October Lunar Eclipse

2014 Hunter’s Moon eclipse.

Shooting from my apartment’s parking lot, I went outside a little before 03:00 to see the already full moon already partially eclipsed. I quickly set up my gear, and began to shoot.

I know I have said before, but I’ll say it again: the moon is bright. It is the second brightest object in the sky, behind only the sun. Even a sliver of a crescent moon is significantly brighter than the the sky’s third most luminous object, Venus. When photographing a regular full moon, the dark sky that surrounds it can be deceiving to camera and observer. This makes it more of a challenge to properly expose. In most cases, you need a fast shutter, and will need to under expose significantly to capture the details in the moon’s face (if not shooting in manual mode). The opposite is true for a lunar eclipse. The strategy to use here is the technique used for shooting the Milky Way on moonless nights.

In my research to understand the relative brightness of a lunar eclipse, I learned about the Danjon Scale. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danjon_scale


My initial set-up consisted of the following:

– 1D4 – bad ISO performance compared to 6D and 1DX, but has advantage of 1.3 APS-H crop sensor for additional “reach. This turned out to be a bad choice because good ISO capability is helpful to capture the dim moon.

– 600mm f/4 II + 2x III extender = 1200mm, but with the 1.3 crop on 1D4, this combination would be equivalent of a 1680mm lens on 35mm. This would help fill the frame nicely!

– Gitzo 3 series tripod with RRS Panning head and 15 lbs weight tied to the hook. This is a critical step to stabilize the support. With 1680mm of equivalent optics, the slightest vibration wrecks havoc on any image.

After using this set-up, I quickly realized that I needed more light.  The f/8 (with 2x teleconverter) just wasn’t fast enough. I removed the extender and opened the 600mm to f/4. Then lost some optical reach by switching bodies to the 6D.  This would give me cleaner high ISO performance and some more resolution (20MP vs 16MP) for cropping.  I tooks some shots with these settings, before taking a few clicks with the 1.4x extender.

Perseid Supermoon

The annual Perseid Meteor shower are set to peak in the coming days….but the shame is that the full moon will likely wash out all but the most brilliant Perseid meteors this year. So instead going deep for meteors this year, I am staying local and concentrating on using some new techniques for an interesting supermoon Yosemite landscape.

The goal is to capture this supermoon rising to the right side of Half Dome, hopefully using a panning/stitch technique and a big 300mm F/2.8 lens or the 70-200 F/2.8.  The panning method is a bit more complex, as it requires several carefully aligned images to make the full composition.

There are a lot of considerations here. 

First is the focal length.  I will likely have a few set-ups going to make sure I can capture what I want.

View of Half Dome from Columbia Rock with a 300mm...Tight.
View of Half Dome from Columbia Rock with a 300mm…Tight.

Ideally, I would be at a position that is far enough away to let me use my 600mm without having too much atmospheric haze to muddy the image. That is what I would prefer. But this won’t be possible, as there is no terrestrial position within the boundaries of Yosemite National Park that I am aware, which provides such leverage.  In fact, the spot that I am considering will be tight with a 300mm.

But I am insisting on using a big lens in this composition.  Everything depends on using the moon on horizon illusion to make the sphere look as big as possible. This means, I need as much focal length as I can manage. 

The View 
The View 

Ok, so the focal length is largely dependent on the position I am shooting. Given the trajectory of the moon, the Columbia Rock is a decent balance of distance and proximity. North Dome has a more direct shot to Half Dome, but is much to close to Half Dome’s face, besides the composition from Columbia Rock includes more of the Valley, it is a more interesting composition, in my opinion.

From Columbia Point, the moon should rise on the south western side of Half Dome, between Mt. Broderick and the Liberty Cap and slightly to the EAST of Mt. Clark in the distance. 

Roughly speaking, the image I hope to capture will look a bit like the images below*

*artistic rendition of the moon

The perspective of my desired image will be different from the ones depicted above, in fact if everything goes as planned, it should be more dramatic. Given the compression of the foreground and background that a 300mm offers.  

Other considerations include establishing the nodal parallax point on my lens, so I can precisely rotate my body+lens and minimize the distortion. That will take some time, and be a good reason to set up early…. 

I searched through my image library for my countless “scouting” snapshots, that I have taken in Yosemite over the years.  Being able to use this information in the future,  is the only reason I snap so many photos at times.  I am able to use them for scouting future photo projects, without having to drive back to Yosemite. Makes life a bit easier.

Attached are other photos in Yosemite using the 300mm, to show the perspective. All of these were shot with a Canon 1D4 which is a APS-H 1.3 crop sensor. For my set-up this weekend, I will have a bit more breathing room in terms of composition as I will be shooting on full frame bodies (1DX and 6D).  But I will put the 14mm F/2.8 on the 1D4 to have that ready for the Perseids….The photos at 300mm basically show two things:

  – The angle of view for a single frame using a 300mm lens from Columbia Rock.  


  – The size of the moon when using a 300mm, 600mm lens, uncropped.

