I’m all alone. It’s dark. It’s really quiet. Eerily quiet. This is my window that I’ve been waiting for. The 1 A.M. to 4 A.M. window of darkness that only a new moon can provide. This happens once a month, and if you’re lucky you will also get clear skies. I am doing good so far, new moon, almost clear skies. The hardest part, unfortunately is finding places without light pollution. In my pictures you can see the distant lights of towns, and cities blazing light into the night sky.
We have become afraid of the dark.
This place is special, even with its light pollution. The Eastern Sierras has become one of my favorite places. Small towns, good people, quiet uncrowded beautiful places.
“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”
— ANSEL ADAMS
I have shot sunset and then the blue hour. My gear is cleaned, checked and setup for the next shoot; ISO 1600, Manual mode, Bulb, AF off, VR off, WB 3450, fresh batteries for intervalometer, head lamp, flashlight and cameras. Reading glasses laid out (ya, I’m old now… using cheaters).
The sunsets here never disappoint.
“Once photography enters your bloodstream, it is like a disease.”
The location has been scouted during the bright washed out hours of midday. Hours of driving around looking for the the “right” spot. I find a nice foreground and then double check where the Milky Way will be using PhotoPills. Other apps used in pre-planning and last minute scouting are SkyGuide, Dark Skies, Sun Seeker and Moon Seeker
Time to lay down, rest is needed. We are going to be shooting from 1am right thru pre-dawn blue hour and sunrise.
The alarms from phone and watch burn my ears, my eyes are dry and blurry, I forgot to take my contacts out. My brain heavy with fog from sleep inertia. My biggest battle; my brain tells me to go back to sleep, the wind is really blowing, it’s going to be cold and probably cloudy, you really don’t want to do this….
I slide the van door open and those thoughts immediately vanish into the night sky, drawn into the vacuum of space. My dry sticky eyes feast upon the most beautiful night sky. Stars, billions and billions of stars twinkle light from millions of years ago. The Milky Way is bright and strikes awe everytime I see it. It’s right where it’s suppose to be, just cresting the horizon.
This makes all the planning worth it, time to get busy. One camera gets set up and test shots are taken to check for exposure and framing. It’s dark, really dark and you can’t see anything thru the viewfinder, so it’s really point the camera in a general direction and with the “starter settings” take a test shot and see how it looks, zoom into a 100% and really check focus. Some lenses are crisp and sharp at the infinity marker and I have others that are to the left or right of the infinity marker. There are many techniques in how to focus for night/star shots, look them up, try them and see what works for you. I get to know each lens that I use; my 24-70 f2.8 is set right in the middle of the infinity marker and it’s perfect. My 14-24 f2.8 is set on the right side of the infinity marker to get crisp focus. Practice, take test shots and zoom into 100% and look. Bracket around your infinity marker and see where is best for that lens.
The D500 is setup and starts shooting a time-lapse. A picture every 22 seconds for the next 2 hours. The D810 is with me, shooting 30 second exposures of the Milky Way with foreground objects. Some with light painting. Lots of practice needed here too, use different temperature lights, and vary how long and how bright. There are no easy directions here, just lots of practice. You only have about 3-4 hours of a good dark window, each picture takes 30 seconds, plus your scrutiny of the picture, zooming into 100% to check for any focus adjustments and checking framing. So, time is of the essence here, it still amazes me how fast the time goes. Before you know it, the Milky Way is washing out from that giant star the sun creeping up towards the horizon.
How long to expose? Again, lots of trial and error here, I start with ISO 1600 and a 30 second exposure and see what you get. The goal is the leave the lens wide open, f2.8 if you can, or as wide open as your lens will allow and have the ISO as low as you can while not not exposing so long as to get star trials. Lots of techniques on this also, I use the 500 rule and it has always worked for me. A quick internet search will explain it better than I can. You will find the sweet spot. Shoot in RAW, and experiment. This is the fun of photography. You really don’t want to be given the exact recipe, you will learn more, have more fun by playing around and breaking the rules, experiment, push the limits of your camera and see what you get. You will find your own stating places and you will become intimate with your camera and lenses, knowing their strengths and weaknesses. You will become a better photographer.
I’m always learning. I have a long ways to go to be where I want to be. Imogen Cunningham said;
“Which of my photographs is my favorite? The one I’m going to take tomorrow.”
— IMOGEN CUNNINGHAM
I have to admit, I look at 500px or flickr or NatGeo and see the incredible star photos and wonder how they do it… read, study, but mostly go out and shoot pictures. I will get there, you will get there. We will get better together.
There are no shortcuts. My pictures are not that good. I will get better. It’s a journey, it’s a journey that I don’t want short cuts for. The fun and satisfaction comes from the journey itself not the end result. In 5 short years I will look back on these photos and smile. I will see my mistakes, I will see the limitations of that camera system,
I will see my journey…
Here's to the journey...