Astrophotography 3 … Part 2: The Actual Photoblog

The Milky Way shines brightly in a sky full of stars over Big Sur, Live Oak trees, and the Pacific Ocean
The Milky Way glides over the Pacific Ocean and Big Sur

Reflecting back on the progression of the California road trip Dirk and I took, I realize now that there’s no way that I would have fully appreciated our experience of camping on Big Sur had it come at the beginning of the trip.  I consider the first days as “vacational training” of sorts, preparing us both mentally and physically for the majestic mountaintop pinnacle we reached that Saturday evening.  In a trip laden with superlatives and “moment of a lifetime” adventures, the memory of our night camping in the foothills of Big Sur is near the top of the list of my most cherished experiences.

And while we undoubtedly had an incredible amount of luck and serendipity with us throughout the entire trip, what makes the experience especially remarkable is the fact that none of it would have ever happened had we not suffered a blow of severe misfortune mere days before we left.

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

From Engine Breakdown to Night Sky Heaven

Dirk is a phenomenal mechanic.  Though it’s strictly a hobby for him, he could easily restore antique cars for a living.  This mechanical savant spent countless hours over the past two years building a stunning replica of a 1955 Porsche 356 Speedster from scratch.  The original intent for our trip was to drive the car from the Pittsburgh area (where we both live) out to the Reno area (where his company has a factory) so he could use it there during the winter months.  We were going to drive the whole way to San Francisco, at which point I would fly home, and he would drive back to Reno and work for a few days before returning home.

The car was basically done.   The route was mostly planned.  The tickets for our return flights had been purchased.  We were putting some finishing touches on the car:  mostly aesthetic stuff, and taking care of some minor details ….. like changing the oil.

Milky Oil to the Milky Way

Except that, while I watched the oil draining out of the engine that fateful Monday night,  I noticed a peculiar glistening in the light from my headlamp.  The car had been experiencing unusual over-heating issues that had vexed Dirk for several weeks.  He installed an extra oil cooler, I wrapped the exhaust in pipe tape, and he took several other steps to try to keep the engine temperature down  … all to no avail.  When I called Dirk over and showed him the glittery oil, the devastation on his face was painfully obvious.  Several of the bearings in the engine he purchased had been over-tightened, and the engine was pretty much shot.

As we sat in his garage, drowning our sorrows in a flood of cheap beer, we discussed our options for what to do with the impending week of now-useless vacation time we had taken.  We very nearly settled on taking a back-road/off-road Jeep trip through the wilds of West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina, hunting fishing and camping our way south (which, by the way, still sounds like a remarkable idea for a vacation!), when I said to him “Our return flights are already booked, which is money we both will lose if we don’t go out west.  Are you sure this is what we should do?”

Camping on the Coast of California

The rest, as they say, is history.  We opted not to waste the money, and had what was openly-expressed as one of the best trips either one of us had ever taken in our lives.  Had we opted to go with the Jeep trip option, I’m quite sure we still would have had an excellent experience.  But instead, we rolled the dice and ended up far better off.  To paraphrase Harvey Dent/Two-Face, we made our own luck.

I’ll end the story portion of this blog with a quick moral before getting to the astro-photos…  Especially when going on vacation – make your own luck.  Know what you love to do, be aware of what you are interested in experiencing, and play to your strengths.  With the right combination of flexibility, an open mind, proper preparation and just a bit of good luck, you may also find yourself experiencing a highly-cherished lifelong memory.

Stars over the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur

starry night sky over pacific coast highway route one California from big sur state park
Sadly, this is the only shot I took of the starry night sky over Route One (Pacific Coast Highway). The snake of light meandering up the coastline is the road itself, and the orange glow in the distance is Monterey, located approximately 50 miles to the north. The single dot of light in the ocean is a large shipping vessel far off the coastline. I love how the mountainous coastline is ever so vaguely silhouetted in the foreground.
Milky Way milky way live oak stars starry night sky
Our campsite in Big Sur had two majestic natural neighbors: the massive Coast Live Oak tree in the bottom corner, and the ethereal core of the Milky Way. Trees are one of my favorite natural elements, especially when camping… and to be able to see into the very outer edge of our galaxy with the naked eye is intensely addicting.
star circle star trail pine trees silhoutte
I wrestled with whether to include this photo or not. While the photo has the circular appearance of a star trail shot, in fact it was created when I bumped into my tripod while the shutter of my camera was open. I like how it turned out, so I kept it.
Milky Way Pleiades seven sisters pine tree silhouettes
This is the stable version of the fake star trail picture. In addition to the dim top portion of the Milky Way on the lefthand side of the picture, you can also see the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) just above the tall pine tree, and a very dim beam of light from a second or two of a neighbor shining their headlights. I’m not typically a fan of using pictures with airplane trails (the red lights), but my camera was virtually dead and I had no backup batteries left, so….. it kept. What can you do.
Milky Way Andromeda galaxy stars starry night airplane trail
The top end of the Milky Way runs alongside our next-nearest galactic neighbor, Andromeda. Andromeda is the Saturn-looking smudge near the center of the picture.

Camping under the Milky Way

Milky Way Live Oak tree tent campsite Pacific Ocean big sur California
I already wrote a rather eloquent caption about the scene at our campsite, one that would probably be more appropriate for this picture. This is my second favorite picture from that night, and perhaps the most evocative, because you can actually see our tent in the foreground. The shadowy patch underneath the stars and to the right of the trees is the Pacific Ocean. It still seems hard to fathom that I actually got to camp there.


Milky Way California live oak tree pacific coast big sur starry night
The Milky Way towers over the Coast Live Oak Tree, which itself dominated our campsite and provided marvelous framing for our ocean views that evening. This is the most of the Milky Way that I can capture in one shot with my 11mm Tokina lens while also providing some locational context.
Milky Way stars starry night sky live oak
The central California coastline is dotted with live oaks and really… sometimes it’s better to just be quiet and let the picture speak for itself. This truly is one of the best pictures I’ve ever taken in my life.
star stars starry night starry sky pine tree silhouette
This is the last photo I took with my camera during the camping portion of our trip. The last of my camera batteries died almost immediately after this exposure finished. I actually find it to be quite fitting for the final picture – there’s something serene, and an odd finality to the picture that seems to perfectly convey… “the end.”



  1. As always, the best photography is the one you like yourself. These are fabulous photos. Thank you for posting them and letting us all see what you’ve been doing. When are the photos from Austria being posted, if at all?

  2. […] On a back road journey of this nature, you have the freedom to make the trip into whatever you want it to be.  You are only bound by the limitations of your imagination, and the amount of time and money you have available to travel.  Crafting a trip around an idea or theme as opposed to a location may just wind up being the trip of a lifetime. […]

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