Archive for the ‘night sky’ Tag

Adventuring Baja: Mis-Adventures & Desert Mountains   4 comments

The sun rises over a forest of cirios trees, characteristic of the desert of the northern Baja Peninsula.

I’ve been sharing some of my adventures I’ve had during photography trips.  My goal is to show examples of how good image-making goes hand in hand with a spirit of adventure and spontaneity.  Last time I posted about my first trip down Mexico’s long Baja Peninsula.  This time we’ll continue with the fun down in old Mexico.  I wish I could have kept hold of all the film I shot on that trip (it was lost in a robbery).  The amount of digital image coverage that I have now is really pathetic, but I do like the quality.   One thing’s for sure:  I need travel Baja’s full length again soon in order to fill out my catalog.

Vibrant cactus of Baja California, Mexico.

Solo Soy un Turista Ignorante!

That first time down I was traveling with a friend.  He was planning a longer trip into Mexico proper, and we planned to split up and go our separate ways after finishing our tour of Baja.  Traveling with others is a lot of fun, but for me at least it’s only that way if I can at some point bid them goodbye to continue on my own.  So at the ferry terminal near La Paz we toasted those few fun weeks of road-tripping and he boarded the ferry to the mainland.

Not long after this, I was camped outside of La Paz in a lovely beach-side spot.  Facilities were rustic, so I’d found a nice spot a few miles away to park and use my solar shower.  It was surrounded by trees and felt private, so I showered au naturale.  It worked well for a few days.  Then one day, with shampoo in my hair, I became suddenly aware of the presence of three policia standing there.  One had binoculars around his neck and another was shouting in Spanish.  Hearing the word “imoral” used, emphasis on the last syllable, I hastily explained in my barely passable Spanish that I was only trying to keep the body that God gave me clean.

As the water continued to run over my bare body, I tried my best to reason with them.  I recall using the phrase “Solo soy un turista ignorante” at least twice.  Finally, with exasperated sidelong looks at one other, they apparently decided it wasn’t worth listening to me any further.  After all, they’d have to divide the bribe between them.  And they must have assumed (correctly) that I was hardly the richest gringo they’d ever come across.

Sailboat at harbor: Ensenada, Mexico.

That was not the only time I had run-ins with Mexico’s finest in Baja.  After being pulled over in Baja Norte, I talked a policia from a $100 bribe down to $20.  That young guy, who like so many you meet south of the border had lived in the U.S. for a time and spoke English, said on parting that I should be a lawyer I liked arguing so much.

In Ensenada I was actually cuffed and taken into the station, very close to being held.  A prostitute had been following me on my wandering walk back to my room one night.  On a whim I decided to cross the street and talk to her.  I offered to buy her a couple tacos and a pepsi but declined her desire for a more intimate interaction.  Turns out we were both being watched, and so with not much else going on, she and I presented an opportunity too good to pass up.  I ended up talking myself out of that one too.

By the way, I posted a travel-guide style series on Ensenada you may want to check out.  One of these posts garners a lot of hits.  In it I briefly mention the dance clubs and prostitutes of Ensenada.  I also posted a few shots of pretty senoritas I came across (but who are definitely not working girls).  They were quite young, and it’s a bit creepy that the post keeps getting hits.  I’m probably going to just delete it.

A cave sculpted from the granite of Baja Norte, Mex.

Granite Peaks and Clear Cold Nights

On the way back up the peninsula I decided to explore some of the Parque Nacional Sierra de San Martir.  A narrow road ascends into the mountains from the Pacific side.  Granted it was winter, but no other tourists were around.  It is a beautiful area of ponderosa pine forests, broken by large grassy clearings.  Most of Baja is true desert, but you might be surprised at the amount of green in high parts of the peninsula like this.

Granite mountains rise above the meadows in characteristic giant boulders and spires.  These peaks are a continuation of the intrusions that make up Joshua Tree to the north, and it was so much fun figuring out how to scramble up them.  There are a few trails, but the area just begs for off-trail exploration.

A towering ponderosa pine, with lightning scar, in the high country of Sierra San Pedro Martir, Baja, Mex.

The park happens to also be the site of Mexico’s national observatory, and after night fell I could definitely understand why.  I camped in a meadow at the base of the peak that holds the research telescopes.  It was bitter cold, which is a strange feeling in Mexico.  I actually couldn’t use my 8-inch Dobsonian reflector for more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time before having to retreat to my van and warm up in front of my little propane heater.  I’ve never seen the swirls of the Whirlpool Galaxy so clear and distinct!

