Streaky Start

Hardly 3 months had gone by since my last visit and I was back in California for a week of photographing the night sky at the Joshua Tree National Park, Death Valley and probably the Zion National Park as well. It was the last week of March 2017 and right in time for that extra darkness of the new moon. My research on all these places was done and the weather was to guide me on which I picked of those three. You are probably starting to think, ‘how nice and adventurous’. My mood was farthest from that feeling. It was mostly nervousness about weather and how things would pan out and plain old lack of perspective. We all go there, right? 🙂 .

The first stop was Joshua Tree National Park. The plan was quite simple; Location scouting during the day, keep tabs on the weather, little bit of sleep and start the real day at 3 A.M or so.  The visitor centre at the Joshua Tree NP entrance suggested the ruins of Ryan ranch which was open till 10 P.M for some start trails. So, out I went there solo with my big Ford Explorer (that is me blending in) and a compass to find a spot pointing north to get those amazing looking circular start trails. It looked quite promising with a barren tree to give perspective to the star trails and a fairly clear early evening sky weather prediction.

Fast forward to 7:30 PM and I was back at Ryan Ranch with the sun just set. I setup camp and waited for the astronomical twilight to end. Setting up camp basically is remembering where you picked your spot and finding it again in the darkness with the headlamp and setting up the camera to focus on the stars. As I would later find out, remembering the spot is not as simple as it sounds. As for the setting up of the camera, I’ll start with the arm chair version of focussing in this post. There are different ways to do focus and my method so far has been to switch to live view and zoom in on a bright star. The zooming in on a bright star isn’t as easy as it sounds as there would be no star visible in the live view if the focus is off. Anyway, once you get a star in view in a zoomed in live view, you twist the manual focus ring to the point where the star is clear. Well, that is how it is supposed to work in theory. In practice it is a frustrating process. I used to clock around hour for this.

Soon, clouds which were not welcome started moving in. Thin ones but nevertheless visible in the frame. And there were the flights on top of it that were all over the frame and there was not a single 20 second frame that did not have the streaking light of an aircraft. Clear star trials were out of question and I settled down for some creepy ruin photos instead. A passing vehicle threw some light on the building and this was the only salvageable shot from the evening.

Nikon D750 + Rokinon 14 mm f/2.8, ISO 3200, 20 sec

You can see the bowl of the Big Dipper(A pattern from 7 bight stars) almost cupping the top right section of the tree. The cloud though obvious and ominous in the picture is barely visible to the naked eye. I went back wiser about flight patterns and not to try star trails in a region that is surrounded by more than 5 airports including Los Angeles before 10 or 11 P.M.

5 more nights of photographing the night sky with the hassles, etched moments, decisions, techniques are to follow this post. Stay tuned!


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