Author: Greg McKelvey
A number of photographers in our Rim Country Camera Club and the Northern Gila County college intermediate photography class taught by well published in Arizona Highways photographer / writer, Nick Berezenko, are now taking more and more night sky images. No surprise after the release of Beth Ruggiero-York’s “Fun in the Dark” informative book. Cornerstone as it is to master the settings, plant a sturdy tripod, minimize shake, noise and star “movement”, success is anchored by foreground, composition and context that tells a unique story.
I think we all have been bubbly pleased with the first images of just the Milky Way! I know I interrupted my family and friends to show(bore) them with my efforts. Dang that was great! Subsequently I learned a bit more about post image processing, kelvin scales, gaffers tape and lighting. All of these skills are crystal important, without doubt. So after I got that first set Milky Way, night stars, “trails”, and pin wheels, the challenge becomes finding a unique place to spend the night with your camera. Dr. Bruce always told us to sleep with our camera, now I know why.
I am not a patient man, or so Sally Jo, my wife of 51 years, reminds me! Hhmm that cannot be true, so says me (the ambivalent mirror is 50 / 50). I enjoy travel and looking at rocks and stuff like that, always have enjoyed astronomy as a science and feed on learning more about all that stuff. While I cannot tick off all the constellations (I really think the local elementary school needs to update the figures in the sky to something more 21st century: I know snoopy is there someplace!) the matter out there and what comes here is kool stuff.
I started night skies image captures from the deck of my Pine home. Rather convenient place with a good supply of red wine, nice people, and not far from the pillow zone. While a productive location to hone my photographic skills, it is not what I would call an iconic setting. Yet I can practice composition, subtle lighting of the foreground (such as it is), stacking, time lapse and the all-important camera settings. RAW is my friend as it the new tripod. Ops, forgot the new wide angle lens and the wireless remote (a comfortable chair and glass of Merlot do have some priority) and doing it in the dark without my never possible to read notes. Not second nature, but comfortable now.
The image below is “nice” but it may not win any wow contests or even qualify for our annual family photos album. Only a few people would know or care where these were taken, yet it is a good place to practice and the family likes them!
Night sky overlooking Pine Arizona with the lights of Payson in white, and
the yellow glow from Phoenix rising out of the desert.
So now the search begins, where might I go that others have not already photographed into the over loved hall of fame? Reflection on local lakes, yah a good setting as sit would be for lightening, more for the reflection than recognizable location. US Forest Service lookout towers in the forest might be a good context shot. Rustic old building and barns, hmm some great ones of these here. Few would know the specifics, but all would see the context and perhaps a story?
Fullers Barn in Pine. Lighting from the fire station behind the camera.
While I embrace the concepto of this photo, still not what I am looking for (I will never be satisfied and that is a good thing).
So I made the decision last week to travel the five hours to visit the Very Large Array (VLA) near Datil, New Mexico. The night skies in Pine have been clear and clean thanks to some light winds and the moon is resting on the other side of the planet. So off I go with bed roll, food stuff and a back seat stacked with camera gear. I wanted to be prepared for whatever. Time lapse with one camera, panoramas, light painting, hmmm my mind ‘flowith’ over!
The closer the red truck got to the VLA, the more dark clouds, rain washing the wind screen and lightening blinding the horizon. Not looking too good for clear night photography! Hey, but a monsoon show over these 39 foot diameter dishes spoked out in a three armed array across the plains has potential. So no stopping me now, just a change of expectations. Or at least that is my story and I am sticking to it!
VLA, storms and dark skies.
The signs say the VLA is open from 8 am until sunset. Kool, so I have time to scout around, see where I might set up after dark and visit the gift shop and ask humans for advice of where and what might be good places to set up. The gift shop must be a bank as they were closed by 4 pm. No human, hmm wonder if there are others to chat with?
Mindful of the no trespassing postings, and aware of public roads, I did find three locations worthy of a return visit. Oh and I did see, photograph and stood in wonderment of herds of antelope with the young prancing like it is an art form in a dance competition. Made my day, I could go home with something on my chips worthy of my day (I am easy to please).
