Thursday, September 26, 2019

So Long to Summer

Summer is officially over. Good riddance, I say. It's been soooooooo hot, I'm ready for cooler weather. I'm also looking forward to hiking again during the day (it's been too dang hot for day hikes in the desert). Heck, even my night hikes and attempts at Milky Way photography have been too hot! But I know someone who would strongly disagree with me!
Granddaughter Lilly would like summer to last forever. Do you remember those days? I sure do. Seems like summers were always much too short when I was Lilly's age, and I wanted nothing more than for summers to last forever. Endless summer, as the surfers say.

That's very true. I guess we shouldn't rush summer... or childhood. Hang on to 'em as long as we can.

Hope your summer was a good one, and here's to a Happy Fall!!

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Thursday, September 19, 2019

Milky Way Over Shadow Arch

This is my third (and final) post on photographing the Milky Way sky. I posted about my first attempt last week, which was with JL out at Samuelson's Rocks. My second attempt was also with JL, and we went out to the Car Wash. That night was a bust for me. My camera sensor overheated, which resulted in a ton of "noise" in my photos. My third and most recent attempt was out in the far east section of Joshua Tree National Park with MR, a virtual friend from Facebook. MR and I have been trying to align calendars for a while, and so I was really glad we could finally make it happen. This part of Joshua Tree is one of my favorite areas of the Park because it's so remote, there's very little light pollution, and the night sky is dark and beautiful.

MR and I kicked around a few ideas and finally decided on "Shadow Arch" because of it's location and position in relation to the Milky Way. MR is someone at the top of his game photographically. Of all the Milky Way photos I've seen in the Joshua Tree area, I consider Mark's to be among the very best. He uses a star tracker which allows him to take longer exposure shots at lower ISO settings. This gives him richer, more detailed photos with less noise. Without a tracker, you are limited to 20-25 second exposures (longer exposures turn star dots into star trails), so you have to push your ISO settings.
Shadow Arch (my name, not an official name) is an arch I'm proud to say I found. I won't say discovered, because others have likely seen it before me, but I have never seen photos of Shadow Arch posted anywhere. I think it's fair to say it is a mostly unknown arch. The way I found it is perhaps unique. I spend a lot of time (too much time!) looking at Google Earth... looking for interesting rock formations, planing hiking routes, Jeep trips, etc. One day I spotted a perfectly round shadow (see screenshot above) and figured it had to be an arch. Sure enough, when I hiked out to it, bingo- A very nice arch!! A nice bonus: one of the best views of the arch is looking south, which is what is needed for Milky Way photography.

Here's MR attaching a light stick to a pole at the beginning of our hike. Hopefully it will help guide us back to our car when the desert sky is totally dark. See the two bags behind the Road Closed sign? The bag on the left is the star tracker, and the bag on the right has lights, tripods, and related gear. MR carries that in addition to his heavy backpack full of cameras and lenses and water. This is serious photography, and that's a ton of gear to be carrying across the open desert at night! I think I mentioned in my last post... you have to be a little crazy to be a Milky Way photographer!!

When we started our hike, the car thermometer read 106 degrees. We got a late start (the sun was setting already as we were just getting started), but with that kind of heat, it's probably for the best. The crescent moon was setting as we hiked out to the arch, and I found myself wishing I hadn't left my heavy telephoto lens in the car!

Here's Shadow Arch, and aside from photos by MR, this and the following photos may be some of the only shots of this arch under the Milky Way. There is a very small amount of light on the rock face. The Milky Way shows up beautifully and looks nice rising up through the sky vertically next to the arch.

A beautiful arch, wouldn't you agree? A little more light on the arch in the above two photos as compared to photo #1. Also, the two shots above are "two image" photos. One shot with focus and exposure on the arch, and a second shot with focus and exposure set for the Milky Way. Then you combine them.

One thing I learned is it takes very little light for situations like this. A common mistake is to apply too much light and over-expose the foreground. MR placed the lights waaaaaaay back from the arch, and would sometimes even cover the lights with a cloth. To my naked eye, it always seemed like not nearly enough light. But after viewing the 20 - 25 second exposure, it was just the right amount!

It was a great night... very fun and productive, and super-interesting to watch MR work his magic. My last three outings have all been night photography, so I'm very much looking forward to some daytime photo hikes (as soon as the temperatures cool off a little!).

Oh, and just realizing I never posted any daytime shots of Shadow Arch. How did I forget that!!? My last hike out was 6-7 months ago, and I got some great shots. Makes me wonder how many other hikes have slipped through the cracks? Oh well, you will be seeing more photos of Shadow Arch in the future, so stay tuned!

