A quiet night

Imagine a gigantic arch over the skies with light from tens of thousands of light years away. The splendour of that is a bit lost in tying to find space between photographers elbows and tripod legs. The result can still be stunning; but I feel that it comes at the cost of a personal satisfaction in soaking up that moment. So, on the second night, I picked a location more low profile; 20 feet from my tent at the White Tank camp site. It was a clear night and I had the desert all to myself at 3 A.M.

Standing in the open desert with darkness and silence around, the look of the Galactic center is a humbling experience. For something that is ten thousands of light years away from us, it dominates the sky. The speck that one is in this universe as vivid as it can get and all I could do was to look up with folded hands and not blink. Very few things have given me as much perspective as that. It comes with a disclaimer that it is not a lasting feeling when put back in the grinds of daily life! Well, all the more reasons to keep making such trips.

Here is a straight from camera shot. It has an exif of 25s, Rokinon 14mm@f/2,8 and ISO 6400 on a Nikon D750 full frame DSLR. Selecting the settings for astro photography is simpler than the perception.
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Selecting an aperture is the simplest; as wide as you can get is the simple rule, which was 2.8 in this case. Next, I go for the shutter speed where the idea is to pick a speed that does not cause trailing of the stars. There is something called as the rule of 500 where you divide the number 500 by the focal length of the lens to get a maximum time in seconds that you can go without getting trails on the stars. For the 14mm lens on a full frame DSLR, it is 500/14 = ~ 36 seconds. I went for a number less than that to be on the safe side. As for the ISO, I start at ISO3200 and keep increasing or decreasing(with f/1.4 lenses) it till I get a fairly bright image image of the night sky.

The rule of 500 is also why wide angle lens are more popular in Astro photography. A 100 mm telephoto lens would start showing trails after 5 seconds which is too short of a time to capture a low noise image.
After processing in Lightroom, the dull image gets a life and turns into,
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If you are one who thinks that the original is better then I am with you with bouts of that thought.

Wafting clouds is not as devious of a villain as it is made to be. While clear skies make for more clinical shots, I think clouds adds more character to the skies. Here is a before and after shot with clouds.

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At one point, I got lucky and had the headlamps of a car light up the foreground. The Milky Way in itself is stunning, but usually the pictures where you linger the most, has a foreground to match it. Or at least try.

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And at another point, I wasn’t lucky and had to toil for the lights.

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The next blog is about me experimenting in light painting and getting a first hand lesson in  missing a subject literally next to you in the darkness.

An arch over an arch

Today was the day. The weather gods were in agreement and I could finally lay my eyes on the core of our Milky Way for the first time and photograph it from a fitting location. I reached the White Tank campground at the Joshua Tree NP before 8:30 AM and after some asking around got myself camping spot 14. It was tucked in at a far corner and gave me access to the Arch rock without having to bother any other campers. Phew. That was a good start that I really needed. The measuring tape that you see in my shadow is me experimenting with focussing using hyperlocal distance.
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All proud and happy, I opened my tent to realise that the poles were not inside. Yep, that brought the feet back to the ground. It was the tourist centre to the rescue again who asked me to check out Nomad Ventures and Joshua Tree Outfitters in Joshua Tree town. There are times when peoples honesty and trust makes your day and this was one of those days. I was explaining why I was on the lookout for a cheap tent at Nomad Ventures as a sales person was showing me their options. The cheapest was at 200$ and after listening to my stupidity he said, I might get a better deal at Joshua Tree Outfitters as they rent tents. Sure enough, I was able to rent one for two days at 20$! The owner gave me the combination to their storage lock on the backside and told me to leave it there if they are closed. Acts like this warms the heart and longs for more of this trust.

After settling down, I made multiple trips to the Arch Rock to try find the best spot for the shot I had in mind. It was a shot with the Milky Way arch just above the arch of the rock like a double rainbow. I use PhotoPills app for getting an idea of the composition. It is an augmented reality app that lets you see how the core of the Milky Way would look around a landscape at a specified time and location. I needed to get the shot at around 3:45 AM before the core of the milky way shifted away to the right of the arch.

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When I peeked out of the tent at 3:00 , I was expecting the Milky Way as vibrant as you see in the photos. Well, to the naked eye, it is not that vibrant. It was more like a haze. So much for first impression..Sigh!
Despite being the middle of the week, there were 3 other photographers already at the place but luckily the spot I was after was free. I setup camp and soon realised that, it wasn’t an easy task to get a shot that was not spoilt by a fellow photographer turning on the headlamps or checking a shot in the camera. My idea to throw a mild light on the arch for the panorama was a no go. It took a while before I could get this.

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Nikon D750, Rokinon 14 mm @ f/2.8, 20 sec, ISO 6400, 6 single row shot panaroma.

The orange light in the right of the frame is light pollution from some far away city. It is sad to see pristine night skies disappearing to unmanaged night lighting.

To learn and experiment, a popular spot isn’t the best of location choices. The next 3 nights that I was out photographing, I picked more secluded spots of Joshua Tree National Park to get away from shots like this.
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Stay tuned for more dark nights!

Clouds and Sunshine

It was the second night of my stay at the Joshua Tree NP and the weather report was a harmless partially cloudy sky. The “partial” part turned out to be between the East and South skies where the core of the Milky Way was. Of course I had to leave the comfort of my room at 4 AM to find this out. With nothing more to do, I drove up to cap rock to wait an hour and a half for the sunrise. It was a beautiful sight, but nevertheless a consolation prize. Here is a little bit of sunshine before moving on.

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Later, to make things worse, high winds were forecast from 7 PM till the next afternoon with reduced visibility. I wanted to ditch my current plans and go to Death Valley or Zion NP except for it was more partially cloudy skies which I was not willing to trust. I was starting to get worried(to put it mildly) at this point with two nights of no result for the Atlantic crossing. But, decided to stay put and trust the clear nights that were forecast for later in the week.

Photographs of the Milky Way arch over the Arch Rock was an inspiration for me picking Joshua Tree NP. I soon found out that not all spots in the NP are open in the night including Arch Rock. The tourist centre gave me the bad news that the non-frowned way to photograph that is to get a spot at the White Tank camp field to which it “belongs”. Unless of course, I am shameless to wake up all the camping ground by driving in at 3 in the morning and park in a no-parking zone. I had to do it the right way and I drove up to White Tank and talked to the ones who had camping spots on how it worked. It is a rudimentary method really. When someone leaves their spot, you claim it. Now, all that was left to try my luck the next day. A tip if you are heading for the Arch rock from White Tank. If you are walking for more than 5 minutes from the parking/camping spots, you are quite possibly in the wrong direction. It took around 30 minutes of wandering for this piece of wisdom!

So, until the next post with the Milky Way and Arch rock, have an awesome weekend!

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.

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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!