’s the pandemic happening and I’d been holed up inside for the last five weeks with trips only to Dave’s Market as a weekly highlight. Where could I go for some interesting night photos where I’d be safe and there’d be complete solitude?
Several years ago, a couple started planting tulips at a Johnston farm, much to the delight of folks all over Rhode Island. This year, they’ve relocated to a field at Schartner Farm on the North Kingstown/Exeter line. I’d never found the time to get to the old location, primarily because each spring for the past seven years I’ve been chasing lighthouse pictures at night and under the stars. The project, USA Stars & Lights, is now part of the United States Lighthouse Society to try and capture as many working lighthouses as possible before too many more are turned off, or even worse, before they are destroyed by rising sea levels. With almost every local New England lighthouse already captured, the project has lately brought many travels far from our Wickford home. Recent captures, pre-Covid-19, have been in Maryland, Delaware, and Maine.
I reached out to the farm hoping to get nighttime access. For many lighthouse owners, it’s a pretty big leap of faith to allow a total stranger onto their property deep into the night. Most times after the initial phone introduction is made, I ask the owner to quickly type into their computer www.starsandlighthouses.com to get an idea of what I’m trying to do. The same tact happened with the farm, though it was through several days of emails. The pandemic has closed the tulip field to the public because of the social distancing rules, and they’ve closed off photography to most. My plea was compounded by the reasons listed above, plus I’d read the flowers were starting to bloom.
I met the farm owner, Jeroen, as he was opening the super-secret gate to the fields. Surrounding the five-acres is a seven-foot tall electrified fence to thwart off any deer attempting access to the tulips, considered a delicacy for their palates. At seven feet, the farm says it’s just barely high enough to keep out most deer. Apparently, they’d really good at jumping. We squeezed through an opening, mindful of the hot wire inches from our heads. Jeroen gave a quick tour of the flowers while directed me to those currently at their tallest. My heart sank. They were really small, not quite what I’d expected! When I’d read a media account earlier in the week of the flowers blooming, I thought it meant they all were blooming. At the moment, many had presented color for the first time this spring—but there are many more in lesser stages of growth, and my guess it they will come to bloom in the following days and weeks.
Jeroen left me on my own in the fields after showing how to lock up the gate once I was finished. It was time to get to work.
In summers over the last few years, I’ve ventured to Buttonwoods Sunflowers in Griswold, Connecticut, just over the Rhode Island border. The farmer allows photographers into their fields at night, and it’s always another adventure while heading into the tall sunflowers. The first year, I mistakenly tried to light the tall sunflowers using same continuous “hot lights” used while shooting lighthouses. Problem is, the sunflowers always move even when there’s no wind. I found it difficult and frustrating to get a nice sharp image that night, and subsequent visits have turned to electronic flash to get better photographs. Shooting the tulip fields would need the same method, especially on this night as the winds were quite strong.
Despite the flowers before me being underdeveloped at that moment, I was hopeful the skies would offer some shooting stars. As it grew darker and dusk was fading in the west, a couple of issues were developing to the east along Route 2. I wasn’t overly concerned with the string of streetlights a few hundred feet away, though in shooting meteors or any stars, it’s imperative to have it as dark as possible. The bright lights from both the Stop and Shop Plaza and Home Depot were throwing quite an ambient glow despite being almost a mile away. A bigger issue occurred as it grew darker. A trucking company across Route 2 and in direct sight of the flowers has on its garage a very big--and very bright--security light aiming directly at the field. It is excessively bright, ruining any chance to see or capture most meteors. As my eyes grew more accustomed to the dark, I could actually see the light creating my shadow across the nearby flowers. Should I ever return here to shoot, I made a note to myself to ask the trucking company for that light to be off. It never hurts to ask.
So now here I was, with some blooming flowers and stars appearing overhead. I’d brought to the fields a system to secure the camera low to the ground. I starting laying it out, but was quick to discover it was all too high. A tripod was definitely out of the question, so I’d jury-rigged a camera stabilizing bar and laid it on the ground hoping it would work. Nope. Instead, I grabbed a few sandbags from the truck, and for each shot had to nestled the camera onto them and only inches from most of the flowers to be shot. I spent much of my time laying on the ground, and I was thankful for the straw placed among the flowers. The ground beneath was soft and damp, and the winter pants I’d donned before entering the field were key to staying dry, though at the end of the night, they were quite filthy. Once the camera was set, I stepped away to light the scene. The best lighting is to separate the instrument from the camera, and on this night, it was the flash. The camera shutter needs to be open for a relatively long period, and I’ve found 20 seconds to be the sweet spot. This give me time to get far enough from the camera to properly light the flowers for the best exposure. In all, I shot almost 400 images in three hours in the field, though many of those are discarded.
In the course of my lighthouse project, I’ve photographed about a dozen images of shooting stars over various towers. Most times, I’ve only discovered them later while editing the images, and on only a few nights have actually seen the meteors with my eye as the camera shutter was open for the capture. While in the tulip field, I never saw a single one despite the predictions of it to be a spectacular display this year. The meteor forecast peak had been the night before, but it was cloudy and rainy up until late afternoon. For me, it was this night as a number of other factors had all come together. It’s too bad the meteors never materialized, and because they might have made an appearance, it’s clear I arrived a week or two too early since the flowers are all still too low to the ground. Maybe in a few weeks they’ll let me come back, but by then, the moon will be present. I’ve spent most of recent years shooting during new moon, and maybe they’ll let me back to try shooting with moonlight. Hey, it can’t be all that bad!
As for my few hours on this unusual Earth Day anniversary among the young tulips--I was safe, I was alone, I was self-distanced from the world. It was a beautiful thing.