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Landscape and travel photography blog. Everything from traveling to camera gear.

Night Vision

Once you’ve seen one sunset, you’ve seen them all. While I don’t really believe that, it does have some truth to it. Sunsets grow on trees; they’re everywhere and while a really good one will elicit a wow, most of the time it just seems like standard fare.

What elicits that wow on a regular basis then? For me, it’s staring up at a dark sky, seeing the billions of stars, seemingly lighting up the pitch black dead of space. The best way for me to describe it is like a dark cold room; frightening and alone. Turn on a warm lamp though and have that room suddenly transform into a cozy, intimate corner for you to relax in. Being alone in a remote area with a dark sky is kind of like being in that dark room but as soon as you point your head up at all those small bright lights in the sky, you really just calm down and think that little corner of the earth is your own little living room.

Don’t take my word, go somewhere away from all the light pollution and be dazzled by all the stars in person.

Monument Valley in winter, pointed North.

Juniper & Monolith - Joshua Tree, CA

One place becoming one of the more iconic shooting locations in Joshua Tree, is The Juniper & Monolith (at Jumbo Rocks Campground). When I went, the Milky Way would potentially be right next to the Juniper after sunset. Sunset would be the time to go then; clouds would mean the sunset picture would be on point and no clouds would mean a killer Milky Way shot.

I got no clouds, so a standard sunset picture was to be. I arrived with buckets of time which was spent fiddling with my tripod and getting the focus right, being as I was so close to the tree. No way I would be able to focus in the dark, so I marked where the lens was in focus at f/16 and didn’t move the camera all night.

Sunset Pic - nice & easy edit!

With a good half hour burned, I proceeded to setup my other camera for a time-lapse, which I’m sure I’ll never get around to editing. I still think I had 30-40 minutes till sunset left so I paced waiting for the show to start. The other side of the monolith did look like a good shot too, with a sun-star and all. I took a crappy picture with my cell phone (no way I was gonna move my dslr now) but it did look much better in person (for next time maybe).

Sunset came and went, burning red skies and all. My camera wasn’t pointed there, so I just enjoyed the show. Then it started to get dark and it was time to get what I came for.

There are a couple of ways you can take the shot with the stars. First, you have to deal with the focus distance. I had the camera way too close to get the tree and infinity both in focus. I could either focus stack or back the camera away, to get everything in focus. I chose to go with a focus stack, with one exposure at f/16 focused at the juniper and another at infinity focused at the stars. The composition was way better but it did have the drawback of a very complicated edit afterwards.

Now that the focus distance was sorted I could deal with the lighting of the juniper and the monolith. I had three choices; take an image at blue hour, take a long exposure with the ambient light at twilight, or light-paint it. I chose light-painting at blue hour, which I really shouldn’t have done - it made merging the two exposures in Photoshop a big pain in the ass.

With a bright blue hour foreground and added light from the light-painting, adding the Milky Way when it was completely dark looked just too unrealistic. I ended up having to use a Milky Way shot that I took at the tail end of blue hour, with a lot of the color still in the sky but a much less visible galaxy.

Big lesson learned though; either take a long exposure blue hour shot to merge with a blue hour sky, or take a light-painted shot past astronomical twilight under similar ISO setting as the other shot you want to merge it with. I did take a light painted shot when it was dark but for some reason I took a way too underexposed one compared with the Milky Way shot - no way those two where going to be merged successfully.

So I did more or less get the image I wanted. I did spend a lot of time deciding what images to merge and then going in meticulously with a paintbrush to paint in the layer mask. I went through the whole sound and dance with a focus stacked image in Cholla Gardens too. It’s gonna be a long time before I take a focus stack image again! Starting to get jealous of those in-camera photographers, with their bags of filters and easy Lightroom edits.

Final Image of The Juniper, Monolith & Milky Way.

The San Juan Mountains

Sunset over the Dallas Divide

Ay the San Juan Mountains. I didn’t think fall foliage would look this nice but apparently those yellow and red aspens under a nice mountainous backdrop really can leave your mouth ajar.

The thing about the San Juan Mountains is that it’s pretty remote and not internationally well-known, like say nearby Arches and Canyonland National Parks. This makes it less of a place for Disneyland tourists and more for people coming to hike, climb, off-road or run; my kind of people.

There are easy viewpoints to get to and hard remote ones and bunch in-between.  The ones you’re more than likely to have seen before are from the Dallas Divide, Million Dollar highway, or from the Telluride area. There’re not super easy to access though, as they usually require dirt road driving (probably the reason you see less tourists).

I did plan two hard hikes; one to Wetterhorn Peak and the other to Mount Sneffels. I couldn’t really make either though. Hiking up to Wetterhorn basin, I had only 4 hours of sleep the previous two nights. Add to that, camping at 12,000 ft and another night with even less sleep, I awoke in the morning with some altitude sickness and a massive headache.

 

High camp, at Wetterhorn Basin.

I did get some great astrophotography pictures while up there, in the night though, and massive headache or not I was going to climb something and I settled for Wetterhorn’s neighbor, Matterhorn Peak at 13,590 ft.  I would regret climbing it though, as the climb back down was twice as hard as the climb up and it made me way too tired to do anything the rest of the day or the next morning, so Sneffels was out of the question.

 

Next time I come I’m spending some more time and pacing myself a little better. Heck, I think I’ll leave the heavy ass camping and camera gear and do some running.

Wetterhorn Peak, at the dead of night.

