Cool stuff on a cold night

Gary Hart Photography: Bristlecone Night, White Mountains, California

Bristlecone Night, White Mountains, California
Sony a7S
Rokinon 24mm f1.4
15 seconds
F/2
ISO 6400


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.

Sunrise Mirror, Mono Lake

Join my next Eastern Sierra photo workshop


Gary Hart Photography: River of Light, Grand Canyon, Arizona

Learn more about starlight photography


A night sky gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

21 Comments on “Cool stuff on a cold night

  1. A stunning image and worth all the cold and suffering 🙂 The colours leave many a sunset for dead in their subtly.

  2. Beautiful shot! Thanks so much for sharing not only your work, but your wisdom. I greatly appreciate it!

    Duane Carter

  3. Very impressive! Did you lightpaint the tree? Single exposure or blend? Lightroom only for processing? Lastly, how does the 7S compare to 7r2. Is it better than Nikon 810 sensor? Thanks for inspiring us!

    • Thanks, Karl. No, I only use natural light and I never blend images, so this is one click with no light painting.

      I use the a7S and a7R II for completely different things, and I’ve never used the Nikon D810, so it’s difficult to compare them. The a7R II is my primary camera, while the a7S is my night camera. Of the 3, I’d guess that the a7S is hands-down the high ISO winner, followed by the a7R II (which is still one of the best high ISO cameras), and then the D810. All three have great dynamic range.

      • Gary, thanks for answer. I agree with your comparisons of ISO sensitivities. Is the new 7S2 even better? But is the 12 MP enough? I wish it were 24 MP or higher? I don’t think 810A is worth it for just night photos. I have Nikon 14-24mm, so what adapter should use if I get one of the Sony bodies? Wish Nikon could have the same Sony sensors!!!!

      • The a7S II has the same sensor but an improved an improved processing engine—I’m guessing the that image quality will be slightly improved but don’t know how much difference it will make. There are many other improvements as well: focus, viewfinder, in-body stabilization. If I were to get only one Sony body, I’d get the a7R II, which isn’t as good at high ISOs as the a7S cameras, but it is better than any other camera.

        As far as Nikon lenses are concerned, you can use them on the Sony FE bodies with a Metabones (or other) adapter, but they’ll not be recognized by the camera. That means focus and f-stop can’t be controlled on the body, and no EXIF data. But keep in mind that I don’t speak Nikon, haven’t tried it myself, and there are different mounts and lenses with different capabilities. Here’s a good resource: http://briansmith.com/sony-a7-a7r-lens-mount-adapters/.

      • Gary, thanks for link but very little info about Nikon lenses. I have yet to read about a Nikon shooter using the Nikon lenses and Sony bodies. Only Canon lenses which leads me to believe that it is not worth the money or significant improvement. Are you using the Canon 11-24mm lens and was this the lens you used in the photo? Are you still happy that it is only 12MP?

      • From the link (maybe not a lot, but definitely more than I know on the subject):

        You can pick up fast manual focus Nikon AIS glass at a great price these days. Metabones Nikon F to Sony E-Mount Adapter II ($90 at Amazon | B&H) is a great choice to mount them on A7/A7R. I recently picked up a Nikkor 55 f/1.2 for $350 which combined with the Metabones adapter makes for a killer combo for available light that’s hard to beat for $450.

        However, if you plan to use Nikon G lenses, which have no aperture ring, a better choice is to use the Novoflex Nikon to Sony E-Mount Adapter ($293 at Amazon | B&H), Metabones Nikon G to Sony E-Mount Adapter ($139 Amazon | B&H), Vello Nikon G Lens to Sony E-Mount Adapter ($60 B&H) or FotodioX Adapter for Nikon G to Sony E-Mount ($60 at Amazon | B&H) which allows you to control the aperture of Nikon G lenses. You can use Nikon F lenses on Nikon G adapters – but Nikon F adapters can’t control the aperture of Nikon G lenses.

        The Canon advantage is that the Metabones adapters allow the Sony FE bodies to communicate with the Canon lenses—full aperture control and autofocus. I used a Sony FE mount Rokinon 24mm f1.4, which gives me the same capabilities as you’d get with a Nikon lens and adapter. Megapixels are overrated and 12 is fine for most uses (including large prints as far as I’m concerned).

  4. Nice shot. It’s a bone jarring drive along that dirt road (I took the “boys” camping up there in October).
    How did you get the detail in the tree (not a silhouette)? Is that due to the increased dynamic range of the Sony A7s? Since flash lights were forbidden, I know It isn’t light painted. Did you push the shadows in LR? I did a star trails (stacked) image behind my house with one of the Basque stone boys as my foreground but there is no detail in the Harri Mutilak (stone boy).

    The small bit of light pollution is from Las Vegas.

    • Thanks, Katy. This was the Schulman Grove, so no dirt road. The detail is simply due to the unparalleled low-light capability of the Sony a7S. Yeah, I pulled the shadows up in Lightroom. The light pollution in my image is likely Bakersfield.

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