Archive for the ‘stars’ Tag

Valley of Fire, Nevada   4 comments

The Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada has a history of visitors that goes back thousands of years before Sunday drivers from nearby Vegas.

This is Nevada’s oldest and largest state park, located about an hour’s drive from Sin City.  On my way out of southwestern Utah (sad), I turned off Interstate 15 and slept near the entrance to the park.  The stars were affected by the bright half-moon but were nonetheless amazing.  So I did a couple starscapes (see below).  In the morning the sun rose into a clear sky and light became harsh within a half hour.  I captured the photo above about 15 minutes after sunrise.

The fall-blooming desert chicory adds color to Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.

I had stopped at a small picnic area called Lone Rock, which is at the turnoff for “the cabins”.  There was nobody around, it being early on Black Friday, so the rock was indeed lonely.  But I was joined in spirit by those moccasin-clad travelers of a different age.  It was a big surprise to find these petroglyphs on a rock behind the Lone Rock.  There are other better-known rock art panels throughout this park, like Atlatl Rock on the Petroglyph Canyon Trail.  Park at Mouse’s Tank.  They date from as old as Fremont Basketmaker people, about 3000 years ago, but there is also art from as recent as several hundred years ago.

I stopped at a little pull-off with a sign explaining some geology – pretty basic stuff, of course, but interesting.  I wanted to do a hike into the maze of shallow canyons and slickrock that you view when you stop at Rainbow Vista.  It was still early, with nobody around.  There is a military firing range not too far away, and the boom-boom of the big guns echoed off the rocks.  This is one drawback to a visit here, but quiet does return when they stop.

It was during one of these quiet periods that I heard what sounded like somebody knocking rocks together.  I looked around and finally saw some movement in the distance.  There was a small herd of sheep some 1/2 mile away, and they were running around, making the noise.  I thought I was hearing their hooves knocking on the rocks, but I noticed as I drew closer to them that the rams were butting heads.

A desert bighorn ram at Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada watches for danger as the herd he is part of gets down to the business of mating season.

I stalked closer, using the terrain to conceal myself.  I cursed the fact that my 100-400 lens had been stolen.  In fact, I had only brought my little Canon S95 point and shoot camera with me on the hike, as I thought I would only be shooting pictures of the odd flower or cactus.  Dumb!  I got my first good view of them, but they had seen me first.  Some of the rams had enormous full-curl horns.

Several large rams make up the most obvious part of a November mating herd of desert bighorn sheep in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada.

It was very clearly mating season, and so the extent of their interest in me varied enormously between the sexes.  The females kept leading the herd away from me (there were a couple young ones).  Meanwhile the males only glanced my way from time to time.  I stalked them for quite some time, even crawling on my belly along washes to get close enough.  I was hoping the photos taken with my p & s camera would show more than specks for animals.

Seldom noted during the discussion of the battles between bighorn rams is the point of it all.

Not surprisingly, the pictures did not turn out that well.  I am sitting here right now in Vegas thinking about a return.  I wonder if I could find the herd.  When I finished my bighorn hike and got back to the road, I noticed that traffic had gone from an occasional car to a stream of them.  The horde had arrived from town, having finished their Black Friday morning shopping.  It was actually crowded; such a change from the quiet and empty morning hours.

I left and drove through the enormous desert landscape of Lake Mead Recreation Area.  The lights of Vegas formed a glowing dome above the horizon as the November dusk quickly took over.

 

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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.

North Cascades   7 comments

I’m in the Methow Valley, in Northern Washington, in bad need of a shower, having just tumbled out of the mountains of the North Cascades.  And rugged mountains they surely are!  This will be a relatively short post, as far as writing goes (I can hear the cheers already).  I’ve gone & broken my left hand, so everything is slower, especially typing.  It’s a long story how I broke it.  The short version is that I am sometimes a stupid man, and it costs me.

Blue Lake in the North Cascades of Washington is calm as the sun begins to set.

I approached from the south, camping along Baker Lake, then followed Hwy. 20 east to Ross Lake, taking a hike to Blue Lake for a sunset view of Early Winters Spires.  It is only 2 or 3 miles up to the lake.  You will likely run into rock climbers here.  The Spires are a prime challenge for rock jocks.  After this, I drove down into the tiny burg of Mazama, and then back up (way up!) to Slate Peak.

I was under the stars here, at 7400 feet elevation, and shot some night photos in the company of an astrophotographer.  He was shooting at a considerably narrower angle than I was!  He showed me my first ever view of the Heart Nebula, a beautiful object I’ve never seen before.  And I thought I was a pretty savvy stargazer.

The Big Dipper is nearly lost amongst the stars above Slate Peak Lookout in Northern Washington.

The view from Slate Peak is amazing, making the rough, steep “road” up there worth it.  If you are the type to balk at narrow dirt tracks carved out of a mountainside, with no guardrail between you and a sheer drop, get somebody else to drive it, take a pill, and keep your eyes firmly closed.  But what a view!  The jagged peaks of the North Cascades lie to the west, and the wild Pasayten country rises to the east.

