Astrophotography 2: A Million Lights in the Darkness

I really hate this.  You have no idea.  You cannot understand, I think, how this feels.

There are at least three nights from my trip out west with Dirk that I could easily call my favorite night of the trip.  When I throw the Monday night out of the mix, largely since it was amazing because it was my first time experiencing a night like that … well, that still leaves me with two nights that were my favorite.  That were EASILY my favorite.  It’s not even close… and every night from this trip was a life-changing experience for me.

Camping and Night Sky Photography

I know.  It’s an utterly cliché thing to say, especially for me.

But here’s the thing.  It’s the honest-to-goodness truth.  The past two years – 2016 and 2017 – have from a traveling perspective been two of the most amazing years of my life.  That too is really saying something.  I first traveled to Europe when I was 15 years old, and by the time I started college, I had been to nine foreign countries and 40 of the 50 United States.

I am a lucky guy – I’m well aware of that.

Picking my favorite Milky Way experience…

But I digress.  I struggled for nearly five months to decide which night was my favorite…  even though the truth is, the last night is the undisputed obvious winner.  I’m don’t think that I’ll ever have another camping experience so shockingly perfect in my life – that’s why that night is getting an entire blog dedicated solely to its story (as it turns out, that night actually got TWO blog posts dedicated to its story).

But Thursday night…  that’s a favorite too, and it’s in large part due to the dramatically different environment in which it was spent.   Camping in the woods will always hold a special place in my heart.  When those woods are part of the Inyo National Forest just over the border from Yellowstone National Park…. when those woods are in the neighborhood of June Lake and a stone’s throw from the Obsidian Dome….  and when those woods, home to massive Ponderosa Pine trees that block out all ambient light, are situated at nearly 8,700 feet of elevation, providing crystal clear, thin, and bone-chillingly cold air through which to view the night sky….  Well, you can start to understand why Thursday night was my favorite.  (OK, second favorite)

Night Sky Photography – Equipment Guide:  Click HERE
Night Sky Photography – Basic Steps:  Click HERE
The best back road in California:  Click HERE

Camping in the woods in California

Regardless of how truly incredible Saturday night was, that Thursday night will forever hold an extremely special place in my heart, mind, and memories.  We arrived in the woods early in the evening and began scoping out different campsite options.  Finding a campsite is easy enough in theory.

But in practice, finding an excellent campsite in the wilderness can be quite tricky.  It requires balancing several key factors, such as safety, weather, comfort, and views.  When we entered the woods that fateful Thursday afternoon, we were deep in the thick of winging it.  We weren’t consulting maps, blogs, or any other resources for information – we were intent on doing this totally independent.

We followed the forest service road for a while, checking out a couple good potential site options.  Though the sites were flat, open, yet also sheltered by the surrounding trees, none of the options were ideal.   Before long, we stumbled upon what we soon figured out was a closed-for-the-season campground.

This turned out to be perfect.  The sites were ideal – flat and manicured, with no major stones or ditches to contend with.  They already had rock fire rings set up, and there was even a porta-potty sitting nearby!  Though it wasn’t truly “wild” camping, we decided that the convenience and isolation of it all were still too good to pass up.  We pitched our tent at our favorite spot, and headed into the woods to collect firewood.

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The following morning will always be special, too:  eating a mountain man’s breakfast of fire-grilled sausages and steaming hot black coffee for the first time in my life.  As it turned out, I really needed the hearty hot breakfast.  The overnight temperature dropped to about 28 degrees!  It was the coldest night I’ve ever camped, and I’m extremely grateful for Dirk’s wisdom.  He advised that we wrap rocks from the fire ring in towels and place them inside the foot of our sleeping bags to keep us warm that night.

I remained surprisingly warm all night… until about 5AM, when the warmth in my rock was finally exhausted!  I woke up with chattering teeth and powerful shivers, so I got up before dawn and re-started our fire.  Before long, I had a roaring blaze warming my frozen bones, and coffee and breakfast followed quickly.

Milky Way Photographs from Inyo National Forest

As I’ve already mentioned, that Thursday night was one of my favorite nights during what was a very special camping trip.  Between the beauty of the woods towering overhead and the celestial fireworks beyond, I hope that the pictures below will offer you some small glimpse of insight into why…  Enjoy!

Ooooops!  I completely neglected to mention that the last few pictures are from the first night we camped on Big Sur.  

