Mt. Whitney - My First Milky Way - zgrethphoto


Mt. Whitney - My First Milky Way


May 21, 2013
Last week was pretty special for me when it comes to my photography career. If you haven't seen my homepage, or if I've since modified it, I found out on Monday that two of the ten winning images in the 2013 International Earth & Sky Photo Contest on Dark Skies Importance. Organized by the fine folks at TWAN (The World at Night), it was a collaboration with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, Global Astronomy Month, and the Astronomers Without Borders program. I can't begin to describe how honored I was to find out that my images were considered to even be on par with the rest of the entrants, let alone some of the best. If you haven't seen the video of the winners and other honorable mentions, check this out. It's full of awesome images of the auroras, stars, the Milky Way, and fantastic landscapes.
I'm not sure if I slept more than few winks that night, but I do remember waking up and seeing what the night sky had in store for us. I believe the moon was still up, but for the first time I can ever recall, I could see the Milky Way. My knowledge about seeing and recognizing the Milky Way in the sky was pretty minimal at this point since there's not much you can do when you live in cities all the time. I don't think I had ever really taken the time to just look up and appreciate it. But I have to tell you, the first time you do is pretty special. And for me, realizing that I was at 12,000 feet, halfway up Mt. Whitney, and not sure I was ever going to be there again, I decided I had to capture it. While everyone else was packing their bags, using the "facilities", and eating breakfast, I grabbed my camera and tripod and set up shop on a nearby boulder. I only had a few minutes before everyone would be ready, so I searched the deep recesses of my brain and found the settings I would need (well, I found most of them). When I took that first shot and looked at the back of the camera, I almost screamed. It was AWESOME. At the time, I had no idea that I could do that. Me. I'm not much of a photographer, I thought, but look at that! It was a weird feeling to know that I could produce an image like that, and I was smiling the whole way up the mountain. In fact, I was showing the camera to everyone that I could when we finally made it back down and into town. Mission(s) accomplished.

Naturally, I've been diligently toiling away with my library of images ever since. My website hadn't received much attention up to now, but I knew I had to keep up the impression that I know what I'm doing. The only problem I've run into now is that I'm quickly running out of raw data to work on. So maybe it's time to sit back and start to reflect a little. Tonight I started to do just that. I started looking at my catalog and I realized that what I consider to be my top ten images all come from the last three months of work. It makes sense knowing that it wasn't until late fall when I finally started to understand what I needed to be doing out in the field - which coincided nicely with the holidays and the disappearance of the Milky Way for awhile. Fast forward a few months to February and I hit the field like gangbusters. In a few days I'll try to put together another post on those ten images, but for now I want to go back in time, to where it all began. 

If you don't know my story about how I first got a DSLR, you can read my About page; it should clue you in. The quick story is my wife signed up to do an Ironman, I felt a point-and-shoot wouldn't cut it when it came to taking pictures of her, and voila! My birthday present that February was a new camera! (Honey, if you're reading this, time to sign up for another Ironman. My super telephoto lens just won't cut it!)​

Going back a little farther, about six months prior to that, I signed up to get a dozen permits to climb Mt. Whitney with some high school friends for the following year (the lottery process is a pain, but it's necessary when you consider the amount of traffic the mountain would see if it didn't exist). I had organized the same trip two years before that, but a snow storm enveloped us halfway up the mountain and we had to turn back around, but I figured if we scheduled it a month later (in July), we'd be able to do it this time. It's not like climbing Everest, in fact, it's more like a really long hike, but since you're hitting the highest elevation in the lower 48 states, it still counts for bragging rights. We decided to do it as a two day climb (er, hike), where we hike up to a place called Trail Camp at 12,000 feet (you start hiking from Mt Whitney Portal at 8,000 feet and ultimately summit around ~14,500 feet), spend the night, and then hike to the summit the next morning, turn around and return all the way to the bottom.  

So, permits in hand, crew of 10 confirmed, and 5 months of camera practice leads us to our hike. By this point I've already rung up some good credit card miles on a couple nice lenses, read as many books and websites as I could, and had a good general feeling for how to use my camera (Canon T2i). I had even seen a tutorial online about how to shoot the stars (Ben Canales's excellent Star Trail website). With all of that newfound (and untapped) wisdom committed to memory, we began our long, slow trudge up the trail on the morning of July 20, 2011. By mid-afternoon we were pulling into Trail Camp and found some nice spots to set up camp. It was a gorgeous afternoon with zero chance for a repeat blizzard, and I was pretty fired up about the next morning. While filling up our water bottles, we overheard a lot of the other groups that were in Trail Camp talking about what time they were going to start up the mountain the next morning. Not wanting to be part of a bottleneck or deal with hop-scotching other groups, we planned to escape before them and set our alarms for 2am.
I'm not sure if I slept more than few winks that night, but I do remember waking up and seeing what the night sky had in store for us. I believe the moon was still up, but for the first time I can ever recall, I could see the Milky Way. My knowledge about seeing and recognizing the Milky Way in the sky was pretty minimal at this point since there's not much you can do when you live in cities all the time. I don't think I had ever really taken the time to just look up and appreciate it. But I have to tell you, the first time you do is pretty special. And for me, realizing that I was at 12,000 feet, halfway up Mt. Whitney, and not sure I was ever going to be there again, I decided I had to capture it. While everyone else was packing their bags, using the "facilities", and eating breakfast, I grabbed my camera and tripod and set up shop on a nearby boulder. I only had a few minutes before everyone would be ready, so I searched the deep recesses of my brain and found the settings I would need (well, I found most of them). When I took that first shot and looked at the back of the camera, I almost screamed. It was AWESOME. At the time, I had no idea that I could do that. Me. I'm not much of a photographer, I thought, but look at that! It was a weird feeling to know that I could produce an image like that, and I was smiling the whole way up the mountain. In fact, I was showing the camera to everyone that I could when we finally made it back down and into town. Mission(s) accomplished.

The Aftermath

For months afterwards, those were the only Milky Way photos I had taken. In fact, it was at least another year before I tried again. I'm not sure why, maybe I was still on cloud nine and figured that was the best that I could do. Well, today, I'm fully confident that I could do better, but that's only because of all of the work that I've put in over the last 4-6 months. But how would I do better? If you've never really looked closely at a good nightscape image, you probably won't recognize the problems. First of all, I had zero clue how to focus at night. That is one of the biggest problems newbies have, and I obviously was part of that club. The stars are blobs and the rocks lack a lot of detail that a properly focused image (especially one exposed by a bright moon) would have. Second, when I processed it, I don't think I really understood white balance or exposure for these types of images. Looking at it now, I think it's way too bright overall and the sky is way too blue. And third, I used settings that I shouldn't have with that camera. I should have used ISO 3200 and a shutter speed of 30 seconds, but instead used ISO 6400 and 15 seconds. It didn't ruin the image by any stretch, in fact it produced the exact same exposure (the math is if you double the shutter speed, you can halve the ISO or aperture to maintain the same exposure), but the amount of noise at ISO 6400 with that particular camera was way too much if I had any intention of enlarging it for a print. So for fun, I decided today to reprocess it and see if I could improve it.  

Well... for an out-of-focus image, I definitely think it's an improvement. And while it won't make my current top ten best image list, it definitely makes my number one favorite image of all time list.​ That's a short one. And now I think I want to climb, er hike, Mt. Whitney again.

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