Yesterday's Light

Images in Space and Time

Starry, Starry Night

The Big Dipper, Monument Valley

The Big Dipper, Monument Valley

Before we left on this most recent trip I happened to come upon an article on astrophotography.  I’d never even thought about playing with my camera in the dark; if I was ought near sunset I generally quit within a half hour of the sun’s disappearance.  And I always wondered why some people stayed.  What the heck did they think they were going to get?

Well, maybe stars.  So I did a little research and discovered that it wasn’t all that difficult to do.  At least not from a technical point of view.  I had everything I needed (a fast wide-angle lens, a good tripod, a cable release, and a small flashlight).  I also had discovered a good way to calculate exposure time.  The in-camera meter, by the way, is nearly useless.  Like us, the camera can’t see much of anything when it’s dark.  Forget about focus and composition, too.  You sort of have to do that ahead of time.

In any event, the trip would give me the opportunity to try night photography in the darkest areas in the United States.  Much of southern Utah (where you’ll find the national parks) has been designated a world class dark area.  My first opportunity was at Capitol Reef.  But there were two problems: first, there was a full moon.  That tends to flood the sky with light.  Second, it was unexpectedly cloudy.  It wasn’t supposed to be, but it was.  So scratch Capitol Reef.

The next best chance was at Monument Valley.  You know, where John Wayne made all those westerns.  It proved to be a very good “chance”.  For two whole days I never saw a cloud.  It was, as they say, clear as a bell.  So it was really good for night photography but crappy for daytime shooting.  In my opinion, anyway.

The shot above was actually taken nearly 2 hours before sunrise.  It’s looking northeast toward the east and west mittens and Merrick’s Butte.  The bright spot to the left is from some small lights near the View Hotel’s restaurant area.  If you look at the left side of the image you can clearly see the Big Dipper.  On the far right are the “morning stars”.  I know the brightest one is Venus and I think the other one is Jupiter.

One of the truly interesting things is the orange stripe at the bottom.  It’s invisible to the naked eye.  Everything’s black.  But with a 30″ exposure the sensor does “see” it.  Amazing. The ISO (if you’re interested) was 1600 and the lens was wide open (f/2.8).  Focus was set at almost infinity.  As I said, you can’t see anything so focusing can’t be done normally.  And you have to be operating in Manual.  Don’t let the camera decide anything on its own.

Southeast view, Monument Valley

Southeast view, Monument Valley

This is a slightly different view from the same location.  It’s a little later but everything still looked dark.  But you can see that the light on the horizon has gotten brighter.  And you can actually see a little orange color on the mesa in the foreground.  Heck, I could barely see the silhouette of the thing.  Again, amazing.

I have a lot more of these images, some really bad and some not so bad.  When you can’t see what you’re trying to compose things can get really ugly.  I didn’t care.  It was some of the most fun (as a photographer) I’ve ever had.  Unfortunately, it’ll be a lot harder to do back in New York.  It’s just harder to find dark areas there.  But I think I’m going to try!

4 Responses to “Starry, Starry Night”

  1. TomDills

    I’ve had very little luck with night photography, but these are excellent first efforts. I think patience and good technique go a long way. And dark skies, which we see so little of especially near Charlotte.

    I frequently get great color in the sky an hour or so before sunrise or after sunset, and other photographers that were out at the same time are amazed that they didn’t see it. I tell them it happened while they were standing around waiting for it to get light!

    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks Tom. You’re absolutely right about the “twilight” color. In my second image the sky is very much bluish, even though the eye still sees black. I know people have known this for years, but for me it’s still “amazing”. As winter approaches, though, I doubt I’ll have many opportunities to see it near Rochester!

  2. Cedric Canard

    Nice images Paul. I’ve tried my hand at this type of photography a few times but never succeeded. Like you I am often amazed by what the camera reveals. It can provide a real sense of wonder.

    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks Cedric. I have to admit that I was surprised by what the camera could see that I was “blind” to. If only we could turn some switch in the brain that would increase our own sensitivity. Even so, being able to see so much of what’s up in the sky in these dark areas is enough. I’m guessing that there are millions of people living in urban areas that have never seen it. I know it’s a cliche, but sitting there staring at the Milky Way is a humbling experience.


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