The short wait for forever

The short wait for forever 1024x1024 The short wait for forever

 

Photography is not for the impatient. Even less forgiving for wait-haters is astrophotography, particular in the cloudy Pacific Northwest. Last winter I longed for new views of the galactic center of the Milky Way, but I had to wait a painfully long time before I could get back out and try out some new techniques (both in-field and in post-processing). Throughout the spring, banks of clouds stretching hundreds of miles wide would roll in with the new moon, frustrating stargazers and star photographers all over the region.

This year, I vowed to save a number of my Milky Way photos back for the winter of 2014/2015 so that I would have something to process. And then, months after this decision, I thought long and hard about my course of action. And then I asked myself: Why? What am I waiting for?

So yesterday I did what enjoy: I dug up some old files of the Milky Way and an abandoned house that I had photographed in May, processed them, and shared them with the world. And I drank some dark coffee (a whole pot of it, in fact). And I listened to music, probably too loudly. And I had fun doing it. Funny how that works.

Somewhere in the subtext here (as well as the title of the photo) is a lesson on waiting to do something you enjoy. I’ve chosen to live a life in which I express part of myself through photography, and these photos juxtaposing ancient stars and not-nearly-as-ancient homesteads make me think (and feel) deeply about the permanence of the things we humans build in our environment, the transitory objects we think of as durable and long-lasting. Stargazing (even if its via a photo) affords us a rare opportunity to reflect on our tiny place in an impossibly giant universe.

Anyhow, in the interest of learning more about this section of the sky, I’ve also included a labeled version of the photo for your perusal. Click on it to make it large. Enjoy!

 

The short wait for forever annotated 1024x1024 The short wait for forever

An annotated version of the same photo.

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Star party at Cape Kiwanda

Star party at Cape Kiwanda

Star party Cape Kiwanda 819x1024 Star party at Cape Kiwanda

A group of beachgoers sits around a bonfire under the Milky Way, Oregon coast.

 

Terence Lee and I had been shooting some stars at the sandstone bluffs around Cape Kiwanda when we packed up our gear and trudged out, sand in our shoes, and saw a group of about 20 twenty/thirty-somethings gathered around a bonfire, having what seemed to be a great time on the beach.

I walked up through the darkness to the edge of the group. They still hadn’t seen me because they were focused on the bonfire itself, and I did my best not to freak everyone out when I announced my presence by asking if I could take their photo.

A handful of them said something that sounded like “sure,” so I positioned myself in some grass farther inland so that I could shoot at them with the Milky Way behind them.

The conditions were challenging, to say the least. I had some wet grass very close to my lens, and the dynamic range between the center of the fire and the moonless night had to have been roughly 3,000 stops of light. The shot above is three bracketed exposures: one for the foreground, one to control for lens flare, and one for the night sky. I had to do a little dance in post-processing, but I eventually got the job done.

After I had packed up, thanked everyone, and started walking off, someone in the group asked if I wanted to shoot them playing with their sparklers. I really didn’t, but several folks insisted that I did, so I got my gear back out and took the obligatory sparkler photo (below) shooting back toward my original position. You can see Terence still lurking like a ninja in the background on the left.

Until next time!

 

Sparklers Cape Kiwanda 682x1024 Star party at Cape Kiwanda

A group of beachgoers plays with sparklers in front of a fire, Cape Kiwanda, Oregon coast.

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On the pursuit of perfection

“Eschew the monumental. Shun the Epic. All the guys who can paint great big pictures can paint great small ones.”

― Ernest Hemingway

Prayer candles in Cathedral Park 1024x682 On the pursuit of perfection

I’ve been sorting through some old files and decided to finish this one, which I’d given up on months ago. I had apparently decided at the time that it wasn’t perfect. The willow tree in the upper left corner had waved around during the long exposure, leaving an indistinct smudge that was pretty much irreparable. In fact, many of the trees in the photo had been moving in the wind. I had blown out the highlights in the park lamps and hadn’t properly bracketed another exposure so that I could fix that. There were little light flares all over the place.

But the problem was that I still really liked the photo. Cathedral Park at night is beautiful. I liked the warmth of the streetlights and the way they lit the park’s grass. The composition spoke to me. The blue-hour glow gave me a good feeling. I liked the photo when I took it, and I liked it when I tried to post-process it. But as I pixel peeped the file at 150%, I discovered to my horror that it wasn’t perfect. So I gave up on it.

Over the past year I’ve been getting much more selective about the photos I post. At some point, despite being (in my own mind, anyway) a free-thinking and creative person, the Prevailing Attitudes of Modern Digital Landscape Photography had seeped their way into my head. The PAoMDLP names, among other things, the following commandments:

1. Though shalt focus stack so that every pixel of your digital photo is so tack sharp that you can make prints the size of small moons, even though you will never, ever make a print the size of a small moon.

2. If thou findest out that something in your photograph has moved or blurred, thou shalt clone it out immediately.

3. If thou cannot clone out said moving object, thou must delete the file in an expedited manner.

4. Self-expression shalt always play second fiddle to posting perfect photos and retaining a perfect online portfolio.

I could go on and on about the quest for “perfect” sunstars and the expensive lenses that must be used to achieve them, the tragedy of clipped shadows or highlights, the 500px groupthink that has left us with technically perfect but emotionally sterile photographs instead of creative art, the gearheads who claim that an extra 1.7685 stops of light will help them create “better” photographs…but I’ll probably save those for a blog post that I started on months ago but still remains only partially written.

Instead, I’m just going to declare that I’m done with the pursuit of perfection, of only posting the most epic, wow-worthy photos. Don’t get me wrong, my goal is to do my best to deliver high-quality images. But why hamstring myself by limiting my creativity to a bunch of “rules” that I never agreed to in the first place? Even in the most beautiful settings, I don’t see a perfect world, so why would I attempt to convey perfection?

Your thoughts?

Until next time!

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Photographing Palouse Falls at night, a second-person essay

Your phone’s alarm clock jolts you awake. Your back aches, but you finally slept well for about an hour and a half, anyway.

You sit up, turn the alarm off, and put the phone in your right cargo pocket of your pants. It’s dark and finally quiet, save for the gusting winds gently rocking your car. Your mind clears, and your heart rate jumps. It’s time to shoot the stars.

You pick up your wallet and put it in your back pocket; your flashlight goes in your left cargo pocket; your keys go in your right-front zipper pocket; your headlamp goes around your neck. Everything’s organized, sequenced; you’ve done this routine dozens of time and can do it with your eyes half closed, in the dark. You open the car’s back door to put on your shoes and step out into the gravel parking lot. Cold air rushes in, defogging the windows. The dome light on your car doesn’t come on–you turned it off a couple of years ago to help save your night vision.

Upward, the sky’s filled end to end with gleaming stars. You take a brief second to admire them, and refocus. You put on your long-sleeve shirt. You pick up your trusty 15-year-old wool sweater that you were using as a pillow and put that on too. You throw on your jacket, which has your shutter release in the right pocket, gloves thin enough to work your camera’s controls in the left pocket. You put on your neck gaiter and stocking hat and slide your headlamp up from around your neck onto your head, over the stocking hat. The headlamp’s still off–you’re still trying to save your night vision, always trying to work in the dark as much as possible.

You grab your backpack and tripod, close the back door of the car, and beep it locked with a twinge of guilt at possibly disturbing campers who were keeping you awake just a few hours earlier.

You start hiking. Quickly the terrain goes from safe and well-traveled to right along the edge of a gaping canyon. Below you–maybe 100 feet–is a 200-foot waterfall flowing at its spring rate–a high volume. The waterfall’s roar blots out every other noise in the night. The white noise of waterfalls and wind occupies nearly all of your senses; your eyes see only basic shapes in the blue-black geography around you land and pinhole lights in the sky. Cold creeps into your body at your extremities.

You can feel a small rumble beneath your feet. You set your tripod down, and as you release your grip you can feel it humming. You inch closer to the edge of the cliff, thinking about the crumbling piles of basalt several hundred feet below. You wonder about how long ago they fell. Two thousand years? One hundred fifty years? Five years? News reports of recent earthquakes in southern California and Mt Hood flash into your brain. You wonder how long the rock below your feet would stay put if the earth started to shake.

You look through your eyepiece; because you’re shooting with a wide lens, the edge of the cliff is in the bottom of your frame. You need to move closer. You turn on your headlamp (there goes your night vision, but you’re not going to risk getting any closer in the darkness), double-check the edge of the cliff again, take a deep breath, and move your tripod as close to the edge as possible. Holding onto your tripod with your left hand so that it doesn’t fall off the cliff, you carefully check the bubble level to make sure its level.

You turn your head lamp off and vow to not take a single step–certainly not a step forward, but also not to the left or directly behind you, where the ground falls away to a large crack, and then, of course, a long tumble.

