Vision Quest

Vision Quest

by Mark Alberhasky, April 5, 2016
     If you want to see a puzzled expression on someone’s face, tell them you’re going to fly all the way across the country to photograph a rock, in the desert, at night.
     But a rock can be a natural sculpture as intriguing as anything created by man. Put that under world class darkness with the heavens for a background and the potential for unique unfolds. Death Valley is the kind of place where all this can come together.
     Years ago when I started visiting Death Valley I became aware of such a sculpture with a curious shape resembling an hour glass. During the day, found in a monochromatic moonscape, it isn’t terribly compelling. Most people spend less than five minutes there, if they find it, and you’ll pass it in a heartbeat as you round a particular curve. In the early morning or late afternoon it disappears into the hillside. And of course at night under the famously dark valley sky everything disappears.
     My vision came to me during a visit in 2014. Instead of daylight viewing, why not come back and light the rock under the stars? When an upcoming trip to Las Vegas created the opportunity I decided to investigate the plausibility. An iPhone app (Photo Pills) filled in several blanks about the likelihood of a worthy sky, detailing the phase and location of the moon, the likelihood of visible Milky Way and the timeline for dark sky versus the twilight of dawn when I’d lose the stars. The one unknown that remained was the weather and that’s always a crap shoot. I had to change my airline ticket to go a few days early, but after investing a few bucks that obstacle fell. The next hurdle wasn’t as easy because there wasn’t a single available room in the valley. March is popular as the daytime temperatures are favorable for visitors that come from around the world. A little online research found an available room an hour away but it came with the silver lining of a great price for what was actually a better room. The downside would be an hour drive into the park each way, no trivial matter when you’re planning to shoot 2:00 – 5:30 am. But I chanced it.
     After a long day Sunday I was frankly glad that the night sky was overcast as I pulled into Pahrump, NV. It gave me a good excuse to recharge my batteries for the following day. I spent Monday driving the route I’d use later that night (or very early the next morning depending on how you read your clock) and scouting the location around the rock. Photo Pills has a novel virtual night mode to help plan your shot. I was able to literally stand in place, facing south, and see the rock with a night sky overlay. As I swiped my finger on the moving timeline for that night, I watched the Milky Way rise over the hillside around 5:00 am with dawn’s twilight beginning about 30 minutes later. It’d be close but if I did my preparations well I’d make the shot with time to spare. Here’s a view of the landscape as I found it that morning. Mushroom Rock is just the one you think it is.
     I spent the rest of the day visiting my usual valley haunts, doing a little hiking and relaxed shooting. Not driven by a daylight schedule I just made sure to get in enough exercise that falling asleep at an early bedtime would come naturally.
      Despite my enthusiasm it wasn’t fun when my Apple watch buzzed on my wrist, waking me at 1:00 am for a sky check. I lumbered out of bed and a quick look showed plenty of stars suggesting the drive might be worth it. Pahrump is pretty small so in minutes I’d left the glow of casino lights and headed out into the inky blackness. I didn’t see another car for the next seven hours. I was on site at 2:15 am and began setting up. Even with a flashlight, setting up in the dark is a little disorienting. It times like these I’m thankful for the equipment familiarity that comes with too many hours handling a camera. The first order of business was was framing the shot with a flashlight and live view on a D810. Showing the upper half of the rock thrusting in to the sky meant I had to lay in the dirt and get the camera at ground level. A 20 mm lens also meant I had to be pretty close. That combined with slant of the hillside made setup tricky, even more so when I realized that the composition I wanted wouldn’t let me use the tripod. I actually needed the camera body against the ground. As fate would have it, there was a small rock embedded in the dirt with just the protruberance I needed to balance the camera body. I attached a wireless remote to trigger the camera and next set to work positioning an off camera strobe to light the rock. I soon discovered that because of my close proximity to the rock and the wide angle of view, the Nikon SB-900 had to be behind the camera to be out of the 20mm frame. I had the Nikon SU-800 IR unit to wirelessly fire the remote flash but since it is a front facing unit I couldn’t attach it to the camera for a shutter driven activation. What to do? In the dark, in the desert, with only what you have on hand you’re forced to come up with answers. I realized that the test button on the SU-800 could be used to manually trigger the remote flash. I’d simply use a 4 second shutter speed to give my self time to trip the camera and then manually trip the SU-800/SB-900 combination. I was shooting at a low ISO for the rock photo so a 4 second exposure in the dark wouldn’t even register anything not illuminated by the flash (In retrospect I might have been able to trip the wireless remote using the D810 popup flash in the mode where it only controls the remote and doesn’t contribute to lighting the subject. I’ll try that next time). With that working, where to put the flash was the next question. Another rock higher up the slope was a good height for the angle of light and was completely out of the frame. I had brought a small specialty light stand for the flash that let me balance it there. Then it was just dialing in how bright to pop the flash to light the rock. This is when you’re so happy to be working with digital and just evaluate test shots on your LCD.  I’d also brought an LED flashlight I used as a constant light source placed behind the rock for additional ground lighting. With all this in place I made the shots which would provide the foreground. Keep in mind I was focused on the rock and the stars in the sky were out of focus. Since I wanted both sharp I’d be shooting the sky separately.
      I’m a couple of hours in by now and grateful that the temperature was very pleasant. Long sleeves over a T-shirt was comfortable, although I actually noticed that as the night wore on the temperature continued to slowly drop. I now understand firsthand how it is that lowest night temperature comes just before dawn.
      In my previous attempts at night sky photography I’d always been frustrated by achieving infinity focus. Stars are supposed to be sharp pin points, but only a select few lenses have accurate hard stops at infinity (and they aren’t Nikons). A few weeks before the trip I had discovered a unique celestial focusing tool (Sharpstar) on the website www.lonelyspeck.com. Based on a principle of optical physics, it allows you to use live view at 100% magnification to accurately focus on a bright star. I won’t go into more detail about how it works but it’s brilliant. I modified a 14-24mm Nikon lens cap, installing the special “filter” into the cap so I could use it on both my Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 and my Nikon 20mm f/1.8 lenses (you only use the “filter” to focus, then remove it to take your photographs). With perfect focus on the stars at infinity I began dialing in the exposure I wanted for the starry sky. As 5:00 am rolled around the Milky Way rose over the left hillside in the southern sky and fifteen seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 1600 sealed the deal.
IMG_2487
     When I composited the starry sky with the flash illuminated rock a profile beyond my expectations emerged. It was no longer a hillside in Death Valley but a study from an alien world. A long past memory tugged at me and I felt I had seen this profile before. I saw shoulders wrapped in a cape of basalt leading to a neck, chin and nose, with a wrapped head, turban-like. I realized this looked like the famous bust of the Egyptian queen, Nefertiti. Others who have seen this photo find additional subjects in the one-of-a-kind abstract shape (my daughter-in-law sees a tyrannousaurus head jutting into the sky with it’s small arms pointing right).
All I know is I’ll never look at this rock the same way again.

(PS…the orange glow lower right is not sunrise. Sunrise came an hour later from the far left. My astronomer friend tells me this pattern of light is most likely low level light pollution from a small source like a brightly lit truck stop many miles away. Even in Death Valley it can be tough to completely escape the hand of man…but I actually like the glow!)

Mark Alberhasky is a Nikon Mentor for the Mentor Series Worldwide Photo Treks,

and leads destination photo tours for PhotoZoneTours.com.

Join him as he travels and share his enthusiasm for photography and learning.

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