Milky Way Over Olmsted Point

The first big objective of this year’s eastern Sierras trip was capturing the Milky Way over Half Dome from Olmsted Point. Debbie and I got out there while the moon was about 40% full and around 2 hours from setting. Obviously we were going to have to wait for the moon to set so in the meantime we made use of the time.

Half Dome at sunset from Olmsted Point, Yosemite

This is one of those hundreds (thousands?) of locations within Yosemite that practically composes itself. Boulders provide leading lines while trees frame the image. Passing jets provided contrails (not my favorite thing) and a fire in the distance provided extra warm tones to the image. Framing the scene to avoid the contrails worked fine for the most part.

Trees, moon, and Half Dome at sunset from Olmsted Point. It was the beginning of an epic evening in Yosemite.

The photograph of the Milky Way setting over Olmsted Point was both easy and challenging. Easy because once you know how you never really forget, especially with a camera body/lens combination that you know very well. It gets more difficult when processing the image and the waiting.

The Milky Way sets over a tree and Half Dome as a meteor streaks overhead

No, really! The waiting is tricky because it’s cold. And not just any cold, it’s “your rump is on a freezing granite rock” cold. We both brought camping chairs, so that took care of that problem (yay planning!). Post processing the image isn’t really all that difficult in general, but this one took more time; and I think it’s fair to say that I’m not done with it. When I shot the scene I was aware that a meteor went overhead from about the center of the frame to the upper right corner. (Update: my friends Mike Spinak and Cris Ballinger suggested that it was probably a satellite or maybe even the International Space Station )I was very excited to find that I caught four frames with the meteor. The trick now was aligning the images, bringing out relevant details, reducing noise (oh reducing noise at ISO 4000 probably isn’t going to happen). I won’t go into the details of processing the photo because I think it’s something worth exploring yourself. There are a lot of different styles that come from the discovery. I found a look that I like so my approach will probably be different from yours. Then I find things I don’t like much later and I do it again. To tell you the truth I edited the photo twice while I was writing this. Told you so!

Stargazing at Olmsted Point

I have a lot of photographs from this last trip. I also have what feels like a daunting amount of things to do now that I’m back. I’m going to write, copyright, and oh yes, unpack.

Stargazing at Olmsted Point, Yosemite, September, 2017

I had a set of ideas for this trip and one of the first was capturing the Milky Way from Olmsted Point. This isn’t that post. This is more of a fun opportunistic photo before achieving that first objective. I had a couple of hours before the moon set and a couple of spare batteries so I had some fun. Honestly some of these “play time” photos are more fun than the primary one! I had a couple of ideas with this image. The original idea was to blend 2 photos, 1 at higher ISO for the foreground and another at ISO 3200 for the stars overhead. Then I found the meteors in the ISO 6400 image and none in the 3200 image. Well darn, those are too cool to pass up so I went with the single ISO 6400 image and ran with that.

There was a small private photography workshop happening near us. I was so busy doing my own thing that I didn’t pay much attention to them; I should have at least gotten the instructor’s name since he was generous enough to let Debbie and I know that they’d turn on their lights occasionally.

Eastern Sierras Fall Colors 2017

I just got back from a trip through the eastern Sierras — and I mean within the past couple of hours. I promised that I would post a few early photographs even if they were just quick edits. Yes, there are some fall colors happening. When Debbie and I arrived there were mere hints in the places that pop in prime time. We were pretty early this season so it wasn’t a giant surprise when my favorite spots were all green. ¬†Things changed over night and some spots started to turn golden.

Early morning light at Sage Hen Meadows — yes I know there are color correction problem

I was watching Instagram etc as best as I could (there’s very limited cellular reception out there). Tuesday night I saw a post from Mono County Tourism (@monocountytourism) saying that Sage Hen Peak had an early showing of fall colors.

Debbie this morning at Sage Hen Meadows.

We were stoked! We were up at the first light to see what was up. We had another objective that became absolutely irresistible on the way… but more about that later.

Detail of a red aspen leaf

What did you see? A chance meeting during a training hike.