The composition will consist of as many vertical oriented images needed to capture the moon and half dome. By doing this, I maintain this perspective of getting a huge moon, the compression of a telephoto and perspective of a wider angle.

This leads to the next subject….attempts to salvage the Perseids from the supermoon!  The plan for that will be to keep the moon at my back, and to use it for illuminating the foreground. About the only piece of good news is that the moon follows a southerly path across the sky, and the Perseids radiate from Perseus with is almost directly due north.

Scouting the Yosemite web cameras to check the conditions there. There might be some concern on that front too. The webcam tonight has shown some haze and clouds in the afternoons, and not the interesting kind of summer storm clouds. It almost looks like haze or smoke from a fire, but the fire report doesn’t appear to indicate this.

Lastly, it is going to be rough to carry all the gear I will need for this shoot. If I do decide to pull an all night and stay up near Columbia point for the Perseids, it won’t be the best vantage point, as the valley below has significant light pollution and the northerly exposure to Perseus is blocked by the Valley wall. Another consideration is to hike back down after moonrise, and rush to Glacier Point and shoot up Tenaya Canyon.  There will likely be a significant amount of people there, so another idea is to hike down 4-Mile Trail a bit to get a more quiet shooting location. The full moon and white Yosemite granite make night hiking less of a problem here than most places in the world….




Churchill 2013: Auroras

Northern Lights

A first for me on this trip was seeing the aurora borealis.  November is cloudy in Churchill and the up-to-minute solar forecasts for the Churchill area indicated minimal activity, so we knew the chances to see the aurora was quite low.  Nevertheless, we prepared our gear each night that it was clear and went out looking for the lights. We fortunate to have ignored the solar wind forecasts, because at the hour (23:30)  the activity was supposed lull, we noticed some faint flickering high above.  Meril was driving, so I rolled my window down, leaned out, and trained my eyes straight-up and slightly to the north.

The first time seeing something that you’ve wanted to see for as long as you can remember is truly an incredible feeling.

There before my eyes was the solar wind, flickering and undulating in magnificent green waves. As my excitement increased, so did the intensity of the aurora.  We were at the edge of town along the Hudson Bay near the Inuksuk, and thought this was as good spot as any to do photography.  The show continued to intensify over the next 30 minutes, I was able to set up three cameras, two on tripods and one floater supported by a beanbag.  During the most intense activity, Meril and I were the only two people in the area, and our experience (and photography) was not interfered with. As the display began to diminish, the crowds of people began to arrive.  We weren’t in a remote location, just a short walk from the town center, but the previous night’s polar bear mauling served as a stark reminder of how very dangerous it is to walk the Churchill streets in Oct/Nov at night. But the people did come, and in numbers that would likely frightening away the most inquisitive polar bear.  I could have found this irritating, and yes the guy who set up his tripod in front of everyone else was a bit clueless, but I found it to be enjoyable, witnessing the excitement  It was the same excitement that I had felt 45 minutes prior. Plus I was in a good mood because I had already gotten my shot.

The next night was also clear on land (a massive cloud bank could be seen hanging over Hudson Bay and growing in size but not coming any closer. The weather system on land was doing a good job at keeping the clouds at “bay”.  We expected the arctic air mass would eventually prevail and spread its clouds over Manitoba and the rest of north central Canada at any point.  But it didn’t appear to be happening  this night, so we went looking for the aurora again.  Throughout the day, we were scouting possible locations to shoot from.  We decided on the cemetery, which backs up right along the shore of Hudson Bay a mile or so out of town.  This location has its pros and cons.  It was a visually interesting spot for long exposure photography, far enough from the town center to avoid the crowds.  But the narrow rocky beach separating the cemetery from the bay happens to be one of the more heavily traveled routes bears follow as they skirt past the town. And the only separation between the cemetery and that polar bear highway was a 4-ft chain link fence…we resolved to stay near the vehicle and not stray far.

As for auroral activity, the second night’s display was even more intense than the previous and lasted about two hours.  I had a three camera set-up going again, and kept the exposures between 10-20s.  At times, the sky was so bright with aurora, that if I used any longer of an exposure, the delicate waving curtains would be overexposed.

Method and Technique

Here are some things to consider when attempting to capture the northern lights.  First, find a darkest spot/sky with interesting foreground early in the day, normally with northern exposure.  If the moon is out, look away from it and use it to illuminate your foreground.  Again, given your location, a full moon will typically follow a southerly path.

Start with the following Camera settings:
– Use your widest Lens. (READ not your fastest, this isn’t astrophotography, if you are doing Astrophotography you should use a combination of fast and wide!)
– Shoot in Manual mode, Shutter=15s, ISO 800, Aperture = Wide Open (F/2.8 or F/4…whatever is the widest open). Be ready to adjust these setting as needed.

Focus: At night and in the dark, your camera’s auto focus won’t work. You will need to use manual focus or focus the lens to infinity/hyperfocal before sunset. If you have trouble manually setting the focus, use the moon or any other bright object in the distance, such as far away city lights, a ship, radio antenna, or ever a bright star. TO focus on these faint objects, set your focus to the center point, wait for the focus confirmation, flip lens to MF and don’t touch the focus barrel. The focus is set to infinity/hyperfocal and should bring your entire frame into acceptable focus, especially the aurora.

Use a cable release! If you don’t have a cable release, use the 2-second self timer to minimize camera shake. This step is very important.

Set camera on a tripod (or beanbag or bag of clothes), compose your shot, and make sure it is as stable as you can make it.

…then click away!

Depending on how intense the activity is, you may have to make adjustments. If there is a lot of movement and big, bright aurora curtains, a 15s exposure may be too long and overexpose the image. Decrease shutter to 10s. If the lights are faint and resulting image is too dark, first bump the ISO to 1600, then 3200 (depending on the body there will be increased noise, but nothing that unmanageable). If the image is still too dark after doing that, increase the shutter speed to 20s.  Again. the area of concern here is that you want to preserve the movement of the aurora in your exposure.

As the aurora likes to reveal itself near the Earth’s poles, when it is dark, frigid temperatures seem to go hand in hand. So here are few more tips to keep in mind:

  • Bring extra batteries to cycle in and out.  Store unused batteries in inside pocket to rewarm with body heat.
  • Prevent your front element (lens) from getting frosted. Hold your breath while your face is near the lens to prevent moisture freezing on the front element.  If it drops below dewpoint, use a rubberband and handwarmer to keep the front element from getting frosted.
  • And remember to dress warmly.
  • http://cleardarksky.com/c/FairbanksAKkey.html?1

Memorial Day Roadtrip Death Valley

2014 Memorial Day Road Trip: Death Valley
May 23-26, 2014

Memorial Day weekend: Desert Road trips was a nice way to kick off the summer shooting season, despite being a bit hotter than anticipated. This trip originally began as an astro centric one, with high speculative hopes that that Camelopardalis Meteor shower was going to produce.  After a hazy first night, and reports that the shower was a dud, I quickly changed gears to focus on rich quality of morning light in this part of the country.  It also had the secondary role to serve as a scouting trip for future visits.  This road trip took me from Mountain View all the way back to Death Valley National Park for the first time since visiting in 2002 with my family.

Death Valley is spectacular in more ways than most people realize. Especially surprising was the abundance of interesting wildlife within the park’s border to go along with the landscapes and night photography.  I had packed my 600mm for the trip, but didn’t really expect I would have much opportunity to use it.  I saw coyote, hummingbirds, kangaroo rats, and lizards. I also found a herd of feral burros wandering around. Which was cool to see. They are wild donkeys that escaped the miner’s camps from the Gold Rush era in the 1849-1900s.  I tried my best to find Sidewinders moving across the sand dunes at dusk/dawn, but they seem to be mostly nocturnal at this point in the year, as the temperatures begin to rise. At one point, my car thermometer read 121F (49.5 C).  It wasn’t the official temperature because I was driving out in the sun, but it was  definitely hot. There is something about the extremes of this planet that I, and many others, are drawn too. However, what is fascinating about Death Valley is that while floor is the hottest place in the world, it is possible to escape the heat (and photographically useless mid-day light) by driving up some of the canyons to higher elevations.  The high canyon walls on the road to Wildrose would hold their shadows long into the days and higher elevation had cooler temperatures that animals didn’t mind. These conditions gave interesting glowing backlights to the flowers and whatever animal subjects came out. So I was able to keep shooting all night, all morning and all day. I am already planning to go back there around the Fourth of July for my next “big weekend” trip. 


Yosemite: Late November Valley Explorations

**Gallery at bottom**

November 22-24 was a nice weekend spent in Yosemite Valley.  The previous week’s snow and high winds kept the passes closed throughout the weekend (and eventually turned out to be closed for the season).  While initially disappointed by this limitation (the high country will soon be closed for the next 5-6 months), it turned out to be nice, because it forced us to focus on the valley and find suitable photographic opportunities there. Once the pass is closed for the season, I will be able to pursue new areas off the beaten trail in the valley this winter.


On Friday morning, before work, a high wind warning was issued for the central and southern Sierra Nevada, closing all Yosemite campgrounds.  From the reports, this wind storm seemed serious, sustained winds of 40 MPH with gusts over 65 MPH on Valley floor and 100MPH winds along the high ridges.  The original plan to stay in Camp 4 Friday night had been derailed.  But instead of postponing the trip for a night, I was actually encouraged by the challenge of finding a suitable place to sleep in or near the park….We left Mountain View at about 16:30 on Friday afternoon and arrived to an entirely still and quiet Yosemite.  There was barely a breeze. Nor were any of the roads debris strew.  The hopes were high that the NPS would have lifted the closure. No such luck, the campgrounds would stay closed until late into the next morning. 

Moon over Yosemite Valley
Moon over Yosemite Valley

Once we arrived in the park, we followed the loop to see if there was any wind damage, then went straight to Tunnel View for long exposure photography of the valley, under the power of the waning Gibbous moon. We shot long into the night there.  Initially, I had thought about climbing the Pohono Trail at the Wawona tunnel and doing time lapse photography at Artist Point, and, should we so desire, sleep on the Old Glacier Point Stagecoach Road.  But given the high wind warning (despite there being no wind), it wasn’t worth the risk to to ascend in elevation.