That’s it for now.  I hope your weekend is fun and relaxing.  Thanks for reading!

The Pacific lives up to its name: Bahia, Ensenada, Baja Peninsula, Mexico.


To Risk or Not to Risk (for a Photo)   13 comments

Orion rises behind Turret Arch in Arches National Park. Utah. To get a higher viewpoint where the arch wasn’t blocking Orion and the snow-capped La Sal Mtns., I climbed to a narrow ledge with a steep drop into blackness on three sides.

This question comes up more than I ever expected when I got serious about photography again and many years ago decided to join the digital wave.  I thought I was getting into a pursuit more sedate and less physical than the outdoor sports that had been breaking down my knees and other body parts for the better part of my life.  In some ways I was right.  Photography is less strenuous and much easier on the joints than mountaineering, skiing or mountain biking.  And that mostly translates to less risk of injury or death as well.

What I didn’t appreciate is how difficult it is to be forever satisfied with “safe” shots.  In my Friday Foto Talk series I discussed point of view and perspective at some length.  In all types of image-making, but especially in landscape photography, exactly where you place the camera makes a huge difference in the kinds of images you get.  I’m not saying you can’t get great shots from safe locations.  Many of my best images involved not much more than stepping out of the vehicle and walking a few yards away for the shot.

In Zambia’s Kafue National Park, I came upon this herd of Cape buffalo at dusk. Africans consider them the most dangerous animal. Needing a tripod for the low light, I got out of my 4×4 and approached them – but not too close!

That said, it’s a simple fact that when shooting landscapes and nature some subjects and situations demand hard choices.  You can stay safe and get the kinds of shots that anyone and everyone gets, depending on great light to make up the difference.  (But can it really?)  Or you can take risks, gaining unusual perspectives to capture images that are to some degree unique.  When and where you straddle the ever-shifting and subjective line between safe and risky is totally up to you.

These images recall times when I stepped across that line and scrambled (or waded or descended) to spots that are better approached with rope or other safety gear, not to mention a partner.  Or when I approached a dangerous animal.  Technology now offers risk-free ways to get similar images.  For example drones can go to places that would take great effort (and imagination) for a photographer to reach in person.

I thought a shot from within this sea cave on the California coast would be fairly unique, but it required scrambling inside, getting it and getting out quick before a big wave swamped me.

The effect of technology taking much of the risk out of our lives is another subject entirely.  But perhaps what’s most interesting about this topic is that our need to take occasional risks can be applied to all types of photography, and of course to life in general.  A portrait, wedding, even a food photographer must take risks too.  Unlike wildlife or landscape shooters, they don’t generally risk physical well-being (well, maybe the portrait photog. does when he chances the ire of his very particular model).  But the idea is the same.  If you do the safe thing all the time, you just won’t get very many images that spark special pride.

The shot of Courthouse Wash (Arches N.P., UT) from ground level has been done too many times to count, so I climbed up a steep route used by canyoneers to get this image from above.

I always recommend knowing your abilities, and knowing specifically when and how much to push them.  But if you’ve never thought about this before, it’s high time.  Think of all the ways you can take risks, in life as well as photography.  All the ways you can do it while avoiding near-death experiences.  And if you’re a nature/landscape person, all I can say is Good Luck!

Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge has become ultra-popular with photographers. I’ve spent a lot of time trying for unique perspectives. This one required off-trail scrambling to a steep perch above Oneonta Gorge.

Eclipse Mania: Planning an Eclipse Trip   1 comment

Not my image, click on it to go to source page.

I’m doing a series on the upcoming total solar eclipse of August 21st, visible in the U.S.  Check out the introductory post for details on the eclipse itself.  To date I have not gotten serious about photographing eclipses, preferring to spend the precious short minutes of totality enjoying the show instead of fussing with gear.  So I don’t have many images.  The above was captured with a tracking telescope and processed to bring out details of the corona that are difficult to get in a standard digital photo.  You can see these much of this detail and more in real time.  More than most things, it is very difficult to do any kind of justice to a total solar eclipse with photos or videos.

This eclipse will pass right over central Oregon’s Painted Hills.

