A Visit to Big Sur, CA

Location: Big Sur, CA

After a long drive out of city, through hours of vacant roads in the farm country of the central valley and some curvy roads through wine country in the hills, we made our way to the coast of central California.

There were several landslides and road closures along Highway 1 North so the scenic route was not an option, our trip was scenic anyways:

Here I am spelling it out at Bixby Bridge with a new color-tip design that looks like a crystal (in gallery above).

Tucked away in the heart of the California coastline, Big Sur has some of the darker skies in the country and you can see bright stars at night. During a new moon, it was ideal astrophotography conditions. It was difficult to pick out constellations you could see so many in the sky at once.

Looking North up the rocky coastline:

McWay Light Posse:

The sky was so dark, clear and calm that stars made reflections on the ocean. Here Sirius is backlighting an agave blossom:

Last image I'll leave you with is one of 'Sea and Space'. See more posts about Big Sur, CA by clicking this link.

Night-photography during Winter in Death Valley, CA

Location: Death Valley, CA

The animation above was shot under a recent Supermoon on Racetrack Playa inside Death Valley National Park, you can make out my shadow rotating throughout the frames as the camera pans right under the brighter-than-usual full moon's light.

Make no mistake, getting out to this spot is a mission - 26 miles of narrow jaw-chattering washboard roads, a few stray boulders, and sharp volcanic rocks will definitely give you a run for your money if you don't have the right tires on your vehicle. 

The last time I was out here was for another Supermoon in 2012.

Winter in Death Valley is great for night-photographers due to it getting dark so early and the relatively mild temperatures. It's nice during the day and it gets a bit cold at night, if you're prepared for it, it can be a lot of fun.

The national park is vast (covering over 5200 sq miles!) and offers a variety of desert landscapes. It has a bit of a micro-climate effect going on in certain parts of the park - for instance, the racetrack playa was 37 degrees at night while the area around stovepipe wells was 65 degrees. Big difference!

Let's talk locations, this image above 'Light Widow II' was shot around Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at around 280 feet below Sea Level.

When it gets windy here, you get salt in your hair, you get salt everywhere!

Badwater Basin at night lights up with stars, here I used a Vixen Polarie Star-tracker to capture the Galaxy and composite my light-painting 'Lemur Demeanor' (above). If you look at the image larger by clicking on it, you can see the meteor I caught in the middle of the Milky Way toward the top - Lucky!

Another killer spot in the park is the Mesquite Dunes, there are a few good dunes around the park but this one looks great during sunrise if you manage to wake up for it. Bring a jacket bc this place is freezing cold before the sun rises. This 'Smile' (above) sums up my feeling of being out there at that moment.

I got to add a yellow 'Triceratops on the Dunes' to my Light-Fossils series before the sun rose, casting red and blue light from the sides during the 213 second exposure made the dunes look extra wild.

Flash forward to the night and I got some 'Buzzards' to rest on a dried out Mesquite tree around a bloody carcass using my Night-Writer LED tool. 

Almost anywhere within the park is interesting if you're willing to walk out to get to it. Be advised that distance in the park is more than meets the eye - areas that look just 100 yards away can actually be a few miles or more in some cases, bring water, a hat, and maybe a compass if you decide to trek way out there!

Here a 'Green Galimimus' walks along cracked earth under the backlight of our Galaxy, drawn with Night-Writer plus some blue and green color-tips.

Here I am goofing around during the day (thanks Astrobandit for the snap) it was around 80 degrees in the picture (below). You can see what I mean about vast distances in the park.

why did the light-painter cross the road

This road was like many others in the park, when you're here it's good to know where the few gas stations are - Stovepipe Wells or Furnace Creek, your nearest fuel could be a hundred miles away at any given moment in your travels here.

Next location on the list is Zabriskie Point - a strange viewpoint where the land transforms into a psychedelic vision, especially at sunset!

I wrote my twin-brother Ross's name here during blue hour.

From here out I'm offering light-writing services to anyone willing to pay me $100 for a high-res digital download of a custom-made (10 characters or less) light-painting at an interesting location along my travels. Need a unique gift with a personal touch? Say it with light!

Another spot along the road yields an interesting view of a small rock formation juxtaposed with the Milky Way. Here is where I created 'Ibex' for my 'Animals' series.

The panorama above is 'Ubehebe Crater' it's a volcanic crater that's about a half mile across and 500 feet deep, this is under a supermoon and the light is coming from almost directly above. If you look closely you can make out some stars.

The last image I'll leave you with is 'Star Stinger III' in my growing 'Insects' series.

Racetrack Playa in Death Valley, California is one of the most Zen places I've visited, it feels like a blank canvas - perfect for light-painting!

For more info on Death Valley, CA check out the park's website.