After completing a couple laps of the Valley Loop at about 03:00-03:30, the El Capitan Meadows proved to be the best spot for “stargazing” for the rest of the night.  While walking through the meadow, looking for a spot that gave unobstructed views of both El Capitan and the Cathedral Rocks, we came upon the trunk of a massive Sugar pine resting on the meadow floor.  It had fallen long ago and was half burned out. But it was massive and shielding us from the Northeasterly corner of the valley and obscured us from the road.  We settled in for a couple hours of ‘rest’.

It was a nice nap there.  I did some long exposure photography of the Cathedral Rocks and ever changing cloud+star combinations. It is rare to be disappointed by El Capitan when it is towering over you as you stare up at it in a sleeping bag.  By now the temperature was dropping rapidly below the dew point, and the moisture was freezing on everything, I decided to burrow deep into my mummy bag and watch the stars till the arrival of morning twilight.


The Steller’s jay doesn’t wait for sunrise to begin their squabbling.  A pair of the birds made their disposition abundantly clear in the pre-dawn hours.  After being jarred awake by the birds, we took in the tranquility of Yosemite Valley at 06:00.  Frost was covering the grasses, tree trunk, and of course the sleeping bags.  

But the bags performed their duty well, and despite the short amount of rest, having the rare opportunity to wake up, undisturbed, on the floor of one of nature’s greatest monuments is truly special.  The crisp air and a frost glistened view of El Capitan were the first experiences of the morning (after the jays). I felt rejuvenated.

The goals for Saturday weren’t overly ambitious, but I was hopeful that the passes would be opened, but, again, they weren’t.  We returned to Tunnel View for the early morning perspective, after seeing in washed in moonlight.  Then we picked a spot and set up in Camp 4, which by late morning was officially reopened.  Afterwards we went for a hike along the Merced River, looking for the last splashes of autumn colors and reflections.  Came back to the campsite and relaxed for a couple hours in the mid afternoon glare. Did some wood chopping with the axe Matt gave me for my birthday.  Sunset photography was going to be in one of my favorite spots, the Columbia Rock, 1000 feet up the valley wall along the Yosemite Falls trail. With 60 switchbacks, the hike is a 3 mile vertical climb that is extremely grueling, even without the excess camera gear.

The sunset was interesting, the clouds were in constant motion, draping and covering Half Dome and Clouds Rest for extended periods, but would break up for brief instances and yield dramatic views of the rock formations splashed with rich, pink light. We stayed at Columbia Rock shooting until the end of Nautical Twilight and begin the steep descent back in the dark.

After hiking back to Camp 4, we had dinner and Chad made a big fire.  The last bit of photography I had in mind for this trip was to catch the moonrise over the valley wall from the “Gates of the Valley” view.  The moon was scheduled to rise at about 22:00, at the horizon, but wouldn’t make it above the valley wall until well after 23:00.  So I took my time and ventured out at around 22:45 to the Valley View location. crossing paths with couple coyotes in the process. I had two cameras firing from multiple positions. In fact, I took advantage of the low flowing Merced to set up out in the river. Seizing the opportunity to shoot from vantage points typically inaccessible at other times of the year when the water volume is higher.  The conditions weren’t particularly easy to shoot in.  Waves of fogs and mist would glide through the valley floor in irregular intervals, influencing the air temperature in the process. Before the fogs, it would be a few degree below freezing, as it rolled past the temperature would rise above freezing, only to drop again after it was gone, and leaving a coat of ice on my lenses.  As the frequency of “fog waves” increases, I had to drastically decrease my exposure times to allow lens defrosting.  Before the fogs, I was doing 900 s exposures, by the time I had had enough, I was down to 250s exposures. 

Full Moon Yosemite

After these trips to Alaska, West Virginia, and Northern Canada, I felt like I was neglecting the California parks…so I packed up the wagon for a weekend outing to the greater Yosemite region, where I planned to take advantage of the full moon for landscapes, hunt for some wildlife, autumn colors, and if lucky do some astrophotography for the Leonid meteor shower…most importantly, try to spot the Comet ISON in the pre-dawn hours. 

As ISON approaches perihelion it is predicted to grow brighter, but it is unclear what exactly will happen after that.  The two more dramatic possibilities for the comet, after it completes it swing around the sun, are the following: It may increase in brightness and tail(s) length and be visible to the naked eye, or alternatively it may evaporate into nothingness.  November 16-18, the comet is visible at approximately 04:00 near the star Spica in the constellation Virgo.  So the time is now to guarantee a view of this celestial body….because it may be now or never…soo yeah. 

