Archive for the ‘Milky Way’ Tag

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!

Peter French’s Round Barn   17 comments


This is a somewhat famous barn in southeastern Oregon, in an area we like to call the state’s “outback”.  It dates from the late 1800s, when Peter French, a cattleman from California, drove a herd from California into the open spaces of the Oregon Territory.  His ranch eventually covered some 800 square miles!  He became one of Oregon’s so-called cattle kings.

He built a round barn so that his buckaroos (what cowboys are called in this country) could train horses while sheltered from the harsh high desert winters.  The barn has been partly restored, but most of it is original.  The beams are quite stout and the barn extremely well built, which is probably why it has stood up to the fierce winds and snow that hits this region every winter.

It was long ago that I first visited this barn, and it was in much poorer shape then (though the structure was very sound).  In recent years, money for its restoration has been made available, and a small visitor center/book store was built nearby.  I photographed it at night and then again the next morning, with the light pouring in.

On that quiet morning, with only the sound of the wind, I thought about the life here in the 19th century.  The life of Peter French, his leadership, his drive to make it in this lonely outpost.  The lives of the buckaroos, working hard every day, making just enough to get by, and occasionally being able to spend some of it in saloons.  Were there ghosts roaming the hills still?

I hope you enjoy the pictures, and also that your week is going well.  Happy shooting!

Part of the interior of cattle king Peter French's round barn.

Part of the interior of cattle king Peter French’s round barn.  You can see all the boards that have been replaced with recent restoration efforts.

The clouds move in but don't block out the stars over the French Round Barn.

The clouds move in but don’t block out the stars over the French Round Barn.

Shooting the Stars at Zion National Park   5 comments

The dry desert air of southern Utah has some of the best stargazing in North America.  And if you get up into higher elevations, or in winter, it’s even better.  Why do the stars on colder winter nights often seem to have that extra pop?  I know in the northern hemisphere winter shows a significantly dimmer Milky Way than during summer.  So the stars, at least in the direction of the Milky Way, are certainly more numerous and brighter in summertime.  So I’m not too sure why the colder it is, the brighter the stars appear.  Perhaps it’s just perception.

On this night during my recent trip through the American desert Southwest, I wasn’t too sleepy.  So I went outside with my binoculars and took a look at the Orion Nebula.  That glance was enough to cause me to get my camera equipment set up for a timed exposure.  Besides, this was one of the reasons I came here to Kolob Canyons, a separate and not well-traveled section of Zion N.P.  Take a look at my previous post for daytime fun and photos here.

Kolob Canyons is the highest part of Zion, much higher than the main Zion Canyon.  I  was up at around 6000 feet (1830 meters) when I took this picture, but the sandstone mountains you see are well over 8000 feet (2440 meters).   This is a winter night sky, so you can see in the lower right the constellation of Orion the Hunter.  His belt is the three stars in a row, oriented almost vertically, and the Orion Nebula shows up brightly to the right of his belt.

Above Orion in top center you can see bright Jupiter.  Just to the right of Jupiter is the star cluster called The Hyades, which is part of Taurus the Bull’s face.  Above Jupiter and the Hyades you can see The Pleides, that famous star cluster also known as The Seven Sisters.  I recommend looking up the Greek myth surrounding all of these constellations.  It’s a great story.

The diagonal area of bright and dense stars is the winter Milky Way.  In winter, the northern hemisphere is pointed away from the center of our galaxy.  Since we are out in the “suburbs” of the galaxy, this view is much more dim than in summer, when we’re looking towards the galactic core.  Nevertheless, a long exposure can bring out the winter Milky Way and make it look slightly brighter than it looks to the naked eye.

Kolob Canyons, a part of Zion National Park in Utah, is well away from any city lights.   Here it shows off a glorious star-studded sky on a clear winter's evening.

Kolob Canyons, a part of Zion National Park in Utah, is well away from any city lights. Here it shows off a glorious star-studded sky on a clear winter’s evening.


I took an exposure for the mountains and foreground, where my camera was dead still and tripod-bound.  A half-moon (which is actually very bright) was illuminating parts of the landscape quite well, so I went with a low ISO (100) and an exposure time of a bit over 3 minutes.  This resulted in an appropriate exposure for the foreground landscape.  I say appropriate instead of correct exposure because if you expose as if this was a daytime photo, the foreground will come out looking much too bright for a starscape photo.  I think it looks a little strange next to the darker sky.

