With all the recent snowfall up in the mountains just about everywhere in California over the past couple weeks I decided to get out of Los Angeles and make a very quick trip up to Lone Pine to see the Sierras covered in Snow. Having only lived in California for 2 years this would be my first trip up there in the winter. I only had one day to go up there and get some shots so I had to make the most of it. After work on Friday I zipped up to Lone Pine, arrived around 7pm, and setup a quick camp at Tuttle Creek Campground just to the south of Alabama Hills. My main objective for this trip was to get a star trails shot at Alabama Arch. On my previous visit to the Arch back in September I got a really great sunrise photo that I don’t think I could ever recreate or do much better; so I wasn’t too concerned with the sunrise. I still shot it in hopes of a similar shot with snow on the mountains. So, back at camp I set my alarm for 3am and slept for a solid 7 hours. The weather forecast said the temperatures were going to be in the low 20′s at night but luckily it didn’t get much below 30, which made camping a lot more bearable.
I got up at 3am and was out of the tent and driving to the Arch which is only a few minutes away. I hiked down the short trail from the parking lot located at the first fork in Movie Road and setup camp on the larger rock to the East of the Arch that gives a commanding overview of the Arch, Mt. Whitney and everything else surrounding the Arch. I didn’t have an ultra wide lens with me on this trip so I couldn’t get a really good shot through the Arch framing Mt. Whitney and the stars so I settled for my commanding overview. All the better; I was able to get more sky in the photo; which, after all was the purpose of this entire trip. I quickly got setup, focused the lens on the arch using my headlamp to provide some illumination, framed the shot using 10 second exposures at ISO 25,600, set my remote for 15 minutes and let it rip. The temperature was hovering around 28-30 degrees and I was pretty toasty from the short hike in with base layer, conduit shell and a big down jacket on but I knew that warm fuzzy feeling would go away fast as I sat on a rock, in the dark, in the winter. I let the camera run and I hiked back to my car and grabbed my down sleeping bag so I could bundle up and sleep/stargaze while the camera did its thing. I also grabbed a pair of binoculars so I could get a glimpse of Comet Lulin off to the southwest in the constellation Virgo. The comet was a nice sight both naked eye and with binoculars. I thought about trying to get it in the shot but it was too small in a wide lens to really be effective in the shot.
The exposure that I had started prior to heading back to my car was supposed to be 15 minutes long, but right as I got back to my car I realized I hadn’t turned on my noise reduction feature on the camera. The results of an exposure that long at ISO800 without noise reduction, even on my Nikon D3, would have been less than desirable. I had set a 5 minute delay on the timer to give me some time to walk out of the scene so my headlamp would not leave a trail through my perfect photo. By the time I went to the car and walked back the delay was still going so I was able to stop the timer and set the noise reduction and try again. With the camera setup properly and some means of staying warm until sunrise I started the camera for take two and jumped in my sleeping back to wait for the shot to finish. A 20 minute exposure actually takes 40 minutes when you account for the dark frame so I had plenty of time to sleep and star gaze. The meteorites were out in full force; I counted around 25 in the couple hours prior to sunrise.
My first 20 minute shot was more than I could have asked for. The framing, focus, lighting and star trails were just as I had envisioned them to be. That morning a very thin crescent moon was rising in the East through some very high cirrus clouds and was glowing orange. That small bit of orange glow was enough to add a hint of color to the moon facing parts of the mountains as well as provide some much needed foreground illumination. The moonlight combined with the ambient sky glow made for a shot that looks like it was taken during the day, except with stars visible. Also adding to the light on the mountains was the sun itself. The shear altitude of the mountains means that sunrise starts much earlier at 14,000 feet than it does at 4,000 feet. At two hours from sunrise the highest peaks were showing color in the long exposure.
In total I took two framing shots at ISO 25,600, one 15 minute shot at ISO800 that was cut short to 8 minutes by a random truck driving east of the Arch that cast its headlights all over my scenery, a solid 20 minute exposure with my 28mm lens at f/4, ISO800 and a 20 minute exposure with my 10.5mm fisheye at f/4, ISO 800. The last two shots were the best and after the fisheye shot the sky was starting to brighten up and the stars were starting to fade. I decided I wanted to try to do a time lapse series of the sunrise and got everything setup for that but the exposures were all over the place so I canceled that idea and just watched the sunrise with my eyes and snapped a few shots along the way. There were no clouds in the sky so it made for a beautiful but really boring sunrise.
Up until mid sunrise I was the only person there and then right before the sun crested the mountains to the East, 4-5 people showed up and it became a little more difficult to get my shot with 5 other people trying to get up close to the arch for the typical Whitney through the Arch shot. Since I already have that shot and other sunrise photos I just decided to pack it up and move on to somewhere else. I got in my car and started driving up I395 hoping to find a nice scene to shoot a big panoramic but the high cirrus clouds moved in fast and the sky became a big gray, dull mess. I played around with some self portraits using my new umbrella and flash and then called it quits and drove home.
I was not too disappointed with the weather going south; I got the shot I was looking for and was more eager to get home and see how it looked and to start processing. I tried to do as little processing as possible on the night shots. To get them to where they are now I used Adobe Lightroom 2.0 to apply a digital split gradient filter (-0.60 stops) to bring the sky under control as it was a bit bright from sky glow after 20 minutes and put another reverse split gradient (+1.33 stops) to the foreground to bring it just slightly out of the shadows. I also adjusted the white balance to get the sky to be more to my liking of black/blue (instead of a drab brown/orange) and added some clarity to make the star trails pop. What really made this photos exciting for me was that there were no airplane trails. One of the absolute killers of a shot like this is plane trails; they are next to impossible to really remove in Photoshop and in some places there can be dozens of them in a single shot.
Taking photos of the stars is what got me into photography of all subjects and to this day it still makes me incredibly satisfied to point my camera at the sky.