Wyoming has set the stage for some of the most impressive night skies I have ever seen. The only other place that immediately comes to mind as a contender for most impressive is Cahersiveen in southern Ireland. Laying on my back in the grass at the end of a dirt road some friends and I had walked down -- the gentle lull of Atlantic waves against rocks rhythmically moved in the background -- we cast our eyes skyward. Pinpoints of light continuously popped out of the darkness as my eyes adjusted filling my field of view from horizon to horizon. It was spectacular.
But here, too, in the cowboy state, I have been fortunate to witness some spectacular nighttime canvases. They are the kind of night skies that are akin to looking down closely at the ground if you are sitting in a field or up against a tree. At first, it seems like a dormant environment. But as your eyes adjust, you realize it is in fact teaming with life. Insects scurry left and right carrying on with their day to day tasks. All of a sudden, you realize things are moving everywhere! In an area with no light pollution, the same thing happens. When you first look up, even if your eyes are adjusted, it seems like a relatively placid scene. But after some time, you notice the lights twinkling, satellites moving, and more often than we might realize, space debris streaking into the atmosphere in the form of shooting stars.
Since being back out in Wyoming this winter, I have been dying to get a good quality nighttime landscape shot. The bucket list shot that I have in mind would be shot from a plateau behind the ranch property that stands approximately 50 or 60 feet higher in elevation. From atop that plateau, rolling fields of snow spread out in front with a dominating backdrop of mountains. With no light pollution that direction, the stars are usually spectacular. And with the faintest moonlight reflecting off the snow adding a pale white light to the scene? Ah, it would be beautiful. But there is a certain "ehhh..." factor to waking up in the middle of a night and walking out into the pitch dark on my own knowing the kind of wildlife that frequents this area at night. My pepper spray isn't quit reassuring enough. In addition, the past few weeks of nights have been socked in with low cloud cover.
Finally, two nights ago, I got a break. I got up early with intentions of driving in toward the Cody Reservoir to catch a sunrise shot. But as my groggy eyes adjusted on the night sky out my bedroom window, I realized for the first time in weeks the stars were back on display. I jumped out of bed knowing I had limited time before pale blue light would start to leak into the scene diluting the inky black sky.
Fresh batteries? 🗸 Memory card? 🗸 Tripod Mount? 🗸 Tripod?... Shit, the tripod is in the car. That's going to be cold. 🗸 Jacket, hat, mitts, buff? 🗸 I rattled off my mental checklist, deemed I was ready, and stepped outside.
It was almost a recreation of that scene from Cool Runnings when the Jamaican team gets to Canada (... if I remember right??) for the first time, steps out into the snow, and immediately turns around and heads back indoors. It's a gruff way to start the morning. I didn't know what the temperature was, but the day previous had been a balmy air temp of -18 Fahrenheit. I figured this morning was in the same ballpark.
Astrophotography is a field I know very little about and have had minimal practice with. My best success has come from photographing an eclipse on the coast of California in January. The weather wasn't tropical by any means, but I was definitely comfortable as I manipulated dials and took lots of test shots. This morning was a little less comfortable. The freezing metal of my tripod had already seeped through my cold weather mitts and left my hands chilled (Lesson learned: never leaving my tripod in my car again). I set my system up in front of my cabin -- I opted not to make the trek out back -- and was fumbling with the camera dials as best I could with a combination of stiff fingers and clumsy gloved hands. I took a wild guess at what settings I would need, searched for any focus point the camera could find, and snapped off a 60 second exposure. I was convinced the exposure would be complete trash, and so walked away while the image processed to find out what the temp was. Turned out, not quite as cold as I was expecting -- approximately -8. There's a pretty significant difference though between the feeling of -8 with the sun out, and -8 under a pitch black sky.
I walked back to my camera, shut it off, folded up the tripod and headed for the car wondering How the hell do people photograph for days on end in the Arctic or Antarctica? I'm going to have to step up my cold-suffering game. The reservoir plan turned out to be a flop as well. Not due to temperature, but just lack of good lighting. I snapped off two shots more out of refusal to leave with nothing than a love for the scene I saw. Back in the car, I flipped on the camera to review the two images. I scrolled to the first, scrolled to the second, then impulsively scrolled again bringing me to the image from the ranch. I couldn't believe it. The dang thing actually came out alright -- a completely lucky shot.