I’ve been thinking lately about where to watch this eclipse.  Do I go back to my beloved Oregon or see it high in the Tetons?  Do I combine it with a visit to my sister and family in Tennessee and see it in the Smokies?  I realize most of my fellow eclipse-chasers have made plans by now, and that is no doubt smart.  In general I don’t plan ahead unless I absolutely have to.  This case is borderline but I’m used to traveling without reservations let alone a firm itinerary.  I have the luxury of being comfortable winging it and traveling simply with few comforts.  I’ll happily sleep wherever I can squeeze my van.

The path of totality makes landfall along the Oregon Coast.

An eclipse trip is unique in some ways.  Obviously you have to be in a specific place at a specific time, and this serves to anchor your trip.  I’ve seen two total solar eclipses before, one in Turkey and one in the Pacific off Japan.  Since they happened far away across oceans I was forced to plan ahead to some extent.  Rather than flying in, seeing the eclipse and flying out, I used them both as excuses to travel in parts of the world I’d never been (see addendum below).

Planning well ahead for an eclipse, while it is smart in one respect, carries some risk.  By locking in your destination you ensure you’ll be under the path of totality at the right moment.  But weather could throw you a curve.  If clouds cover the sky on eclipse day, all your best-laid plans come to naught.  You need to be ready to roll with that punch.  If you plan a longer trip, making the eclipse the centerpiece of a much larger itinerary, it will sting less if you’re clouded out on eclipse day.

So consider taking more time and choosing a place to see this (or any future) eclipse so that you’re near places you’d like to visit.  It’s good advice even for this eclipse if you’re a resident of the U.S.  I’m betting that somewhere along the long path of totality there are places you’d like to see.  Next time we’ll dive into advice on trip planning specific to some choice destinations along the path of this eclipse.

Since solar eclipses happen at new moon, you will have very dark skies on the nights surrounding it. Venus is the brightest one here, with rarely seen Mercury right on the horizon.

Addendum:  How to Make More of an Eclipse Trip

My first total solar eclipse was in Turkey in 1999.  It was guided by an astronomer and an anthropologist and culminated in an amazing experience on a central Turkey mountain-top witnessing the sun dramatically eclipsing the moon.  After the eclipse (which featured amazing shadow bands) we celebrated with many locals at an ancient walled mountain-top Hittite city.  It was the site of a major battle thousands of years ago, one which was halted by a total solar eclipse.  Both armies feared the wrath of their gods and retreated from the battlefield.

The entire trip was like this, a combination of ancient history and astronomy.  Because we had a famous author with us who had connections in the archaeological community, we got an inside tour of a 9500-year old “proto-city”, a mound site called Chatalhoyok.  The Turkey trip was the only guided tour I’ve ever done that was planned ahead of time from home (I’ve done plenty of shorter tours using local guides).  The only problem: some years ago I lost all of my slides from the trip during a move.  So all I have are the memories.

These two ladies kindly posed for me: Kyoto, Japan.

Since both my girlfriend and I were teachers and had the summer off, we used the guided trip as an excuse to travel through Europe for about two months prior to the eclipse, which was in mid-August.  The contrast between the two parts of our trip was so stark that it would have felt like two trips except that we didn’t go home in between.  Camping through the Pyrenees in a rented Audi, traveling by rail and staying in local Provencal and Umbrian inns in Umbria; followed by visits to places like Ephesus and Cappadocia in an air-conditioned tour bus, staying in beautiful 4-star hotels: the transition was a bit difficult to say the least!  But the group stopped for enough sit-down lunches and carpet-shopping (which I had no interest in of course) and quit early on enough days, to allow me to make my escapes to get out and meet the (wonderful) Turkish people.

Massive Deer Cave, Borneo grows jungles out of its grand skylights.

The sun hits a powerful orangutan’s bright fur: Sarawak, Borneo.

For the other eclipse in the western Pacific, a chance to see parts of China and Japan was too good to pass up.  I never thought I’d stay in a traditional guesthouse in Kyoto surrounded by geishas going about their day.  It also was an excuse to take a cruise, probably the only one I’ll ever do.  At the last minute I found a cheap flight from Beijing to Singapore and extended the trip for a weekend in that city plus two weeks in Borneo, which is a short hop away.  Borneo is a paradise for nature lovers and since then I have been in love with tropical forests.

