Single-image Sunday: Night Again   6 comments

The Milky Way rises over Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

The Milky Way rises over Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

If you’ve been following this blog for quite awhile you know I used to post some night-time starscapes.  Not as many as some photogs., but some.  Over the past couple years I can count on one hand the night shots I’ve done.  Shooting  the Milky Way in particular has not interested me in the slightest.

I still love watching the stars, and very much miss my telescope (which I had to sell).  But to stay up into the wee hours shooting requires real motivation and interest, and it just has not been there for me in recent times.  I mostly blame it on the fact that too many other people shoot the stars.  The Milky Way especially has been done to death, appearing over every conceivable foreground subject.  It’s called astrophotography now, which is in my opinion a misnomer.

Real astrophotography; that is, deep field images of cosmological objects like nebulae, clusters and the like, is a completely different sort of photography than the wide-angle shots you see so much of these days, the ones that include the landscape below.  I dabbled in real astrophotography some years back.  But after quickly realizing that getting quality images requires very expensive equipment, I decided to stick with simple observation through my telescope.

I’m not criticizing wide-field night photography at all.  I usually call the resulting images starscapes (or nightscapes).  They’re perfectly valid and often very beautiful when done right.  It’s just not astrophotography.  While the subjects for the two overlap, astrophotography is a separate genre that uses radically different focal lengths along with different equipment and techniques.

This image represents the first time in a long while that I’ve put forth the effort to capture a starscape.   For the methods I used, see the addendum below.  The skies of Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada are very dark and clear.  It was my first time to this park, and the warm temperatures combined with clear weather made it an opportunity too good to pass up.

I hiked up into the high alpine area of the park, to an amazing grove of ancient bristlecone pines which sit at the base of 13,159-foot Wheeler Peak.  These are the oldest living trees on Earth.   They can grow to more than 5000 years of age!  My idea was to capture one or several bristlecone pines as foreground, but I ended up liking the simpler compositions of mountain and stars better.  I rolled out a sleeping bag and slept out there in the bristlecones for a couple nights in a row.  I hadn’t slept under the stars for a long time, so that part was at least as much fun as the photography.


To make the image above I used my tracking mount to follow the stars.  This is a compact unit that mounts onto the tripod and allows your camera to follow the apparent motion of the stars, lengthening exposure time while keeping things sharp.  First off I exposed for the sky: three shots in a vertical panorama, shutter time a bit over a minute each (set on bulb).

I needed to do the panorama because I was using my 50 mm. Zeiss lens.  It’s sharp and allows an aperture as wide as f/1.4, but it really isn’t wide enough for the Milky Way.  I then turned tracking off and took a separate exposure of the partly moonlit landscape for about the same time.

In Photoshop I combined the two in a composite image that represents pretty much what I observed.  Some starscape composites represent combined dusk (or even daytime) foreground subjects plus a night sky captured hours later.  I’ve done those too but I prefer my images to represent a single moment in time.  In order to give the image a little more “punch”, after the sky and land were combined I raised raise contrast and clarity.  It’s because the moon, though a crescent, was washing out the sky to a degree.

My goal in photography is almost always to capture the reality of being there.  But pictures are two-dimensional and usually rather small.  That’s why I often edit for more punch or impact (not always, many times I go for a softer feel).  It’s to give some idea of what it is like to sit out there in the silence among the gnarled bristlecones, perched on a big boulder of quartzite peering up at the dome of an enormous night sky, with the sheer glacier-carved wall of Wheeler Peak above me and the Milky Way standing on end behind it.

Have a great week ahead and happy shooting!

6 responses to “Single-image Sunday: Night Again

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  1. I love watching the night sky. But, we haven’t had the luck of viewing something as fantastic as what you’ve shot above. Great shot!

  2. Nice image. Capturing an image which represents not only what you see, but feel usually takes more than a snapshot – and this is why we love the capability of today’s cameras and techniques. Many years ago I would mount a SLR on a much larger telescope simply to guide the camera manually. Back then it was usually b/w film… and wide field exposures could be 20 or 30 tedious minutes or more. Results were generally poor compared to today’s pin-point images and beautiful finishing, but the challenge was no less ambitious. Thanks for sharing the great images, and insightful text. M 🙂

  3. This is so cool! I love the photo.

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