The Best Laid Plans and an Epiphany

Though not specific to New England, I thought I would share a recent experience, and lesson, that is geography-independent.  It also illustrates a few of my favorite techniques and tools to plan and execute night, milky way and landscape shots requiring timing, positioning and luck.  Fortunately, we have some control over two of these three things.

The first page of my photo planning folder on my iPhone. Who actually uses this device as a phone anymore?

The first page of my photo planning folder on my iPhone. Who actually uses this device as a phone anymore?

Combining Business and Pleasure

A few weeks ago, a business engagement brought me to Los Angeles.  Each time I go there, The Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park beckon to me.  They are only about 140 miles away and, heck, that’s a  brief trip to the White Mountains for me.  So, I decided to tack on a few days at the end of my business trip to visit these two places.  As a side note, instead of comparing the distance as a trip to the Whites, I should have compared it to a trip from downtown Boston to the end of Lower Cape Cod during the summer, on a beautiful, peak-rental-turnover day.  Did you know that L.A. has traffic problems?

Five hours later….

Official Dark Sky Site – Joshua Tree National Park

One of the primary reasons I wanted to visit these two places is their reputation as a “dark sky” area – an area not subject to a lot of light pollution.  My goal was to capture a Milky Way shot over Arch Rock in Joshua Tree that would surpass any astrophotography I have ever managed at my favorite New England dark sky area – Acadia National Park.  If you have ANY interest in night photography, then GO, GO, GO to Acadia!

So, I pull out my favorite planning apps for my iPhone (warning “tangent rant” ahead:  to loosely quote the comedian Gary Gulman:  Why do they even have the word “phone” in “iPhone”.  I never use it as a phone.  In fact I hate it when people call me on it.  Text me instead – I’ll let you know if I am available to take your call – and let me get back to my apps, please!)

TPE – The Photographer’s Ephemeris

Screen shot of the main planning page on The Photographer's Ephemeris. PhotoPills also displays similar information.

Screen shot of the main planning page on The Photographer’s Ephemeris. PhotoPills also displays similar information.

First stop: The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) to check the moon since the moon is the great star killer of the sky – light pollution or no light pollution.  Darn.  It’s going to be a full moon while I am there!  Not waning or waxing even a little bit, but 100% Full!  And, double darn-it, there is only one night where I have a decent shot at stars because the moonrise/set times coincide almost exactly with the sunset/rise times.  Ugh.  But, there is a wee bit of hope on one of the nights that I will be there; I will have roughly 1-1/2 hours between the end of astronomical twilight and moonrise where it will be “dark sky”.  Okay, I can work with that.


Second stop:  PhotoPills.  This app is very similar in many ways to TPE, but I find the TPE interface to be a little easier to navigate.  What I love about PhotoPills though, is the ability to “see” where and what the Milky Way will look like at any date/time that I choose using the “Night AR” feature.  And, look at that!  The galactic center will be above the horizon during that 1-1/2 hour window.  It is a narrow window to be sure, but an awesome opportunity nonetheless.  The Milky Way is even oriented in a way that I can compose it pleasingly over Arch Rock.

PhotoPills has a number of great features, but Night AR is my favorite.

PhotoPills has a number of great features, but Night AR is my favorite.

Planning Becomes Instinct

I’ve done this enough that I have begun to build “planning” instincts and I can do it more naturally and quickly.  If I know the time of sunset, I don’t usually need to consult an app to figure out the direction where it is going to set because I can eyeball it in the sky and make an educated guess on years’ of experience.  Likewise, I’ve become much better at “guessing” when an afternoon sky is going to turn into a boom or bust of a sunset based on the weather and cloud formations I see.

The Plan

So, back to my plan: Get to Arch Rock during twilight, set up my gear, and wait for the truly dark sky to begin.  Then, following an outstanding series of Milky Way shots that will go viral and make my name a household one, I can swap my super-wide for a telephoto and maybe get a “moon rising behind a Joshua Tree” iconic image.

The Place

For those of you who have never been there, the trail head to Arch Rock is from one of Joshua Tree’s most popular campgrounds.  Arriving in the late evening, I am immediately thrown into my “no impact, no impact” mantra as the sound of my car engine disturbs the campers that I drive past.  When I park, my headlights illuminate a couple who are having a nice intimate camp dinner and the “ding-ding” of my “key in the ignition” reminder and glaring dome light announce the arrival of “he who disturbs others.”  After killing the engine, pulling my key out of the ignition, and dousing the dome light once I figured out how that was done on my rental, I proceeded to pack up my gear for the short hike to Arch Rock.

PhotoPIlls Night AR Page: If I was able to shoot the Milky Way on April 29th at 6:57p from my kitchen and through the basement, my collie would be standing on it - and she would be to the right of the galactic center (shown as the orange dot).

PhotoPIlls Night AR Page: If I was able to shoot the Milky Way on April 29th at 6:57p from my kitchen and through the basement, my collie would be standing on it – and she would be to the right of the galactic center (shown as the orange dot).

Assemble Fast and Quietly

This entailed making sure I didn’t clank bolt snaps against metal water bottles, or otherwise cause a ruckus, while I pulled my camera out of my bag for quick access, zippered shut my bag, attached my tripod for the hike in, secured my water bottle, bundled up (it had already dropped from the 90s to the mid-50s), and donned my red headlamp.  Whew, I’m now off to Arch Rock…quietly shutting and locking the car door.  This, of course, didn’t prevent me from accidentally hitting the “lock” button as I put the fob in my pocket so the stupid car could toot and honk to let everyone know what a moron I was.

Forty-five minutes later, I completed the 15 minute walk to Arch Rock.  Have you ever tried to navigate a trail in the desert, at night, with a red headlamp without making a few false turns?  Fortunately, the rattlesnakes were there to get me back onto the trail when I wandered off.


Made it!  The timing was just about perfect.  It was quickly moving from nautical to astronomical twilight and the stars were beginning to burst forth.  Still, I took a couple of minutes to re-hydrate and glow with satisfaction.  Then, I pulled my tripod off the backpack and set it up, grabbed my LCD viewer out of my bag to make sure I could effectively focus using Live View as well as chimp the images.  In sandy areas (ocean beaches, deserts, etc.), I mount my camera last to minimize its exposure to grit and dust.  In fact, earlier in the week, I ended up destroying a filter because it was sand-blasted during some sunset long-exposure shots in the Kelso Dunes. (Normally, I remove all filters when shooting on a tripod – except when I need it to continue to protect the lens).

I had already preset my camera and lens settings so it was just a matter of…….aw CRAP!!!!  I forgot the camera!!!!  I can’t believe that I FORGOT THE CAMERA!

I realized that, in my haste, I left my camera sitting on the seat next to where I prepped my bag.

Okay, deep breaths.  It was too late to go back – my narrow moonless window would disappear.  Okay, more deep breaths…

(Now, you know why there isn’t a great Milky Way shot at the top of this article as an attention grabber.)

My Great Epiphany

That’s when I decided to shuck my photographer instincts and do what every other nature-loving, non-photographer does in such a situation – enjoy the moment for what it is.  Enjoy the beauty of what I was seeing without the distraction of trying to capture the perfect image.

In other words, “Forget the camera and live inside the moment!!”

And this led to “MY EPIPHANY” (trumpets sounding).

Which is:  That’s just a stupid saying created by photographers to make themselves feel better about screwing up.

Tom Gaitley

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This entry was posted in Acadia National Park, Astrophotography, Locations, Moonrise, Night Photography, Photography Planning, Scenic New England, Scenic Travel, Stars, Sunrise /Sunset and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .