The night sky was lit up.
To witness the Milky Way draped across a northwest sky, we had driven to Mt. Rainier – our second time in four weeks – to avoid the light pollution caused by Seattle and Tacoma. A couple of hours past midnight, Amit and I stood at the parking lot next to Reflection Lake, cameras on tripod, wide lenses mounted. For a late September night in the northwest, it was not very cold. Every once in a while, a warm draft, bringing with it the scent of the forest, found us amidst the wilderness.
We had been shooting for fifteen minutes and I was still struggling to get a decent picture. The Tokina 11-16mm was switched to manual focus and set at infinity. With the Nikon 300S in manual mode, I had set the aperture to f2.6, my shutter speed to 30s and ISO to 3200. Using the self timer I shot a dozen frames but all I could manage was a dark indescribable patch with a few spotting of stars.
I tried to trouble shoot to no avail – checked I had not inadvertently left the ND on the lens, tried a different lens, defogged the mirror, wiped the glass, turned off every custom setting one at a time – until Amit noticed in the EXIF that my camera seemed to be shooting at ISO 200.
I soon traced the culprit configuration (ISO sensitivity Auto Control) and turned it to OFF. That meant, from now on, the camera was shooting exactly at the ISO I dialed in. That did the trick!
From then it was a mere exercise in composition.
Once I had canned 4-5 potential winners, we started experimenting with the foreground. The Jeep was the only available prop and we tried several things: illuminating the interiors with torches, head lamps on/off, taillights on/off, painting the Jeep with light – until we settled for a powerful beam of light locking into the base of the galaxy.
It was a night to remember.
I will remember it for a long time after having backed into my tripod to see my NIkon 300S, in slow motion, s-m-a-s-h-i-n-g against the curb, it’s LCD blown to smithereens.