A couple of weeks ago Outdoor Photographer Magazine issued a call for potential cover photos. Always up for a challenge, I first created a quick set on Flickr of vertical landscape shots to sort through. There were some good candidates, but I really wanted this, so I decided to keep the cover in mind as I pursued night shots in the Eastern Sierra this week.
My first stop was Mono Lake. I arrived at 9pm, just as the stars were coming out and the Milky Way was starting to peek over the southern horizon. It was the night of the new moon, so with little ambient light to illuminate the foreground, I brought a selection of flashlights to provide light on the tufa rock formations. I used my typical 30 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 6400 dark night exposure, but I added a small amount of fill light. My LEDs were too blue on the light-colored tufa towers, and direct incandescent flashlight beams were too bright and created too much contrast. I was able to resolve this by moving around during each exposure and reflecting light off of nearby tufa towers, and if none were available, even using my face and hands as portable, positionable reflectors. Cup your hand, and the light is even controllable in general directions! I shot a variety of stills and star trail sequences, finishing with the shot above which allows enough room for a magazine title, articles and so on.
So one decent shot down, I moved to the Buttermilks, where I had a North Star star trails shot in mind. I arrived at 2am, but someone was parked there, camping where I was going to shoot! By the time I moved to another campsite, there was no way I was going to get up in 2 hours for sunrise... I slept in!
I was generally headed toward Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, so in the morning I explored 4WD roads and checked current conditions in the Bishop Creek drainage, then moved on. I arrived at the Alabama Hills, again just in time for night shots.
The next morning I woke at my usual 45 minutes before sunrise (4:45am this week), and the clouds were broken but still blocking the sunrise color. Lacking any particular reason to get up, I stayed in my PJs and waited to see how things developed.
A while later shafts of light started illuminating Mt. Whitney. Game on! With no time to change, I just ran around in my PJs, switching lenses to catch a variety of compositions as the light evolved. I caught at least one dramatic but relatively simple composition of Mt. Whitney that should work well for a cover.
Even with the bust the night before, I felt that I had two solid contenders in two days... a decent start.
That night the wind was howling. I literally turned on my lights at one point to see whether someone was rocking the vehicle back and forth as some sort of joke. My SUV was getting sandblasted, and my lenses would too... no shooting tonight.
The next day I took shelter in a coffee shop and went back out in time for another nocturnal adventure. Just as I was approaching a railroad crossing, a train stopped across the road! Google Earth confirmed no reasonable detours. I'd wait, maybe sleep, until the train moved.
Two hours later, it creaked and groaned out of the way, and I was back in business. I shot some moonset shots and started a star trails sequence.
I went to the other side of the car to set my alarm for sunrise, to avoid having light pollution in my shot. I heard something in the gravel on the side with my camera, so I walked around the back to see what was up. I nearly tripped over an animal, which startled and ran, which startled me nearly out of my shoes. I turned on a light, but never saw what it was... judging by the noise, probably a fox or small coyote.
As i started the timelapse I had seen the moon's light shining on some rocks witht he Milky Way overhead, so I headed over to see if they still had any remaining glow on them. They didn't have much if any, but it still made a nice concept, and I could simulate it with light painting. I tried it a few different ways and Bingo! Next candidate on the card.
The Milky Way was really nice, so I decided to leave the camera running all night. It captured 400 frames in the 3+ hours before dawn light washed out the exposure. That yields a whopping 13 seconds of timelapse video: http://www.vimeo.com/24802819
Checking the weather forecast the next day I finally gave up on the idea of going to Kings Canyon. So I returned to the Alabama Hills, but although I arrived as the moon was tucking down behind the Sierra Nevada after midnight, I was too tired from the drive and the cumulative lack of sleep.
On the following nights the moon would be too bright and stay in the sky too late for Milky Way shots. Time to call the night photography quest a wrap! To round out 5 entries, I ended up choosing two from the trip, a recent Yosemite star trails shot, and added two seascapes from my portfolio for variety. Done. On to the next project!