The exposure time was plenty long enough to give the stars time to form short trails.  But since I don’t really like this effect (I’d rather see the stars as they appear while stargazing), I exposed a second frame of the same scene with my tracking mount turned on.  A tracking mount will turn your camera slowly to keep up with the Earth’s rotation, so the camera follows the stars.  But if your exposure time is much longer than 30 seconds, the camera movement blurs the foreground landscape.  The solution?  Take the two images into Photoshop and merge them together so you have both the stars and the landscape sharp.

This was a long-winded way to say that this image is the result of two exposures of the same exact scene, merged together into one.  There is on my blog a more detailed explanation of how I do starscapes, in this post.  Stargazing and photographing the stars is a favorite of mine.  Look for similar posts in future.

Stars and Photography (follow-up)   4 comments

The Milky Way soars over the North Cascades, with the city lights of Seattle (left) and Vancouver, B.C. behind the mountains.

A short post on photographing the night sky.  I’ve discussed this before, so won’t repeat myself.  If you want some general advice on this check my post and some of the many other web resources.  For some inspiration try Wally Pacholka’s site or that for TWAN.

The above photo demonstrates a few interesting things about the subject.  I’m showing it because it illustrates not only a few good things, but at least one thing to possibly avoid.  I’m still learning a lot about this stuff so I don’t mind admitting when I mess up.  I still like the image though, primarily because it shows the following:

SCALE:  It is so hard to show scale in photographs like this.  A very common technique is to include a strong foreground element, like a strangely shaped tree, an interesting building, etc.  But this is not strictly showing scale.  The background in these images is still just assumed to be large – not exactly precise.   It is, nonetheless, a great way to “depthify” the picture.  Like that word?

In the above image I was able to show the city lights of both Seattle and Vancouver, Canada, which are 150 miles apart.  At first I thought the lights were messing with my desire to show a deep starfield, but then I realized that the lights actually helped with depth.  It happens so often when doing photography, that you are frustrated with an element you think is interfering with your composition.  The key is to take a deep breath and consider what that element is actually capable of doing for your composition.

LOCATION:  For the above image I knew I wanted to be as high up as possible.  The air was somewhat hazy because of fires, and during the day I noticed as I crossed Rainy Pass that the smoke was mostly hanging in the valleys.  So I decided to spend the night at the top of Slate Peak, which at nearly 7500 feet is about as high as you can drive in Washington.  The height helped me to shoot over the haze, and made the stars that much brighter.  On the downside the top of a mountain does not usually offer a strong foreground element.  There was a lookout tower, but I didn’t think it was interesting enough.

SIMPLE COMPOSITION: This is of course a goal for all landscape photography, but for starscapes it might be even more critical.  I mostly like to make the sky – Milky Way, comets, aurorae, etc. – the star of the show (pun intended).  And when I use a strong foreground element I want it to share the spotlight.  I want to wow people with the universe, which we don’t look at or think about very often.

And so I went with the simple composition of Milky Way arcing over the North Cascades.  I would have liked to have a better profile of the mountains, which are jagged and thus interesting in silhouette, but my viewpoint was much too high for that.  It was a tradeoff between wanting to be above most of the haze and having the mountains in silhouette.  I could have driven back down a ways after the sunset, but believe it or not I was nervous about trying to turn around at night from my precarious parking spot.  It was a long way down.

Also, a simple composition allows for a super quick and easy composite when you’re combining two shots (in this case one for the foreground and one tracking the stars so that they are sharp).

SHARPNESS:  One weakness of the shot is that the stars, while fairly sharp, are not perfectly round points.  I was using my tracking mount (a Vixen Polarie) to track the apparent movement of the stars.  This allows you to go much longer than the 20 or so seconds that you’re limited to when shooting from a regular tripod mount.  Of course you can always raise ISO, and if you have camera like the Nikon D4 or Canon 1DX, you (a) have more $ than I do, and (b) have more flexibility and might not even need to track in many cases.