I know these two examples, especially the first, are a little extreme.  I don’t expect you to go off the deep end, extending a trip to experience a 4-minute eclipse into a 3 month adventure.  I was lucky and had the time.  But you can do more than just fly in, see the eclipse and fly out.

The island of Iwo Jima, so historically important, was in the path of the eclipse of 2009.


Friday Foto Talk: Photographing the Crescent Moon   6 comments

Getting good shots of the crescent moon is a bit different than shooting the moon at any other time.  In this Friday Foto Talk we’ll discuss some of the considerations during capture, as well as the way I process the images.  The crescent is certainly a worthwhile subject.  Especially when the moon is very new and a thin crescent is illuminated, it can be a very delicate and beautiful feature of the evening or early morning sky.

A thin crescent moon over the Columbia River, Oregon. Composite of two images: Background - 110 mm., 30 sec. @ f/11, ISO 400; Moon - 200 mm., 3.2 sec @ f/4, ISO 400.

A thin crescent moon over the Columbia River, Oregon. Composite of two images: Background – 110 mm., 30 sec. @ f/11, ISO 400; Moon – 200 mm., 3.2 sec @ f/4, ISO 400.

Moon Phase & When to Shoot

First off, when can it be shot?  Well, assuming your goal is to capture it when it is very thin, you will be shooting just after sunset or just before sunrise.  This makes sense if you think about why only a thin crescent is illuminated.  To get a good idea of this concept, go get an orange, tennis ball, or any round object you can hold in your hand.  Hold it up between you and a bright light bulb (without a lampshade).  Move toward the light so that when you hold the ball at arm’s length it just covers the light bulb when you close one eye.  Move your arm so it’s held out to the side, forming a right angle between yourself and the light.  Look at the ball.  It’s half-lighted.  This is a half-full, a first or last quarter moon.  Now swing your arm slowly toward the light and concentrate on the lighted part of the ball.  It should approximate a crescent shape that gets smaller and smaller until it is a small crescent before it completely covers the light (representing a new moon).

Setting crescent shot at the beginning of Ramadan: Columbia River, Oregon

Setting crescent shot at the beginning of Ramadan: Columbia River, Oregon

Now you have an idea of the position of the crescent moon relative to the earth (your eyes) and the sun (the light).  When the ball/moon is moving toward the light/sun it is a waning crescent, visible in early morning  just before sunrise.  When it is moving away from the sun it is a waxing crescent, visible in the evening just after sunset.  In either case the moon will be near the horizon, and so it represents a good opportunity to make an image with a pretty landscape beneath the moon.  You will also have the opportunity to shoot it at so-called blue hour (the time when the sun is below the horizon but the sky has enough light to give it a deep blue color).  You will also not have as much contrast between the bright moon and the dimmer sky or landscape as you do when more of the moon is illuminated.

All of this is good news.  It makes your life easier as a photographer, specifically in terms of contrast, but also easier to get a more interesting composition.  If the moon is only a day or so old, for example, you will be shooting it at dusk during the waning stages of the sunset.  In this case the moon will be close to the horizon, which is good so long as you don’t have a huge mountain or building in the way.  Also there will be little contrast between the moon and the sky (a good thing).  On the other hand, the ultra-thin crescent is often very difficult to even see at this young stage.  If it is 2-3 days old, it will be easier to see, and you’ll see it in blue hour.  But if you wait for it to get close to the horizon, it will be very deep blue hour, which means more contrast between moon and sky/landscape

The crescent moon decorates the dusk sky behind a towering cirios (boojum) in the Baja California Desert, Mexico.

The crescent moon decorates the dusk sky behind a towering cirios (boojum) in the Baja California Desert, Mexico.

When & How to Capture the Crescent

(Note:  This discussion refers to the image at top.  The other images are just thrown in as a bonus)

Last night I shot the crescent moon at just under 2 days old.  Since I wanted it close to the horizon, it was the very end of blue hour.  So there was some contrast to deal with.  As with shooting the full moon, it helps to have a fairly bright or reflective landscape in front of the moon.  Deserts are good, but water is just as nice.  I had been shooting the sunset over the Gorge at popular Crown Point, and on the way home I drove right by the Columbia River.  I found a favorite spot of mine to shoot near the river, and quickly set up.  There was not much time.

