Favorite: The Big Dipper

Big Dipper, Alabama Hills, California

Big Dipper, Alabama Hills, California
Canon EOS-1D Mark II
20 seconds
F/2.8
ISO 200
25 mm

I’ve decided to turn my new Favorites gallery into an irregular series on each of the images there.

*   *   *   *

This image of the Big Dipper above moonlit granite boulders in the Alabama Hills will always have a special place in my heart because it was my first moonlight “success.” I was still coming to terms with the low light capabilities of digital photography, and figured that a full moon over the Alabama Hills might be a good opportunity to play. I was in Lone Pine with my brother to explore the endless daylight possibilities among the weather granite boulders just west of town.

Jay and I started that night by simply photographing the Sierra crest, anchored by Lone Pine Peak and Mt. Whitney, from the side of the road. It wasn’t long before I was confident that I had the exposure settings right (arriving through trial and error at the moonlight exposure recipe I still use), and we soon set out for less prosaic surroundings, ending up in a box canyon at the end of an obscure spur off (unpaved) Movie Road. All of my attention was on Lone Pine Peak and Mt. Whitney in the west, but while waiting for an exposure to complete, I noticed the Big Dipper suspended above the northern horizon.

I wish I could say this composition was divine inspiration fueled by my innate artistic instincts, but it was more of a casual click using a couple of anonymous boulders whose prime attraction was their convenience. Focus was tricky, and while I don’t specifically remember all my decisions, I know I must have realized that sharp foreground rocks trumped sharp stars (that would be moving slightly anyway). I’ve done enough moonlight photography since to know that while manual focus in the dark is difficult, it’s not impossible. Finding focus involves rapidly twisting the focus ring in decreasing concentric arcs around the point where the target “feels” sharp—subsequent experience has taught me that (for me at least) the results are usually better than I fear they are. And of course it doesn’t hurt that even at f2.8, 25mm gives me quite a bit of depth of field.

I remember thinking when the image popped up on the postage-stamp LCD of my 1D Mark II, “That’s pretty cool.” But I couldn’t have been too impressed because I only took two frames before returning to the (ultimately forgettable) Sierra compositions. The next memory I have is looking at my images on my laptop later that night—it was quite clear that this image was my favorite, by a long-shot, and I wished I’d have tried more. I’ve tried unsuccessfully to find these boulders on subsequent visits, but I haven’t given up. I can’t even say that I’d photograph them again, but I’d at least love to see them once more.

Moonset, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, California

We photograph the Alabama Hills in my Eastern Sierra photo workshop—click for details

One Comment on “Favorite: The Big Dipper

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