Astro Photography Adventure

Monday, August 22, 2011 8 comments

Been a while since I blogged on this space..but had to capture some memorable moments from my recent photography trip to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park for capturing Milky Way and star trails.

For followers of my FB photography page (, I have done a few dark sky photo shoots in Pinnacles National Monument and Death Valley last year and realized one thing; skillful photography is not all about using light. There is a 'Dark' side to photography as well..of course only our lens can capture those moments.

Tuolumne River after Sunset
I followed weather forecast along with Moonrise and Sunset times in Tuolumne Meadows (TM) about 3 weeks in advance of my trip and decided to head out with my buddies Anand Mannargudi, Sankar Salvady, and Vinodh Krishnamoorthy for a night photoshoot to capture Milky way and Star trails over Tenaya Lake and Half Dome. I was extremely lucky to find last minute accommodation in Tuolumne Lodge to stay overnight; that way we were not forced to drive back to bay area after the photoshoot at 3.30 am.

My trip to eastern sierras and Tuolumne with my family early August meant I didn't have to spend too much time researching on locations to get the best view of Milky Way with some interesting foreground. I could visualize the location in dark setting based on my earlier visit. I wanted to do Milky way over Olmstead point and star trails over Tenaya Lake. At least this time, I knew how to spot milky way in the sky. During my first trip to Pinnacles I had to post a question on locating milky way in various photography forums to evoke no response..only after getting to the dark sky location, I realized Milky Way is visible to our naked eye (no wonder I received no response to my forum question)!

My day started at 7 am with a TCA tennis ball cricket league game. Had to rush back home right after the game and grabbed a quick lunch. By the time we headed out of the bay area it was 2 PM. Luckily we did not hit any traffic on our way to TM and checked in the lodge around 7 PM. We captured a few shots at the meadows in fading light and by astronomical twilight, we headed to Olmstead point and night hiked to a rocky overlook for an unhindered view of Milky way rise over Half Dome and Clouds Rest. Once we reached the overlook, even though I was seeing milky way for 3rd time in the last 12 months, I was as excited as my buddies Sankar and Vinodh, who had their first date with Milky Way! They were just dumbstruck by the sight of the galaxy and I had to remind them to set their cameras on their tripods as they were there to take some pictures as well :)

Rising Milky Way over Half Dome and Clouds Rest from Olmstead Point
Sankar had a tough day at work with his camera turning to a brick (courtesy - his new intervalometer). We captured some nice pictures of Milky Way and moments after I set my rental camera (D700/14-24 2.8) on tripod to take a group silhouette in self timed mode, came the shock of the night! We heard the rental camera with wide angle lens fall on the rock with a big thud. For a moment I thought the $1500 lens had shattered. Blessing in disguise - there was only damage to the lens hood and I had taken insurance coverage for the lens. By the time we decided to turn back, we had lost our way in complete darkness and could not find the trail leading back to the parking lot. After a few lost and panicky moments, we found our way out to the parking lot and headed straight to Tenaya Lake around 11 PM. I loaned my spare D90/Tokina set up to Sankar so he could compose some pictures of Milky Way and Star trails as his Canon 7D set up had become completely dysfunctional :(

Rising Moon and Jupiter over Tioga Pass
One reason I love star trail photography is once the camera and timer is set, you can relax and gaze at the stars while the camera does most of the work! We pulled our camp chairs by lake side and settled down with soggy SUBWAY sandwiches picked from Oakdale earlier that evening. Meanwhile, Vinodh had issues with his wet socks from his holy dip in Tuolumne river during sunset and as temperature began to drop to high 30's, he snugged up with comforters and blankets like a shy little snail. We could do only 75 mins of star trails as there was bright moon rising from the east in the middle of our star trails shoot.

60 min star trail over Tenaya Lake
Moonlight meant foreground was naturally light and didn't have to use LED flashlights to do some artificial foreground lighting! Just before we decide to leave the place to get back to our tents, Anand came up with a crazy idea to do some light paints in the middle of Tioga Pass road. Hope no one was watching us run with a LED flash light in the middle of Tioga Pass at 3 am! I especially felt a little weird running around the cricket field that morning and again running at 9500 feet with flash light, painting some weird circular light patterns.

Light painting on Tioga Pass at 3.30am!
Eventually crashed at 3.30 am and slept for a few hours inside the tent in very cold conditions before the non-nocturnal (a.k.a normal people) started making noise around the tent at 6.30 am. Had a good breakfast in Tuolumne Lodge Restaurant and did a quick stop by Tioga Lake and hit the road around noon. Traffic favored us on our way back too..we saved about 30 mins taking the old priest grade road for the first time instead curvy 120 past the Groveland area. By the time we reached Manteca for Lunch it was 3.30 pm!

Inside Tuolumne Tent Cabin
(L to R - Anand, Raja, Vinodh, Sankar)
Had a sumptuous burrito in Chipotle and reached home around 4.30 PM. All in all it was a fulfilling photoshoot with my photo buddies and I am sure more than the pictures, the trip adventures will stay in our memories for a long long time!

8 comments: to “ Astro Photography Adventure so far...

  • Sankar 8/23/2011 2:22 PM

    Perfect summary of the trip, Raja.. You have captured every memorable moment.

    Though u did mention you started planning this 3 weeks ago, the amount of groundwork that you did is a lot more than what you have mentioned here. My defunct camera notwithstanding it was a wonderful trip

  • Raja 8/23/2011 2:24 PM

    Thank you was a completely satisfying trip..I am glad your camera issue is resolved now.

  • Padma 8/23/2011 9:11 PM

    very nice! I think u should continue writing blogs! keep writing!

  • Raja 8/23/2011 9:23 PM

    Thank you Padma! I will continue doing more travel related blogs going forward

  • Anand 8/23/2011 9:30 PM

    Perfectly summed up Guruji. Very satisfying shoot :)

    Nice to Have Sankar Salvady to Tag with us as he gives some usful insights on compositions.

    Lovely shoot overall!

  • Raja 8/23/2011 9:32 PM

    Thank you Mannar...+1 on your comment about Sankar

  • Anitha 8/23/2011 10:37 PM

    Nice blog Guruji. Well written and looks like you enjoyed every moment of this adventurous photo shoot. Given that we had been to Yosemite, exactly to the places you have described, just last week, I was able to interpret your description much better. Excellent write up. Keep writing. - Anitha

  • Raja 8/23/2011 10:46 PM

    Thank you Anitha..I didn't know you guys went to Tuolumne last week..I am sure it must have been very enjoyable ..Did Sadhu walk through the meadows? I hope she had a chance to spot some deer..
    I am literally blogging after 18 months and you guys are real motivation for me to continue my blog...Please feel free to read lighter posts in my blog archive when you have some time