Favorite Travel Quotes

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."
-- Mark Twain
Innocents Abroad

"Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey." -- Fitzhugh Mullan

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving." -- Lao Tzu

Star Light, Stars So Very, Very Bright… Or Night Photography in Organ Pipe National Monument

©Bert Gildart: In Organ Pipe National Monument, the skies are among the darkest found anywhere in the United States. Increasingly, that’s becoming a rare condition, and for photographers, the pristine conditions found in this remote Arizona national monument located along the Mexican border is very good news.

If you understand the theory, and know your camera, you can dramatize your landscape images by back dropping your foreground with concentric lines that ring themselves around the one star in the sky that does not appear to move—the North Star.

The North Star is, of course, part of the constellation Ursa Minor, and it is the only star in the heavens that appears to remain stationary. To locate it, find the Big Dipper and then follow the two stars at the base of the cup until you come to a bright star. It is also the last star in the tail of the Little Dipper—Ursa Minor.

Because the star remains fixed much mythology has emerged, some of the most interesting interpretations from Native Americans. In one myth, a brave son Na-Gah tries to impress his father by climbing the tallest cliff he could find. Through difficult conditions he persisted until he found himself at the top of a very high mountain.

Unfortunately, there was no way down, and when his father came looking for him, he found Na-Gah stuck high above. Not wanting his son to suffer for his bravery, he turned Na-Gah into a “motionless” star that can be seen and honored by all living things.

One way to honor that star is through photography—using techniques that help generate understanding. In reality, the star does not move because the axis of the earth is almost perfectly aligned with the North Star. If you place a camera on a tripod, point it at the North Star, and then leave it there for several hours, all other stars will appear to rotate around it, creating arcs. If it were perfectly dark for 24 hours, circles around the North Star would be a full 360 degrees. Simple math shows 12 hours would yield 180 degree arcs on your film plane; six hours, 90 degree arcs, and so on.

Because so many stars appear in the unpolluted skies, smaller arcs will also provide dramatic results. Those shown here were recorded over a two-hour period. The image was made with a Nikon D-200 set at an ASA of 100. I opened my 21mm wide-angle lens to f-3.5, set the camera on manual and then set the time to “B”, which means the shutter remained open until I snapped closed the cable release. It was a moonless night and that was also critical.

I made several exposures, and during my evening afield, I lay on a Thermarest in the bed of our pickup, mixing reading with hardcore star gazing. I found Cirrus, brightest star in the sky. I found Saturn, and with the aid of high power binoculars, could make out the rings.

Though I had tried photographing stars at home in Montana, which certainly has some portions free of light pollution, I was not successful—essentially because of a lack of research. Determined to overcome previous mistakes I began making plans several days ago.

To find an area free of the lights of campers, I drove about 5 miles from our Twin Peaks Campground in Organ Pipe to Alamo Canyon, also in the park. Here I found several cacti that would frame the North Star, and a small hill for added interest. Because everything had to be aligned with the North Star, I had taken a compass and made precise daytime readings. Finally, I found the location shown in the accompanying image. And this is the site to which I returned near sunset.

You can create similar landscapes if you find skies free of light pollution. In a world intent on occupying every square inch with Homo sapiens, that, of course, will be your biggest challenge.

One Response to “Star Light, Stars So Very, Very Bright… Or Night Photography in Organ Pipe National Monument”

  1. "Abe" Lincoln Says:

    I have followed you via Rich’s blog. Your photo of the North Star is wonderful and I like your explanation on why the North Star appears stationary.