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Night Sky Adventures

I’m just back from two quick trips in rapid succession which focused on trying out new lighting techniques for night photography–first two nights in Death Valley, then three nights in Yosemite.  It was a time of extremes:  the first weekend found me in Death Valley at -282′ elevation, 116°F in a windstorm with 50 MPH gusts, but staying at a very lovely resort with comfortable bed, poolside drink service, and a very nice shower.  The second weekend I was sleeping in the back of a rented Ford Explorer with no mattress or pad, at 8,150′ elevation and roughly 35°F, bathing by swimming in the Merced River (so cold that your body burned after being in for 60 seconds), and worrying about whether every noise in the night was a bear about to rip open the back of my car in search of the toothpaste that I shouldn’t have had in the car (but had no bear bin to put in).

Both were fabulous trips and photographically interesting–even if the toll for the two trips was one window ripped off our car in the Death Valley windstorm, one cracked iPhone screen when the resort valet dropped my phone (while being nice enough to take a family photo), one broken lighting tripod (left in the Yosemite trashbin before I departed–it was a total loss), one camera malfunction where the remote trigger port seems to no longer work (which is NOT a good thing on a night photography trip!!), and one lost light panel battery.  Yes, it was an adventure!

What was I up to?  In the past, my night photography has generally been all about finding the darkest night that I could possibly find and sometimes lighting foreground objects using a variety of highly diffused or reflected flashlights (or even, once, battery operated tea candles!).  The technique is called light painting and it’s all about finding a flashlight bright (or dim) enough for your foreground object, diffusing that light, perhaps trying a bunch of different color temperature lights, and then a whole light of trial and error waving the light around in varying directions for varying numbers of seconds.

This year I am trying two techniques that are new to me:  (1) several variable light temperature, variable intensity light panels that I set up on tripods at some distance from the foreground objects and simply leave on continuously, and (2) moonlight.  In the past, I’ve avoided moonlight because it washes out the stars, but there is a fine line where you can pick up just a small amount of moonlight that provides a natural foreground lighting without washing out too much of the night sky.  Or at least that’s the theory!

In Death Valley, I ended up only having one night to shoot… the second night was at the tail end of the windstorm and the sky was full of dust & sand, and my camera would have been sandblasted.  There I played with the light panels in the sand dunes.  In Yosemite, I had three nights of shooting at a total of five locations, making use of both the light panels and moonlight–which varied from very low on the first night to considerable on the third night.

So, with all of that, here are my selections from my recent night photography adventures… with some technical notes…

The Milky Way arches over brush growing in the sand dunes at Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley National Park. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Lit by a single light panel at lowest setting off to the right.

Milky Way over the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park. Lit by a single light panel at lowest setting placed on the top of the next sand dune behind the camera.

The Milky Way rises over Bridalveil Falls, El Capitan, and the Merced River in Yosemite Valley. Yosemite National Park, California, USA.  The trees on the far side of the Merced River are lit by a pair of light panels set at 50% intensity, one 100 feet upstream and another 100 feet downstream.  The granite cliffs are very subtly lit by just a sliver of a moon. Note that you can also see two lights from climbers on the right edge of El Capitan.

The Milky Way rises over Bridalveil Falls, El Capitan, and the Merced River in Yosemite Valley on a partial moonlit night. Yosemite National Park, California, USA.  Two nights after the shot above, here the mountains are lit by considerably more moonlight… but so is the night sky, with fewer stars visible than on a fully dark night.

The Milky Way rises over Bridalveil Falls, El Capitan, and the Merced River in Yosemite Valley on a partial moonlit night. Yosemite National Park, California, USA.  This shot is the same as the one above, but with the two light panels added to light the foreground trees.

The Milky Way rises over Bridalveil Falls, El Capitan, and the Merced River in Yosemite Valley on a partial moonlit night. Yosemite National Park, California, USA. Unlike the other shots on this page, which are single exposure images, this is an 11-shot composite image experiment for noise reduction.  Taken on the night with the most moon–same as the two above.

Half Dome as seen from Sentinel Bridge in Yosemite National Park at night with the Milky Way above. California, USA.  Shot on night #3 in Yosemite, with more moon, and with two light panels at lowest setting–one aimed at each bank of the river.

The Milky Way behind the classic tree at Olmstead Point in the high country of Yosemite National Park, California, USA.  Lit by roughly a half-second flash of the light panel at lowest setting.

The Milky Way behind the classic tree at Olmstead Point in the high country of Yosemite National Park, California, USA. Lit by roughly a half-second flash of the light panel at lowest setting.