Milky Way shines over Inyo National Forest near June Lake and Obsidian Dome
No, the night sky was not blue. The camera settings make it look that way, although I suppose some physicist will argue the point about refraction of light, etc. Either way, unless you’ve witnessed it firsthand, you cannot possibly fathom what this sight looks like in person.
The Milky Way shines over Inyo National Forest near June Lake and Obsidian Dome. Milky Way galaxy. Stars. Starry Sky.
The sky was ablaze with stars. That’s how some poetic author might describe it. Me? Well, the way that I would ACTUALLY describe is not fit to print on a family blog. But, there were a LOT of stars visible up there that night.
The Milky Way shines over Inyo National Forest near June Lake and Obsidian Dome. Milky Way galaxy. Stars. Starry Sky. Star trail. Satellite.
The non-galactic core tail end of the Milky Way (I’m sure there is a technical term for all of this, but I’m not going to Google it) doesn’t get nearly as much attention in photographs as the galactic core does… but it’s still incredibly striking. Because it’s not as “bright” as the core, it allows you to not be so distracted by it that you don’t take in the fullness of the scene. And did you notice the long star trail (or perhaps a satellite?) in this picture?
The Milky Way shines over Inyo National Forest near June Lake and Obsidian Dome. Milky Way galaxy. Stars. Starry Sky.
Ahhh.. The Galactic Core. The crown jewel. It looks awesome up there, cradling that massive (and it truly IS massive) Ponderosa Pine tree, doesn’t it? Here’s the interesting thing about the Milky Way. As dark as this night sky was, as visible as the millions of stars were… The galactic core just isn’t that bright to the naked eye. Can you clearly see it when it’s that dark? Sure. But you don’t see any of the colors that show up in night sky photography, and it’s not NEARLY as bright and blown out as some photographers will make it look through the editing process. It’s just not. This picture provides a fairly close representation of what the Milky Way actually looks like on an extremely dark night (visible colors in the picture notwithstanding). It’s very hazy – I typically describe it as looking like a long stripe of clouds against a starry sky. But that’s the outer edge of our galaxy you’re looking at in that stripe of hazy cloud…… process that thought for a minute….
The Milky Way shines over Inyo National Forest near June Lake and Obsidian Dome. Milky Way galaxy. Stars. Starry Sky.
I literally cheered out loud when I captured this photograph. I had been playing around with different angles for at least an hour, perhaps two. Dirk’s unending patience with my photography addiction cannot be overstated. I decided, on a whim I suppose, to rearrange the camera angle in such a way to try to see if I could capture damn near the entire core of the Milky Way in one shot. When it happened on the very first try with that new angle… you can understand why I cheered. It’s not the perfect picture – the alignment is a little off-center for my preference. But, to be perfectly honest, it’s perfect because of the story it represents, and I don’t think I’d want to display any other photograph like it for that reason. (also, it gives you a better idea just how damn many stars were visible that night)
The Milky Way shines over Inyo National Forest near June Lake and Obsidian Dome. Milky Way galaxy. Stars. Starry Sky. Tent camp. Tent camping. Outdoors.
This is where we camped that night, nestled into a little nook between the Ponderosas. Can I be honest with you? I froze my arse off that night. Thank goodness Dirk had thought up the idea of putting stones from the campfire ring into the bottom of our sleeping bags when we went to bed, otherwise I might have spent the night in the truck, intermittently turning the heat on. It dropped down to 26*F that night, which may not sound all that terribly cold to you…. until I suggest that you bundle up (but with no winter coat, mind you) in some hoodies and try to sleep in that temperature in your sleeping bag and nothing else. I was actually pretty comfortable for the majority of the night, because as I said, Dirk and I both took rather large (and extremely hot!) stones from around the firepit and put them in the bottom end of our sleeping bags… and those stones provided us with quite a few hours of rather cozy warmth overnight. Once that warmth had worn out, though… I spent the last hour before the first dim grey light of dawn arrived shivering in my sleeping bag. Finally, I could stand it no longer, so I got up and restarted the campfire to warm my frozen bones. As I said – legitimate mountain man breakfast for us that morning. Well deserved. And while it makes for an incredible story and a great memory… that last hour of shivering was indescribably uncomfortable.
The Milky Way shines over Inyo National Forest near June Lake and Obsidian Dome. Milky Way galaxy. Stars. Starry Sky. Campfire. Starlight. Starlite.
This is the second most popular picture I’ve ever posted on Instagram, racking up nearly 125 likes. I know, that’s not that much when compared with the stuff more popular photographers are posting, but I felt it was a very clear sign that it’s a really cool picture. Oddly enough, it’s popularity was a bit surprising to me at first – I knew people would like it, but it was the first picture I’ve ever posted that went over 100 likes, and it surged past that figure pretty quickly. Though it’s not a shot of the ever-popular galactic core, I think it’s so appealing to the eye due to the contrasts in color between the campfire-lit foreground, and the starry galactic background.
Milky Way galaxy over Big Sur California. Bixby Bridge. Constellations. Stars. Starry night. Dark sky. Dark skies. long exposure.
You know, I tried for quite a while to capture this picture of the Milky Way over Route 1’s famous Bixby Bridge.  The bridge spans one of the widest gullies in Big Sur, making it a perfect setting for photographs. When I got it, I celebrated loudly again – I thought this would be one of the coolest pictures I could take of the Milky Way. I was extremely excited to capture so many interesting elements in one shot (I’m not a fan of composite pictures, probably to my detriment). Ultimately eclipsed by several of my other galaxy shots (some of which will be in the next photo blog), I really enjoyed composing and capturing this one over such an iconic landmark.
Milky Way galaxy over Big Sur California. Bixby Bridge. Constellations. Stars. Starry night. Dark sky. Dark skies. long exposure.
One of my attempts along the way to capturing the prior photo. Though I didn’t end up getting the picture I wanted in this frame, I still absolutely love the concept and result. The shine of the approaching headlights, a barely visible beam of light crossing the bridge and illuminating the landscape, provides a palpable sense of anticipation that’s never quite satisfied….
Milky Way galaxy over Big Sur California. Pacific Ocean. Constellations. Stars. Starry night. Dark sky. Dark skies. long exposure.
This photograph of the Milky Way hanging over the Pacific Ocean may not have turned out exactly how I wanted, but it did manage to capture one of the most unusual space oddities that I’ve ever seen… What are those two parallel stripes running along the top end of the picture, towards the top of the galactic core???
Milky Way galaxy over Big Sur California. Pacific Ocean. Waves. Constellations. Stars. Starry night. Dark sky. Dark skies. long exposure.
Last but not least, a simple enough shot of the traffic running up and down Route 1 (the Pacific Coast Highway), with the crashing waves barely visible in the foreground. The picture didn’t turn out great, but it’s a really awesome reminder for me of what was one of the most beautiful bits of foreshadowing I’ve ever had in my life….  for the night that followed, camping on the slopes of Big Sur.


    • Thanks! Sorry about my delayed response, I just saw the notification today. Make sure to follow the blog and the Facebook page so you get notifications when the post about the final day of camping is written!

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