Into the Darkness - Waiting for the Light

One of the primary requirements for landscape photography is patience. It is rare to arrive at a location and create a beautiful landscape photograph within a minute of arriving. That’s called luck. Good landscape photography requires both patience and planning because we often need to wait for the best light and the best skies. We have to wait for the weather, too. Maybe we want stormy weather, or cloudy skies, or clear skies. We might need to wait for the wind to do what we want. Often all these desires mean having to return to a location multiple times before capturing the image we really want. That’s what landscape photography is about, though. As an artist, I have to present my vision of a place. For me, that vision is not going to change, but the environment is not always going to allow me to capture and express my vision. So I return another time. And another. And another. You get the idea.

Milky Way and Buttes, Sedona, AZ

But on this night in Sedona, AZ, everything was ideal for night sky photography. The weather was clear, the moon was not up, and at this time of year the Milky Way was in the sky at the right time and positioned nicely with key elements in the landscape. I arrived at my selected location before sunset. I knew the Milky Way would be in the position I desired between about 10:30 and 11:30 PM. So I had several hours to wait for the darkness to descend fully and for the light of the Milky Way to rise above the horizon and settle into the position I wanted for my photograph

What did I do in all that time? Well, first I got everything set up while I had enough light to see without a flashlight. I ensured my lens was focused properly on infinity so that the stars would be sharp points of light in my photograph. I took some time to frame my composition the way I wanted--that’s much easier to do when you can see what you’re looking at.

Preparing for night photography, Sedona, AZ

While there was still enough light, I read my book. The sunset was around 7:40, and very shortly after that I no longer had enough natural light for reading. With about three hours to go, the real waiting game now began. So what do I do at these kinds of times?

Well, this is one of the aspects I like about landscape photography. It gives me time to be alone and to think. That’s mostly what I did. I sat and I thought. A couple times I tried to lie down and nap, but the bare rock did not make the most comfortable bed. So I thought. Sedona is a thought-provoking place because of its beauty, and as night descends and you start to see the light of the stars taking over, it gives you even more to think about.

One of the brightest objects I saw in the early evening was Mars. I was amazed by how bright Mars appears in the sky. I was also excited that I could see Saturn. You can’t see Saturn’s rings with the unaided eye. I wasn’t going to capture the rings in a photograph with my 24 mm lens either, but it was exciting to see the planet in the sky. I liked the triangle formed by Mars, Saturn, and the star Antares, which were the three brightest objects in that area of the sky. So, just for the fun of it I made this photograph an hour or so after sunset.

Mars, Saturn, Antares, and Two Buttes, Sedona, AZ

Here I’ve pointed out the important objects I was looking at.

Details of previous photograph showing Mars, Saturn, and Antares

I started to think about these three objects in the sky. Mars is our neighbor. At about 140 million miles away on average, it’s less than a stone’s throw away, relatively speaking. Saturn is about 850 million miles away from us on average. Again, that’s next to nothing in the universe as a whole. Antares is 619.7 light years away. Now that’s a huge distance! We’re no longer talking in miles because miles no longer sound sensible at this distance. Who can fathom what 3,718.2 trillion miles is? It might as well be infinite. Instead, we know that the light from Antares takes 619.7 years to reach us, so we say it’s 619.7 light years away. But when you think about the size of the Milky Way galaxy, let alone the entire universe, Antares is also very close to us. Wow.

These are the kinds of things I think about when I have nothing to do but wait for the light. It doesn’t bore me. I just look up at the grand show going on in the skies above, and I enjoy it. It’s worth it because not only do I come back with a beautiful photograph, but I also come back a little humbler and more aware of my place--my very, very small place--in this universe.