The Milky Way over Tenaya Lake in the high country of Yosemite National Park. California, USA.

The Milky Way over Half Dome, Nevada Falls, and Vernal Falls as the crescent moon sets. Yosemite National Park, California, USA.

2018 Red Tide

It seems like every five years or so there’s a really strong red tide here in San Diego that is made up of the dinoflagellate Lingulodinium polyedra, which causes nasty low-visibility reddish water during daylight… but the most amazing neon blue glow at night! A good red tide is spectacular underwater (turn off all your lights, wave your hands around, and watch the water sparkle!) and a lot of fun above water also–find a dark part of town and just watch the waves break. I haven’t yet figured out how to photograph the red tide below water, but you can get some pretty cool & abstract shots above water.

Here are my favorites from tonight’s outing. I may add more or swap in others as the red tide continues.

My favorite moment of the night came at the end, after a particular car had been parked with its headlights shining out onto the ocean for at least 20 minutes–ruining the chance for anyone near him to see the amazing display. I stopped off & tried to contain my annoyance and just let the guy know that there was something great going on and his headlights made it impossible to see it… and he’d probably enjoy it, too, if he turned his headlights off. The guy completely flipped out after he turned off his headlights… he seemed to think that it was one of the most amazing things he’d ever seen… and he’d completely missed it for the first 20 minutes… right there in front of him!

The last couple images have some mixed colors–with reds mixed in with the neon blues.  I don’t know if that’s real and/or because of the very high ISO that I tried out at the end and/or because of the guy’s headlights off at the distant right side of the frame.

View large & enjoy the details!  SCROLL DOWN (there are images below!)

See also:  2011 Red Tide photos

The dinoflagellate Lingulodinium polyedra causes breaking waves to glow bright blue at night off the coast of San Diego, California, USA.

Super Blue Blood Moon

The Super Blue Blood Moon total lunar eclipse of January 2018 from the West Coast of the United States — have you ever seen more hype or adjectives applied to the poor old moon??

“Super moons” aren’t a whole lot more than a media thing. The moon is very slightly closer to the Earth, but not so as to make it appear huge. If you see a “super moon” photo where the moon just looks massive, someone has faked the shot! Blue moons aren’t a physical thing–nothing is different about the moon on a blue moon. Blood moons… now there’s the fun! Blood moons occur on total lunar eclipses, when the moon looks quite red during totality. A blood moon I can get excited about!

This is the fifth total lunar eclipse that I’ve photographed. It’s fun to watch the moon disappear, and visually it’s quite nice during totality–with the red color. I’ve shot lunar eclipse time series. I’ve shot lunar eclipses with a whole lot of glass, so the moon is huge in the photo.

The total lunar eclipse of April 2014, shot with 1,000mm of lens

I’ve also done a fair amount of full moon photos. Perhaps my favorite full moon photo of mine is the shot I got about five years ago of the full moon setting behind the Mount Soledad Cross in La Jolla. That shot was very difficult to get and was shot from a LONG way away with 900mmm of glass. To get the moon so big in a shot, you need a lot of lens.

The full, blue moon sets at sunrise behind the Mount Soledad Cross in La Jolla, California.

So as we approached this Super Blue Blood Moon, the thing on my mind was: can I get the moon behind the Mount Soledad Cross during the total solar eclipse? A lot of research and scouting the ground later, my answer was “no, I could not.” At least not from such a great distance that I could use 1,000mm of lens and make the moon huge. However, I did think that if I went down into the canyon behind Mount Soledad, I could probably get the angle about right to put the moon near the cross when it was low-ish in the sky in the middle of totality… with about 400mm of lens. So not a huge moon, but not too small!

Fast forward to the morning of January 31st. Up at 3:30 AM and over to Mount Soledad. I pull up in the early early dark… and there are dozens of cars already there! Oh, no!!! I had told no one about my plans, except one person that I trust and him just late the night before. Had someone arranged one of those annoying photography workshops?? I gathered my gear and walked in to the cross. It was a lovely morning and the crowd was in a great mood. Sounded more like a party. In perhaps the single most important rule of photography, that you never know until you get there, I kept going past the cross and down into the canyon… and there was NO ONE else there! Happy happy, joy joy. I had the place to myself until well past the when the moon was at the right elevation for the shot down there, when a second guy showed up. He had shot down at Balboa Park for the start of the eclipse and then rushed up to Mount Soledad to try to get a second shooting location in. He didn’t make it, but was nice to talk to for a bit.

