Available Dark

I just got back from perhaps the darkest place I have ever been. We were twenty miles form the nearest city of any size, at over 8,000 feet of elevation with no humidity on a moonless night. That's a straight shot of the night sky, above.

I was on a family trip to a dude, er, guest ranch after teaching in Denver two weeks ago. So I had a better-than-average collection of gear with me for being on vacation. But only one problem -- no tripod.


Those of you who know me also that a dude ranch is about the last place you would ever expect to find me. As in, I don't ride horses. We had 'em when I was growing up. I always found them to have a distinct lack of hard controls, most notably any type of reliable braking mechanism whatsoever.

In fact, my last significant interaction with a horse was actually more of the gastronomic variety. This was thanks to my friend Fons at CERN. So my daughter Emily and I do share a love for horses, even if not the same kind of love.

The Long Con

Speaking of Em, that's her above, riding on the open range near Red Feather Lakes in Colorado. Her mom let her go without a helmet just this once so I could grab a panned shot of her on her horse-for-a-week, Oreo. (The name, of course, only strengthens the gourmet equine connotations in my mind.)

She's entering 7th grade this year, but was in 4th grade when she hatched the scheme that would end up in our spending a week at the Sundance Trail Guest Ranch in northern Colorado.

Her assignment, courtesy teacher Kim Eubanks, was to research and report on what would be her dream vacation -- anywhere in the world. With no limits, all of the other kids chose foreign and/or exotic locations. But Em researched and fell in love with a small, family-oriented guest ranch about two hours north of Denver.

It was a very sweet thought, but these types of places are not our normal modest-price hotel fare. Still, Susan and I both admitted that it might be possible with a little frugality and a lot of saving.

So later when we announced to Em that we would, in fact, be heading to Sundance Trail, she told us that had been her secret plan all along. In other words, we had just been expertly played by an 8-year-old for a four-digit payoff.

Oh, and as a bonus the place was just crawling with kittens. For Em it was pretty much like that lab experiment where they give the rats all of the crack they want, just to see what happens.

My wife Susan is a rider, too. So there was no question she was gonna have fun. But Ben and I are not horse people, so we spent the week doing lots of other stuff. Between the white-water rafting, climbing, tomahawk throwing, campfires, hiking and (especially) shooting, we had a great time.

Oh, and don't even ask me about the food. Suffice to say that Nate took good care of us in the kitchen, even if Trigger was not on the menu. And Susan and I both lost a pound each. Go figure.

In Need of Support

By the second night I was totally infatuated with the dark skies, which featured layers upon layers of stars. There were so many that I could not easily find the major constellations, and the bands of the Milky Way were gorgeous. This is not something we often see in the east, so I was like a kid in a candy store.

But I had left my tripod at home, and none of the other guests had one I could mooch. So I started to experiment with various DIY substitutions to keep the camera still for the ten seconds of so I could use before the star trails would start to be obvious from the earth's rotation. I pined for my tripod and John Moran's brilliant DIY astronomical camera mount. Next time, I'll bring both.

In the end, the porch rail and a rubberized iPhone (used as an elevation shim) served the purpose pretty well -- even if it did limit my shooting direction. Using the self timer to allow the camera to settle down, I was able to get a pretty sharp 10-second exposure at f/1.8 at ISO 3200. The 35/1.8 lens (fastest I had with me) was designed for small chips, thus the vignetting. But I kinda like it, to tell the truth.

Flashes and Stars

Shortly after, I started thinking about a shot of the lodge lit against a backdrop of that stunning night sky. And it didn't help that I had half a dozen SB-800s with me, along with stands, PWs, etc.

I know -- I'm on vacation. But still, I really love playing around like this. And on vacation you should get to do anything you want, right?

So I chose a fence post for a camera support and set off to light the lodge to f/1.8 at ISO 3200 with speedlights. I could easily light something a couple of football fields away at that level with speedlights, after all.

I set up my key light about 200 feet away (for even lighting) from the lodge at dusk. Then I set a fill light right in front of the front porch, hidden by an old wagon in the front yard. A little guide number guestimation showed me that I would not even have to crank up the flashes to full power to light the house from this distance.

As the ambient light dropped down, I did test shots of the lodge against the sky. Visions of a gorgeous shot of the lodge and the night sky danced in my head. Maybe I would even get lucky with a Perseid meteor or two in the frame.

But then something unexpected started to happen. Long before the stars started to appear, the lodge itself started to go nuclear bright. I had not considered what a normal, interior light (60th @f/2.8 @ISO 400) might look like at f/1.8 at 10 seconds at ISO 3200. Little hint -- they are very bright at that exposure.

