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  • Oars + Alps

Ever wonder what exactly goes into capturing the *perfect* shot? We'll give you a hint: patience, planning, and more patience. Join astrophotographer Jack Fusco as he chronicles his journey on capturing a shot over a year in the making.

And just a reminder that his beautiful nighttime photography would not be possible without the efforts of the International Dark-Sky Association whose mission is “protecting the night sky from light pollution.”

The following blog post has been written by Jack Fusco for Oars + Alps:

The Milky Way stretches across the sky as a silhouette stands out along Dante's View in Death Valley.
Photo: Jack Fusco

I captured this image in March of last year on the second of two nights in Death Valley. I had planned out specific locations for each night that would require different conditions for shooting. On the first night, I’d visit with the Moon around 50% to capture images of the stars with the foreground completely lit up by Moonlight. My second night, I planned to be there when the skies would be at their darkest during the New Moon. This was the night I would focus on capturing as much starlight as possible.

I had a pretty ambitious itinerary for the night that would require covering over 100 miles of driving within the park and somewhere around 10-12 miles of hiking split up across 5 different locations. To make this happen, I spend a good amount of time using Google Maps and planning apps like Photo Pills to pinpoint the exact location I would need to be at the exact time of the night. 

Why did I have such exact windows for each location? Well, at different times of the year, as the Earth continues its orbit, different stars and celestial objects are visible in the sky. Orion is notably visible in the Winter months while the galactic core of the Milky Way is visible primarily in the Summer months. Throughout each night, the stars rise over one horizon and make their way across the sky as the Earth rotates. Taking all of this into consideration is part of each image I capture. 

That second night last March went just about as smooth as possible. Except as I was capturing that last image, I thought it could be better than I initially planned. Although I had envisioned the Milky Way balancing the upper left portion of the image, the core of the Milky Way would eventually continue moving across the sky and line up directly above the trail. There was just one small problem. About 15 minutes after I finished shooting, the stars began to be washed out by the first bit of daylight. So, I would need to return later in the year to try again. This was a location and an alignment I hadn’t seen anyone shoot the Milky Way, which in a popular location like Death Valley, is definitely a rarity. So, it drove me a bit crazy to not be able to capture it right away, but I was still excited.

Augmented Reality planner on phone to show where the Milky Way at different times to get the alignment Jack was searching for
Augmented Reality Planning App

The Planning Process

After returning home, I got back to my planning apps to see exactly when I would need to be back on the trail for the Milky Way to line up. I found the range of dates that would work for the celestial alignment and started looking into when I would be able to make my return. Unfortunately, since all of my projects and shoots need to be planned like this, I wouldn’t be able to make it back to Death Valley anytime in 2021 that would work for the alignment. It’s an unfortunate reality that I deal with on a fairly frequent basis. Sometimes it’s not being able to visit a location at the right time and other occasions it’s being in the right place at the right time, but not having the weather work out. It means that I find myself returning to a location time after time to chase an image. It might be a week apart, a few months, and in some cases a few years. 

If I had the choice, I’d come home with the photo I set out to capture every time. There are definitely shortcuts I could take that would require more time in front of a computer instead of traveling and out in the field. The truth is that I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a great deal of satisfaction that came along with finally capturing an image after spending so much time trying. 

So, I had the range of new dates that I could return to Death Valley. I was going to be teaching an astrophotography workshop in Southern California in July, which isn’t the ideal time to go for a hike in Death Valley (the average high is 116 degrees), but the sky would line up. So, with plenty of water and some extra precautions, a trip to Death Valley in July was on the books.

While the temperature in July leaves a lot to be desired, thankfully the skies tend to be clear on most nights in the desert. So, while it wasn’t a surprise, it was a relief to see the forecast was calling for clear skies on my way to Death Valley. On this occasion, I had a much less intense itinerary. I’d be heading straight to Dante’s View and sticking it out until the Milky Way was in position.

Arriving at Dante's View a little before sunset, I broke out the AR function of my planning app for some additional visual confirmation on the timing I would need to shoot. Last time, I took the image by shooting 8 long exposure images using a SIGMA 35mm f1.4 DG DN | ART lens. While I intended to capture a very similar view, this time I would be approaching the scene using a slightly wider focal length of 20mm. I would however face a new challenge this time around.

Screenshot of Wind App detailing wind speeds throughout the Death Valley area
Windy App

Facing Obstacles

The wind gusts sat somewhere between 40-65 mph for the entire night. I took this screenshot of the Windy app during one of the quiet moments of the night. Not ideal conditions for shooting long exposure images. It was honestly difficult to hike at certain moments throughout the night. The tripod needs to stay perfectly still during the whole exposure of 20 seconds, in this case, for the image to be perfectly sharp. I ended up adjusting how I set up my tripod and sat as low to the group as possible while also weighing the tripod down. The trail isn’t very wide and, while gradual, is a few thousand foot drop. I wasn’t concerned with falling off, but I was a little nervous about my gear going for an unaccompanied ride.

Man standing under arch made of rock holding flashlight
Photo: Jack Fusco

Taking the panoramic was challenging. Starting with the foreground, I tried my best to take images in the small breaks from the wind. This time around, I had a friend with me that would be standing a couple hundred yards down the trail. I signaled to him when I would begin taking the photo he would be in, as he would have to stand perfectly still the entire time. This was another challenge to deal with because of the wind. I took a few extra photos just to be certain and then moved on to taking the images off the sky taking the same precautions. If any of the images in this huge panoramic were individually blurry because of the wind, the whole image would be ruined.

Appreciating the Journey

It was 4:00AM, 92 degrees, and over a year after I had envisioned the photo that I had now hopefully captured. I’d have to wait a few days until I had time at my laptop to work on stitching the images together, but I felt good. 

Dashboard of a car showing 92 degrees fahrenheit and a time of 4:07 am

I’ve often wondered why I set out on journeys like this one. It would’ve been just as easy to walk away as it was to press on. Honestly, it’d probably be easier to walk away from chasing a lot of images, this one included. Setting out to spend time under the stars is something I find very personally satisfying and enjoyable, but something I have a deep passion to share. I think we all enjoy sharing the things that we care about with other people. And I think the long path to an image often builds my connection with it and makes sharing it more enjoyable. 

In the end, I hope people can appreciate the steps it took to capture an image as much as they enjoy the image itself. In a best case scenario, it will inspire someone to venture away from light pollution and head out under the stars for a similar experience. So, even if we weren’t there together, it’s a similar experience we can all share.

Looking up at an incredibly dark sky with an immense feeling of wonder. It’s a feeling that words can’t properly do justice. So, I hope you’ll find yourself out under the stars sometime soon and I hope you’ll let me know how much you enjoyed it.

The Shot 

Here’s the final panoramic image. It consists of 10 individual images, hours of planning, thousands of miles of travel, and over a year of waiting. I hope you enjoy it. 

Milky Way lined up directly over path with man standing on the hill
Photo: Jack Fusco
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