So having said that, I wasn’t actually able to see the comet ISON this weekend…unfortunately. On Friday night from Glacier Point, a thin cloud cover combined with the very waxing gibbous moon eliminated all but the brightest stars. Saturday night, near Mono Lake looked more promising with crystal clear and cold skies, but no can do.  Under the power of the now full moon and with high mountains to the east towards Nevada, the comet wouldn’t be visible until it rose above those mountains, which didn’t happen until about 05:00.  With encroaching astronomical twilight at this hour, the comet was completely obscured… 

The moon and clouds also washed out any Leonids.

But despite a failed astro photography weekend, it was a great weekend with significantly better than expected results. 

The thin cloud cover, that ruined the astro part, made for incredible sunrise photography at Glacier Point, and the full moon extended the shooting hours long into the night (without having to switch my technique and mindset to astrophotography). The autumn colors were vibrant in the valley. And I had some success with my primary photographic passion: wildlife photography.

At the moment, I have only reviewed about 20 photos from the weekend, but I will process more images tonight and include them in a more descriptive post….I also need to finish processing the Churchill photos and translate my handwritten notes into a post…I know, being backed up is usually never good, but when you have too many photos to process it is a good problem…

2013 Perseid Meteor Shower

August 9 – 11, 2013

*Gallery at bottom*

Another August, another Perseid Meteor Shower….the 2013 edition.  Not including the weeks of research and my previous scouting trips, I began my search for the Perseids late Friday evening for what was an astonishingly grueling three night photo epic to the dark skies of the Eastern Sierras…

Golden red morning light Golden red morning light

Leaving my house in Mountain View at 21:00 on Friday evening Aug 9, I began my drive East.  As Friday blended into Saturday, I reached the Big Oak Flat entrance of Yosemite National Park. According to the weather board at the entrance gate, the daytime temperature for the high country of Tuolumne Meadows that day was 90F.  I continued on Rt. 120 through the park towards Tioga Pass.  At 01:00, made a brief stop at Olmsted Point, where there was access to a vast and clear sky.  I snapped a few photos in the direction of Tenaya Lake, and caught glimpses of my first Perseids of the season.  High up in the Sierras, the temperature had plummeted from its daytime high of 90F, and hoovered at the 28F mark (according to my car thermometer).  After making my way over Tioga Pass and through the East Entrance of YNP, I began my descent towards Mono Lake.  The temperature warmed gradually as I lost elevation. Arriving at the South Tufa Area at 02:30 Saturday morning.

There was only one other car in the parking lot.  The car belonged to another photographer who happened to be wrapping up his session for night.  While I thought him nuts to be leaving as the meteor activity began to peak,  I had the entire Lake to myself. I was feeling relaxed and excited.  Bats whizzed around my head, owls hooted, coyotes howled. I was even able to see an Owl silently flying 10-20 ft above my head.  I was startled by its “shadow” and pointed my Surefire light at the shape, and watched it as it passed by.  I’m sure the Surefire did wonders on the owl’s night vision too.  Using only a casual, single camera set-up, I shot until approximately 05:30 before calling it a night.  As I was getting myself situated for sleep in back of my wagon,  Three cars arrived carrying a group of photographers looking to shoot the sunrise. They were in luck because the sunrise that morning turned out to be spectacular.  I yearned to capture it, but refrained from doing so.  This trip was about the meteors, so I soaked it in without the burden of camera apparati.

Minarets Minarets

By 07:30 I was up and eating breakfast at Nicely’s in Lee Vining.  I continued south down Rt. 395 towards Bishop, stopping at Mammoth Lakes and the Minarets.  Once in Bishop, I stopped in Galen Rowell’s Mountain Light studio and perused his work, seeking inspiration from a master.  While there I bought two books, one a collection of technical essays he’d written and the other his best of Sierra Nevada images.  I arrived in Lone Pine by early afternoon, bought some food, water, and beer, and set forth into the Alabama Hills….

I explored the Alabama Hills by driving along Movie Road and some its derivative “roads”, doing short over-land hikes to the various arches and interesting granite formations.  Treating my extremely low clearance vehicle like it was a Jeep, I was fortunate that I didn’t become stuck or break an axle.  While I was exploring new areas of the Alabama Hills, I was also scouting suitable locations to set up camp and shoot the Perseids.  While hiking I came across a 5 foot long Gopher Snake, which, upon noticing me, curled into a mock Rattlesnake position, imitating its venomous cousin by vibrating its rattle-less tail in a fascinating sign of defense.  Naturally, I got as close as possible and took photos of it.

Imitation Rattler Imitation Rattler Alabama Hills + Sierras Alabama Hills + Sierras

After searching long and hard for 6 hours, I finally settled on a location that satisfied my requirements.  I wanted maximal Northeastern sky exposure and a rock formation that reached into the sky to create an interesting foreground. By the time I found a qualifying location, it was two hours away from sunset.  Using the remaining daylight, I set up camp and composed my shots for the night. Tonight would be a 3-rig set-up. During this time before sunset, the temperature was warm, mid-80s, and very windy. Which made it difficult to set-up my tent and change lenses without dust.  Fortunately the wind died down as the sun dipped behind the Sierras to the west.  I climbed high up on several boulders and literally “bouldered” to get in position.  From this vantage point I positioned my 6D+14mm F/2.8 (rental) and 1D Mk.iv+17-40mm F/2.8 angled up towards the Northern sky.  These cameras, with granite spires in the foreground would use high ISO and shorter shutter speeds to permit the sharp capture of the celestial bodies.  The FF 6D + 14mm prime would allow for longer exposures, while the 1.3x APS-H 1D Mark IV + 17mm zoom would have to be shorter.  On the 6D I used a 38s exposure time and on the 1D I used 23s.

