THE HAZARDS OF DARK SKY PHOTOGRAPHY
Updated: Feb 1, 2021
In the middle of Baja Mexico, stuck in the unforgiving sand of an arroyo (a dry creek bed)...
In the center of the photo you will notice my immovable car. Even after letting some air out of the tires, rocking slowly back and forth, removing massive amounts of sand from the front and back of the wheels, and utilizing every other trick for removing a stuck vehicle...the car was going nowhere and only getting deeper and deeper into the sand.
This can be a frightening situation even in a relatively remote area such as a National Park or the deserts of the Southwestern United States.
But this was in a foreign country, 20 miles from the nearest highway, in a ditch 30 feet deep, and so remote not a single artificial light was visible throughout the night.
Many astrophotographers prefer to capture images of a planet, or a nebula, or a star cluster. Since these photographs consist of multiple frames of the same object taken over time (and then 'stacked' one upon another), such photography can be accomplished in all but the brightest of environments.
But the photos I prefer to take are big-sky, dark-sky photos.
In the near future, I will delve more deeply into the differences, but suffice to say for the truly "dark skies" I seek, it is required that I venture into areas containing little or no evidence of civilization.
It demands more than just getting beyond the city limits because cities, towns, and even hamlets create "light domes" that extend far up into the atmosphere. One must venture miles beyond the horizon if one wants to to photograph a light-free sky.
This photo was taken from Upper Pahranagat Lake, a full 66 miles (!!) from the city limits of Las Vegas. The light dome created by Sin City is still obtrusive in the southern sky.
When photographing in Mohave Preserve (for instance), venturing too far west will result in the light dome of the Los Angeles/San Diego corridor dominating the western horizon, but go too far to the east and Lake Havasu will have the same effect on the eastern horizon. I am fortunate in that the southwestern United States has more areas of dark sky than any other part of the contiguous US, but even so, there is a constant challenge to find truly *dark* skies.
This quest requires treks into the MOST remote and desolate areas imaginable. With such isolation, one encounters challenges of an extreme nature.
No cell phone service
No gas stations
Poorly maintained trails
No human souls for miles upon miles meaning nobody to offer aid or assistance in an emergency
To say one must "be prepared for anything" is cliché' and optimistic. One can't possible be prepared for "anything"; so we must prepare for most likely hazards... and pray that nothing worse befalls us. Some of these may seem obvious but it's easy to mistakenly overlook them:
Gallons of water and a filled 5-gallon gas can are obvious.
A well-stocked first aid kit
Good tires, a spare, and formidable tire jack
A compass and old-fashioned paper maps (your navigation app won't work well in remote areas)
Emergency rations: Beef jerky or other healthy "snacks" to give you sustenance as you trek back to civilization.
Bear spray, or other defensive measures such as a firearm if you encounter aggressive wildlife. Whether in the mountains or desert, you are among mountain lions, wolves, and other native species that my see you as an interloper or meal. Be aware of your surroundings.
Clothing suitable for different temperatures. Clear skies in the desert mean brutally hot days, but will also result in frigid temperatures once the sun sets. Researching the location and forecast beforehand on Windy.com can help with this as well.
Additional items such as a winch and satellite phone can be costly, but could save your life with only a single use.
I often marvel at the fact that so much of the "gear" that I pack for my trips has nothing to do with photography or astronomy, but they are essential when you venture out into the wilderness. There is a poignant quote from Lawrence Of Arabia, "The desert is an ocean in which no oar is dipped" and only when you are stuck in (literally) the middle of nowhere do you realize how true that is. You maybe on terra firma, but the separation from civilization might equally be in the middle of the ocean. You must be self-sufficient. Chances are, there will be nobody to come to your rescue if you befall a mishap, and you MUST have a plan for any "what if" scenarior.
The payoff is certainly worth it, as you will see some of the most glorious skies you've ever encountered and if you're lucky catch a photo or two. But all the beauty in the world can turn ugly real quick if your life is in jeopardy.
By planning ahead, you can focus on catching that 'perfect shot' rather than saving your life.