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Rachel Jones Ross: 100 Nights of Photography Under the Stars, Part 1

(Last Updated On: Dec 16, 2019)

By Jill Waterman | 3 months ago

I still remember vividly, the first time I ever photographed the Milky Way. It was on a crop sensor camera with a kit lens, in the middle of winter. I had no composition to speak of, and the galactic core of the Milky Way was not visible at that time of year. Somehow none of that mattered: I was completely mesmerized. Seeing the cluster of stars on the back of the screen felt as if someone had pulled back a grand cosmic curtain, and allowed me to peer into the universe. From that moment forward, I was completely hooked on photographing the night sky, and I bought my first full-frame camera the next day.

Photographs © Rachel Jones Ross

I have spent countless nights under the stars since that first experience. So much so that last year I thought It would be a great personal challenge to spend 100 nights photographing under the stars. It sounds so romantic, doesn’t it? Yeah, that’s what I thought too when I was conceptualizing the project… I had day dreams of sitting in the grass on a warm summer night, watching the stars float by as my camera clicked away quietly in the background.

100 Nights of No Sleep

And I have had nights like that. But as the project progressed, I quickly learned that I could have just as easily called it one hundred nights of no sleep. This is a regular thing when I’m shooting night skies, but there’s no better example than the week I had intended to shoot astrophotography in Death Valley with one of my favorite partners in crime—Jessica Santos—who just happens to live in Las Vegas.

I had been talking with Jess about my project and telling her how difficult it was to find even clear-ish skies in the dead of winter in the Rockies. Jess said, “You should come and shoot in Death Valley. We won’t have to deal with clouds like you do in the Rockies; it hardly ever rains in the desert…”

Well, not only did it rain, it poured until it flooded. There was water in Badwater Basin, which “never happens,” according to Jess. The flooding was so bad, in fact, that most of the roads were closed, which also “never happens.”

Ross captured these sunset clouds over the dunes in Death Valley National Park. Read on to learn more about how Ross created this image.

Determined to shoot, we drove back and forth between the Alabama hills and the only dunes in the valley with occasionally clear skies. These two sites were about 3½ hours apart over some very rough, bumpy, dirt roads.

The 7-hour round trip wouldn’t have been so bad, but we still had to scout for compositions, eat, shoot, and nap occasionally. On average, I think we slept two to three hours each morning in the front seat of the Jeep, because we were too tired to set up the tent. We basically lived off five-hour energy drinks. We would open the door to the Jeep and this sad little collection of empty bottles would spill out.

It was during that trip, however, that I realized that Jess and I would be lifelong friends. There were mornings when she chose to sleep a few extra hours instead of shoot, so that she could take the next driving shift, and I could get one night closer to my project goals.

Somehow, despite the fatigue, we not only found a way to shoot some beautiful night sky images, but we also managed to have fun, and laugh that kind of side-splitting laughter that makes you feel alive. When I look at these images, I think of Jess, and the amazing community there to support me.

Jill Waterman: What gear were you shooting with during this desert adventure?

Rachel Jones Ross: In early 2019, my standard kit was the Sony a7R III and Sony a9. For lenses, I use the Sony FE 12-24 mm f/4, 16-35 mm f/2.8 GM, 24 mm f/1.4 GM, 24-70 f/2.8 GM, and 70-200 f/2.8 GM, as well as the Zeiss Batis 18 mm f/2.8 and Zeiss Loxia 21 mm f/2.8.

I have since traded the a9 for a second a7R III. I love the resolution and the a7R III is fast enough for most anything I shoot. I also just ordered a Sony a7 III, which I hope to get modified for astrophotography.

For accessories and support equipment, I use the Cokin Evo filter system, SLIK Pro 734 Carbon Fiber tripod, and I never leave home without my Luxli Viola On-Camera RGBAW LED light for night shooting.

I edit on an MSI gaming laptop (I need a fast machine to edit time lapses). Memory storage has been my nightmare this year. For the most part, I use Lacie Rugged drives. I previously bought another brand of drive when I was traveling and had one fail before it was backed up. I learned two hard lessons from that experience. 1) Always back up my drives; 2) I need very rugged back-up drives.

Even when the skies weren’t clear, there were some pretty amazing views, such as this twilight shot Ross managed to capture before the clouds swallowed the stars. She found the Sony 24mm f/1.4 GMaster lens to be a dream to work with, noting, “At f/1.4 it is super sharp, and really lets the light in as the last glow from the sun dips below the horizon.”

JW: How harsh were the environmental conditions on your gear? Did you have anything with you or take any special care to protect your gear from the elements, both the desert sand and the rain?