At a lower spot and on a smaller boulder, closer to my tent, I positioned my 60D+10-22mm F/3.5 with a minimal horizon and a vast north eastern sky exposure in frame.  This camera covered the path that Perseus would race across the sky that night.  The 1.6 crop body APS-C 60D + 10mm zoom is wide enough to allow longer exposures, but I used this one to do 10 minute exposures for star trails.  My hope was by leaving the shutter open 10 minutes, there  would less down time and capture more meteors, at the expense of not being sensitive enough to catch the fainter ones.

How to prepare for a photo shoot How to prepare for a photo shoot

I configured each cameras’ intervalometer, and hit go, hoping I’d be able to sit back and enjoy the show with a beer. As I should of expected, that was not the case and I barely finished the beer I drank with my Boudin bread and beef jerky dinner.  I stayed alert and was constantly shifting the entire night.  Spending the next 10 hours tending each camera and finding different positions to light paint the foreground granite. Wary of rattlesnakes and falling off (or in-between) house sized boulders, I put on a pair of jeans and resolved to never take a step without putting a light there first, and to always follow the same route used to climb up, on my way down.  There would be no trail blazing in the darkness.  By 05:00, I was exhausted, but satisfied with the meteor activity, I went to my tent and took a nap until the sun rose above the Inyo Mountains and shone into my face at about 07:00. 

The highlight of the night: capturing the single brightest meteor.  A massive green fireball that seemed to burn itself through separate stages, like a Saturn V rocket, as it skipped across the atmosphere.  Not only was I able to capture it with one camera – I had the good fortune to record this event on all 3 cameras. Each one showing a slightly different perspective of the same meteor.

(For less confusing examination of the multiple perspectives, see the gallery below)

The long and winding road.. The long and winding road..

After breaking camp, I drove back to Lone Pine and had breakfast at the Alabama Hills Cafe. Moving at a relaxed pace this Sunday morning, I stalled in the cafe to recharge my batteries for as long as I could.  After spending some more time exploring Lone Pine and its surroundings, I gradually began to make my way up 395 to Big Pine, California (elevation 3,900 ft). I topped off my gas tank, turned right at the edge of town on to California Rt.168 (10 miles), then a left onto the very steep White Mountain Road.  After 13 miles of steady ascent, I was in the windswept lands of the ancient Bristlecone forests.  To be exact, I was at the more accessible Schullman Grove (elevation 10,100 ft). This is where the paved road ended, and the halfway point to my destination. Ascending even higher for 12 additional miles on very rough dirt road (it took 90 minutes), I finally reach my destination: The Patriarch Grove.  Nestled high in the White Mountains at an elevation well over 11,000 feet, the harsh landscape here looks more suited to be the moon than any place on green, hospitable earth.  Yet, the dusty mountain sides are teeming with life, in the form of the magnificent Bristlecone pine. Gnarled, beaten down, and broken, these trees thrive here in these conditions. Some have held on to life for more than 4000 years.  With so many unworldly features, this is the perfect place to connect the life on Earth to the rest of the nonliving universe.  It was exhilarating to have the privilege to photograph the starlit heavens raining with meteors here.

Bristlecones, with their bristles Bristlecones, with their bristles

After parking, I took a short hike through the grove in the warm afternoon sun, scouting my nighttime locations.  As I did so, a few people showed up and began to assemble telescopes and scout their positions.  By sundown, the people in the grove filtered down to those of us staying through the night, about 5 or 6 people in total. After spending the last two nights completely alone and isolated, it was nice to be able to talk with some other people, and hear their experiences.  Like the previous, this night was to be a 3-camera show too.  I decided to take a slightly different approach this evening.  The two ultra wide set-ups would sit stationary for hours, while the other camera would be my “roamer”.

I positioned the 6D+14mm in a northeasterly direction and the 60D+10mm in a westerly direction.  The 60D was positioned west because I particularly liked the composition, and no other reason. Besides, I felt like on the previous night there more hot fireballs in that piece of sky.  So I knew the Perseids would be everywhere.  The 1D+17mm was my roaming unit.  I would find a position for this camera, compose the shot, and let it sit for 15-90 minutes, depending on the conditions. At one point, this camera was on top of a peak over a half mile away from my two other cameras, which were in the same general area and only 200m apart.  For this night, I decided to use slightly shorter shutter speeds, while pushing the ISO with the goal of capturing even the most faint meteoric activity.  There was no time to rest for the next 7 or 8 hours, and when I did take a break to watch the sky, I realized the temperature had dropped well below freezing.  My Nalgene had even begun to freeze!  By 04:30, I was getting quite chilled, I decided to warm up in my car and to take a brief nap, knowing that I would need to wake by 05:30 to reconfigure my cameras and avoid overexposing the frames in the morning twilight.