As in about 13 1/2 stops over.

(Apparently, my brain takes vacations, too...)

Even by shooting RAW files and combining single images imported at multiple exposure levels, I quickly knew I was not going to be able to marry the two exposures -- small flashes or not. Well, okay, I could. But that would mean turning off all of the interior lights and triggering tiny flash pops in each room -- for each exposure.

Nope, this was where I would cut my losses and bail in favor of the campfire and songs that had been my backdrop for the shoot until now. After all, I was on vacation.

The fickle weather in the Colorado highlands teased with other short-lived opportunities to do a lodge-and-stars shot. But instead I decided to go with the flow, shooting the transitions that included both moving clouds and star fields. I had never seen anything like it before, and might never again.

The firey colors on the horizon are from the city lights that the locals lament are ruining their rural night views (they're looking at you, Ft. Collins…) But I thought they made a neat separation light for the mountain trees on the horizon. So you are fine for now, Ft. Collins. But no more development, please.

For those interested in a week in the saddle, I cannot recommend Sundance Trail enough. Definitely check it out.

Even as a non-rider I had one of the best weeks of my life. And the horse people in the bunch wore big smiles (along with sore butts) all week long, continually exploring some of the most beautiful backcountry you could ever want to see.

If you visit Sundance please give Dan, Ellen and the gang our best. And be sure to check out the family brand we charred into into the dining room wall before leaving your own.

Oh, and bring a tripod. Unlike me, you might have the patience to get all of the lights turned off for a flashed, lodge-and-stars photo. If you nail it, please post a link in the comments below this post. I'd love to see it.

Until then, happy trails…


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Blogger Shane said...

Ha! That reminds me of a few years ago when I found myself without a tripod on a hiking trip. Check out my ingenious solution: http://www.shaneparkerphoto.com/photo/burnt_lake/_MG_7770.jpg

...which was used to capture this:

August 16, 2010 5:21 PM  
Blogger david said...

heh, if you think it is dark there, where you could see the lights of ft. collins, drive out 70 or so miles east of FC. I forget where exactly, but out on 14 somewhere I believe there is a place where you cannot see a single artificial light of any kind.

August 16, 2010 5:52 PM  
Blogger Mariusz J. said...

You could use your lightstand and umbrella bracket, you know.
Those flash bracket brass thingys have same thread as the one in the bottom of your camera.

August 16, 2010 6:36 PM  
Blogger erickn said...

Just thinking out loud about the lodge shot, couldn't you have gobo'ed (masked) the bottom of the frame just after the flash so that the lodge's lights don't register until the end of the 10s exposure ?

August 16, 2010 7:00 PM  
Blogger Mail Order Mystic said...

Man it was great to meet you in Denver. Had a really good time. Wish you had mentioned you needed a tripod. Got a couple laying around you were welcome to borrow. But you did a good job improvising. Glad the family had fun.

August 16, 2010 7:01 PM  
Blogger grubernd said...

i'll stick to the theme..
DUUUUDE! you got your lightstands and clamps and flashes and stuff and things and you needed a frickin phoney to shoot them stars? you mad or what? get yourself a stud, clamp or whatever but dont embaress yourself in front of them peoples!


August 16, 2010 7:53 PM  
Blogger MasterOfGoingFaster said...

Dave on horses >> "I always found them to have a distinct lack of hard controls, most notably any type of reliable braking mechanism whatsoever."

I guess you don't know why cowboys carried those Colt 45s. Quite handy when your horse is heading for a cliff at full speed.

August 16, 2010 8:29 PM  
Blogger FormElement said...

Those brass thingies are called spigots. I also am surprised that a dual ended (1/4-20 to 3/8-16)spigot was not in the stands and strobes arsenal? In fact, the funny looking hex version that comes with super clamps has the 1/4-20 threads already there on the business end specifically for a camera.

August 16, 2010 9:30 PM  
Blogger David said...

@Mariusz / @grubernd / @FormElement --

Well yeah, I tried that first off.

FYI, a compact, 5-section light stand would start a standing vibration when the shutter went off on the D3. No way a 10-sec exposure would be close to sharp.

I did not have a Superclamp with me. Woulda been a first choice over the stand, even.


August 17, 2010 12:05 AM  
Blogger Mariusz J. said...

@ David

I had a hunch that you've probably checked lighstand and spigots idea, ( and it didn't work for you), before you went with "porch rail and a rubberized iPhone" route.

btw. who am I to teach The Teacher anyway...