Something Going Right At Mt Rainier

Sunrise, on the north entrance of Mount Rainier National Park, is the first place the sun hits Rainier (hence it’s name). With Mount Rainier to the south, it’s also a perfect place to get the Milky Way rising out of the volcanic crater on Rainier.

Being summer, there’s like a seven hour difference between sunrise and sunset. With it being a hour and half drive from where I was staying, I planned on going there for sunset and just staying up there till sunrise and shooting all night.

The one thing I needed was clear skies. A couple people warned me that even in summer that’s far from a sure thing in the pacific northwest. It turns out they weren’t kidding.

For the whole week I was in Washington, the only day with a clear sky was the night I was at Sunrise. It went far from planned it though.

I was going to go just shy of the first Burroughs Mountain peak, where the galactic core of the Milky Way would line up with the crater on Rainier. When I got there, I saw the first blue sky I had seen in Washington so far. With Rainier so big and visible, I was getting excited. After about a 40 minute hike up to Burroughs Mountain, I had my camera setup and ready two hours before sunset.

 Fog at Burroughs Mountain

Fog at Burroughs Mountain

That’s when things started to turn. First came a couple of clouds – no big deal I thought, it’s not obscuring the peak. Then came the tsunami over the ridge towards the south. The whole place was covered in fog and I couldn’t really see about 5 meters in front of me, let along Rainier.

I waited it out till about one hour after sunset. By then I was cold, disappointed and frustrated. I thought I’ll hike back down to the parking lot and get some coffee I had sitting in the car.

So I waited; drank some coffee, watched a movie, and took a nap. I woke up at around 1am and I took a look out the windshield. Low and behold the sky was starting to clear up.

I had a couple of options at this point; I could go back to Burroughs Mountain, hike to Dedge Peak towards the south or drive to Sunrise Point. Feeling tired and somewhat sleeping, I took the lazy option and went to Sunrise Point.

At Sunrise Point, the Milky Way wouldn’t really line up with Rainier but I went anyway. Turns out it was the best option. That huge amount of cloud that came rolling in, had moved lower down and had created an expansive cloud bank below Rainier – perfect for a panorama!

Moon setting, with a bank of clouds below Rainier

I got as many shots as I could with the short window with the moon setting and creating a moon star on the tip of the mountain. Once the moon had set though, it was Milky Way time! It really didn’t disappoint; I hadn’t seen so many stars since my trip to Death Valley.

The Milky Way about an hour after the moon set.

Sunrise was now looking to be on point. My mood was a complete 360 from being fogged in at Burroughs Mountain. I knew the best place to catch sunrise would be on top of Dedge Peak but I couldn’t bring myself to hike 1200 ft up in the middle of dark, to trail I hadn’t been on before. Had I known though that was the only really good sunrise I was going to get this trip, I would lit my ass on fire and ran up there.

Sunrise Point wouldn’t make a bad sunrise shot though and with me completely frozen solid from shooting for 2 hours and being sleep deprived, I just stayed put.

Sunrise turned out great, not as great as it would have been from Dedge Peak but that’s fine. Finally something went somewhat to plan on this trip and I headed back to Seattle a happy camper.

Jekyll Island, GA & The Milky Way

I took the plunge and drove 4-5 hours to Jekyll Island, just north of Jacksonville.

I wanted to go and catch sunset and then get some Milky Way action after astronomical twilight. Storms during the past couple of weekends have put a stopper on going though. I took a risk this weekend even though there was expected heavy clouds until the middle of the night. With the moon also rising at 11:45pm, I was cutting it really close with a sky that would stay clear and be moon free. I got a lucky last time I went to Blood Mountain, so I thought what the heck.

The main reason why I wanted to go was because of Driftwood Beach, which has bare trees and washed up logs all along the beach. It’s also pretty dark down there, well compared to other parts of the East Coast. Looking south down Jekyll Island, would be the darker Cumberland Island (which is completely undeveloped, being under National Park management), so looking south, towards the Milky Way should show little light pollution.

Well that was the plan…...The one thing I forgot to take into account was how close Driftwood Beach was to Saint Simons Island, which is anything but dark. On top of the light pollution there was also the lighthouse on St Simons, that intermittently lit up the beach. I’m kind of getting ahead of myself though.

For sunset, I did plan to go to the north part of the island, which has some driftwood on the beach but more importantly would allow me to get the setting sun back-lighting the driftwood, as it was setting towards the north-west. While I was walking up there though I came across this open field with an amazingly green marsh and I thought I’ll pass up the driftwood shot (I was going to to shot it with the Milky Way anyway).

Don’t know if I was too happy with those big, stormy looking clouds being there. Don’t get me wrong, it made the sunset picture look great but I came for the Milky Way, and those clouds did look pretty ominous.

Once blue hour rolled around, I got my camera set up next to a cool piece of driftwood overlooking the rising Milky Way. With high tide coming in at around the time of the moon rise, I did have to move the camera but I got a nice blue hour shot, with some nice saturated colors and a just visible galactic core.

That stretch of yellow light on the water is from the lighthouse at St Simons and the red glow on the water is me light painting with my headlamp.

I did have to move the camera pretty soon after - tides move quick! Once astronomical twilight hit I got some decent shots with the Milky Way and it’s galactic core very much visible and on full display. All the light pollution from Saint Simons, did give them a nasty white-orange glow. I got rid of most of it with some light painting, using a flashlight with a blue gel. I even made use of the lighthouse; I waited for it flash towards the water so that it lit up the waves perpendicular to my flashlight.

You can see the Milky Way here in it's full glory.

Overall pretty happy, well I was till I had to drive another 5 hours back, soaked from the knee down.