The wind was blowing up there overnight, so it was downright cold!  In order to stargaze, I had to put on more clothes than I’ve had on since last March.  But next morning dawned clear & the day warmed rapidly.  This is the start of the Pacific Crest Trail’s last push northward to the Canadian border, & I hiked up a few miles, scrambling up a minor peak.  It was a good challenge though, having only one hand to rely on for the knife-edge ridge.

The sun’s last rays hit the popular climbing crags of Early Winters Spires in Washington’s North Cascades.

The larches are changing color now, making me want to keep pushing north & east to the Canadian Rockies.  But I don’t have my passport on me, alas.  Oh for those good old pre-9/11 days, when crossing into Canada was not very different than crossing a state line.  Oh well, I really should go home & get a real cast put on this hand.  But for now I’m off to enjoy the little town of Winthrop, & the gorgeous valleys here.  This country is covered in snow for most of the year, but now it’s basking in beautiful September sunshine.   Hope you enjoy the photos.

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.

Star Gazing   4 comments

I went star gazing last night.  It was the first time in a long time I looked through my telescope, a rather sad admission to make.  The weather was clear and warm in the late afternoon, and so I loaded the van with my 8-inch Newtonian telescope, a cooler with drinks and snacks, and my photography gear.  Oh, and my dog came with.  This post will have a few photos, but I have already published several of my good ones in my post “Moonlight”.  Check that one out.

Mount Hood and the rising half moon from the summit of Larch Mountain in Oregon.

I had a good little time up on Larch Mountain, which is the closest place to my home where the stars are fairly bright.  It’s about 40 minutes away, on top of a 4000-foot mountain, and has a view of Mount Hood.  I had a nice time up there, but it only whetted my appetite, and now I have to get way out there to try for really nice photos.  Crater Lake is calling, as well as Mt Rainier.  I also am so hoping the Sun sends us another present; i.e., a big solar flare that causes aurorae at low latitudes.  It did this a few weeks ago, and I messed up big time not getting out to see it.  The Sun is active right now, and we get a few days notice of events, so I’m watching NASA’s website and keeping my fingers crossed.

I used to teach, and during that time I got into astronomy big time.  I bought the telescope, learned my way around the sky, and even became well-versed in astronomical principles (I had to because I taught a high school astro. class).  I spent a couple seasons at an outdoor school in what is probably Oregon’s best dark sky region, Wheeler County in the unpopulated eastern part of the state.  There, as an instructor, I had access to very good telescopes, and ran astronomy camps and classes.  Most importantly, the night sky was so spectacular that you could sometimes see your shadow on the ground.  And this was not from the moon, but from the Milky Way alone!

Now as a photographer I’ve been playing around with starscape photography.  This is normally defined as photos of the stars, aurora, etc. but with portions of the earthly landscape included.  Pictures of the stars and planets with no landscape?  That’s called astrophotography, something I also played about with during my teaching time.

I went but astrophotography is a one of those things that requires commitment in order to obtain excellent results (and excellent results are all I go for).  You need not only plenty of time and education on techniques and software, but you’ll need to buy a very expensive telescope (actually it’s the mount that is most expensive) plus a CCD camera.  All of this said, you can get pretty stunning astrophotographs with a simple “go-to” telescope of roughly half a thousand dollars, plus a digital videocam or digital camera with mount.

An eastern Oregon starscape features Venus and, on the horizon, Mercury. Several constellations are also visible, such as Orion the Hunter at left. The bright star peeking out of the clouds on the left is Sirius, the northern hemisphere’s brightest.

For starscape photography, you only need your digital camera (DSLR is preferred), a solid tripod and as fast a lens as you can afford.  An f/2.8 lens or faster will make a big difference, though you can start with an f/4 lens.  A wide-angle lens is almost a must as well, something on the order of 24mm or wider.  This setup will allow you to get star trails (those photos of many circles or arcs of light you see) as well as images of pinpoint stars (which I prefer).  With a timer remote, you can set up to take a time-lapse, which is very popular right now (I’m not too impressed with them though).