You aren’t prone to vertigo, but your head swims in the pitch darkness. You can’t escape the feeling that you’re floating in space. The ground is a flat, detail-less black. You renew your vow not to take a single step, to keep your feet planted exactly where they are. Don’t… move…

You line up the shot–your eyes have adjusted, thankfully, and you can just barely differentiate the deep black of the canyon from the not-quite-as-deep black of the horizon.

You trip the shutter, in the dark, alone, and start counting along with the timer…one…two…three…

 

Our dreams of shadow steeds with matte for blog Photographing Palouse Falls at night, a second person essay

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My Night at Delicate Arch…or The Magic of Random Events in Long Exposure Photography

I’ve been re-processing a number of my old photos lately. A while back I received an IPS monitor as an early Christmas present; as someone who had struggled to find the black point and a reasonable level of contrast in the night sky, this monitor was a great addition to my post-processing tool set. I can’t account for your web browser or your monitor’s color profile, but I’m much, much closer to printing exactly what I see on my monitor. For me, as always, it’s still all about the print.

Additionally, my thinking has slowly evolved when it comes to deep, detail-less shadows (or even not-so-deep shadows) in night photos. Years ago I relied on the heavy lifting of the shadow and/or blacks slider in Lightroom 4 or 5 to pull detail out of these darkened corners. But Lightroom (and Adobe Camera Raw) are strong medicine, and just because you can pull sliders all the way to the left or right doesn’t mean you should. Lifting shadows too much often gave me undesirable results (purple blotching and noise, for instance), which resulted in even more time spent post-processing.

Slowly I’ve worked away from the I-have-to-have-detail model, at least when it comes to night photography. I’ve come to accept that the night will have shadows–sometimes shadows so deep and dark that they’re completely impenetrable.

This photo of Delicate Arch (in Arches National Park) was originally put online in early July of 2013. It was EarthSky’s image of the day for July 10th.

For me, this was a throwaway or “sketch” shot. I was pretty sure that this was the composition that I wanted, since I loved the leading lines of the sandstone bowl that led to the arch itself. What I wasn’t sure about was the periphery–I couldn’t really see anything at the edges of my frame through the viewfinder, so I took a handful of shots to see what my camera saw.

A couple closer to the arch (who was already there when I arrived) was shooting, so I did my best to stay out of there way. This is, or at least should be, a common courtesy among night photographers, within reason of course. (If they had shot uninterrupted for another half hour, I would’ve politely tried to work my way into their space.)

There had been a lull in the action as the couple pored over their photos on the back of their camera, so I set up another sketch shot and tripped my shutter. Just then, I heard him giving her instructions which amounted to “walk up to the arch and then shine the flashlight at it from below.” So she turned on the flashlight and walked up to the arch, just as he said.

At first, as I watched her walk up to the arch in the middle of my photo, I was a little annoyed, since I hadn’t really gotten a clean shot yet and was hoping to get one without extraneous lighting. But, at the same time, it was just a sketch photo, and they were there first.

As soon as I reviewed the image, though, I saw that her path up to the arch was arch-like itself. I made a mental note that the photo hadn’t been completely ruined and kept shooting.

This is part of the reason that I seldom, if ever, delete photos off my memory card in the field. I can’t imagine how disappointed I would’ve been had I decided to get rid of this photo in the spur of the moment because “she ruined my photo.”

The next day, after reviewing those images, I saw that not only had the image not been ruined, but that the woman’s path made the photo much more interesting to me. With the flashlight’s arc, a level of metaphorical meaning had been achieved. Additionally, the photo seemed to illustrate the magic of a long exposure–that random events (usually, moving lights) don’t necessarily ruin long exposures at night. In fact, they often add to the image.

I shot several photos of Delicate Arch with the same composition, but without any lighting. I like the photos and will probably post one sometime soon. But, to me, the addition of the flashlight and the human figure changed the photo’s entire meaning. This was no longer just a photo of one of the most-photographed sandstone arches in the southwestern United States. First off, it documented the process of night photography–it was a photo of a photo. Further, to me, the photo commented on the difficulty of escaping the “maddening crowds” in our national parks system. Even after a mile plus of night hiking near steep drop-offs.

Arches one delicate and one ephemeral 1 of 1 1024x682 My Night at Delicate Arch...or The Magic of Random Events in Long Exposure Photography

A woman with a flashlight walks toward Delicate Arch, Arches National Park

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Star photography on Mt Hood, March of 2013 retro-blog

One of my 2014 resolutions is to do more blogging about my night photography, so I’m going to get an early jump and coin a new (to me, anyway) term: retro-blogging!

