Weekend Trip to White Mountains


Meet senior citizens of the world…

Bristlecone Pine trees that grow at about 10,000ft elevation are longest living non-clonal organisms in the world. Current oldest  (known) living tree is over 5000 years old located in Ancient Bristlecone Pine forest on White mountains in California eastern sierras.

My friend Saket proposed a overnight trip last weekend (9/12/2015) to White mountains. It might be our last new moon day  this year before winter set forth in Sierras. New moon days are excellent time to photograph night skies. There isn’t better subject than ancient bristlecone pines to compliment mysteries heavens. It’s insane 350 miles drive to White mountains with opportunity to shoot one evening. As Marilyn Monroe said, it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.  As long as passion does not turn into obsession and overpower your will, little craziness fuels the zest in your life.

We reached visitor center at 5:30PM on Saturday evening. We wanted to check out Patriarch grove, which is another 12 miles, but it was wash boarded dirt road, climbing another 1000 ft. to total of 11,000 ft. elevation. We could not drive faster than 15 to 20 mph. After driving 9 miles, we realized that there isn’t enough time to go further before sunset. Idea is to find nice composition with a tree that shows some character.

Here are couple of images just before sunset.




Sunset wasn’t great. Southern skies were covered with nimbus clouds. Milky way comes up in southern sky in northern hemisphere. Best time to photograph milky way is between June and September in northern hemisphere. There are several apps (both on IOS and Android) that can guide to check out best time of the year for rest of the world. We can see milkyway throughout that year but September to June, we can see part of the galaxy that is not very bright. So not great time to photograph the milkyway during that period. We could not find a good composition to shoot Milkyway galaxy. As sun went down the horizon, we resorted to the tree in Methuselah Grove that I photographed couple of years back. We drove back to Methuselah grove, which is right next to visitor center. This tree is just about 1/4 mile from trailhead.  By the time we hiked up, clouds disappeared mostly. It was pitch dark, perfect for night photography.

Here are some brief technical details on how to photograph milkyway galaxy. Photographing galaxy involves three step process technically. Artistic side, choosing the subject and composition to convey interpretation is personal choice. First step is to shoot sky in complete darkness. This requires a very fast lens; f2.8 or better. Even at largest possible aperture, it is difficult to capture sufficient light to expose galaxy. At wide opened aperture, there are two choices to increase exposure. Slowing down the shutter speed or increasing ISO. If you slow down the shutter speed more than 30 seconds, stars show streaks due to earth’s rotation. So set shutter speed to 30 seconds. Even at 30 seconds exposure, light will not be sufficient. Change ISO to 3200 or even 6400. Even with a good DSLR, beyond ISO 800 introduce lot of noise in the picture. There are several techniques to reduce noise, like enabling long exposure noise reduction in camera or using one of several noise reduction softwares in post processing. Second step in the process is to shoot foreground. Light the foreground with good flash light. You should take this shot at same aperture and shutter speed. Reduce ISO to 200 or even below. While  shutter is open, switch on the flash light to illuminate the foreground. You do not need to keep the flash light on as long as shutter is open. take several shots keeping falsh light on for different lengths of time; till you get correct exposure. Third step is at home processing these two images. It’s very simple. Stack these two images together in Photoshop and choose blend mode “lighten”… you will see well exposed foreground picture with gorgeous galaxy behind together. Note that you need to use tripod while taking these two images. If you are interested to know more and have any questions, you are always welcome to send me an email. I’ll respond back with what ever information I know.
We met Christopher Eaton at the tree. He is professional photographer from Colarado. After introductions, Chris suggested that we coordinate together such that we do not ruin each other shots by flashing unwanted light into other’s shots. He brought excellent studio lights with him. Without his lights, foreground would have been as clear and bright as it came out. We spent upto 11:30PM shooting galaxy and star trails, until coulds came back indicating it’s time to say good night.

Here are the images from that night (click on image to see large)


We drove back to Bishop for the night. Next morning, we were so tired, did not bother to go back for sunrise. We drove back home.

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