Despite having a 30 degree bag, being fully dressed, and inside my car, I never was exactly comfortably warm.  It must have been colder than I realized, but I shouldn’t be surprised of this considering I was at elevation over 11,000 feet. Bleary eyed and mouth parched, I roused myself at 05:30.  It was still quite cold and dark and conditions like that always demand some additional effort to overcome, but I can proudly say I was up and out in less than a minute! I even have to photographs to prove it. One of my cameras looked the direction of the car.  To the naked eye, it was still very much dark out, but to a camera’s ISO 6400 sensor, it was rapidly beginning to overexpose.  As the sun approached the horizon, I needed to adjust each camera 4 additional times to accommodate the varying conditions.

  1. The first adjustment was to decrease the ISO setting, but maintain the shutter speed. The intervalometers were still in full control.
  2. As twilight gained hold on the sky, the second adjustment was to decrease the shutter speed and aperture.  I did this by changing from “BULB” to “Av”, and resetting the intervalometer to snap a photo every 60s.
  3. The third adjustment was to enable Auto-focus on the lens.  The ambient light was sufficient enough, that I need not depend on my manual focused composition.
  4. The fourth adjustment consisted of enabling the AEB (Auto Exposure Bracketing).  This was done to accommodate the high contast and widening dynamic range of a scene that contains the rising sun.

Self Self “portrait”, morning light

The quality of light at sunrise here in the White Mountains was superior.  It was a rich, golden red light that rapidly raced along the mountain side, reflecting off the white dolomite, but it didn’t last long.  As the sun crept higher above the horizon, this golden red light became orange, then yellow, and then a flat white…

Thus signalling the end of my Perseid weekend…and the start of my 8 hour drive back to Silicon Valley for work.

New gear utilized:

  • SureFire G2 Nitrolon flashlight incandescent – Top quality, warm light. The beam of light is very narrow and has incredible throw. Therefore it can easily over expose if the earthly objects are to near the camera.  To prevent this, I used the white plastic top of a water jug as a diffuser. I used this light for all my light painting purposes.
  • Streamlight 88031 Protac Tactical Flashlight 2L – Great as a flashlight..  Beam is not as narrow as the SureFire but still throws light very far. The LED light was to cool/blue for the purposes of lightpainting.
  • Canon 14mm F/2.8L (from LensRentals) – Will be looking to make this purchase soon…
  • Canon 17-40mm F/4L
  • BH-40 Ballhead

2013 Perseids

Locations: Mono Lake, Alabama Hills, Patriarch Grove Bristlecone Pine.

Here are a couple of images I took over the weekend.  Now I must go to bed because I haven’t slept more than an hour or two since Thursday…

Part 4 Dismal Side: July 4/5, night/sunrise- Milky Way+Mono Lake

July Fourth Weekend Photo Road Trip to the Eastern Sierra Nevada: The Dismal Side of the Sierras, Part 4

Mono Lake, Milky Way, Sunrise 

After finishing up at Bodie, I made my way back towards Lee Vining and Mono Lake for the evening astrophotography session.  As I ate dinner at “Bodie Mike’s” in Lee Vining, I received several imminent flash flood warnings for Mono Lake.  I decided to scrap my original plan: an all night time lapse while sleeping under the stars next to my camera, and go for something a bit less ambitious.  Fortunately, the storms cleared in time for sunset.  I was rewarded with a great sequence of sunset images and stayed out til about 01:00 capturing the Milky Way with tufa in the foreground.  Throughout the night I heard coyotes howling and yipping, owls hooting, and bats echo-locating. 

Dark skies abound.  

Milky Way captured using wide aperture (f/4.0, f/4.5) , high ISO, and the shutter speed defined, at the maximum, by the “rule of 600”.  Before sunset I set up the 6D at 24mm on tripod facing north west for time lapse footage.  The cloud formations were dynamic and interesting.  You could tell that while the sun was up, the storms were still being fueled, but as the sun dropped, the fluffy, anvil shaped Cumulonimbus clouds collapsed in on itself in a pink display.

Once the color was drained from the western sky, I recomposed the 6D for the Milky Way.  I did this during civil twilight because I wanted there to be enough ambient light left to maintain the auto-focus capability for the entire scene (fore and back).  This helped me to avoid wasting valuable minutes incrementally tweaking the focus manually in the dark.  Facing SSE (direction of Milky Way’s rise) and including some Tufa in the foreground, I focused camera on my scene, switched lens to manual focus, and began the time lapse of Milky Way.  At first I was in Aperture Priority, but when the shutter speeds began to increase to over 15s in the darker conditions, I switched from Aperture Priority to Bulb Mode.  I set my intervalometer to hold the shutter open for 20s each exposure, and upped the ISO mode.  Now in steady-state, I left the camera do its thing, checking it from time using the 6D’s Wifi image viewer features on my phone. 

