Snowbirding 2018 Postcards: Fireside at Camp

Out in the desert, when the sun goes down, it’s like Mother Nature turned the heat off. It might have been in the 70s all day, but the temperature takes a plunge after sunset and a campfire is pretty much required if you want to hang out outdoors.

We spent about an hour gathering wood on Wednesday morning — mostly mesquite and salt cedar — and added that to the six aspen (or birch?) logs I’d brought south with me from a camp in Idaho back in October. While we were out boating in the afternoon, a friend stopped by looking for us. When he saw the large pieces of wood we’d gathered, he kindly used his chainsaw to cut them into manageable pieces. (Reminds me of a fairy tale where people put their damaged shoes out on the doorstep at night and elves repaired them. This elf’s name is Steve.)

As usual, my friend Janet got the fire going before it was dark and we sat around it to chat, eat dinner, and then chat some more.

It night was a great night for star gazing, too. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the area is very dark. With a meteor shower on the calendar, I took out my Nikon and set it up for night photography. We had a clear view of the horizon to the east and watched Orion rise. The meteors came soon afterward, averaging about one per minute as NASA had forecasted.

I tried (and failed) to get a photo of one, but I did make this photo of our campsite in the firelight, with Janet sitting by the fire. A car happened to drive by during the 30-second exposure, illuminating assorted bits and pieces of the scene. I have a darker shot, too, but I like this one better.

Fireside camp

Autumn 2017 Roadtrip Postcards: The Night Sky Photos 

So far, I’ve attempted night sky photography in two places: Horsethief Campground Just outside of Canyonlands National Park and Lower Onion Creek Campground in Castle Valley about 25 miles from Moab. In both cases, I shot before dawn because a waxing crescent moon illuminated the night sky until after I’d gone to bed. I’m not really happy with any of the images, but I thought I’d share four.
At Horsethief, the problem was that the night sky didn’t really get dark enough and there were some light clouds.

The night sky to the southwest. You can clearly see Orion’s Belt.

My Truck and camper, parked under the night sky. The light in the camper is a candle.

At Lower Onion Creek, the Sky was very dark. But the problem there was wind. Although I have my camera on a very sturdy tripod and stayed on the west side of the camper so it would shield me, there was enough movement to blur the stars. Very disappointing!

Milky Way on the left, Big Dipper on the right.

Another night sky shot with disappointing focus.

Snowbirding 2017: Astrophotography

Practice makes perfect. I’m practicing.

I have more than the average amount of free time in my life and I like to put it to good use doing and learning things. Last September, I took an astrophotography class at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. You can read about the class and see some of the photos I took during our field trip in this blog post.

What I learned about shooting the night sky is that it’s very easy to do if you have the right equipment. Fortunately, I do: a DSLR with full manual mode, a very wide angle (10mm) lens, and a sturdy tripod. The hardest thing to do is to find skies dark enough to see enough stars to make the effort worthwhile.

We had dark enough skies in the North Cascades, despite ambient light from the nearby dam and occasional passing car. I don’t have dark enough skies at home, though — the glow from Wenatchee is surprisingly (and disappointingly) bright. And although I camped at more than a few places that should have been dark enough for night sky photography, most weren’t.

Or if I found a place that should have dark enough skies, the sky was overcast while I was there. Or the moon was in the sky, illuminating it so only the brightest stars showed.

I like this shot of my RV parked on the levee along the Colorado River. I had to crop it square to get rid of the light from the town of Cibola, which is still in the shot.

I did have some success back in January when I camped out along the Colorado River near the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Arizona. I shared one of those photos in a blog post about the campsites I’ve been finding.

The one I didn’t share was a bit more challenging and I’m not sure if I successfully pulled it off. (Maybe you can tell me?) The bright point of light in the sky is Venus. I wanted to catch its reflection in the Colorado River, which I did. Unfortunately, although it was long past sunset, there was still a bit of a glow to the west. I think it’s from towns and homes off in the distance, but who knows?

Venus Reflected
It’s nearly impossible to include the horizon in a night photography shot without some sort of glow from terrestrial lighting.

I got a chance to practice again in Death Valley National Park, on my third night in the park. The first two nights were too cloudy and the moon was nearly full anyway. But the third night offered a window of opportunity between the end of twilight and before the waning gibbous moon came up. I was parked in Greenwater Valley with some mountains behind the camper. It was very dark outside and the sky was full of stars. I took eight shots. I think these two are the best.

Death Valley Night Sky
This was my first shot of the evening with the camera pointed pretty much straight up. It features the Milky Way with the Pleiades near the center and Orion’s Belt almost cropped off the top.

Death Valley Night Sky
In this shot, I pointed the camera up above the mountains behind the camper. You can see the big dipper just above the horizon. Once again, there’s the glow from something out there; it’s not the sun because I was pointed east.

I think photos are more interesting with something in the foreground. The one with my camper works for me. So does the one with Venus and its reflection. I guess the challenge is going someplace with something interesting to frame in the foreground and possibly “light paint” it with a lantern or something. It wouldn’t take much. The only light in my camper in the above shot was from a single tea light candle burning on the dining table inside. It looks as if I have multiple lights on!

I enjoy doing this, although I admit I’d likely enjoy it more with companions on the same sort of mission. Because my remote shutter release doesn’t work — I think it needs a new battery (again) — I have to use the camera’s self-timer as a shutter release. That adds 10 seconds to a 30 second exposure with about 30 seconds of processing time before an image finally appears. A lot of time standing around by myself in the dark. The field trip I took at the North Cascades class was a bit more of a crowd than I like, but at least it kept things interesting.

I hope to get at least one more chance to experiment with this kind of photography on my trip, but I’m not sure when. Most of my remaining destinations are not well known for their dark skies. I’ll see how I do.