The night in question? March 3, 2013. Gary Weathers and I charged the camera batteries, layered up, and strapped on some snowshoes for a sunset-to-night hike in the Mt Hood National Forest. The purpose? Some night photography of Mt Hood.

I had night hiked to Mirror Lake before, but I had always wanted to keep charging up the ridge by Tom, Dick, and Harry Mountain (also known as TDH). This adds in about another 900 feet of elevation gain (making the total elevation gain 1,700 feet). But it also adds in nearly unequaled views of Mt Hood, with Mirror Lake below.

The hike wasn’t too intense, although the elevation gain was enough to cause me to start peeling layers in an attempt to avoid sweating too much. A late start (as a result of having to park about a mile away from the trailhead) meant that we were about to miss sunset, so we paused halfway up the ridge for some photos. The skies were a little too “clean” (free of clouds) for our liking, but the soft contours of untracked snow made some interesting leading lines in the foreground.

Mt Hood winter 1 of 1 Star photography on Mt Hood, March of 2013 retro blog

A sunset shot on the way up. 14mm, 1/15 sec, ISO 100, aperture unrecorded

After our break, we re-packed our gear and continued up the hill. As soon as the sun set, the temperatures dropped noticeably, and the wind at the top of the ridge almost instantly froze the sweat on my skin. A thin veil of haze moved into the valley, softening the landscape. This haze was one of two endless sources of frustration for Gary and I–the second being the extraordinarily bright lights all over the mountain, which were even more obnoxious when reflected in the haze.

We spent about three and a half hours at the top of the ridge, freezing, trekking dangerously close to cornices, exploring different compositions, and waiting for the haze to clear. We had clearer moments, for sure, but it never did really lift. Lamenting our fates, we headed back down the mountain, pretty sure that we hadn’t gotten anything really usable that night.

Mt Hood and stars 1 of 1 Star photography on Mt Hood, March of 2013 retro blog

Exploring the ridge, near TDH. 14 mm, 30 sec, ISO 3200, aperture unrecorded

Self portrait 1 of 1 Star photography on Mt Hood, March of 2013 retro blog

Gary helped me light a selfie before we headed back down. Before you make fun of the look on my face, you should try posing for a photo for 30 seconds WHILE NOT MOVING. 14mm, 30 sec, ISO 1600, aperture unrecorded, lit by Gary Weathers with a flashlight

Mt Hood light painting 1 of 1 Star photography on Mt Hood, March of 2013 retro blog

What mountain is this again? Oh okay, now I remember. 14mm, 30 sec, ISO 1600, aperture unrecorded

On the way back down, we stopped mid-way, at the same point we had stopped on the way up. For some reason, the air seemed to have cleared slightly. We found a couple of small trees, half-buried in the snow (we had both photographed them on the way up), and we took several minutes to shoot photos. I liked the way the light pollution played on the frost in the trees, but I had a terrible time working with the ambient lighting. The lights from Government Camp lit the hillside almost to daylight, and nearly all of my photos from this spot were ruined by unfixable lens flare (one of the problems with shooting with an ultra-wide lens). In fact, only one was usable.

The city 1 of 1 Star photography on Mt Hood, March of 2013 retro blog

This is looking back at Portland. You can see our trail heading up the ridge. You also get a good idea of just how much light pollution the city puts off. 14mm, 30 sec, ISO 4000, aperture unrecorded


The light is all around you 1 of 1 Star photography on Mt Hood, March of 2013 retro blog

My only “clean” shot of the mountain from this spot. 14mm, 30 sec, ISO 3200, aperture unrecorded

This was my least favorite of the five images I submitted to The World at Night’s (TWAN’s) Earth and Sky Photo Contest, and it was the one that did the best. Go figure.

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Yaquina Head lighthouse

I’ll admit it: I’ve done a terrible job of photographing the Oregon coast’s rare but spectacular starry nights. I realized this oversight mid-summer but was unable to correct it until September, when I headed to Astoria and Cannon Beach for some of the best night photography I had ever experienced. (You can see some of those images in my “Oregon coast” gallery.) Since then, I’ve bided my time, waiting for clear skies.

