The Milky Way

The night sky, unsullied by the artificial lights of civilization, never ceases to amaze me. Even here in Yosemite National Park, you cannot find absolute darkness but you can get pretty close. Last night was the first night of our night photography workshop, led by Michael Frye, and Olmstead Point in the eastern portion of the park would be ground zero.

We arrived about an hour before sunset and hiked a short distance up an inclined granite dome littered with glacial erratics and a scattering of pine trees that somehow had found places to grow on this massive stone. This little jaunt took us only about 100 yards from the parking area, a spot that provides a premium viewpoint for little effort. This will not be the case two nights from now, however.

But I digress. If you are in a good location, capturing a single image of the Milky Way is relatively simple, except for one minor thing: focusing in the dark. It doesn’t work to simply turn the lens to the infinity point until it stops because modern lenses are designed to go a little past infinity. We were given several techniques to try (subject for a future post) and I opted for using the Live View function on my camera.

The Milky Way becomes visible to the naked eye about 2 hours after sunset and then moves slowly across the sky as the earth rotates. This gives one the opportunity to find several possible compositions using foreground objects and/or the horizon.   The highlight here would come at about 11:00 PM when the Milky Way would be directly above Half Dome, seeming to erupt from this iconic feature of the park in a spectacular arc across the entire sky above us and disappearing into the horizon to our north.

In order to capture as much of the sky as possible, we all used very wide-angle lenses and in my case, that is a 14-24mm f/2.8 zoom. The image showing Half Dome is below. Because it is several miles away and the lens was set to 14mm, Half Dome is a little hard to pick out in this small size, but it is there (the small bump in the valley on the horizon) if you look carefully.

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Milky Way over Half Dome

(Technical Data: Nikon D800E on tripod with 14-24 mm lens extended to 14mm; exposure: 15 sec. @ f/4.0, ISO 6400, Time of day: 11:17 PM)

The group then spent some time working on light painting, which involves using a flashlight or other light source to illuminate an object in the foreground while using the sky as a dramatic background. Michael knows Yosemite extremely well and he led us to a Western Juniper pine tree that he had found several years ago. The group clustered around the tree, each one selecting a different composition and on the count of three, shutters were opened and a member of Michael’s team “painted” the tree with a flashlight for about 2 seconds. The result is shown below.

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Juniper Tree and Milky Way

(Technical Data: Nikon D800E on tripod with 14-24 mm lens extended to 14mm; exposure: 15 sec. @ f/4.0, ISO 6400, Time of day: 12:25 AM)

Tonight, depending on weather conditions, the group will be off to another location. Again, thanks to Latte Da Coffee in Lee Vining for making this post possible with their wi-fi service. And another good cup of coffee which I desperately needed.


Hidden Gem #2

For a variety of reasons, I cannot get out this week to photograph, so I will contrive a virtual trip that could have been. This is the week I should be going back to one of my favorite places, the Navy and Merchant Marine Memorial.  The memorial is an elegant sculpture cast in aluminum and located on the Virginia side of the Potomac just north of the 14th Street Bridge.    It’s another one of those hidden gems, despite the fact that it is less than 100 feet away and in plain sight of thousands of commuters driving by each day.


Afternoon Light, Navy and Merchant Marine Memorial, 2012

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Hidden Gem

This city has any number of spots that are well known and heavily trafficked by locals and tourists alike.  But there are also lesser known places that have a charm of their own, largely because they are not surrounded by idling tour buses and hordes of people snapping pictures.  Rawlins Park, in Foggy Bottom, is just such a place.  And as you will see from these photos, this is the best week of the year week to go there.


Major General John A. Rawlins 

The park is named for Major General John A. Rawlins, an officer in the Union Army who served as an aide to General Ulysses S. Grant.  Rawlins joined Grant’s staff in 1861 as a lieutenant and stayed with him through the entire Civil War.  According to James M. Goode, in his comprehensive tome “Washington Sculpture,” the park was an oasis in a neighborhood of small Victorian townhomes until the 1950s when the historic homes were replaced by large office buildings. One lone survivor remains, the Octagon House located across the street at the corner of 18th and E Street NW. 


Rawlins Park, Looking West, Early Morning (April 9, 2014)

But the park itself did survive, and despite its location between two multi-lane thoroughfares carrying thousands of cars each day to and from Virginia, it is still a charming oasis.  It is lined on both sides with what I call tulip trees but what people (and there are many) who have more plant knowledge would call a hybrid magnolia.  Two reflecting pools and a small central fountain complete the effect.


Looking East at Sunset (April 8, 2014) 

And this is the week that those tulip trees are showing off.  The pavement and reflecting pools are covered with the dropping petals from the large, tulip-shaped blooms and a few ducks practice take-offs and landings from time to time.  There are plenty of benches under the trees and if the gaudy display doesn’t jolt your senses, there is a handy Starbucks across the street at the corner of 20th and E Street NW.


Looking West, Early Morning Fog (April 7, 2014)

Yet Another Cherry Blossom Report

I returned to the Tidal Basin yesterday afternoon to check on the progress of the Cherry Blossoms.  The marching battalions of pre-scheduled tours are now in full swing, the tour buses that brought them here are jostling for parking spots, and the weather is balmy.  But the trees have other ideas.  And the absence of photographers with tripods confirmed what I expected:  “Still too soon.”  But the trip wasn’t a total loss, and I’ll get to that in a minute.



So here is an image showing the status of the cherry blossoms.  The buds in the foreground–like all the others on the nearby trees–are still quite tight, or at least they were as of about 7:15 PM last night. I guess it will be sometime this weekend before any blossoms actually emerge.  The official Festival prediction for peak blooming to appear is still April 8th and I see no reason to dispute that.  (Technical data: Nikon D800E, 24-70 mm lens set at  55 mm, no tripod: 1/50th sec. @ f/18, ISO 1600)

Still, you never want to come away without any images, so I worked on a panorama composition as the twilight blue after sunset began to intensify.  This was taken about 20 minutes after sunset.  It could be a great composition to use  when the blossoms hit their peak, but I suspect that the walkway will be cluttered with fellow photographers. (Technical data: Nikon D800E, 24-70 mm lens set at  35 mm, using tripod, 3 images shot with aperture priority set @ f/16, shutter ranged from 6-10 secs.; ISO 400)


As a side note, you can see the dark forms of protective netting around the trunks of the trees.  I assume this is intended to frustrate any beavers that might want to use the trees for gnawing practice.  There is at least one of them there; it swam within two meters of me, but submerged immediately when I began to swing my camera in its direction.  Curses!  Foiled again.

 Aside from the brief excitement of a close encounter with a beaver, the trip downtown also enabled me to check the status of some repair work projects on the mall.  As indicated in the panorama image, the removal of the scaffolding on the Washington Monument is now below the tree line.  There is still about 10 meters to go, but I am hopeful that the scaffolding and the construction fence will be removed in time for the Lunar Eclipse on April 15. There is more good news: The World War II Memorial fountains are now up and running at full power and the lighting is also operating.   A closer inspection will be needed to see whether the repairs on the west side of the Memorial are finished.

 So stay tuned for the next episode of the exciting mystery:  “Are they out yet?”

Starting up

OK, I admit it, this is a pretty bare bones operation right now. But you have to start somewhere, so this is it. It’s mid-February and the snow is starting to melt, but it’s not too early to start planning for the Spring Shooting Season. In the then post, I hope to have a rough outline of what might be some of the upcoming opportunities as we move into March. Stay tuned….