I have a backpacking trip scheduled in early October. It’s not an especially long hike and it’s just for a weekend, however I just haven’t done a whole lot of this since I was a kid so I think it’s a pretty good idea to get some practice trips in. My last trip was a good one but the weather was pretty predictable for the Santa Cruz Mountains in April. This next one is Yosemite to Ostrander Lake in the fall season and you never really know once you get up there. In any case I’m looking forward to it and I’m getting the kinks worked out. Part of this exercise today was to simulate the hike with all of the same gear and to experiment with a new idea on camera placement. I hope I can lug around my tripod this time.

DSLR selfie using that old Rebel XT.

Well of course this is a photography trip. Duh.

Last time I brought my Panasonic Lumix for the actual hiking. It was barely adequate. This time I brought my old Canon Rebel XT and my 7d mk II. For the 2 miles I kept the Rebel on my left shoulder strip with a Peak Design Capture Pro. It wasn’t great there because it tended to put pressure on my shoulder. I moved it to my left hip. That worked great and I think I have a winner.

An photo exercise. Move, identify a good scene, shoot, move…

At 3.1 miles, the turnaround point, I changed cameras. I made a few photographs on the way to really exercise it. The placement was very important, but I also need to be able to shoot with it if I find something interesting even if it’s for future reference. This is where I was surprised. My 7d is a lot heavier than the Rebel. Heck, I think my favorite Sigma lens is heavier than the Rebel body and kit lens combined.

If it looks good shoot it. If it looks better, shoot it again.

The Peak Design Capture Pro uses the tripod mounting plate to seat into its platform — a great idea. The problem was that at my hip the camera sways a little, just enough to work a bit loose. This caused the mounting plate to jam a couple of times. This happened to me once before a couple of years ago and I didn’t understand why. Now I know. So I think the right answer is to keep the Rebel out during the hike for snapshots and to keep the 7d in the pack for my objective.

That’s not the point of this post. Thanks for staying awake. I guess all the earlier stuff was for my own reference.

… so I shot it again.

On my way out I met a sweet young lady, a tourist from Spain. She was setting up a photo with her Nikon on the trail. I asked her what her subject was and she said it was nothing really. Well in my mind I knew it wasn’t nothing. Something caught her eye and she decided to stop. I still had a couple of miles to go so I wished her a good day and kept going. I met her again on my way back. She had gotten just a little turned around and wasn’t positive which trail would lead back to the Big Basin Redwoods State Park entrance. I was absolutely delighted to show the way. Now I had some company and I could ask more about what intrigued her about her subject.

We spent the next mile or so talking and taking photos. I asked her again when she stopped “What do you see? What tells you that you should make a photograph of this? Something did. What was it?” We went through the exercise a bit.

  • The bigger scene.
  • The sheer size of the trees.
  • Age.
  • Time.
  • There was a fire and that tree still lives.

She said there was a problem too. It’s too big. The scale doesn’t come across at all. It doesn’t convey what she feels.

An exercise in depth and leading lines. We discussed this scene at some length.

This conversation was wonderful! We talked about that and shared some ideas. I suggested that she was right and maybe ignore the enormity of the subject. For example, capturing something the scope of The Grand Canyon is nearly impossible. Why not try going for details? Imagine 3 shots each one exploring details, then producing those 3 as a set? I also suggested patterns, relationships, anything that conveyed depth. We walked around a set of trees and shared ideas about compositions that might work and why.

Photographer thoughtfully composing her shot.

I would have loved to keep that conversation going but I really did need to get home just a few miles from there.

The whole time I was deeply aware of “mansplaining”. I’ve known enough know-it-all’s and I get rid of them as soon as I can. Ugh. My goal here wasn’t to “mansplain”. I wanted to engage, ask questions, maybe encourage. I also wanted to keep those wheels of my own turning — I need to ask myself those questions all the time.

What is it about this scene? What’s my subject? What’s the nature of the light? Is it a photograph or is it a snapshot? Why?

In a more practical sense I also wanted to hone my approach for asking this question when I teach the occasional workshop. I think it’s a great exercise that tends to push beyond the gearhead technical photography and into a more creative frame of mind.