Tag Archives: Milky Way

Night at Big Sur – When Life Takes Detours

I spent a few days in September of 2014 to photograph the Big Sur region of California’s central coast.  A small waterfall called McWay Falls at beach attracted my attention.  I decided to stay with it to shot the sunset.  Big Sur, however, is known for its constantly cloudy, foggy weather.  The evening hour around sunset was predictably cloudy.  The sunset was disappointing.  But I still stayed a couple of hours after sunset, hoping the cloud would clear up so I can take some night shots.  The magic did not happen.  So I left scene to drive back to my hotel in Monterey Bay.While I was driving on the twisting mountain road, all the sudden I felt that there were some stars visible in the sky.  I pulled over.  To my delight, the sky was clearing up.  I went back to my hotel, slept two hours, got up and drove an hour in the dark back to the waterfall.  Now the sky was totally clear.  It was so clear that I can see Milky Way with my naked eyes.  I knew this was my lucky day.
 I spent so much time there the previous day.  So the composition was straightforward even in the complete darkness.  I took two shots, one for the sky and one for the foreground.  I tilted camera upward slightly for the sky shot to include more sky while tilting it down for foreground shot, with the intention to stitch them together for a 1:1 aspect ratio.  After taken the shots, I realized that foreground was too dark.  So I left the camera on the tripod untouched, and waited another two hours or so in the dark.  At about one hour before sunrise, it started to have some light in sky and foreground became visible to the eyes.  I took the third shot, just for the foreground.  Back at home, I stitched first two shots together and cropped the image to 1:1 ratio.  Then I aligned the third shot just to blend in the areas I wanted to show more foreground details.
Almost a year later, in July of 2015, I went up to Big Sur again with two friends from California. We checked in at a hotel at south end of Big Sur before we head out to photograph sunset.  Big Sur was cloudy as usual in the evening.  We stayed a couple of hours after sunset to see if the sky will clear up like it did for me a year ago.  This time, I was not so lucky.  We started to drive back to hotel in disappointment.Our fortune got even worse a couple of miles away from the hotel.  A construction crew blocked the Highway 1 to repair the road damaged by a landslide.  No one was allowed to pass between 10:00PM and 7:00AM.  The crew told us to take a detour.  Not just any detour – a three hour detour.  We had to drive north and then head east across the mountains to reach another highway to go south.  It was already midnight.  What choice do we have?  We started our journey onto the mountain road.When we reached the top of mountain, we saw stars! The Milky Way was so clear that I can almost reach out to touch it.  To make things even more interesting, dense low fog rolled in from the ocean, filled up the valley in front of us.

Rivers of Sky

Rivers of Sky

Life is full of detours, we just need to learn to appreciate every moment.


Night at South Coyote Butte

Under the Stars

South Coyote Buttes is less famous and less popular than its counterpart at north. But it is no less intriguing and far less overwhelmed by photographers. I had fortune to secure some permits and camped right outside of the area last spring.

I determined to shoot Milky Way at South Coyote Buttes. But the problem is that Milky Way was only in the position I wanted after midnight, while the moon rose before midnight and stayed up until morning. It was my understanding that one cannot photograph Milky Way under the moon because the moon light will simply overwhelm the Milky Way. But that did not stop a diehard landscape photographer. I scouted out the location during the day, got up at 2:00am and hiked about one mile in the sand to the destination. Unfortunately, the theory was right. The moon was too bright that Milky Way became too faint. I did again the second night. The moon was less bright and Milky Way was more visible. That offered me some encouragement. The third night was the last night of waning crescent. I hiked in there again at 2:00am. After the first test shot, I realized that I have achieved the right light balance between foreground and Milky Way that I could photograph both in one exposure. The moon was far away from the Milky Way and dim enough not to overpower it. In the meantime, there was still enough light to illuminate the foreground.

One of difficulties of photographing in the darkness is to determine the composition when foreground elements were not visible through view finder. I used a powerful flashlight to illuminate the foreground while I looked through view finder, then took a couple of test shots with 10sec exposure at ISO 6400, and made fine adjustment after each shot. When the final composition was determined, I set the manual focus at infinity and made the first exposure with f2.8, 30sec, ISO3200. 30 second exposure time was chosen to minimize the movement of stars. By coincidence, the foreground brightness came out to be just as I liked.

With f2.8 and focusing at infinity, I was concerned about the depth of field. To ensure the sharpness of foreground element, I decided to make a second exposure to improve image quality. I doubled aperture to f5.6 to increase depth of field, reduced ISO to 1600 to reduce noise, and reduced focus distance to about 5 meters to make sure the foreground was in focus. I did the math and figured out that I would need 8 times more exposure time to achieve the same brightness as my first exposure. Therefore, 240 second of exposure time was determined. In the meantime, I tilted the camera down slightly to include more foreground.

The picture was blended with two exposures. I loaded both images into two separate layers in Photoshop. First exposure was loaded on top and the second exposure at bottom. The brightness of two layers was identical. After aligning the layers, the next step was simply erasing the foreground of top layer to reveal the foreground from the layer below.

South Coyote Buttes is like a place on another planet. A picture of the night scene can capture my imagination. The Milky Way, the foreground rock formation, as well as shooting stars (maybe) helped to enhance the surreal feeling.

So, to make a fine image, persistence is the virtue. Always go out to try again if the first attempt failed. Do not give up even if you have to defy conventional wisdom.