Since I do not like to use high ISO when I am shooting low-light images like this, I let my exposure go up toward 30 seconds.  This was also necessary because of the fact I had foreground elements not far away, in the form of some pilings sticking up out of the river.  This made it necessary to use an aperture that gives good depth of field (i.e. f/11).  Even if I had raised ISO and dropped my aperture to f/5.6 or so, the darkness of the scene would have given me exposures on the order of at least 5 or 6 seconds.

A beautiful summer evening in Portland, Oregon features the crescent moon.

A beautiful summer evening in Portland, Oregon features the crescent moon.

And therein lies the challenge.  If you shoot the moon at a shutter speed of more than about 3 seconds, it will begin to blur.  This of course is because of the Earth’s rotation.  My shots at 30 seconds, which were perfect for the sky and river foreground, featured a moon that was completely smeared out.  Yuck!  My solution in this case was to shoot a frame where I zoomed in as much as my lens would allow (200 mm.).  I dropped my aperture to the maximum opening (f/4) for my lens.  I used Liveview to view the moon close-up while I focused it perfectly.  Then I shot it at an exposure of 3.2 seconds at f/4 with an ISO of 400.

When I’m shooting the moon, I always look for compositions that are effective (balanced, attractive, etc.) at longer focal lengths.  Of course sometimes the best composition is a wide-angle, but the moon will be small in those cases, very small.  Longer focal lengths make the moon bigger.  It is really a trade-off.  The image I finally decided on (I shot several) had a focal length of 110 mm. and included some nicely illuminated clouds along with the silhouetted pilings.

Now I had two images: one with a sharp, beautiful blue-hour rendering of the river and sky but with a badly smeared-out moon; and a second of the (sharp) crescent moon alone.  I knew I would be combining the two images in a composite during post-processing (explained below).  By the way, this image (top of post) shows almost unnaturally bright yellowish clouds.  They are that way mostly because of the reflection of nearby Portland’s street lights.

In this evening image from Zion National Park, a fat crescent forms a minor supporting element..

In this evening image from Zion National Park, a fat crescent forms a minor supporting element..


I used Lightroom to make basic adjustments to both of these images.  I had to brighten things a bit, which is not ideal, since it increases noise.  Better would have been to capture the moon at an earlier stage.  The perfect stage for this moon, at least to shoot it at blue hour, occurred when it was just over one day old, which occurred during daylight hours.  Photographers on the other side of the world had it perfect!  I also did some sharpening and noise reduction in Lightroom.  You can also use Adobe Camera Raw, Aperture, GIMP or your camera manufacturer’s RAW processing software.

Then I took both images into Photoshop in order to composite (join) them.  In Lightroom right click and choose edit-in>Photoshop

      • Using the wider shot with the long exposure as the background layer, I copied that layer and then used the clone tool to remove the blurred moon.  I remembered its position using the ruler guides in Photoshop.
      • I then went to the shorter-exposure moon image and used the quick selection tool to select the moon.
      • I copied this (ctrl/cmd C) and went back to the background image, hitting ctrl/cmd V to paste it on.  This gives you two layers, the background and the moon.
      • Since I had zoomed in on that moon image, it looked too big.*  Hitting ctrl/cmd T to change its size and position, I dragged it’s corners to shrink back down to the original size.  Finally I dragged the moon to its correct position.
      • I adjusted this moon layer using Photoshop’s levels and hue/saturation controls (enhance menu) until it matched the background and looked similar to the way I remembered it.  I’ve found this step to be almost always necessary.  It takes some practice to get the moon to look like it belongs.  It will be easier if in Lightroom you adjust white balance identically for both of the images.
      • Lastly, I went around and checked the image for distracting sensor spots, bright lights and other distractions.  I left all of the artificial lights in the small community across the river from where I was standing, but I did remove the lights of a plane.

* Note: Some photographers will leave the moon bigger than its original size, or even use ctrl T to make it bigger.  You see these images all over the web, and I think they look FAKE! I recommend keeping the moon at the original size, or very close to it.  The human eye knows that a wide-angle scene with a big moon is not natural.  If you want a bigger moon, shoot with a longer focal length.