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Thursday, September 12, 2019

Milky Way over Samuelson's Rocks

I guess technically this was my first outing to capture the Milky Way (if you don't count my Night Sky Practice outing). I had been racking my brain for something interesting to have in the foreground... underneath the Milky Way, so to speak. Preferably something unique. Places like Skull Rock and Arch Rock have been photographed hundred of times (more likely thousands of times). They get crowded, and who wants to replicate a photo that's been taken a gillion times anyway? I needed a spot away from the highway and car lights, and preferably with some hills in the background to reduce light pollution from the cities south of Joshua Tree National Park. And of course, it has to be something you can view while shooting south (since the MW is in the southern sky).

Then it hit me... what about Samuelson's Rocks?? I know at least some of the rocks are facing the right direction for a MW shot, and there are hills in the background that might block some of the light pollution. It's about 1.5 miles off the highway, so it should be plenty dark. The only problem might be the small size of the rocks. It would take some careful composition and focus to get decent shots, but in my opinion, certainly worth a try.

I googled "Samuelson's Rocks Milky Way" and got nothing. Nada. I tried "Samuelson's Rocks Night Sky" and got a couple examples of photos taken under the stars during a full moon out at the Rocks. That made things even more interesting. If there are any shots of the MW over Samuelson's Rocks, google couldn't find them. Who knows, maybe this would be a first!
John Samuelson was a Swedish immigrant who was one of the more colorful (some might even say crazy) characters of what is now Joshua Tree National Park. He told some tall tales that were so wild and interesting that Erle Stanley Gardner (of Perry Mason fame) paid him a fee to use his life story in a future book (which he eventually did). In his spare time, Samuelson chiseled his thoughts on some rock faces in the area where his homestead cabin was once located. But I digress...

I had one additional thing bothering me. I was prepared to hike out to the rocks on my own, but I would much prefer to go with someone experienced at night photography and navigation. I've done almost no hiking by headlamp, and the hike out to the rocks is across open desert (no established trail). As luck would have it, a "virtual" friend (JL) emailed me about hiking together sometime. Perfect! So we met up near the start of the hike, and off we went!
A typical summer day. A little hot for a hike (high of 103), but things would be a little cooler after sunset and at the higher elevation in the Park. We planned our hike so we would arrive at Samuelson's Rocks about an hour before sunset. That would give us plenty of time to scout around the rocks and locate some that are oriented correctly for MW shots.

After sunset but before the stars. I kinda like this one in b&w. Of all the rocks, this is the only one signed and dated by Samuelson (1927). It has a perfect orientation. If our calculations are correct, the MW should rise just to the left of this rock. JL brought along some small lights and tripods, so we started setting them up to light up the rock and surrounding area. This was a learning experience for me, and so glad that JL could join me and was willing to share his expertise.

First attempt. Not bad, but I'm not happy with the lighting, and the focus on the inscription is a little blurry. Also, it's still early, so the MW has limited visibility.

Second attempt. I like this lighting better (not so many shadows, and a little more natural). Also, the focus on the inscription is better and the MW is a little stronger.

Close up view (35mm on my 16-35mm lens). You lose some of the MW, but overall I like the shot. Notice the typos?? Here's what it says (typos corrected):

The Rock
Of Faith
And Trust
Nature is God
The Key to Life
Is Contact
Evolution is the Mother
And Father of Mankind
Without Them We Be Nothing
John Samuelson

Jackpot! I like this one. Good focus, nice foreground lighting, and a clearly visible Milky Way. I'm just amazed how much time, effort, and planning goes into a shot like this. And if you're lucky, you will get two or three quality shots for the entire evening. But you might not get any. And while I'm on the topic, did I mention that the hours suck?? Milky Way photographers are out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. These are really dedicated people (and I think most are a little crazy)!

Change of scenery. We stumbled up to the top of Samuelson's rocky hill to get this shot. It's about the only other rock we could find (in the dark) that had the right orientation for a Milky Way shot. I'm happy with the way it came out.

Just goofing around. Samuelson had a cabin on this hill at one time, which later burned down. But you can still find a lot of artifacts in the area (wood, glass, cans, old nails...). There's this old bed frame on top of the hill. I like to think of Samuelson sleeping in this bed back in the day. So I'm taking a short rest on Samuelson's bed, sending thankful thoughts his direction for taking the time to carve these rocky inscriptions, while JL photographs me under the Milky Way!