My second camera , the 1D, had a telephoto lens on it.  I used this for isolation shots of specific tufa outcroppings and compression of the lake with mountains and scenery across the lake.  

Part 3 Dismal Side: July 4, PM- Scouting Tufa and Ghost Town

July Fourth Weekend Photo Road Trip to the Eastern Sierra Nevada: The Dismal Side of the Sierras, Part 3.

Mono Lake, Bodie State Historic Park

 Thursday, July 4, 2013
A “Tufa” is a rock formation that forms under water at the site of a mineral rich spring.  They can be thought of as petrified springs made of calcium and carbonate, or limestone. Many of the exposed Mono Lake Tufas are geologically young, being only 600 years old. All of the formations are extremely fragile and readily crumble to dust if trod upon.  Care should be taken to not touch or step on these formations.  

Note the Alkali flies in foreground on the lake surface
Note the Alkali flies in foreground on the lake surface

The highest concentration of tufas at Mono Lake are at the South Tufa Area. Coincidentally enough the South Tufa area happens to be on the southern side of Mono Lake.  This presented me with a challenge: due to the SSE rise of the galaxy (see previous post), I knew it wouldn’t be easy to find a land based vantage point that included both the lake + tufas in foreground.  I spent the rest of the morning and into early afternoon contemplating the photographic possibilities.  Walking along stretches of the north, west and south shores of the lake, I scouted potential sites.  Despite the challenges of the south-side, I settled on a couple locations in South Tufa, and one spot near Navy Beach with “sand tufas” as potential spots, and noted their positions.  Later on, due to the weather, I was relieved to have these multiple options. With my scouting finished, it was time to drive to Bodie State Historic Park and explore the ghost town for the rest of the afternoon.

Tufa on Mono Lake
Tufa on Mono Lake

By afternoon, thunderstorms came to the area and seemed to just hang there.  I am not familiar with the weather patterns of the eastern Sierra yet (something else I hope to learn), but suspect the higher than average humidity in Mono Lake area had something to do with it (50% relative humidity is considered muggy here).  Thunder began to rumble in the east as I left Lake Mono, and continued rumbling the entire time I was in Bodie.  On the drive to and from I hit pockets of downpours and quarter sized hail.  

Bodie Ghost Town was really neat! It made me feel like a kid again, and I wished I had worn my cowboy hat and rode in on a horse with a BB-gun strapped across my back.  To be honest, considering the road conditions leading up to the town at its 8400 ft elevation, a horse would may have been the better way to travel.  The final seven miles of road are unpaved and very rough.  Upon my arrival at around 14:00, the town was crowded, but seemed to be slowly clearing out,  I expect the lingering storms and Fourth of July plans were responsible.  I wandered the town for a several hours, contemplating what life was like at the height of this 1880s gold-rush boomtown.

What struck me as especially interesting was the sheer impracticality of the town, especially in winter.  It would be an understatement to describe the climate as being harsh. The combination of exposure and high elevation makes Bodie one of the coldest spots in the lower 48, with routine 100 MPH winter winds.  Keeping warm in a thin-sided house without insulation required a lot of firewood, and the town burned 100,000 cords each winter. Problem was there are no trees growing on the windswept Bodie hills, so a railroad was built to connect Bodie to a lumber mill near Mono Lake.   I guess these hardworking miners coped with this climate by adopting a hedonistic lifestyle, evidenced by the town’s featured recreational opportunities.  Which seemed to consist of heavy drinking at one of the ninety(!) saloons, smoking opium at a den in Chinatown (yes, there was a Chinatown), or patronizing your favorite whorehouse (which were conveniently located directly behind or connected to those saloons).  So given the town’s economy and its wild-west lifestyle, it comes as no surprise that life there was unsustainable when the mines ceased to provide precious metals.  The miserable winters probably didn’t convince people to stay either. 

I feel it is also important to mention, this not a Disney-fied theme park.  There are no props, the artifacts are not staged.  All the objects you see while peering through the windows were found somewhere inside that respective building.  

For those not familiar, Bodie State Historic Park contain remains the old mining town Bodie.  At its height, before the turn of the century, the town housed 10,000+ inhabitants. This heyday turned out to be short lived and the residents began to leave about as quickly as they had arrived.  While a few stranglers toughed it out a few decades into the next century, the majority did not.  Businessman J.S. Cain bought up most of the township and surrounding mines as they became available, and actually squeezed bit more profit out of the hills, extracting gold and silver left behind in the first wave.  He also made an effort to preserve and protect his hometown from vandals and the elements and leaving us with the wonderfully preserved Ghost Town we have today.   

In terms of my visit and the photographic opportunities, I was rewarded with empty streets and soft light, courtesy of the storm clouds.  I exposed to right by a 1/3 or 2/3 of a stop to emphasize the warm brown tones of the wooden structures, and waited for the few moments when the sun peaked through the clouds for a bit of dramatic lighting.  This place is really cool and would be worth a visit even with harsh light and jammed streets. 

Highlights: Church, general store, car graveyard, boothill, bank vault, human graveyard. 

Next up…Mono Lake after dark…