Reach for the sky

I’d love to say that every picture I take is a personal synergy of preparation, inspiration, and execution, but I’m afraid it just isn’t so. Sometimes I just go out with no real plan, and no clue about what’s going to happen. Other times my plan is no more than to find out exactly what will happen.

Several years ago  (let’s see, it was probably 2005) I was still relatively new to digital photography. After many, many years shooting 35mm transparencies (slides), I was excited enough about my digital SLR to retire my trusty OM-2 (R.I.P.), but still not completely sure what digital could do for me. Back then it seemed like every trip was two parts photography, one part education.

That fall brother Jay and I traveled to Lone Pine to photograph Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills. Frustrated by boring blue skies during the day, and aware that the moon would be full, on our last night we thought it might be fun to see how our cameras handled moonlight. So we headed up into the Alabama Hills, just west of Lone Pine.

Starting on the paved Whitney Portal Road, we experimented with exposure using Lone Pine Peak and Mt. Whitney as subjects. It only took a few seat-of-the-pants, trial-and-error frames to arrive at exposure settings that worked (and that I still use). Buoyed by the results barely visible on my postage stamp LCD, I suggested we venture deeper into the “hills” (more like a collection of stacked, weathered granite boulders) on the confusing network of dirt roads. Somewhat (but not hopelessly) lost, we ended up setting up at a rocky dead-end amidst a confusion of moon shadows.

This might be a good time to mention that, whether you know it or not, you’re probably more familiar with the Alabama Hills than you might realize. Its jumbled granite and meandering dirt trails have been home to countless cinema chases, gunfights, and ambushes since the halcyon days of John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Roy Rogers. (And imagine my surprise while watching the first “Ironman” movie, to see see Mt. Whitney looming over the Afghan desert.) So it was particularly surreal to be alone in the moonlit night, in the shadow of boulders that very well may have launched John Wayne onto the back of an Indian pony, or from behind which Randolph Scott might have sprung to surprise a retreating train robber. But I digress.

Both Jay and I were concentrating on the Sierra crest, anchored by Lone Pine Peak and Mt. Whitney, beneath a ceiling of sparking stars. During one of my exposures I glanced toward the northern horizon and saw the Big Dipper suspended above a natural granite bridge. On a whim I rotated my tripod 90 degrees, composed a vertical frame wide enough to include the Big Dipper (I couldn’t see the stars in my fairly dim viewfinder), and guessed on the focus. I clicked two frames, then returned my attention to the mountains.

It wasn’t until I returned to the hotel and checked my images on my laptop that I realized I’d captured something that was (in my opinion) special. The other images from than night are accumulating digital dust on a hard disk, but this image of the Big Dipper has become one of my favorite (and most popular).

Even more significant than the image’s success is epiphany it inspired. I’ve always been drawn to the night sky, from the night when I was about 10 and when my best friend Rob and I peered through a  telescope in his front yard and saw the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter. After that, camping and backpack trips were always sans tent just so I’d have an unobstructed view of the pristine night sky, and I read every book on astronomy I could find. In college I even majored in astronomy, that is until the quantification of the cosmos sapped its elegance (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But this one night in the Alabama Hills revived that latent passion and showed me how easy it is to include the stars in my current life.

4 Comments on “Reach for the sky

  1. What was or is your typical setting for pictures like this? I see almost no star movement, which is good. How did you light up the rocks.

    • I have an article in Outdoor Photographer where I talk about moon and moonlight photography. The wider the shot, and the closer to one of the poles you’re pointed, the less star movement you’ll get. I try to keep all of my moonlight shots below 30 seconds. I never use artificial light (flash or otherwise)–here the rocks are illuminated entirely by the full moon.

  2. Pingback: Almost Heaven | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

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