The only real bummer was that the cross was not evenly lit. When I first arrived, there were no lights on it. Didn’t it used to be lit at night? But then a floodlight from the lower left was turned on, causing strange diagonal lighting throughout all of totality when the moon was low enough to get near the cross itself. Here is one of my early favorites:

A total lunar eclipse behind the Mount Soledad Cross in La Jolla, California, USA. “Super Blue Blood Moon” of January 31, 2018.

Finally, as I climbed back up out of the canyon, the sky started to lighten during what’s called “blue hour” (which really is only about five minutes!) just as I rejoined the party near the cross, so I stopped to grab a shot there as well:

A crowed gathers at the Mount Soledad Cross in La Jolla, California, to watch the “Super Blue Blood Moon” total lunar eclipse set. January 31, 2018

Merry Christmas… and 2017 in review!

Many photographers publish a year-end “Best of” set of 10, sometimes 15 photos… a skill which I seem to have decidedly not mastered!  Most years, I look back over my photos and either hate everything or simply cannot whittle it down to 10.  I like different photos for different reasons, and sometimes like a photo because it’s arguably just a really good photo, but other times because it reminds me of a place or time.

Below are my favorites from 2017.  As you’ll see, I didn’t manage to reduce it to just 10!  It makes me sad that there are no underwater photos from this year, but it was a year of fairly bad ocean conditions early on, hand surgery, shoulder injury, and often simply too much going on.  I am, however, gearing up to get back in the water, so hopefully you’ll see underwater photos again next year!

My trips this year were limited:  three quick, weekend trips early in the year for an absolutely stunning wildflower bloom; one run up to Yosemite during back-to-back snowstorms; Wyoming in the summer for the total solar eclipse; and fall colors trips to the Eastern Sierra and Zion.  Stay tuned to see what 2018 has in store!

If I had to pick a single photo as most iconic for the year, it would be the shot just below–of the “diamond ring” formation just as the total solar eclipse of this past August ended.  Did a whole lot of people in the United States get this shot?  Yes.  But this is MY shot.  A shot that took a whole lot of planning, preparation, effort… and no small amount of worry!  Would the sky be clear in Jackson, Wyoming, during the eclipse?  Would the park be so overrun with tourists that we’d get stuck in gridlock and not be able to get to the centerline of the eclipse?  Because we had not managed to get hotel rooms for the actual couple days around the eclipse–even though we made our reservations 6-7 months before the eclipse!–would we manage to get a campsite after we had to leave the lodge?  In the end, it all worked out and it was one of the most amazing experiences of our lives.

Other than the first and last photos, the below are in no particular order.

The “diamond ring” just at the end of totality during the Total Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017, as seen from Grand Tetons National Park, Wyoming.

The Milky Way over Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

El Capitan peeks out through falling snow. Yosemite National Park, California.

Kayakers at Oxbow Bend in the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

Wildflowers at sunset in Joshua Tree National Park, California.

Fall color in Surveyor’s Meadow along Bishop Creek in the Eastern Sierra, California.

Beaver den near Schwabacher Landing in Grand Tetons National Park, Wyoming.

One of two cubs of Grizzly Bear 399 in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

Mixed wildflowers cover a hillside in Southern California.

Cook’s Meadow, Yosemite National Park, California.

Sunrise at Joshua Tree National Park during wildflower season. California.

A surfer does a flip off the backside of a large wave at La Jolla Shores. La Jolla, California.

The Big Dipper watches over a field of wildflowers at night in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California.

California poppies overlook a lake in Southern California.

Rain approaches surfers off La Jolla Shores, California.

Flooded field and trees during a heavy snowstorm. Yosemite National Park, California.

Dead tree and reflections in a beaver pond in front of the Teton Mountains; Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

Reflections of yellow aspens in fall in the Eastern Sierra, California.

Blend of ten exposures of the sun’s corona and prominences during the total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

Reflections in a pond. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

Yellow Tickseed in the central valley of Carrizo Plain National Monument, California.

Reeds and their reflections in a beaver pond. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

Marsh and ducks at the edge of Gull Lake on June Lake Loop in the Eastern Sierra, California.

Reflections in the fishing pond near Aspendell, California.

A coyote looks back at the photographer, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

Endless yellow wildflowers–looking down towards Soda Lake in the valley of Carrizo Plain National Monument from high in the Temblor Mountains.

The Teton Mountains as seen from a beaver pond at Schwabacher’s Landing in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

An artist’s palette of wildflowers. Temblor Mountains, Carrizo Plain National Monument, California.

Hillside Daisies at sunrise after an overnight frost in Carrizo Plain National Monument, California.

Two bald eagles soar over the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

Merry Christmas from the Moore family!