But you need to remember this: the stars (and planets, moon, sun) appear to move across the sky.  The earth, as everyone knows, rotates on its axis.  This means that you and your tripod and camera are always moving under the stars.   And so your long-exposure images have the potential to smear out or arc the stars, while the landscape below remains perfectly sharp (it’s moving too).  So here are some general considerations:

  • In addition to the above camera-related gear, you’ll need a flashlight (or two).  For seeing what you’re doing, you need a red flashlight.  Your night vision is super important to maintain, and a white light will reset your eyes so that you need to wait a half hour or more to get back your night vision.  Look at astro forums or you can get red cellophane from a party store and tape 4 or 5 layers of it over your regular flashlight.  Bring another light (with other colored cellophane?) for light painting.
  • Learn about the night sky.  As with any photography, the more you know about your subject, the better your pictures.  Get a star chart and take it out with a red flashlight to get familiar with constellations and how they move through the sky.  Bring binoculars (or telescope) to get a close look at what you are photographing.
  • Find the darkest and clearest sky you can get to, well away from light pollution.  You simply have many more options if the night sky is pristine.
  • Regarding the landscape,  strong elements like a fascinating old building or monument, a (very) interesting tree or rock, or a spectacular mountain range are all worth considering.  In my opinion, star trails only work well if the foreground is very striking, and should not be used more than occasionally.
  • You will normally be focusing at infinity, at wide open aperture or stopped one down.  To focus, either autofocus on a distant mountain then turn your AF off, or if there isn’t enough light, find a very bright star or planet and manually focus on that.  You can use live view as well, with the ISO temporarily cranked up to a moderately high number.
  • Any exposure of over 15 seconds will have at least some evidence of movement in the stars (or moon).  If you have a very wide angle, say 16 mm, you can get away with 20 or even 25 seconds.  Also, the closer to north (or if in the southern hemisphere, south) you point your camera, the less movement you will notice.
  • If you have no moon and if the landscape below is not very reflective, you will have a very dark image if you shoot at 20 seconds or shorter shutter speed.  You should shoot either wide open (lowest f number) or one stop down (next higher number), and this helps but will not get you a bright image below 20 seconds.  That is, unless you raise your ISO (see next point).
  • Digital noise can be a problem.  First of all, noise is most obvious in dark areas, and you have almost all dark area in a starscape.  Second, the longer the exposure, the more noise.  Third, raising your ISO, say to 800, can give you a bright enough image at less than 20 seconds exposure time.  But the higher your ISO, the more noise.
  • Final noise point: I recommend you try raising your ISO, which could mean only 400 if you have a camera that does not handle noise that well, or even 1600 if you have, say, a Nikon D4 or Canon 5D III.  Then use noise reduction software, either Lightroom or a plugin like Topaz Denoise.  Your camera might have a long exposure noise reduction setting.  Skip it.  It will just double the time you have to wait for the camera to finish, and it doesn’t do as good a job as post-processing software does.
  • You basically have two choices with landscapes.  Either include a simple, recognizable silhouette (a bare tree is the classic – overused? – example) with a bright starry sky (or moon) in the background, or illuminate the foreground.  If the foreground is close enough, you can “paint” with a flashlight or LED during the exposure.  You can also let nature illuminate it for you.  A partial moon can do the job nicely, but you will need dark and very clear skies in order for the stars to not be washed out by the moon.  Experiment; even the full moon can work if you shoot in the opposite direction from it.
  • I’m not discussing things like stacking multiple images in Photoshop, and other post-processing techniques.  Sometimes photographers get these spectacular images with millions of stars, and they’ve stacked images so that stars are repeated.  I avoid this, because it’s phony (I want constellations to be recognizable).  You can stack and get stars that are not visible with the naked eye, which is a little more real I suppose.  You can google this and get some tutorials.  But one thing I will mention is that you can composite two photos, one exposing for the sky, the other for the landscape (see last two points).
  • You can get around the shutter speed limitation by moving with the stars.  You will need a motorized mount to do this, either a tracking telescope or an add-on to your tripod.  Unless you are good at making things, I recommend either picking up a used telescope that tracks (and a piggyback mount for your camera), or buying the fairly new Vixen Polarie.  I just bought this little gem and will soon be shooting with it.  It is a compact, add-on mount for your tripod, and runs on only two AA batteries.  It tracks the stars for you, at both full and half-speed.  It allows you to keep the stars pinpoint sharp over longer exposures, which gives you a brighter and better image.
  • But if you are tracking, you now have the landscape blurred.  So you need to either try tracking at half speed (a great option on the Polarie) or composite two images: one tracking and one with the Polarie switched off.  The only drawback to this amazingly compact unit that I can see is that it cannot handle more than about five pounds.  All depends on not only your camera’s weight, but also your lens and your tripod head.  Note that you will need two tripod heads to use the Vixen.

So this is my admittedly opinionated take on photographing the night sky.  While I’ve tried to lay out the basics, there is no substitute for getting out and experimenting.  Remember to dress more warmly than you’d think would be necessary, and take some snacks and a thermos.  Motivation is a little more difficult to maintain in night sky photography than with normal landscape photography.  The idea is to have fun and to learn more about the night sky.  Good luck!

The total solar eclipse of 2009. This was right after I finally bought a nice DSLR, and I did a cruise in the north Pacific to view this. This is called the “diamond ring” effect. Total solar eclipses are one of Earth’s greatest spectacles.

The annular eclipse of May, 2012 was visible from northern California. I consider solar eclipses to be night sky photography, even though they occur in daytime.

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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