About a month ago I huddled with my Eastern Sierra workshop group on a mountainside in the White Mountains (east of Bishop). We were waiting for the stars to come out, but after driving over an hour on a road that would test anyone’s motion sickness resistance, hiking a steep half mile in the thin air above 10,000 feet, and waiting out a couple of rain showers, it looked like clouds might thwart our night photography plans. Since we’d already done all the hard work, I reminded everyone that mountain weather is is fickle and suggested that we’d wait just a bit. Bolstered by sandwiches, a hardy spirit, and good humor, wait we did.
I’ve done this long enough to know that the fun a group has is proportional to the discomfort they’re experiencing. Beneath the darkening sky we clicked between sandwich bites, cursing the chill and finding no end of things to laugh about. Everyone was pretty excited by their camera’s ability to suck detail from apparent darkness, and by the smoothing effect the long exposures had on the shifting clouds. Stars or not, the night was already a success.
To maintain night vision and avoid interfering with exposures, flashlights were forbidden. Instead we used our cellphone screens to illuminate our camera controls. It was so cold that gloves were a necessity, but they had to come off for even the most simple camera adjustment. Despite the discomfort, there were no complaints. About the time it became so dark that we could only recognize each other by voice, a few twinkling pinholes burned through the black ceiling. Multiplying with each minute, the stars slowly congealed into a fuzzy stripe that finally revealed itself to be the Milky Way—we were in business.
Some in the group had never seen the Milky Way; others hadn’t seen it since childhood. Those with night photography experience went right to work, while Don Smith and I helped the others get going. For most, night photography minus moonlight is an exercise in patience: even basic composition involves a fair amount of guesswork, and finding focus is an act of faith. Working with the others in the group, I was especially thankful for my Sony a7S and focus-peaking, which made both composition and focus a snap.
To isolate the bristlecone against the sky and align it with the Milky Way, I scrambled in the dark (remember, no flashlights) across loose rock until I was about 100 feet north of the tree. Balanced on a 30 degree slope, I had to plant my tripod firmly and rely on feel to ensure that it was secure.
Spending time with this image helps me appreciate a photograph’s power to give perspective to our place in the natural world. The bristlecone pine anchoring the frame was a seedling just about the time the finishing touches were being put Stonehenge. That sounds pretty old, until you pause to consider that it’s illuminated by light from the Milky Way, which began its journey to my sensor about 20,000 years before this tree sprouted. And accenting the frame are a pair of meteors, vestigial fragments of our solar system’s formation about 4 1/2 billion years ago. Pretty cool.
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