Starry Night

“…oh my God!—It's full of stars!
      David Bowman, in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey

I've made few attempts to photograph the night sky. In every case my purpose was to photograph the moon—lunar eclipses, the full moon in interesting locations, “super moons”, etc. I wrote about this in my October, 2014 article, “The Howling Moon”. As described in the article, results have been mixed. The majority of those photos are not true night-sky pictures, but were made at sunrise or sunset, corresponding to the setting or rising of the full moon.

We've all seen photos of the night sky, billions of stars blazing, the hazy band of the Milky Way, and often a strong foreground object silhouetted against the vault of stars to anchor the scene. Making these shouldn't be too hard, right? A clear night sky, no moon, a nice venue offering the aforementioned anchoring object(s), and a fast, wide lens are all one needs. And a willingness to be there, fumbling in the black of night with black photo gear in black terrain, at a ridiculous hour when normal people are warm in their beds. For additional excitement, consider doing it in a wilderness park, in mid-spring when hungry bears have emerged from their dens, and other nocturnal predators are likely to be in the area. Who wouldn't get excited about such an opportunity?

Dust Off The Camper (And The Camera!)

Here in western Montana we experienced a long and dreary winter of 2014/15. All of our snow, several feet of it here in the Mission Valley, fell in the weeks between Christmas Eve and the middle of January. Then the weather warmed, the snow melted, and the remaining months of winter brought endless freeze/thaw cycles, gray skies and generally ugly, uninspiring days. By April, with improving weather and abundant sunshine, thoughts naturally turned to getting outdoors, making the camper ready for another season, and making pictures. A series of things conspired to delay this a bit, but by early May preparations had been made, and we waited for the campgrounds in Glacier National Park to open. Our first outing, to the Apgar campground, began on 21 May. Apgar is a good place to start a new season. It's close to home (80 miles, about 130 km), it's an easy drive, and any errors or omissions in our set-up are easily corrected or can be ignored for a couple of days. The famed Going To The Sun Road isn't yet open, but there's still plenty to see and do, and perhaps best of all, the crowds are light. Things generally don't get crazy in the park until “the kids” are out of school for the summer. Then the park will get two million visitors before the kids go back to school in the fall.

This short trip would put us near the shore of Glacier's Lake McDonald. I've photographed there hundreds of times. On this site you'll find a gallery with twenty-five photos (as of May, 2015), made over the course of sixteen years from nearly the same spot on the lake's southern shore. In spite of the common location, thanks to variable skies, conditions on the lake, and changing seasons, no two of these photos are alike. The site has many more photos from other locations around the lake. I never get tired of it, but after so many years and so many photos, it's become a challenge to find new ways to view the place, new ways to make something different, photographically, from my own and many others' past efforts. I needed a way to shake things up a bit, even if for only one or two photos.

Make a Photo, Darkly

Although not all of the Apgar campground had opened for the season, we had no trouble finding a nice spot. Setting up the camper is quick and easy, which left all afternoon to explore. The weather couldn't have been finer, unless you're a photographer. A perfectly clear sky, without the slightest hint of wind, made for remarkable reflections of the mountains and trees surrounding Lake McDonald. Rarely have we seen it so perfectly calm for so long a period. Fascinating and beautiful to see, it's not a great subject under harsh, mid-day sunshine. But it bode very well for my plan to photograph the night sky over the lake. As Glacier's Web site states, “Half the park happens after dark.” The day's scouting gave me my shooting location. We returned to the campsight for a nice dinner (with a terrific zinfandel) and a relaxing evening. It had been a vacation day.

It didn't feel so vacation-like when my watch woke me at 2:00 AM. Groan. My scouted location required a short drive from the campsite. At my chosen location I could see almost nothing. Still nearly as calm as it had been earlier, I could hear the lake water coming on-shore. There were no waves, but a very slight roll on the water occasionally caught the light from a star. I could hear night critters. Fortunately I heard nothing large, but I kept the bear spray within reach.

Carl Sagan Was Right (or Could Have Been)

A starry night on the shore of Glacier National Park's Lake McDonald

A starry night on the shore of Glacier National Park's Lake McDonald. Canon EOS 5D MkIII, Canon EF 24-70mm F/2.8L II USM at 24mm, ISO 1600, F/2.8, 20 seconds, at 3:02 AM.

Did I mention how very dark it was? With the headlamp off, and after my eyes had adjusted to the darkness, I could (barely) see the horizon, where the distant mountains met the shore. That's all I needed to get the camera level and to create my composition, mainly determined by more or less water in the foreground. With the bear spray canister in one hand and the cable release in the other, I started shooting. I knew optimum exposure time would be no more than twenty seconds, but I experimented with exposures from ten seconds to two minutes. Despite a brief preview on the camera's LCD after each exposure, I really had no idea if I was getting anything. The displayed histogram, on which I rely when shooting normally, offered no useful information. Heck, I knew it was dark; I didn't need a histogram bunched up to the left to tell me that.

I spent about an hour and a half pressing the button, counting in my head, and releasing the button. It might have become a little boring had I not been occasionally nervous about some of the sounds around me. I must have acclimated eventually. By the end of the session I no longer worried much about the things I heard. I tried a few landscape-oriented exposures, but most are verticals, as you'd expect. I also made one attempt at a two-frame “panorama” in an effort to produce a more square image.

The night's best photo is shown here. Cleary a faster lens, and perhaps a bit wider than 24mm, would have been better (this is more evident at larger sizes). But working with what I have resulted in a fun session, taught me some things, and gave me a couple of keeper photos.

While standing on the edge of Lake McDonald, in the middle of the night, looking at billions of stars, I thought, “Carl Sagan was right”, although I've read he never said “…billions and billions of stars.” Maybe he never visited Glacer on a crystal-clear May night.

May, 2015

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