So Many Stars

Location: Red Rock Canyon, CA | Settings: F3.5 / ISO 1600 / 327 seconds

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Here's an image I took using a cool star-tracker device that mimics the rotation of the Earth, this makes for clearer and more detailed stars, constellations, and even nebulas to start showing up in the final image. Starting to see beyond what the naked human eye can see at this point. 

Check out my full gallery of Nature images below:

Fishbone Beach

Location: Salton Sea, CA / Settings: (21 images merged) F2.8, ISO 6400, 15 seconds.

After a long drive from Phoenix, Arizona we had one last place to visit before heading home.

The thought that always comes to mind when visiting the Salton Sea is 'disproportionally beautiful' - I say that because visiting this spot in person is pretty disgusting - there are flies everywhere during the day and thousands of dead fish that die off every year around this time of year to create shorelines with their bones, it smells terrible - yet everything looks gorgeous and photogenic.

Where I was standing to shoot a pano of the Milky way (above) is actually about 50 yards out to sea in this photo below of Astro Bandit:

It's interesting to visit the same places at different times of the year and compare dramatic seasonal changes.

Here's another blog post I did at the same location back in June when the water was much higher. 

Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Location: Route 66 - Ludlow, CA / Settings: (Pano) 5 shots at F2.8, ISO 3200, 15 seconds.

Gear: Canon 6DRokinon 14mm LensManfrotto TripodRemote Shutter-release and Canon Speedlite.

Model: Astrobandit

Shooting in the middle of the road is normally something I wouldn't recommend; but in the middle of nowhere on historic route 66 - it's pretty much a given. 

This was a 5-shot vertical pano, and during this shoot, the same dude on a scooter drove past us not once, or twice, but three damn times! 

The first time we got out of the road quickly because you never know how fast people are going on these desolate roads.

The second time I was beginning to get a bit annoyed.. But the third time I just had to put my hands up and was ready to just give up on the shot. He honked as he drove by and we tried the shot again - finally got one just as another car was coming towards us in the distance.

For this type of shot, it required the road to be vacant for about 3 minutes - a tall order, apparently.

High Tide

Location: Big Sur, CA / Settings: F2.8, ISO 6400, 15 second exposure.

Info on how this shot was created:

Gear: Canon 6DRokinon 14mm LensManfrotto Tripod.

For more natural beauty, check out my Nature Gallery.

The trick to shooting the stars is all about dark skies - you can use the link to figure out where the best star-viewing area is in your location. If you're in a major city, it's likely that you'll have to travel a few hours to see stars like these - but it's totally worth it!

Another thing you might want is an app on your phone that will tell you using GPS where the constellations are or will be at a given time: this is the one I've been using lately.

You can check out my recommended gear for shooting night-related imagery here. In general, you'll want a camera that kicks ass at night - I use a Canon 6D, but more recently Sony has been producing the best gear in the night-shooters biz - Specifically, their A7S Mirror-less Camera is great for shooting video at night - you can literally see the stars twinkle - here's what video from that device looks like.

That said, in terms of photography, the A7S lacks the larger file size that you'd expect from something like the 6D. All this could change soon though, Sony is due to release the A7Rii next month (which I've had my eye on for a minute). This could be just the right balance of larger file sizes, high dynamic range and low light performance that vampire-photographers like me have been waiting for.

Although a kick-ass camera is a large part of capturing stars, it's not all of it - for an image like this one where the majority of the milky way is captured in frame, you'll want a super-wide lens for a super-wide sky. I used the Rokinon 14mm for this one, if I had to sum up my feelings for this lens - it's killer for the price.

We've covered the camera, and the lens, but we haven't touched on the tripod - and you'll definitely need one for any sort of quality long exposure photos, but in a pinch - a chair, a rock, the ground will work fine.

I've been using the Manfrotto 190x lately and it's just about given out on me after 5 years of extensive use - next up for me is a Carbon-fiber tripod - a bit more expensive, but would probably last longer than my current model, and with the abuse I put it through, it could be worth the money.

Now that we have the trifecta - Camera, Lens, and Tripod - let's get focused on some stars! The first step is to open up the aperture all the way - 2.8 is good. Starting at ISO 3200 is also good. 

I like to use the live-view mode on my Canon 6D and try zooming in 10x using the little magnifying glass button to hone-in on a bright star, then adjust my focus manually to get that distant star in focus. Once you have a focus, test your composition at F2.8, ISO 3200, for 15 seconds.

Check your shot, then recompose and adjust the ISO up or down depending on the result you're looking for. If you shoot longer than 20 seconds or so you'll notice the stars will begin to streak - unfortunately, the Earth will not stop rotating for your photo.

Happy shooting!

Stairway to the Stars

Location: Waterpark - Lake Delores, CA / Settings: F8, ISO 100, 316 second exposure

Walking up this rail-less tower in the dark was sketchy enough, but add in some serious wind and now you have a real challenge.

Factors like the wind rarely come across in my long exposures, I'll try to velcro some fabric to posts next time for added effect.