RJR: The sand in my equipment is insidious. I try my best to keep my camera bag closed at all times, and to use a plastic rain sleeve to keep it out. When the sand gets to be a problem, I send my gear to Sony Pro Support to be cleaned. They are experts, and I can breathe easy knowing they are taking care of my equipment.

JW: How long was your exposure for the sunset view of the desert dunes? Was this shot on a tripod or handheld, and what kind of enhancements, if any, did you do to this image in post?

RJR: The sunset dunes image is a composite. I’ll start by saying I don’t shoot many composites. I prefer to shoot blends (taking parts of the image at different time periods without moving the tripod), as it is emotionally more rewarding to me to look at an image as I have experienced that environment. There are times, however, when I have had to deliver images to a client and didn’t get the conditions I wanted. And occasionally, I plan to shoot a scene as a composite.

The dunes image was one of those occasions when I had to deliver desert images for a client, but I didn’t get the conditions that I wanted. I shot the landscape during blue hour (on my a 7R III, with the 12-24 mm f/4 lens, and on a tripod) and waited for twilight stars. When twilight stars never came, I blended in the clouds from another location to complete the image in a more impactful way. I shot the clouds handheld, on my Sony a7R III, with the 16-35 mm f/2.8 lens at f/8, 1/60 seconds, and ISO 100. During the editing process I pushed more blue tones into the sky to make it match the tones of the foreground I shot during blue hour.

During her time in Death Valley, Ross photographed both the desert landscape and the night sky to come up with complex compositions such as the Milky Way, shot at right. Continue reading below to learn more about her process.

JW: Please describe your approach to post-processing in the two pictures of the cactus amid the rocks. Is there a significant difference to your approach to shooting and post between the sunset view and the Milky Way shot? What software do you use for image stacking?

RJR: Good question, it’s a bit hard to briefly describe how I edit two images like the cactuses and the Milky Way together. In a nutshell, I import both photos into Adobe Photoshop as layers. I remove the original sky from the cactus shot, which reveals the Milky Way shot positioned below it. I feather the edges of the foreground image, adjust the colors to the same color palette, and try to shape the light.

The biggest difference between a typical sunset shot and any kind of night shot is that night shots tend to be noisier because of the low light. I have three methods for dealing with noise: 1) I shoot the foreground for my night shot during blue hour; 2) I use ambient light from the moon or light pollution to illuminate the foreground; and 3) I stack multiple images of the stars together for noise reduction using the Starry Landscape Stacker app.

Shot with a #SonyA7RIII and the incredibly sharp Sony 24 mm 1.4 G Master lens, this image was a blue-hour blend. Ross shot the foreground at f/11, ISO 100 for 30 seconds, and blended it with 47 stacked exposures for the sky shot at f/1.4, ISO 10000, for 3.2 seconds.

JW: At what time of night did you shoot the “blue-hour blend” image at Lady’s Boot Arch, and how long was the total exposure? What are your most important considerations in creating such a complex image as this?

RJR: I shot the foreground about an hour after sunset. My typical blue-hour settings are f/11 for 30 seconds at ISO 100. I didn’t move the tripod. I waited for the Milky Way to be in the right position and shot 20 images of the stars. I use an app called PhotoPillls to help me determine how long to leave the shutter open at a given aperture. For example, when shooting on my Sony a7R III with a 24 mm lens set to f/1.4, the recommended time is 3.6 seconds. Because the shutter speed is so short, I shoot at really high ISO (typically 10,000 to 12,500).

Ross used the PhotoPills app to determine how the center of the Milky Way would interact with the rock formations she was photographing.

JW: In what direction was your camera pointed at the Lady’s Boot Arch, and how would the look of this scene change over the course of the year?

RJR: I took this picture in March, and my camera was pointed southeast. Our view of the Milky Way changes throughout the year, depending on latitude. In the far north (places like Norway, Alaska, and Iceland) the galactic center of the Milky Way isn’t visible at any time. In middle latitudes (such as the Rocky Mountains) the galactic center is only visible from about March through September. As autumn approaches, the Milky Way shifts to the west before the center drops below the horizon. In the Southern Hemisphere, the core is visible a few months longer, but it appears flipped upside down!

To read more from Rachel Jones Ross’s 100 Nights Project, click here for the companion articles in this five-part series: 100 Nights of Photography Under the Stars, 100 Nights in Bone Chilling Cold, 100 Nights Under the Clouds, 100 Nights of Learning, and 100 Nights of Inspiration.

Thank you for joining our journey into night photography! For more Visualizing the Night content, please click here: Visualizing The Night and share your enthusiasm for this theme in the Comments section, below, or contact us on social media using #visualizethenight. Thanks for reading!

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