NOV 2011 IMAGE OF THE MONTH
For over 30 years I had wanted to take a raft trip down the mighty Colorado River in the Grand Canyon in Northern Arizona. I knew there would be serious logistical photographic issues not to mention the time, effort and risks of running such a river. I spent 21 days floating down the “Mighty Grand” (as the locals call it) and during that time, I like the thousands that have gone before me, was mesmerized and captivated by such a wild and scenic area.
Yes there were snakes, scorpions, cactus thorns where you didn’t want them and of course some of the biggest and meanest water I have run in over 40 years of rafting in the Northwest. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for the Powell Expedition when they first ran the Colorado in the 1800’s in heavy wooden boats with sweep oars. It’s a wonder any of them survived. And to think Powell only had one arm.....what guts or insanity??
But this really isn’t about my raft trip, though there were experiences enough to write a book about. It’s about this single image from that trip. I call it Canyon Slumber.
As many of you know I have been expanding my Noctography imagery (Pin Point Star Photography....or photos of the heavens) by pushing the envelope in new and different ways..........to see just what is possible. From these efforts I am beginning to see a body of work emerge that may be some of the most exciting images I have captured and created in several years. You have seen a couple of them in recent issues with mountains, lakes and even petroglyphs, all framed with the stars above.
Months before I left for the Colorado I envisioned making an image that balanced moon light with the night sky and stars, with some kind of foreground that would be complimentary and I knew I wanted to include glowing tents in the foreground ( lit from within) to anchor the image. This one was going to push the envelope for me given all the variables.
In preparation for the shoot I studied charts showing the phases and rise and setting times of the moon and the location of the constellations. I knew I was going to have all the pieces in the right place on three specific nights while on the river.
When we made camp across the river from one of the most photogenic waterfalls in the 285 miles of the canyon on the first of those three nights I couldn’t have had it any better if I had scouted the entire canyon looking for that one perfect spot. This was it !
The moon would be in exactly the right position in the sky to light the scene, the landscape between my camera position and the river was perfect for several tents to be set up for the night, the waterfall was in a great compositional location, the river glided by from right to left and showed well, the opposite canyon wall rose several thousand feet almost straight up, the sky was severe clear and all the guys in the group were willing to stay up until after midnight to simply turn lights on and off in their tents, on command. Who could ask for more than that??
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I knew from experience that I could easily capture the pin point stars with a tried and true work flow that had served me well for the past year or so. But this time I purposely wanted the moon to play a role in lighting the image foreground. I had decided, based on a couple of tests I did here in Bend, months before we left on the trip, that the moon had to be in an early or late phase so that it did not provide too much light on the foreground and so that it did not wash out the star studded sky. My tests demonstrated that a moon phase greater than a quarter moon was simply too much. Additionally, the moon could not be in the scene. It had to be perpendicular to the scene so there would be depth and character to the foreground. (ie: highlights and shadows)
I wanted to balance the exposures in a manner that the moon lit foreground exposure would be very close to the tried and true exposure for the star field. Once I set up my camera I ran several test exposures to determine how close the light values were on the foreground and in the sky. Even though I only had a two night premature full fledged quarter of a moon off my left shoulder it was still too much light when compared to the star field.
The only way I was going to be able to manage the three stop spread between the two light values was to shoot it as a two shot HDR work flow. So, I set my f-stop, shutter speed, ISO setting and checked the focus. I then shot the star field and the foreground using the exact same shutter speed and f-stop and adjusted my ISO setting from one to the other. For the star field I used an ISO of 6400. For the foreground I used an ISO of 3200.
Now what about the tents?? Well, I also ran a quick test shot with all four of the tents. The shutter speed for the overall scene was 25sec. So the first test was lights on in the tents for the full 25 seconds. WAY TOOOOO MUCH !! So, we did a second test and this time I had them turn them on at the beginning of the exposure and had them turn them off 10 seconds into the 25 second overall exposure....Perfect.
Now, finally !! It is time to do the actual shoot. Shot #1 is for the sky and stars so; Shutter speed set to 25 seconds, f-stop set to f-2.8, ISO set to 6400 and no tent lights. Shot #2 is for the foreground, waterfall, river, tents and stuff. So, Shutter speed the same, f-stop the same, ISO set to 3200. Tent lights turned on, Shutter opened, Tents turned off at 10 seconds and shutter remains open the full 25 seconds. And the shot is in the bag.
Now all I had to do was thank everyone in the tents, after all they had stayed up until about 1am, then break down all the gear, hit the sack, be up at daylight since I had breakfast chores the next morning and survive another 10 days on the river so I could get a good look at the finished product once I was home.
What I found was 4 sets of two exposures each of the scene, a little back up just in case. Then all I had to do was layer mask the two images together using the sky/stars as one layer and the canyon wall, river, foreground as the second layer and it looked just exactly like I saw it when I was balancing all those tasks in the dark of the night deep in the bowels of the Grand Canyon.
I have to confess; the scene was so beautiful, once it was all done I simply sat down and spent about 20 minutes soaking up the moonlit scene. I continue to be amazed at how much light the moon actually provides. Then I remind myself that it’s just reflected sun light. If you leave your shutter open long enough your image will look like you took it at high noon of any given day.
The real trick in being able to accomplish an image like this is to think of the scene in layers, like when you’re working on an image in Photoshop. All I really had was a three layer scene. One of the sky, one of the foreground and one special case with the tents. A little planning and testing goes a long way in making sure you get the shot............especially when you are somewhere that it isn’t easy to get back to.
Thanks for hanging in there.................Vern