I hope you enjoyed this little tutorial.  Don’t worry if you are not yet comfortable with Photoshop.  I consider myself a novice with it, and the way I do these types of composites is fairly simple.  Don’t let it intimidate you.  There are undoubtedly other ways (perhaps simpler ways) to accomplish the same thing with Photoshop.  If you cannot afford Photoshop, consider Photoshop Elements, which is much much cheaper.  Elements will do all of the steps listed above, and do them just as well as the full version of Photoshop.  For the initial adjustments, you can use free programs like GIMP instead of Lightroom or Aperture.

A few last thoughts:  shooting long exposures after sundown is something I think every photographer will enjoy.  Including the moon can only add impact to your pictures.  Again, make sure it’s a sharp and natural-looking moon.  Click on the images for options to purchase larger high-res. options.  They are not available for free download, being copyrighted (these versions are much too small anyway).  Thanks for your interest, and thanks for reading!

Lost on a dirt road in central Nevada and the incredibly clear cold air makes it possible to photograph an extremely thin crescent.

Life and the Universe II   8 comments

Mount Hood is illuminated by a half-moon with the summer stars above.

Mount Hood is illuminated by a half-moon with the summer stars above.

How did all of this come to be?  I mean everything around us.  Have you looked out into a deep inky-starry sky lately?  Have you tried, actually tried, to comprehend the distances involved, the multitude of galaxies and star systems?  Two things have become obvious:  (1) a multitude of planets exist, many likely to host life; and (2) the universe, in the way it works, is fine-tuned to be friendly towards the emergence of life.   This leads many to the idea that life might not be just an accident.  In thinking about the universe’s ultimate origins, life just might be the one small feature of the universe that is too important to ignore.

Constellations in a Meadow.

Constellations in a Meadow.

To date, physicists have been in charge of figuring out the origin and make-up of the universe.  If you knew any physicists in college, or even since then (highly unlikely), you know how ridiculous that notion is.  Unless the universe is nearly devoid of life, an assumption that is becoming more and more unlikely as time goes on, then we need more than just quantum physicists to answer the ultimate questions.

To begin with, think of it this way.  Our universe is just under 14 billion years old.  That is the quite precisely dated age of the Big Bang.  There is a small chance that this age is in error, but I wouldn’t hold out much hope that the error is 14 billion minus 6000 years!  The universe (and Earth) are ancient, incredibly ancient.  A lot has taken place already.  But there is much much more to come.  All evidence points to this thing going on for a long time to come.  Where are we headed?  That is a question just as important as the origin question, and its answer could help shed light on why we are here.

Pondering one of Earth's possible cradles for life, at Yellowstone's Grand Prismatic Spring.

Pondering one of Earth’s possible cradles for life, at Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring.

It’s obvious now that our universe began with a great explosion of space-time itself (the Big Bang) and has been expanding ever since.  The rate of the expansion has apparently not been constant.  It has been speeding up of late, or that is the current best explanation for astronomical observations of stellar explosions in deep space.

I’m taking as a given that we MUST eventually discover how all of this came to be, where it is going, how it will end, and (most importantly) why.  At least we must continue to try.  Those who put their faith in God, in the Bible, the Koran or Book of Mormon, even these people will be enriched if and when we discover the true nature of things.  They might not admit it publicly, but they will be enriched along with the rest of us.

The crescent moon rises in the early morning of Friday the 13th, 2012.

The crescent moon rises in the early morning of Friday the 13th, 2012.

There is nothing in astronomy thus far that contradicts the idea of a creator.  We are having some trouble describing the situation at the precise moment of the Big Bang (we can only describe events AFTER the Big Bang).  But even if we do, hints of higher levels of reality, a Multiverse (see below) means it all could have been set in motion by a creator long before “our” big bang.  Now be honest.  When you read the word “creator”, you had in mind an image.  I’m guessing it was an image derived from childhood religious teachings.  But notice I didn’t capitalize the word.  That’s because a creator, which let’s be honest is not at all required for this universe to have come into being, could indeed be someone entirely different than our traditional image of God.

Little worlds in water droplets at Portland's Rose Garden on a rainy day.

Little worlds in water droplets at Portland’s Rose Garden on a rainy day.

If you know something about quantum theory, you might have heard of virtual particles.  These are actually physical phenomena that pop into being from nothing, and then pop right back out of existence.  In fact, some scientists believe that the universe is speeding up its expansion because of the energy coming from this “restlessness” in the vacuum of space.  If you are willing to skip a lot of quantum physics and general cosmology in between, you can move to the extreme case of a universe popping into being from nothing.  In other words, you may be part of a universe that came into existence from nothing, with no help from anything but the inherent instability of truly empty space.  No creator, or Creator, is required.