The polar alignment you do for the Polarie is pretty basic.  You simply point it at the North Star, making sure it’s visible through a little hole.  Vixen sells a much more precise polar alignment scope for it, but for now I can’t justify the extra expense.  For one thing, when you use a very wide angle lens, as I usually do, the slight drift does not cause noticeable blurring of the stars.  But the longer your exposure, the better chance to get blurred or trailed stars.

I’ve already mentioned a second weakness of the shot.  It has no good foreground element, unless you count the mountains as foreground.  I happen to think the city lights add enough interest, but it certainly can be argued that this is a stronger image with a good foreground element, perhaps illuminated by “light painting” (shining a light on the subject).

EXPOSURE & PROCESSING:  I was using my Tokina 16-28mm f/2.8 on a Canon 5D Mk. II, at 16mm focal length.  I took two shots (actually three including the dark frame).  One was with the tracking mount switched off, and the other had the mount tracking the stars.  I shot both at the same exposure, but I don’t always do this, especially when there is a moon or other complicating factor.  That exposure: 133 sec. at f/2.8 (largest aperture for that lens) & ISO 200.  I shot the same with the lens cap on for the dark frame.

I processed pretty simply.  First I imported into Lightroom and worked on the image with sharp stars.  I moved the highlights and the contrast sliders pretty high, moved the blacks lower, upped the shadows and clarity a bit, and added quite a bit of  noise reduction and sharpness (with a healthy amt. of masking for sharpening).  Then I used synch. to apply the same settings to the image with a sharp foreground.  Then I opened this and zoomed in to the mountains to adjust both sharpening and noise until I had the best compromise.

Then I took both into Photoshop, made the sharp mountain shot my background, selected the stars from the other one, and copied this over.  I added a mask overlay and used a brush to clean up the horizon.  In this simple case  it only required a few long strokes along the mountain tops to reveal the underlying image’s sharp peaks.

I zoomed in and looked around the image for the tiny red or green dots that indicate hot pixels, a common effect of long exposures in darkness.  I didn’t see many, so I decided not to bother with dark frame subtraction.  If I was to print this image at a large size, I would have done it.  But for most things those hot pixels won’t show up.  That said, it’s very worthwhile to always take a shot with the lens cap on, and at the same exposure as your real shot(s).  It has to be at the same exposure as your main shot(s), and at or near the same time for the Photoshop technique of dark frame subtraction to work.  Do it right after your main shot(s).

Okay, hope you found this useful.  I always appreciate comments and questions.  I normally don’t do photography tutorials on my blog (too boring after awhile), and prefer to educate more on the subjects and locations I shoot in.  But I will do this from time to time.

Crater Lake   2 comments

As our state’s only National Park, we in Oregon really cherish this paradise in the southern corner of the state.  Crater Lake is North America’s deepest and one of the world’s clearest lakes.  It is famous for its deep blue color, its clarity, and its geologic background.  When John Hilman became the first white explorer to see it in 1853, he was astounded, calling it a very deep, blue lake.   For me, it seemed past time to re-explore Crater Lake during the summer-time, when it is most accessible.  My last visit a year and a half ago was during the depths of winter, when cross-country skis and snowshoes are the only mode of transport.  I spent three days there last week.

Crater Lake in southern Oregon was described by the first white person to see it as a “deep blue lake”.

Crater Lake is about 6 miles across and almost 2000 feet (600 meters) deep.  What makes it such an awesome and unique lake is that it lies within the throat of a big collapsed volcano, a caldera, which suffered its climactic eruption about 7000 years ago.  It is not technically a volcanic crater, which is the word geologists apply to the hole in the top of a volcano created when the volcano explodes and ejects material out over the countryside.  Geologists figure that the original volcano, which is called Mount Mazama, was over 12,000 feet (3600 meters) high and quite massive.

The Phantom Ship, a small island in Crater Lake, Oregon, is so called because in certain light conditions it seems to disappear.

Calderas are generally larger than craters, and are created when the volcano erupts magma from beneath its summit, leaving a void underneath which leads to a massive and catastrophic collapse of the summit area.  Caldera eruptions can be large, and they can be enormous!  They are almost never modest in size.  They are this planet’s biggest volcanic eruptions.  And speaking of volcanoes and National Parks, Yellowstone (the world’s oldest park) is occupied by what is probably the world’s largest active caldera.  It could erupt any year now (or it could take 10,000 more years!), and with devastating consequences.