So after clicking shots of the radio dishes, dark as night clouds, a unique reflecting ball calendar, art work, and old rusted out trucks likely old and used when the telescope was commissioned decades ago, I made the command decision to drive to the nearest eatery and return for the dark night show. A good New York slab of medium rare meat, a tall glass of coke free diet water, and the request side of green beans and I am ready to return. Walking back to the truck in the rain, pleased that I remembered my old hat, the sun’s rays touch the building tops in Socorro. Good sign I figure.
Back out that the VLA and hour later, I set up the tripod just as the fledgling moon is moving to the west. Still lots of cloud cover and wow a lightning show to the south and southeast; hey that is where the milky way is said to be in the SE sky. No matter, the lens is busy sending light from the setting moon, silhouetted astronomy equipment to the pixel creating sensor then pipeline the 1’s and O’s via a buffer to my CF card.
VLA Radio telescope, one of 39 in the array with the setting moon and light by a car traveling north from Reserve NM
A change of battery, refocus as the temperature drops, more clicks of the remote and all of a sudden, two hours are missing from my watch. Somewhere during an Arizona Highways Photo Workshop, I was reminding to always look behind me. Focus on one subject does not mean there might not be a better one at my back. Opps, I look SE and wow the electric storms are still spraying the skies but are migrating further south, and the oh my to my wonderment, Milky Way is there. The skies in the San Augustine plains are dark. To the north there is evidence of Albuquerque, but most of the skies above the VLA are dark, like really dark. With young moon gone to China and but a few lights form the office complex at the VLA, the skies reveal more stars than an old man can count. To boot, the radio telescope dishes are active. About every 15 minutes they all change to a new position. So waiting (and Sally Jo said I have no patience – I will disprove prove that a myth) and the silhouettes and positions of the iconic foreground changes. I drive to a different dish for a different foreground and set up the camera so as to position the dish with the Milky Way arching across the sky. I change locations a few time as the composition gods instruct me, zoom, adjust settings and fill up the CF card as the dark get darker still. Two more hours slip away into the past as my card accepts more digital data.
Radio telescope dish, lit by flashlight pointed toward the Milky Way at the eastern end of the VLA
It was difficult to leave this setting, but with clear local skies, lighting in the distance and one other location I wanted to visit, the Little Red Truck (LRT) dives me off to the northern spot. Glad I had the 65 year old bed roll, a cooler with food stuffs and no need to be anywhere but there.
VLA, Milky Way, lighting in the distance and the radio telescope for context and foreground.
Close to what I wanted!
The lights of Albuquerque in the distance at the northern extent of the milky way and the dish for context.
I packed up my gear around 3 am, dang where did that night go, and headed back toward Pine. Along the way I scouted out a few locations I on my “might work as a potential night sky locations” curled up in the old bed roll, slept for a while and later found a good local café with IV served coffee and an oval platter of breakfast foods to kick start the new day. So what is next; use my new found patience, seek out old barns, rusted trucks, lessor know native sites, rustic buildings, use subtle LED lights, find reflecting surfaces, position star gazers under the Milky Way, find leading lines, line up people with tripods, locate lone trees, explore for unusual rock formation and stumble on anything to serve as good foreground with a story telling context.
So when not putting the finishing touches on my “Through a Geologist’s Lens” musings, traveling to find Big Horn sheep, landscaping (it is an action verb it is not) across the southwest, or sojourns into macro landscapes of beetles and minerals, I might well return to the skies again. Patience, RAW formats, longer exposures, ISO settings low enough to not produce noisy mages, stable lenses on manual, gaffers tape, wireless remotes, time lapse processing and well rooted tripods are among my skill sets now. Practice at home, now visit the all the new worlds. Gee wonder if I might bump it to Mr. Spock along the way. Like they say always look behind you and be prepared to adapt to whatever happens. Thank you lord for the patience I have and the ability to remember it.
Photographer and patient husband!