The night sky was the focus of my recent trip to Yosemite. Focus is one of the challenges to shooting the night sky. Another is finding a spot or a time frame where/when you won’t be interrupted with cars or people with lights on. There are a myriad of other challenges such as choosing something of interest to shoot and doing it in an interesting way.
A couple years ago, I was there to get Yosemite Falls at night and capture the stars in the process. In this case, I wasn’t interested, so much, in the night sky, but rather capturing Yosemite Falls by moonlight. That required a long exposure, which would have the benefit of giving the falls that cottony look. The stars in the night sky was an added benefit (see the feature photo). Trying to focus properly in the dark is very difficult using auto-focus. There just isn’t enough light for it to work. What I did then was to find a light near by, focus on it, then turn the camera to the subject at hand. In this case, there was a car, with its lights on parked across the meadow from where I was set up and I auto-focused on it. Then I turned the camera to the falls. There was some deadfall in the foreground to give it some interest, but during the 30 second exposure, a car in the parking lot to my right turned on its lights as it pulled out. This lit up the wood pile for an added boost of interest. This was taken with a Nikon D300, an 18-70 mm zoom at 18mm. f-Stop at 3.5, shutter at 30 seconds. And ISO 1600. With a waxing moon only about a week away from being full, there was enough light to capture the falls. I could have set it for 3200 and shot for 15 seconds, but the higher the ISO, the more “noisy” the shot which makes the shot “grainy” especially so in color.
To shoot just the night sky you really need to shoot at a minimum of 3200 (ISO). Because the subject is mostly dark, that noise isn’t as likely to cause a big problem. Anyway, there is noise reduction software available on some cameras and almost all photo editing software.The photo of The Big Dipper was taken at Olmsted Point, but it was still early in the evening; 9:37 PM. It was set at an ISO of 6400, but an exposure of only 3 seconds. As you can see from the image, it still had some “daylight” suggested near the bottom of the photo. All of the other settings were the same as above. The Big Dipper is somewhat dim, but it also makes it stand out because the other stars are more dim or suppressed altogether. Click on the image to get a better view.
My first thought was to shoot from Glacier Point. It’s a location well away from cars. From Glacier Point, itself, to the amphitheater area, you have almost a 270 degree view of the night sky. I arrived during a rangers sky talk some time after 10 PM. This and all of the rest of the images were shot at ISO 6400, 30 second exposure, focal length 18mm, f-Stop 3.5. This shot shows that people and cars aren’t the only ones flying about with their lights on (see Milky Way Setting at Glacier Point with Jet Trails). You either have to wait for a 30 second window where there are no jet trails, or use photo editing software to “clone” it out. But doing so risk altering the underlying composition of the night sky you’re trying to capture as in this example (Milky Way Setting at Glacier Point without Jet Trails).
In these two photos, I have a tree line to add some context to the photo. But alas, it doesn’t “spell”
Yosemite. So I tried to get a similar shot of the night sky with Half Dome silhouetted at the bottom. Well, okay, but without an obvious shot of the Milky Way, it’s just a star field. In this case, that’s all I wanted in the first place. The fact that I also got shots of the Milky Way was a bonus. Nevertheless, when I got home, I tried stripping the image of color and showing it just in Black and White. That turned out kind of interesting in that I could then boost the contrast and bring up the brightness without fear of the “color” noise characteristic of a high ISO. Again, the difference in the star count of these two images is more apparent if you click on the image to get a bigger view of them (See Night Sky with Half Dome and the same image in Black and White).
After the star talk broke up, people were milling around with their head lamps on which pretty much ruined any further attempts at photos. So I packed it in. My camp was out in Tuolumne Meadows, so I had a jaunt to get to it. I was getting kind of tired. I had gotten up at 2:30 AM to drive out here (from Bullhead City, AZ, its about a 7 hour drive and I wanted to make sure I arrived in time to get a campsite…but I digress).
On the way back to camp, I decided to stop by Olmsted Point and see what I could see. It is now between 12:30 AM and 1 AM. So there wasn’t much action at the point nor traffic on the road. I took a number of photos of the setting galaxy when I decided to add some interest. I was shooting between two trees at the observation area. During one of the exposures, I decided to do what is called “Painting with light.” I took a mini flashlight out and during the exposure, I ran it up and down the trees to get the image.
I went out again the next night to get just night sky shots, but nothing extra ordinary about them (other than that’s what was the assignment). But like Glacier Point the night before, there were lots of people at the point and being earlier in the evening (9:30 ish) and it was a Friday meaning there was a lot of traffic as well. So I packed it for the evening.