August 17, 2010 12:24 AM  
Blogger David said...

Nope, my bad -- shoulda mentioned it. But then, most of my posts are too long as it is...


August 17, 2010 12:55 AM  
OpenID almostinfamous said...

for a stable camera support from the ground, i find that a wallet(filled with paper cash or business cards depending on your financial position position) is a decent temporary setup. if you want to tilt camera up, i tend to put a 35mm film canister filled with soil either horizontally or vertically between lens and the ground. this only works for wide and/or relatively short lenses (maybe up to a 24-70mm). I doubt you could use this on longer lenses.

August 17, 2010 1:54 AM  
Blogger PDB said...

on the very first night shot, is there any post processing / level adjustments done.

Last time i did some shots i really struggled with a red overcast.

August 17, 2010 5:44 AM  
Blogger John said...

Nice post, David

There is a 'Dark Sky' movement, to try to preserve night skies from light pollution from certain sites:


August 17, 2010 5:56 AM  
Blogger Cher Ping said...

Hi, the usual way I deal with "long exposure night shots with lighted areas" would be to try to apply some filters - an inverted GND (or even better, a reversed GND filter if I could isolate the zones of light).

Here's an example of the former

(the benches were lit up - and at 30 seconds, it was awfully bright)

I'm still playing with the RGND - so I can't really show anything yet. (I'm still testing it. In the recent test attempt, I had a 0.5L beer prior to testing the RGND - so my shots were "slightly" crooked. those belgium beers can be rather powerful!)

Its a pity that you didn't have one of those filter thingies with you - the pics you posted really looked like it would have made an awesome scene.

August 17, 2010 10:14 AM  
Blogger seekingtonotseek said...

For lighting the rooms, I might have tried enlisting the other guests and/or their (old enough) kids. Have one stand by each lightswitch for rooms you want illuminated. Start with dark rooms and they watch out the windows for a signal flash (which you fire just before the shutter release), then count 1 potato, then turn on the light for another 1 potato (or however many potatoes you think are appropriate) then turn them back off. That way you get the tungsten light that's appropriate for the lodge, but not too much of it. Think that would have worked?

August 17, 2010 10:29 AM  
Blogger Schlef said...

Do you have the design for the astronomical camera mount posted anywhere? I'm very interested in this, and while it sounds like I could figure it out, having the actual plans would be helpful. Thanks so much.

August 17, 2010 11:19 AM  
Blogger Rsplatpc said...

I just got back from Desolation Canyon in Utah myself, WOW talk about dark! Here are pics if you want to check them out


August 17, 2010 11:21 AM  
Blogger David said...

@Seeking -

Um, they were on vacation, too.

August 17, 2010 11:57 AM  
Blogger Jason Anderson said...

So disappointed I couldn't attend the Denver workshop, but glad you enjoyed both the class and the vacation! The night skies you speak of are especially evident in places further south like Durango where there is literally zero light pollution from nearby cities because there are no nearby cities! :)

Here's hoping you stop back in again soon!

August 17, 2010 12:12 PM  
Blogger Craig Taylor said...

Not sure which is more impressive. The shots you got or the fact you were able to get yourself into vacation mode after shooting a few frames. :)

August 17, 2010 1:39 PM  
Blogger Ian W said...

Velbon make a small but stable table top tripod perfect for a bag throw in. It took me 2-3 years of searching and waiting but it finally appeared at http://www.amazon.fr/gp/product/B0013V4N6M/ in time for my UK trip this year.

Caveat is I haven't had the opportunity to try it in anger yet, but its even sturdier than I had expected. And it came to me well recommended from the trv900 group.

August 17, 2010 1:46 PM  
Blogger Haristobald said...

Yeah, belgium guys signed just near you (last pic). What an honour for our little country ;-)

August 17, 2010 2:36 PM  
Blogger Pete Tsai said...

Shame you didn't have a super clamp and a ball head mount! I clamped to the deck railing in NYC to see if it would work, pretty usable and not that bad to pack!

August 17, 2010 4:29 PM  
Blogger Tarale Seena said...

OK, this question is in more urban settings, and I don't have the luxury of a long exposure. I was shooting inside a *pitch* dark bar. I had couple of off camera flashes triggered wireless, but my problem was to get my camera to focus! My eyes could barely see the subjects, and the camera wouldn't just focus. I had a fifty percent or less hit rate and some really wonderful poses were lost. Any recommendation in this situation, please?

August 17, 2010 6:04 PM  
Blogger Rick Lohre | Photography said...

David, great post!!

Brought back some great memories of where my love affair with photography was "sparked".