A recent super-cold snap provided such a night, and my friend Savya Saachi accompanied me to Newport, specifically to Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area. The temperatures weren’t extreme–maybe around 20 degrees or so–but the wind at the head was often brutal, and we both battled numb fingers and toes. The humidity was somewhere around 50%, and this may be the first time I’ve ever been out shooting in which I was hoping for higher humidity, so that the rays of the lighthouse would be better defined. Oh well. Next time.

Other versions of this image can be seen at my 500px, my Flickr, and my twitter.

This is a 5-image pano. (In other words, I should be able to print this thing HUGE.) I took a few exposures that I had intended to use to composite in a non-blown-out lighted area, but I decided against altering the photo after seeing the results. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get the end result to look natural. If the end result had either a) better represented reality or b) looked aesthetically pleasing, I would’ve been all over it. But, for me, it didn’t work. When I looked directly at the lighthouse while it was lit I didn’t see the finer details in the lens area, mostly because the thing was burning out my retinas.

Something out of nothing 1 of 1 Yaquina Head lighthouse

A clear night at Yaquina Head, the Oregon coast. Andromeda makes its appearance at the top-middle of the photo.

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Before dawn’s first light at Crater Lake

Before dawn 1 of 11 1024x682 Before dawns first light at Crater Lake

Getting There

This photo, like all of my images that I took this night, was from the Crater Lake’s west rim. I and my friends Jack (of Jack Crocker photography–check him out) and Robyn Clipfell (of Clipfell Photography–check her out as well) hefted heavy packs and snowshoed a little over 3 miles from the Rim Village to a site just a bit south of The Watchman, the giant peak on Crater Lake’s west side.

Getting the Shot

This photo was taken at 4:56 am, just 12 minutes after I had taken the final photograph for my panorama, and it’s a fantastic example of how important dark skies are in capturing the Milky Way. Cameras and lenses? Both very important. But the MOST important aspect of lotsa-stars-Milky-Way-photography is a super-dark sky.

I knew from checking the Internet that the sun was going to rise at about 6:30, and I knew from experience that the sky begins to lighten in the east about 2 hours before the sun is visible. So when I started shooting my panorama of Crater Lake at about 4:17, I wanted to make sure that I got my east-facing shots first, since that area of the sky would begin to lighten first, thus drowning out the Milky Way. Luckily, I just barely got my panorama photos taken in time. (Yes, it actually took me a long, freezing half hour to take those photos.)

Twelve minutes later I took this photo, the last of my “night” photos. The stars disappeared pretty rapidly after that.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that I’d also captured the comet PANSTARRS in my photo. An eagle-eyed reader on my facebook page alerted me to this fact. In the images below, the arrow points to a very, very small PANSTARRS, complete with tail.Before dawn with arrow to comet1 1024x682 Before dawns first light at Crater LakeComet PANSTARRS with arrow 1 of 11 1024x684 Before dawns first light at Crater Lake

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Star trails over Yosemite Falls

Star trails over Yosemite Falls 1 of 12 Star trails over Yosemite Falls

Getting There

There’s no secret to this location–this is upper Yosemite Falls, right in the Yosemite Valley of Yosemite National Park. If for some reason “see Yosemite before I die” isn’t written on a piece of paper in your possession, you should probably change that. The park was incredible.

Getting the Shot

This is 35 exposures (25 seconds at f/6.3, ISO 1250, 22mm, shot on my Canon 17-40) stacked in Starstax (gap-filling mode). I highly recommend this free software, available online. Stacking shorter images (rather than taking one longer image) has several advantages, including less noise in the final image and the ability to remove a frame or two if something bad unexpected occurs (such as airplanes, car headlights, etc) during your exposures.

Basically, I pulled up next to this meadow at about 11 pm, set up my camera, took a few test shots to check my composition and my settings, double-checked my focus, and then I set my intervalometer to take 50 exposures. Then I walked back to my car, kicked back the driver’s seat, and tried to enjoy a short nap. About 10 minutes in, someone pulled up behind my car and sprayed the entire meadow with their headlights, disturbing my nap. I ended up tossing that exposure in the trash. After about 30 shots, a blanket of high clouds moved in, eventually covering the sky (and shifting my white balance, which was set to auto). I threw away many of those frames as well.

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“Sentries of the white city”

Yikes! I totally forgot to mention this thing that’s totally worth mentioning: Last month, my photo “Sentries of the white city” was selected by Oregon photography business Pro Photo Supply as the winner of their monthly photography contest. The theme was “snow.”

A brief interview and the image can be found here. In the interview, I mention a little about the process of taking the photo.

Sentries of the white city 1 of 1 Sentries of the white city

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