In Crater Lake’s case, rain and snowmelt (mostly snow) filled the caldera over the period of a few hundred years, and now evaporation is balanced with precipitation so that the water level never fluctuates by much (it’s varied only about 16 feet (10 meters) over the last 100 years.  There are no streams leading into or out of the lake.  The rim of the caldera, where most visitors congregate, is at an elevation of over 7000 feet (2000 meters), and at this latitude, and next to the moist North Pacific, that means major snowfall – 40 or more feet (13 meters) every winter.

One of America’s most scenic roads follows the treeline rim around, with numerous pull-offs.  So like most American National Parks, one can certainly experience “overlook fatigue”.  But probably not as much as some (Blue Ridge Parkway & Bryce Canyon spring to mind).

It is at least 1000 feet (300 meters) down to the lake from the rim, and it is so steep that only in one spot is it possible to hike down to it.  Here is your cure for overlook fatigue.  Hike down to Cleetwood Cove, and take a scenic boat cruise out to the largest island in the lake, a volcanic cinder cone known as Wizard Island.  Here you can swim in the cold lake and hike to the summit of the cone, spending hours on the island.  There are also numerous hikes from spots along the rim, including The Watchman and Mount Scott.

I came here to reconnect with one of my favorite National Parks, and to try for some great shots of the stars over the lake (later post).   The park is unlike the popular National Parks such as Yellowstone, Yosemite and Great Smokies.  There are few policemen posing as rangers here, so you can pretty much do your own thing and not be hassled.  For example, I rode my motorcycle there, arriving at night after one night spent near McKenzie Pass, a stunning spot in its own right.

Once inside the park, I parked at a picnic area and walked up to a level spot on the rim to pitch my tent.  I had to find a site screened from the road below, but otherwise had no worries about rangers prowling the roads at night, hoping to catch scofflaws like me camping illegally.  I had a stunning view out over the lake, as the Milky Way soared above.  Then at dawn, I woke to take pictures of  sunrise over the vast expanse of blue water below.  Coffee was conveniently taken at the picnic area where I parked the bike.

I left my tent there for the next two nights, sleeping as late as I wanted with only hawks for company.  I was on the quiet north rim, well away the park’s only real concentration of people (at Rim Village on the south side of the lake).  There is one large campground a few miles below Rim Village, called Mazama.  This is where RVers go, and where most official campsites in the park are.  There is also a small, tent-only campground at Lost Creek, in the southeastern corner of the park.  But since there are only 16 sites, it always fills early in the day.  It is worth trying for this camp first, and if that fails, going to Mazama (which can also fill, even during the week).

Wildflowers at Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, include pink monkeyflower.

I did one major hike and a few smaller ones.  I hiked to the top of Mount Scott, the highest peak in the park.  At almost 9000 feet, it was the only remaining major Cascades peak in Oregon that I had not yet climbed.  Some of my climbs have been technical, some (like Scott here) just hikes.  But I have been longing to return to Crater Lake in summer for no other reason than to finish my quest.  Now it is time to finish the rest of the Cascades, a few in Washington and one in Canada.  Wildflowers and some friendly fellow-hikers were my reward.  The view was rather hazy because of fires in the region.

On my last full day at Crater Lake the smoke cleared in late afternoon and I was able to get some nice shots of a small island called Phantom Ship in late-day light (image above).  Then I ate a picnic dinner, lay back and watched the stars come out one by one.  I finally jumped on my bike and rounded the lake to a point where the Milky Way was perfectly placed.  There I spent a couple hours shooting long exposures, stars over the lake with a starkly beautiful whitebark pine snag for foreground.

Hiking up to my campsite on the rim at about 1 a.m. I fell immediately into a deep sleep.  Utter peace for this moment in my life, atop a giant volcano that had its day of great thunder long ago, and now lies also in deep slumber, beneath the deep & cold, clear-blue waters of Crater Lake!














Sunset over Crater Lake from the highest point on the rim, Cloud Cap.

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