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.

4 Responses

  1. Mohit Verma

    I am short of words. Each single piece is magnificent. Keep sharing the lovely photographs 🙂

    June 22, 2018 at 12:46 am

  2. Carolyn Roberts

    Wow, John! These are amazing 🙂

    June 22, 2018 at 8:09 am

  3. J.R. Parnell

    Really fantastic photos. I shared the link with my daughter. Also, hi Mohit!

    June 22, 2018 at 8:43 am

  4. Aswani Govardhan

    Photos are awesome. It made me speechless. John you are great photographer.

    June 22, 2018 at 11:14 am

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