Braving the Night

Sara Leikin Sara Leikin

1000 Words

A photograph is worth (at least) a thousand words. Here are my thousand words to describe photographs, techniques, and the moments that make the image.

Braving the Night
Braving the Night

When I was 10 years old, at summer camp, our counselors came into the cabin one night to wake us up and herd our sleepy little selves out to the horse pasture. I don’t remember if there was a program, but I have never forgotten that sky. The phrase “blanket of stars” is overused. Yet, my memory is of a sky so completely saturated with stars that they seemed to completely cover the night, and us. The wonder was real and even then I recognized the rarity of that moment. Even if I didn’t know about light pollution, I certainly knew that the stars at home didn’t look anything like the stars I was seeing that night. Of all my summer camp moments, that night, and those stars, are my best and most vivid memory.

Several years after my camp experience, sailing with my family on Chesapeake Bay on calm waters, it truly felt as if we were floating in the sky. It was impossible to tell where the water and the sky met. We bobbed silently in that vertigo-inducing world. Later, I read and related to “Wind, Sand and Stars” by Antoine de St. Exupéry:

“When I opened my eyes, I saw nothing but the pool of nocturnal sky, for I was lying on my back with outstretched arms, face to face with that hatchery of stars. Only half awake, still unaware that those depths were sky, having no roof between those depths and me, no branches to screen them, no root to cling to, I was seized with vertigo and felt myself as if flung forth and plunging downward like a diver. But I did not fall. From nape to heel I discovered myself bound to earth. I felt a sort of appeasement in surrendering to it my weight. Gravitation had become as sovereign as love. The earth, I felt, was supporting my back, sustaining me, lifting me up, transporting me through the immense void of night.”

And then I suppose that life on Earth blocked out the sky. I don’t have other memories of night skies after that until late into adulthood. Life and love, and death, interfered. I changed jobs. I fell in love. I lost parents. I moved across the country. I had not spent much time in the Southwest before moving to New Mexico. Was it possible that I had found those skies that had alluded me since I was a child? From the first days here, I was captivated by the sky- pink and warm at dawn, the new cloud formations throughout the day, the endless blue at noon, the fire colors that swirled at sunset, and of course at night, when the stars and moon are the highlight. Even in the Albuquerque metropolitan area, the light pollution is minimal enough that the stars are bright and plentiful. And just a short drive away are rural areas that make seeing the constellations and Milky Way a common, yet still thrilling, reality.

Shortly after moving here, I attended night sky workshops during the Festival of the Cranes at the Bosque del Apache and the Very Large Array. I learned a few very important lessons that weekend:

  1. It’s very cold in November, at night, in central New Mexico.
  2. Even though I was willing and learning, I did not have the right equipment (and was reminded of this by the instructors often.)
  3. Good instructors make or break a photography workshop.
  4. Even without the right equipment and the bitter cold, I was hooked.

Contrary to the instructors’ beliefs, I did get a few good images during those workshops. I learned about kelvins and an appropriate white balance and the importance of a solid tripod. And while those photos are not my best work, I’m still proud of their beauty and the story they tell about my own journey in night photography. I won’t lie, I was intimidated by those instructors and their attitude towards my beginner questions. Once they believed that my crop sensor camera wasn’t up to the task (or me either, for that matter) they largely ignored me. I’m sure I could have been a better advocate for myself, but I was also content to work on what I had learned and, afterwards, I turned to the internet and YouTube videos. My desire to learn and improve my night photography only grew.

More recently, I participated in a workshop in Sedona with National Parks at Night. What a difference! These instructors answered my questions and while they also weren’t crazy about my gear, they at least assured me that I could still get great images with patience and knowledge. Sedona is a dark sky community, and the workshop was scheduled to align with a new moon and an early rising Milky Way. Every night we all fawned over the skies blooming above us while we set up our gear and composed our shots. We worked on star points and star trails. We learned how to compose during the blue hour so we could blend focused foregrounds with our tack sharp stars in post. When I downloaded my first set of images from the memory card, I held my breath. And then I cried. Tears of pride and joy and perseverance. Sharp stars. Composed foregrounds and interest. Dozens of exposures stacked on top of one another became star trail images I had once only dreamed of were there on my screen. I love this iterative process, that it is one of constant learning and trial and error. That the heavens are always changing and you have to adapt with them.

It’s winter again and my nighttime forays are limited, even when the skies are crystal clear and fields of stars tease me beyond the window. I still practice on my patio on the occasional mild evening and I’ve registered for another National Parks at Night workshop, this time in Kanab in May. I can’t wait to see what heavenly wonders await me.

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