The basic problem with applying quantum theory to the universe as a whole is, as it has been for closing on a hundred years now, the difficulty physicists have in applying quantum theory to the world we live in.  The word quantum refers to things so tiny that they’re really little packets of energy rather than things with length and breadth.  Electrons and protons are two examples of quanta.  These are things we will probably never photograph directly (atoms, made up of protons and electrons, have been photographed).

The Milky Way soars over Crater Lake, Oregon.

The Milky Way soars over Crater Lake, Oregon.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that we haven’t had much luck so far taking a theory that describes the world of electrons and protons and applying it to things that are infinitely more huge like a person, let alone something as vast as a universe.  Things like rivers and rocks, elephants and planets, stars and nebulae are, in essence, emergent properties of some underlying reality.  We seem to be stumbling around, using the language of mathematics to look for this underlying reality, and coming up with plenty of possibilities.  All the while physicists have not been able to connect any of the myriad possibilities to what has actually emerged from that reality.

Many attempts have been made to meld the submicroscopic world of energy (the universe right after the Big Bang) with the more familiar and much cooler universe of today.  We have a well-tested theory of beyond-tiny particles, but we need a theory of stars, planets and bacteria. ( Ha!  You thought I was going to say people, but bacteria vastly outnumber us and probably inhabit way more planets than do large animals like us.)

A rare solar corona appears.

A rare solar corona appears.

Einstein, Bohr, Wheeler, Feynman, etc., etc., all very smart scientists, have put forth  ideas that would extend classical quantum mechanics.  But nobody has succeeded in coming up with a well-tested quantum theory of the macroscopic world (a.k.a. quantum theory of gravity).  There are theories in science, and then there are Theories.  Sometimes, when it is pure mathematics behind the idea, they call it a theorem.  Nobody would call relativity, or evolution by natural selection, a theorem, believe me.  This ongoing effort is often called the Quest for the Holy Grail of Physics.

So I’ll leave it there for now.  I won’t say much more about quantum theory per se, though everything from here on out traces back to it.  Instead I’ll jump right on to the idea of multiple universes, or the Multiverse, and how life and the origin of life might fit in.  It would be good for anyone interested in science to get up to speed (layperson’s speed that is) on quantum theory.  I don’t pretend to understand a lick of the mathematics behind it, so don’t ask me too many questions.  But the ideas of entanglement and decoherence, of multiple histories, and even wave function collapse, are all good targets for a bit of googling and (better) actual book-reading.  More to come.

A small stupa in Nepal's Himalayan mountains allows Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike a moment of rest and reflection on the trekking trail.

A small stupa in Nepal’s Himalayan mountains allows Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike a moment of rest and reflection on the trekking trail.

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.

Moonlight   4 comments

I have to say right here that I love hiking in the moonlight.  Also, cross-country skiing, canoeing or kayaking, mountain biking, and even riding horses under the moon.  Some of my most memorable hikes and ski trips have been lighted by the full moon.  I simply love being out in wild places at night, and when you can see it’s even better.  Last night I joined a group of hikers on a jaunt up to Angel’s Rest, a short steep climb that is the nearest hike in the Columbia River Gorge to Portland.

A near-full moon, here at the Vermilion Cliffs in Utah, does not mean you can’t see stars if the air is clear & skies are dark.

This was the first time I’ve done this in a long time, though last winter I did go skiing in the moonlight (image below).  It brought back great memories.  One of the best moonlight hikes I’ve ever done was on my first trip up to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.  I had hitchhiked up from Portland, planning to backpack up the Hoh River and into the alpine zone.  But I was too late to start the same day, and so I joined a small group of guys I had caught a ride with.  They were headed up to Hurricane Ridge, to camp (and party).  This ridge, which stands up above Port Angeles and Juan de Fuca Strait, is treeless on top and marks the north border of Olympic National Park.  It lies at over 5000 feet and extends for miles of open alpine and subalpine flowery meadows.

If you want a picture of the moon itself, it’s usually best to get it while it is partially lit rather than full.

Arriving after dark, soon the full moon had cleared the ridge.  We decided to go for a hike.  I was a little nervous, having never been there and not really knowing these rowdies.  But I went with the flow and I’m so glad I did.  It was truly spectacular hiking across the flower-filled meadows under the moon.  The moonlight was brighter than I ever remember, so we never switched our flashlights on.

