n June 2014, I had the opportunity to take a workshop with legendary landscape photographer David Muench. Of all living landscape photographers, David is perhaps the most influential. His style has affected an entire generation.
I tend to keep a prioritized list of locations to shoot, and mostly work down that list when choosing my next excursion. David’s selected shooting location was Mono Lake (perhaps the subject of a future “Behind the Image” article), and the bristlecone pines of the White Mountains, both in California. Although those locations were nowhere near the top of my shooting location priority list, the opportunity to shoot with David was too good to pass up.
Shooting with David was at times exhilarating and intimidating. During this trip David gave me what to this day is the best compliment I’ve ever received as a photographer. There were occasions when he walked up to me as I was setting up for a shot, looked over my shoulder, and suggested a small alteration that significantly improved my composition. But David had high expectations as well, and could be very demanding. I remember at one point thinking, “I’ve just been yelled at by a photography legend!” In each case, I learned something.
And there were other times when he didn’t have to say anything at all. I would just watch his workflow and thought-process as he set up, and merely by asking myself “Why is he doing that?” I learned a great deal.
Much of our training was conducted at lower elevations, but the “final exam,” as it were, would occur on the peak of a mountain, at about 11,000 feet in elevation, in pitch dark.
You see David loves bristlecone pines. He spent much of his life chasing them down. The oldest living species on earth, one particular tree in the White Mountains of California has been alive for more than 5000 years. Most of the trees we would be shooting were already ancient when Christ was born. As difficult as it is to get your mind around this, it’s even more difficult to get to see them for real.
Bristlecones only live at very high elevations, high above the regular mountain tree-line. Seeing them usually involves driving as high as roads will allow, and then hiking up steep, rocky terrain another several hundred feet or more. Our objective was to take a photo of a Bristlecone at night, with the Milky Way galaxy in the shot. Doing so in the complete pitch black of night, outfitted fully with backpack, camera, and tripod, is particularly treacherous. And as hard as it is climbing up, climbing down the steep, slippery, rocky terrain is even harder!
As I did this I kept thinking “I’m too old for this,” but watching David pull this off in his 70s was quite a spectacle. Not to be outdone by someone more than 20 years my senior, I was determined to make this worth my while.
We climbed the mountain when there was still a bit of good light, giving us an opportunity to reconnoiter and pick out “our tree.” The idea was to wait until the sun set, the Milky Way rose, and get the tree and the Milky Way in the same shot. To plan for a shot like this, I make use of an iPhone app called “The Photographer’s Ephemeris.” Back in my college days during my astronomy studies, we made great use of an ephemeris to identify and map out stars. Little did I know that decades later I would be using one to precisely plan individual photos.
The app gave me a pretty good idea on what axis the Milky Way would rise. What was left for me then was to pick out an interesting-looking tree with clear sky behind it, get downhill from the tree so I had a clear shot-line, and then wait until the sky darkened and the Milky Way rose. That would happen around midnight. So we had several hours of waiting on a steep, slippery slope, trying our best not allow our boredom during the wait to cause us to do something silly that would cause us to fall off the mountain.
An hour or so after sunset it became very clear that night on this mountain would be very, very dark. So dark, in fact, that although we could see stars very well (they shone with great intensity that far away from a major city), and although we could even see the glow on the horizon from the lights of Los Angeles more than 300 miles distant, what we could not see the one thing that was supposed to be the very subject of our visit— the bristlecone trees themselves!
This presented a challenge. It meant we were going to have to somehow light the tree in order for it to be visible to the camera. There is a technique in photography called “light painting,” but it’s difficult to pull off without having the photograph look contrived. What you do is use very dim light to illuminate the subject of the photo while you have the shutter open. In this case, my headlamp filtered through my fingers would have to do the trick.
Normally to capture the milky way you have to keep the shutter open somewhere between 20 and 30 seconds. If you keep the shutter open for too short a time, the Milky Way won’t be bright enough to register on your camera’s sensor. More than 30 seconds and stars will actually move so much while the shutter is open that they will look like small blurs in your image rather than the single points of light you would like. A shutter speed somewhere between 20 and 30 seconds is just about right.
Because we had a couple of hours between sunset and the Milky Way rising, we had time to practice our light painting techniques. There are several problems involved: if you use too much light, the tree will be so bright it will “blow out” the Milky Way behind it. Not enough, and you won’t see the tree at all. Using a small, spot-beam of light also presented the problem of difficulty producing an evenly illuminated image across the tree. Without proper technique, you would produce “hot spots” on your tree, where some areas were significantly brighter than others.
Fortunately, I had done light painting several times before, and figured it wouldn’t take many tries for me to get it right. Indeed, my test images were coming out pretty good just as the Milky Way began to rise into view behind the tree.
The tree I had chosen possessed a unique feature: it had branches that stretched out laterally towards another tree, and that tree seemed to be reaching towards the first one, as if the two trees were reaching out towards each other. As I watched this feature, and as I monitored the Milky Way’s rise behind it, I was reminded of one of my visits to the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. Something was familiar about this scene. Then it occurred to me: it was Michelangelo’s famous painting, “Adam’s Creation,” where God is reaching his finger out to touch life into Adam.
This was the “decisive moment” I was looking for. I would wait until the Milky Way was directly in line with the two trees, as if the trees were reaching out to touch the Milky Way.
A new, different, “moment of creation.”
So there I was at about 11,000 feet altitude, with the temperature hovering near 30 degrees Fahrenheit, shivering, trying not to fall off this mountain, waiting hours for my shot, and I couldn’t be happier. I was pretty sure I would shortly be making one of my “shots of a lifetime.”
And as you can see above, I got it— exactly as I had hoped to. The light painting on the tree is even and not too “hot,” the Milky Way is right where I wanted it to be, the exposure, focus, and composition are just right.
One of my most challenging shots to get, and one of which I am very proud.
When I was telling this story to an art marketing person I met, he said to me, “Why did you go through all that trouble? You know Milky Way shots don’t have much demand. It will be hard to sell!”
He’s right. I don’t get a lot of demand for that shot. But it still hangs on my wall at home.
Sometimes it’s necessary to do art that sells. But sometimes you have to do it because the art itself is driving you. In other words, you can’t find a way to not do it.
This is one such photo. Knowing more about it now, I hope you come to enjoy it as much as I do.
If you like my work, please share with your friends!