Long Way to Go (Almost No Night Exposures)


I had big dreams. Starry skies over places like the Great Pyramid in Giza, incredible formations in Petra, and so on. But what happened was quite a bit different.

Before I bore you with more words here are some links you might be interested in:

Instead of starting our journey with a few days in Cairo, the Egyptians decided to overthrow Mubarak rendering travel there impossible. How selfish and inconvenient of them, eh?

The good news about the uprising is that it meant that the first 3 days of my scheduled tour were negated. Rather than dropping days out of the tour, my wife, myself and another couple (Bert and Dale) traveled on our own to Jordan. This was fortuitous in that we were able to go more places than the tour would have taken us including the most photographically interesting locations: Petra and Wadi Rum. It was also rather necessary since we had already planned to travel to London to visit the exhibit at the Royal Observatory before the tour was scheduled to start. It was fun being recognized at the Royal Observatory. And it’s probably the first time in my life anyone (about a half a dozen people, actually) asked for my autograph (on postcards and notecards featuring my image, no less).

Royal Observatory Exhibit

Photo 1: Me at the Royal Observatory

Getting back to the travel… Many people recommended Wadi Rum – and I knew I’d want to spend more time in Petra than the 2/3 of a day that the tour provided for. So we made a whirlwind trip to the Royal Observatory and left the next day for Amman, Jordan where we arrived at nearly midnight and then drove almost 4 hours to Petra. The desert road through Jordan was in good shape. Finding a gas station in the night was a bit of an adventure. Filling the tank cost about $80. We Americans are spoiled by cheap gas. Yes, cheap. Jordan has no oil resources and like most of Europe the cost is as much as 1.076 Jordanian Dinar ($1.69 USD) per litre. That’s $6.43 USD per gallon. In a relatively poor country like Jordan, that is an enormous burden compared to the cheaper energy costs here in the US.

One big gotcha on Jordanian roadways: speed bumps. Usually well marked, but sometimes the stealth ones will send you flying into the ceiling of the car. Just ask my wife.  Near the very end of our travel to Petra – at about 3:20 in the AM, we encountered thick, San Francisco-esq fog in the higher altitudes before descending into Wadi Musa and Petra. Petra by-the-way refers to both the name of the modern town AND the ancient Nabataean ruins. The tourism bureau in Jordan has poured a LOT of money into the area around modern Petra. Swanky hotels are everywhere. But the route there is rather depressing for the poverty and severely austere environment.

The fog didn’t descend into the inhabited areas of modern Petra. But as you can guess a 4:00 am arrival and thick cloud layer above made night photography impractical. Unfortunately heavy cloud cover occurred nearly every night during the trip.  My three clear night scenarios coincided with either exhaustion or night time arrival an an urban environment where I was too timid (and tired) to seek out some interesting foreground.

Still groggy from travel, we didn’t even make it out of doors of the Petra Marriott until about 11 am and spent from about 12:45 pm until 6 pm in Petra. One of the nasty little surprises we encountered was that the “about 10 dinars” Petra entry fee quoted by the hotel clerk turned out to be 50 dinar – $75 USD per person. And the Petra admission tickets could only be paid in Jordanian dinar – no credit cards. Not willing to trust the exchange service adjacent to the payment site, and having too little dinar (and too few USD to exchange), I set off for the nearest ATM machine. I was told it was located in the Movenpick Hotel. Finding the entrance proved challenging. Heavy security is everywhere. In Jordan, every major hotel has baggage screeners and metal detectors. I put my photo backpack through the screener and then asked at the concierge desk where to find the ATM machine. I was then told that it was broken but that I could exchange money at the desk. The exchange rate quoted was decent EXCEPT that they also charged a 5 dinar fee for any transaction… and remember I didn’t have enough USD on me anyway. Sigh.  After returning to the Petra entry area, I discovered my wife had enough USD left for me to exchange to gain us entry.  Bert and Dale and my wife all got one day 50 dinar tickets. I bought a 2 day ticket for an additional 5 dinar because I intended to return the next morning as early as I could. It was a wise investment.  During our trip that day we dallied, a lot. I ran partway up the trail to Ad Deir (aka the Monastery) intending to turn around at 4:30 PM. Halfway up I elected to go with a donkey for 15 dinar to cut the time (and the sweat). I got to Ad Deir at a great time as the setting sun broke through some haze and clearing clouds and cast sweet low angle light on the impressive building carved out of stone. To get a sense of scale, those are two people seated in the doorway.

Ad Deir (Monastery) [5_029970]

Photo 2: Ad Deir (aka the Monastery) in fantastic light

My first opportunity for night shooting occurred at the end of the first full day in Petra, Jordan – in ancient Petra itself (Photo 3). We exited well after sunset and though the skies were getting hazy, I imagined myself staying in Petra for night photography – except that I hadn’t brought by tripod with me!

Nightfall, Petra [C_020077]

Photo 3: Nightfall in Petra with Jupiter and the Moon

I improvised with a carefully propped up camera at high ISO. With a tripod I could have exposed for the foreground and you’d have seen an impressive natural canyon called a “siq” (Photo 4).

Faux Verisimilitude [C_019828p]

Photo 4: Siq in Petra

The next morning I booked a “local taxi (a donkey) for a trek up to the “High Place of Sacrifice”. My guide was a Bedouin named Mansour. For fun I shot a video from my saddle on the donkey. It is a bit bumpy, of course, but gives you an idea what the trip (and a donkey ride are like). See the Petra Donkey Cam!

During the night prior to my second Petra foray I got a few shots, but the moving cloud cover dissuaded me from making a star trail (Photo 5).

Petra Skies [C_020114]

Photo 5: Petra Night Sky - with clouds.

Tours are an informative way to learn the lay of the land and the history… but as I suspected not well suited to photography. Generally we arrived at interesting locations well after sunrise and left well before sunset. And since we were almost never in the same place twice, scouting for sunrise, sunset, or night locations was mostly futile. Remaining in one spot for more than 15 minutes also seldom happens. Indeed the last night of the tour I got lost as the group went ahead in the dark… more on that in the next installment.

After Petra we “self tourers” visited Wadi Rum. Wow. It was a gorgeous and immense place. I would have loved to spend a night there. I imagine it would have been extremely dark with incredible stars. It was, however, mostly cloudy and somewhat hazy.

Now for the Fun Part [C_020338]

Photo 6: Wadi Rum

More on my adventures in the next column.

Oh, by the way the Almost Nothing title is relative to my photography aspirations, not the trip itself!

What do you think about this?