Starry Starry Night

New steps on the old path

Back to the Grand Canyon. Back to the edge of the abyss in the dark of the night and into the bitter cold and snow-dusted edges of the Colorado plateau. I took the first two of these photographs from the very top of the Bright Angel Trail in the late night hours of a very cold January night. I lost track of time, I was enthralled by the clouds whipping over the canyon and by the stars wheeling overhead. I was working to capture the heavens spinning above the canyon and I was transported back to standing in my parents' backyard as a kid with my father and siblings, looking at the moon, looking at Mars and Saturn through the eyepiece of a telescope and taking a long exposure to see the stars trail on film.

I've always been avid about astrophotography and I'm always looking for ways to test the limits of my camera. I can't say I'm an expert - I just like losing track of time trying to take a few snaps of the night sky. That huge field of stars - it just begs you to take things into perspective, doesn't it? Great astrophotography is a game (and a nearly impossible one at that): to try and distill that sense of wonder from the abyssal, black and brilliant heavens onto a few square centimeters of silicon. Sometimes it's a huge success, other times an utter mess.

Two visions of the Grand Canyon and The Milky Way

The wind was pulling the warmth right out of me - through my overcoat and gloves and hat and all. I had wanted to make a longer image with longer star trails, but the cold was relentless and I had to settle for about 40 minutes or so of exposure time. I managed to catch my shadow (cast by one of the lamps from the infrastructure of the south rim) on the blur of brush just over the railing on the left of the frame. The moon is just out of frame on the upper left casting cool, blue light into the depths of the canyon. The north rim is under the shadow of a gathering tempest and the great arms of the Milky Way are blended into a hazy cloud as the Earth turns. (Nikon D700, 14-24mm f/2.8 at 14mm, f/4, 10 240s exposures, ISO 800, maximums added together for trails, bottom of frame is a single image).

Star trails above the Grand Canyon

"And if you'll look out of the left side of the cabin, you'll see the Grand Canyon." Many times I've heard this on a flight (once I've been able to see it from a plane), but looking at the photograph above, you can appreciate what a crossroads the sky above the canyon really is. There are at least five trails from airplanes despite the late hour. The building bathed in orange light on the right of the frame is the famous Kolb Brothers' studio.

A little later on I moved a few steps down the trail and pointed the lens upward, cranked the ISO and opened up my lens' aperture all the way to portray how large the sky feels out there in the Arizona night. I captured two important and contrasting lights in this photograph: the Andromeda Galaxy in the upper left, just above the northern edges of the Milky Way and its counterpoint, the tungsten beacon of the north rim's Grand Canyon Lodge - locked up tight for the season under heavy snow and projecting its warmth over the chasm and through the pitch and soot of a cloudy, bitter cold night. (Nikon D700, 14-24mm f/2.8 at 14mm and f/2.8, 30s, ISO 3200)

Two lights through the darkness

The mess

Last September, I was in the Yosemite valley for a bit and grabbed an astrophotograph/panorama that I called "We are Killers." It remains one of my favorites. At the same time, I tried to grab a single image a bit earlier in the evening of the watch lamps of camping climbers, strung along the face of El Capitan with the Milky Way above. Most of what I grabbed simply didn't work. I opted out of posting it for a long time because, in an effort to "rescue" the image, I killed it. It has some fantasy appeal - it isn't an altogether terrible image. Just overcooked. Now, you can almost see the thought process - the last two images on this post were taken with the exact same settings. I must have learned something from the first processing attempt!

Andromeda and El Capitan