UPDATE – Aug. 11, 2015: Scott and Nick of DarkSky Photography announced today their Kickstarter bid was successful to the tune of $9,151 with 130 backers, and the Range of Light: Night and Day on the John Muir Trail trip is ON.
By Scott Lange —
After meeting in a physics class at the City College of San Francisco a little over 6 years ago, Nick Foster and I started doing astrophotography with a relatively inexpensive Canon DSLR camera and an 8” telescope. We were both into photography and wanted to try something different and challenging, and we soon discovered it was absolutely amazing what the camera captured when it was attached to the telescope and pointed at the nighttime sky with the shutter opened for a couple of minutes.
Areas of the sky that once looked dark and uneventful to our naked eyes now contained vast amounts of vibrant star clusters, galaxies, and nebulae. The resulting images left us hooked on astrophotography.
Although I would soon transfer to UC Santa Cruz to study astrophysics, and Nick would go on to San Francisco State University to major in mechanical engineering, we still continued to pack up our gear and visit the darkest skies we could find as often as possible.
(Click on images to enlarge)
These remote locations included places like Death Valley, Crater Lake in Oregon, stretches of Southern Utah around Zion National Park and Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, and even a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii.
With high elevations being useful for astrophotography due to the lack of atmosphere, air turbulence, and ambient light, we also started shooting the sky in and around the Sierra.
As our photography evolved, we began experimenting more with nighttime landscapes and new methods of capturing them. Once we saw how stunning the plane of our own Milky Way Galaxy looked on camera, we found a new passion of shooting these “nightscapes” over all of our favorite foregrounds.
To fund some of these trips and the costs of rental gear that went with them, we launched two successful Kickstarter projects titled “Dark Sky Tour” (2012) and “Operation Milky Way” (2013), which allowed us to put our work into high resolution, large sized prints, as well as produce our first photo book – Dark Sky Tour.
The repeated trial and error we’ve faced over time has polished our work tremendously, and our constant desire to find the best foregrounds and darkest skies has continuously challenged us to reach greater heights — literally! Our latest forte is to leave the telescope behind and arm ourselves with only the minimum equipment necessary so that we can capture the nighttime skies while backpacking in the High Sierra.
This allows us to find paths less traveled, and there is an excellent scene in nearly every direction. It also provides the rewarding challenge of hauling our somewhat heavy, space-consuming camera gear while backpacking this rugged terrain to obtain these images.
On average, we have to split about 12 lbs. of camera gear amongst the two of us on backcountry trips. Those of you who backpack know that those few extra pounds can feel like dozens when hiking long days of steep terrain at high elevations.
Our love for the Sierra has brought us to our current Kickstarter project — The Range of Light: Night & Day on the John Muir Trail. This September, we’re going to backpack the entire 211 mile John Muir Trail, photographing it at night, along with some daytime shots as well, with the hopes of compiling the collection into a hard-covered coffee table book.
The trail – which passes through Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks – is considered to be one of the most majestic hikes on the planet, and as we’ve seen from our other adventures in the area, there is no shortage of amazing views to be captured!
We’ll also have a chance to catch the tail end of a total lunar eclipse on September 27th, which happens to be during one of this year’s “supermoons” – that is, when the moon is both full and closest to us in its orbit at the same time, resulting in the largest apparent size as seen from Earth. We expect this trip to be our most rewarding one yet, and we’re really excited about the potential for the book we hope to create.
We’re currently raising money to fund its production via Kickstarter. If the project is funded, we’ll also be able to rent two extremely nice camera lenses to go on our already awesome camera. These lenses, combined with our latest techniques, have produced our best resulting images yet.
We switch between a few different methods with our nighttime photography, the most straightforward being a single long-exposure of about 30 – 40 seconds. An exposure length of this time is about the maximum a wide angled lens (~15mm) can do without the stars “trailing” in the frame.
As is such, this method can be limiting because a lot of time 30 – 40 seconds isn’t enough to capture a dark foreground or as much detail in the sky as we’d like.
To improve on these two things, we like to use a homemade “barn door” style tracker for our camera. These devices are called “barn door” style because they open up much like a barn door to track the camera with the movement of the sky. Using our skills with astrophysics and engineering, combined with Nick’s machining experience, we’ve made our own improved and lightweight tracker which accompanies us on all of our trips.
With the tacker, we’re able to first take a long exposure of any length to capture the dark foreground, and then another long exposure of the sky while the camera is tracking.
This allows us to obtain a highly detailed sky as we can take an exposure of up to several minutes without the stars trailing. The two images are then combined to make one final photo of an amazing foreground and sky together.
In post production, we strive to keep editing to a minimum, although with astrophotography it is almost always impossible to avoid it to some degree. We’ll elaborate more about techniques in future blog posts. We intend to bring you many more nightscapes from the Sierra as well as other scenic areas of interest.
We look forward to sharing our stories and methods with you regarding our ongoing quest for capturing nighttime photography and exploring the Sierra.