Just a bit south and west of where you were, in Kremmling, CO I took my first roll of 35mm film that I can say I really remember as being "something" - Although looking back that's still debateable :)

Here are a few shots lit with a candle and the stars. If you look close you can even see where I struck the match out on the porch to light the candle!

Star Trails

Strip Scan

Rick Lohre

August 17, 2010 8:26 PM  
Blogger Sharon said...

lucky the fence post was just in the right spot.

August 17, 2010 9:59 PM  
Blogger joseph said...

i've had a thing for night skies even before i was into photography.

fyi, cherry springs park in PA is listed amongst the top 5 places in the world for viewing night skies.

a measly 6-7 hours from where you are. 5 for me. aren't i lucky.

August 17, 2010 10:30 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

@ Tarale Seena
Two options I can think of:
1. Get someone to stand at your focus point with a flashlight shining on them - you can then use manual or auto focus
2. Temporarily put one of the speedlites onto your camera and use the focus assist, then lock the focus.

August 18, 2010 4:33 AM  
Blogger Radu said...

I have recently purchased a GorillaPod (standard size) which I have used successfully a number of times already. It is quite small and light and has a permanent place in my photo backpack.

Sure, it's no carbon-fiber Gitzo, but it's definitely useful in this (and other) type of situations.

FWIW, it held my D700 with zoom lens and flash stable enough for a 5 second picture (triggered via radio remote).

August 18, 2010 9:10 AM  
Blogger Adam said...

Hey David, I've lived in Fort Collins for ten years now. That sure is a nice place up by Red Feather but not even that remote... Next vacation you should experience one of the state's many federally designated Wilderness Areas... Talk about night sky!

Did you get a chance to head up the Cache la Poudre river further west? The scenery changes drastically from Red Feather's sort of ancient, rounded-granite boulders to newer, sharper, more craggy mountains.

Anyway, glad you had a great time in my back yard, and I'm sorry I was unable to attend the Denver class (I had family in town for their own vacation that same week)

August 18, 2010 10:14 AM  
Blogger seekingtonotseek said...


Really my question was about the technical side--if you had convinced them it would be fun to be part of making an awesome picture (or at least trying), do you think that would have worked?

August 18, 2010 10:15 AM  
Blogger Ron Nabity said...

Hey David,

It's great to see that you are able to enjoy more time with your family.

The back-story of Em's school project makes the photo of her on the horse even more touching. The kids are going to have some awesome photos (and memories) of their childhood - nothing better, not even a sturdy tripod could trump that.

- Ron

August 18, 2010 11:12 AM  
Blogger Pawnee said...

Here is my lightpainting shot. I used three people, three strobes and one pickup truck.

Also any "Strobist" type person in the Southern Wyoming or Northern Colorado area, that wants to do some night shooting with no light bleed, come out to my ranch.

As in hunting, it is more fun to shoot with friends. email me at taylorj at pawnee dot com

August 18, 2010 1:26 PM  
Blogger M said...

so you took the sky-pictures with a 180$-lens? how cool is that! have the lens, but but finding me a dark and dry space might prove more expensive than that :)

August 19, 2010 1:16 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

David, I've been trying to take a shot like that of the night sky for years. This past summer I was able to find a clear night while staying in Yosemite National park. Yet while the sky was as bright to my eye as you see in your first picture, I could not get any of my pictures to come out. Shoot Raw, ISO3200, 60sec, 12mm @ F/4 and I still had to push the image 2 stops in post just to see any stars. http://bit.ly/ap9DJ6 Any advice or tips to steer me in the right direction? Thanks. ~Mike

August 19, 2010 3:44 PM  
Blogger overxposed said...

I always carry a "gorilla pod" for cases such as this. Its flexible enough to wrap around almost anything and doesn't take up much room.

August 20, 2010 10:04 AM  
Blogger nvjims said...

You should have been able to get a 1/4-20 bolt, a nut and some duct tape from the ranch shop. With those parts, making an improvised camera support is just a matter of imagination.

August 21, 2010 9:12 PM  
OpenID DSSchill said...

We visited Sundance Trail Ranch last year and loved it! Got great shots of the horses and landscape. Did not try night shots - goal for next time. Dan and Ellen are the best!

September 04, 2010 5:29 PM  
Blogger knoe said...

Great pictures, as usual ;)
I would had made myself a "bean-bag" out of a ziploc bag or something like that, filled with beans, rice, coffee or in your case even horse food should work...
You still need something you put it onto but it will hold your camara in different positions.

October 01, 2010 12:52 PM  

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