A short distance east (and kind of on the way back to the car) there's an old rusty auto body I am aware of. We decide to stumble hike over to see if we can find it in the dark, and if so, photograph it.
Attempt #1

Attempt #2.
I'm happy with #1 and really happy with #2. It's about as good as a newbie like me can hope to get. Good, sharp focus, great foreground lighting, and the MW is beautiful. Again, thankful to JL for the artificial lighting and showing me how it's done. Definitely couldn't have gotten this shot without him!
The hike home. I'm just trying to follow JL and the little bouncing ball of light in front of me. At the same time, I need to check the little waypoint dots on my phone to make sure we are going in the right direction. Oh ya, and watch the ground to make sure I don't step on a snake. Now you see why I wanted company??

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Thursday, September 5, 2019

Night Sky Practice

Back in late June, I was talking to a friend about going out to Joshua Tree for some night sky photography. Specifically, going out on a "new moon" night when the Milky Way should be at it's peak visibility. I've not done much night photography, so I decided to go out for some practice shots. It was predicted to be a clear sky with no moon, so conditions should be ideal. So off I headed with my camera, wide angle lens, and tripod in hand. My head was stuffed full of information from YouTube videos on how to photograph the Milky Way. My goal was to get to the area about an hour before sunset. That would give me time for a short hike and to look around for a good spot to set up. I also wanted to practice night navigation. Hiking in the desert at night, without a trail to follow, in total darkness (other than a headlamp) is something I've not done before and I was a little nervous about it.

It turned out to be a pretty sky afternoon, but certainly not the cloudless sky I was hoping for! The clouds reminded me of white steam or vapor. With that in mind, I tried to compose my shots so it looked like the white vapor was flowing out of the top of the Joshua trees. Not sure why some of the Joshua trees in this area are leaning like this. And all in the same direction. Perhaps an area with constant wind?

The drive in on Geology Tour Road. Yikes, that's a lot of clouds. I wonder if I'll be able to see the Milky Way at all tonight??

Also on the drive in... jackrabbits. Everywhere! I've never seen so many jackrabbits. I'm sure the wet winter/spring we had is responsible. Get out of the road, you silly wabbit!!


And more rocks!

As I was hiking around, looking for a good foreground shot to compliment my Milky Way sky (which I was starting to doubt I would actually see), I came across this:
What the heck? Looks like a little alien landed on the rock. But look closely and you can see a solar panel between the rocks. Let's go check out the solar panel.

There was wiring leading from the "alien" to the solar panel, and from the solar panel to this box.
Evidently I stumbled across a GPS monitoring station. Out in the middle of nowhere in a national park. With no trail going to it. Very odd. It looks like it's been here a while. You just never know what you will come across in the desert! I tried checking out without any luck.

Just on the other side of the rock with the "alien" I found this little guy:
A baby rattlesnake, about 12" long, looking lethargic with his head in the bushes. He kind of gave me the willies because he didn't rattle and I almost stepped on him. I hate it when they don't rattle.

As the sun set, the sky started to pick up some color. Nothing to do now but wait... the Milky Way wouldn't have good visibility for another couple hours.

Look closely... can you see the stars? It shouldn't be too long now. Besides, it turns out I'm not alone out here. The coyotes are howling like crazy. There must be a whole pack of them and they sound close. And I'm alone... in the dark... in the desert...

My first attempt. I consider it a success because you can at least make out the Milky Way. A 20 second exposure at ISO 6400. I held a light up above the camera to light up the foreground. These kinds of shots take a lot of experimenting, and a number of my photos were pretty bad.

Another attempt... 20 seconds, ISO 5000, with some hand-held light on the foreground. Kind of cool that the Milky Way is horizontal, and thankful that the clouds aren't totally blocking my night view.

I decide to move away from the coyote pack and start navigating back toward the Jeep. It's weird and a little spooky hiking in the open desert by headlamp. You can't use the usual mountains, peaks, or boulders to keep you oriented since you can only see a few feet in front of you.
Feeling extremely thankful to make it back to the road, I decide to take a quick shot of the 4-Wheel Drive sign. The wide angle lens distorts the shot (kind of looks like the sign is falling over) but I like it anyway.

Here's what the drive home on Geology Tour Road looks like. Total blackness except what the headlights illuminate. I was dodging jackrabbits all the way!!

Since this night sky practice session, I've been out three times attempting to photograph the Milky Way. One of the three I've already posted about here: The Car Wash at Night. It was a bust. My camera sensor overheated which resulted in noisy, unusable images. But stay tuned. I still have two more night sky photo outings to share with you!

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