Sunday, September 22, 2013

If no star exists, we'll create one...

To order this print please contact

When I was in college I did a project on life at the James Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton, which sits above San Jose and at one time had the largest refractor telescope in the world. It was also instrumental in helping to prove Albert Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity.

Not only is it a science laboratory, it's also a community. A group of around 18 astronomers and other various scientists and technicians actually live on the mountain. While it's only 20 miles to San Jose, the drive is about an hour due to the winding mountain roads. A few do make the commute but most live right on the top of the mountain. During my many visits there I'd made friends with a couple of the folks there, including the local cop, so was able to get special access to be there at night while they worked. It was a fascinating experience.

One of the teams with which I closely documented was the group working on what's called "adaptive optics." In a nutshell, the "mirror" used for capturing light is actually several dozen individual mirrors working together to form perfectly clear image of the cosmos. There are lots of geek-terms to explain what it does, but the main function is to compensate for the distortions created by the atmosphere. And part of calibrating the machine is to focus on a star in the area in which they want to study. However, there isn't always a star in the precise place they want, so a laser is shot into the sky to mimic a star, hence allowing the astronomers to work their magic. And their motto was, "If no star exists, we'll create one."

What does this have to do with my current work?

A friend of mine was married yesterday in Merced, which is about 90 miles from Yosemite. When one is that close it's criminal not to visit the park regardless of the time. I first hit Glacier Point, and saw that a light dusting of snow fell earlier in the evening. That means the road will soon be closing for the winter.

So, even with a nearly full moon I wanted to try to get the star trail image I wanted. My friend Jason loaned me his 17-40 4.0L, which is a much better lens for what I wanted as opposed to the 50 mm 1.8.

Once there I saw the clouds were receding, but were also wrapped nicely around Half Dome. I rushed to get set up but was just a but late. They wrapped again later but not like how it was.

Timing is everything.

However, even with the brightness of the full-moon I couldn't get a focus lock, and using Live View at 25,600 ISO still wasn't allowing me to see if I was getting good focus. That's when the motto of my friends at Lick popped into my head, paraphrased - If daylight doesn't exist, I'll make it. Yeah, kinda dorky but it was a better story than simply telling you I left the shutter open for a long time, so deal. ;)

I set the focus at infinity and popped a minute-long exposure at 4.0, 100 ISO. That way I could see if Half Dome was in focus the way I wanted it. I'm glad I did it that way as I had to make a slight adjustment to get it sharp. The image above is the first test shot and if the stars weren't there you'd be hard-pressed to say that it was around midnight. Looks really cool.

I decided I didn't want to wait a minute of more for each test image so I set the ISO at 26,500, which only took a few seconds. Those, as you might imagine, were far more noisy.

To order this print please visit
Once everything was ready I set the intervalometer to shoot 99, 30-second exposures, f/4 at 320 ISO, then ran back to the Explorer to keep warm. Just a bit of a side note - it was around freezing, 33-34 degrees, and at that temperature, an exposed lens will collect a lot of condensation. With the time it would take to get all the exposures that was not something I wanted. It's not good for the lens, either. So, I set the camera in an area low enough to give it protection. I don't know why it works, but it does. Short of setting up a tent this was the best it was going to get, and it worked. I checked every so often just to make sure, and all was well.

Once done, I had to get home and had a four-hour+ drive ahead of me, so off I went. I was sad to go as it's so peaceful there when nobody is around. The roar of Nevada and Vernal Falls below made it seem like I was right next to them. And after the storm the sky was clear and bright. A beautiful sight.

On the way out I had the idea to stop at the Tunnel Overlook just to see what that scene looked like. Yosemite Valley during a full-moon has a surreal look to it, almost like a negative, and is quite awesome.

Coming out of the tunnel I knew I was going to have to stop and get a few captures. There was a fog along the base of the Valley that made an incredible view.

To order this print please visit
There was another person there, who turned out to be another shooter by the name of Huggen Angeles. Turns out he is pretty damn good, too, and from the Bay Area, so after I set up we talked shop. I always love meeting other photographers, and meeting those who are great is even better.

He was there shooting the fog in the valley, I was still in trails mode so set up for that, same deal. I got there just in time as shortly after I started shooting, the fog started lifting. As such, Huggen left, and I headed back to the Explorer to, you guessed it, get warm.

Once that was done, I was done. I briefly thought about heading into the Valley and doing something with Yosemite Falls, but I'll wait until spring for that when the falls are full. I'd also want to do that with a new moon.

Got home just before 6am so it was a full day. Started at 8am on Sat with laundry, then driving to Merced, enjoying the festivities, up to Glacier, then to the Valley, then home. And I loved every minute of it. I went straight to bed and started editing when I woke up.

Downloaded the card into Lightroom 5, and moved the RAW images into Photoshop CC via File->Scripts->Statistics with it set at 'Maximum' then had brunch while it did its work. Once done I did the rest of the processing to get the finals you see above.

Happy Shooting!

Don't forget, I'll be showing at the RAW Artists Ecompass event at 1015 Folsom in San Francisco. It would be great to see you there. It's quite an exciting time for my work and it's nice to see it getting attention. I will be joined by a wealth of other up-and-coming local artists. Tickets for the event are $15 pre-event, $20 at the door, and you can pre-order at -

Also, please let me know you're coming at PhotoWorks by Don at RAW Artists

Those who pre-order will entered in to a drawing to win a 32x24 signed canvas wall piece! Out-of-area folks are eligible*!

*No purchase of art necessary. Drawing will be held at the event and the winner need not be present. However, if the winner wishes to have their canvass shipped, they will be responsible for shipping costs. If local they can stop by PhotoWorks by Don Studios to pick up the prize. Winner will be responsible for any local and state taxes.

No comments:

Post a Comment