But what makes this a strong memory even now was the incredible view.  You could see all the way north across the Straits to the mountains of Canada’s Vancouver Island, east to several huge snow-covered Cascade volcanoes, west to the rugged Pacific Coast, and south to the glaciated Olympic Range.  The snow- and ice-covered mountains shone with a beautiful silvery light I had never seen before (and have only rarely seen since).  We hiked until almost 3 a.m., then rolled our sleeping bags out on the meadow, not bothering with tents.  I dropped right off despite the bright moon in my face.

Another fantastic moonlight hiking experience took place some years later, when one of my favorite things to do was go backpacking to Mt Rainier National Park.  I would go up in the afternoon, and start hiking in a couple hours before sunset.  Then after hiking by headlamp for a couple more hours, I would camp near the trail.  In the morning I would have a jump on everyone, hiking in to off-trail alpine areas I know about in the Park.  This worked well since I usually had 3-day weekends then.

On one of these occasions I hiked toward a fantastic subalpine plateau called Grand Park, where I planned to camp.  As I approached the meadows, I saw the near-full moon shining on the grassy expanse.  I had heard elk bugling earlier, but I did not see any as I walked in to the meadows.  But suddenly a large bull stepped out from a clump of trees and bugled so loudly I felt my bones vibrating.  Talk about LOUD!  I respect elk on the rut, so I retreated.

When I peeked in again about a half hour later, I saw what must have been a hundred or more elk stretched out over Grand Park.  I walked on, hearing bugling from the far side but no bulls.  But I hadn’t gone far when I was challenged again, this time by an enormous bull who straddled the trail.   I actually could see the moonlight catching his eyes, and they looked mean and nasty.  I decided then to camp in the trees.  This place belonged to the elk tonight, and I obviously wasn’t invited to the party.

The hike last night up Angel’s Rest was not epic like those trips, but it was a gorgeous evening as we crested the bare rock ridge that makes up the summit.  You look straight down onto the Columbia River, and the view extends west downriver to Portland.  A beautiful sunset and perfectly clear evening were our reward as we snacked and snapped pictures.

Oregon’s highest peak, Mount Hood, stands under a winter’s blanket of snow, and a brilliant night sky. View is from the frozen Trillium Lake.

The moon was one day before full, which means it rose about an hour before sunset.  As many photographers know, this is the best time to include the full moon in landscape shots.  This is because as the moon rises and the sun begins to set, the illumination on the moon’s face can approximately match the light in the eastern sky, and on the landscape.  But it helps when the light is right and the foreground is fairly light-colored and reflective (as well as being interesting of course).  It takes a sharp eye to notice the moon is not quite full in the photo.  If you wait until the moon is full, it rises very close to sunset, so the sky and foreground are much too dark to roughly match the brightness of the moon.

This was not happening on Angel’s Rest, where the dark green Oregon forest contrasted too strongly with a moon that was too bright because of the incredibly clear atmosphere.  Of course I could have combined separate exposures later in the computer, but I find that rarely makes for both a natural and dramatic look.  I am always looking for the right scene to capture with a single image.

What a shame it would be to only enjoy our natural world in sunlight.  Being under the light of the moon lends everything a mysteriously beautiful glow.  And the animals who wait until nighttime to roam give you something to think about.  It gives a little edge to the hike when our most-dominant sense, our vision, is challenged.  We are really out of our element at night, and you are forced to quiet your mind and remind yourself that (with a few exceptions) you are the biggest and baddest animal out there.  And this is just as true at night as it is in daytime.

It is certainly wise to use your flashlight or headlamp if there is danger of tripping and hurting yourself.  But I advise avoiding it unless it’s absolutely necessary.  Using a light will ruin your night vision (unless you use a red light, and then it’s too dim to walk by anyway).  It takes about 30 minutes to get it back, during which time you won’t see nuances in the terrain.  Remember you don’t need to see perfectly to walk.  You begin to better feel the ground beneath your feet.

The unusual sensation of moving through the nightscape while allowing your other senses to take over, the challenge of keeping calm when you hear noises, and above all the incredible beauty of moonlit landscapes, this is what makes heading out when the sun goes down so worthwhile.

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