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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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