Category Archives: Travel

How to Not Lose (Much) Sleep

Save the Wonder II [C_070237]

If you want to catch the good stuff… like a meteor shower, or the Milky Way rising in Spring you have to be up in the wee hours. After midnight up to perhaps sunrise.  There are some tricks to pulling this off without collapsing – or worse, falling asleep at the wheel.  One problem with doing night photography is that motels and hotels aren’t particularly suited to the night photographer who would prefer to get to bed after breakfast and sleep until dinner – you often end up paying for two days worth of room that you only use for 8 hours!

So here are some ways you can “Store up Sleep” to support your night habit.

The No Stay Method

  • Get plenty of sleep in the afternoon.
  • Drive from home to the event.
  • Do the shooting
  • Get Breakfast
  • Nap on a cot, pad or bench
  • Drive back home, stopping to rest or nap as needed.

Obviously you can try to get to the shooting location sooner, but for most people it’s not safe to not get proper rest especially if you’re driving.  For example, if I know I want to shoot a milky way rise – I work backward from my arrival time.  Let’s say I need to be on site at 3:00 am and it is a 5 hour drive. That means I will want to hit the road at 10:00 pm. It might sound scary to drive from 10 pm to 3 am, but if you’re properly rested you may find the lack of traffic refreshing and the travel time that much quicker – I do this all the time!  To pull this off, see my “Body Clock Reprogramming” method.

Stay and Play method

  • Arrive in the early afternoon.
  • Check in to an area hotel, motel or campsite.
  • Get lunch.
  • Retire EARLY for sleep.
  • Get up EARLY (depends how far away you are from the location) Perhaps a 2:30 AM or earlier.
  • Do the shooting.
  • Get Breakfast
  • Get back to the hotel in time for at least an hour or two (or ask for late checkout)
  • Check out and go home… or stay another night.

Body Clock Reprogramming

A lot of people claim that they can’t sleep during the day. Hogwash, I say.  If I know I’m going to do a long weekend of night shooting, I can push my body clock around a little – in spite of my day job. For example, if I know I’ll be shooting mostly in the pre-dawn hours, starting on Wednesday, I’ll go to bed an hour earlier and get up one or two hours earlier. If you don’t get out of bed until 9:00 am… you’ll have to start reprogramming on MONDAY.  Do this each day before the trip – go to bed an hour or two earlier and get up an hour or two earlier the following morning.  If you normally arise at 6:30 (like I do), after two days you will find you’re easily awake at 2:30 AM – perfect!  And a day later you won’t have much trouble getting up at midnight and plowing through perfectly perky until well after breakfast.   Just remember to avoid caffeine and stimulants!  By the way, altering your body clock like this is a great way to get ready for an upcoming trip to another time zone.

If you can’t push your body clock that far, then plan to sleep or nap at your shooting location. I usually bring a fully reclining chair, a comfortable pillow and TWO sleeping bags – one very warm one, one that is only meant to take the chill off. I can then either sleep out-of-doors, or if necessary in my car.  This works well if I’m running a timelapse or star trail – the intervalometer does all the work. In fact, while I was taking the shots for this timelapse/startrail:

The Cove [C_071837-940br]

I was a dozen feet from my camera in my car out of the wind checking the progress every once in a while on my CamRanger. I didn’t have to leave the car except to change batteries or memory cards!  I didn’t have to use the CamRanger, of course, an intervalometer is just fine. There is an advantage to using a Canon for unattended operation, however. That red “exposing light” on the back of the camera can be seen from a long way off. I can easily and quickly take a look and know that the camera is doing its thing. With the Nikon, you have to watch carefully for the “green flash” as it writes to the memory card – if you have 6 minute exposures, you may have to wait a LONG time.  The CamRanger makes it a bit easier because I can also check the images, and the camera battery status, and memory card status remotely.

Leave The Gear

Oh, and there is one more way: set your camera up, leave, and come back for it. I usually aim to return BEFORE dawn because few humans bother to be out before the sun is up. My gear has been left alone in the wild quite often.  Of course I’ve already triple checked and prepared for the weather conditions and I place my camera where it’s not easily located – except by me. It’s a good idea to triple check all your settings. More than once I’ve left and upon return found I forgot a setting. For a belt and suspenders approach, I also keep track of the camera’s exact location with a GPS or by “dropping a pin” on my iPhone. Of course the downside here is you may need a huge memory card, a super strong battery, and you can’t have too much separation anxiety about leaving your gear. It won’t do you any good if you leave and DON’T get any sleep because you fear for the safety of your gear.  Trust me, your gear is braver than you are!

Sometimes when we run workshops, we take turns guarding the gear for one another, so you can also agree to leave a guard soldier behind if you shoot with buddies.  Just be sure to be kind to your guard – they will likely be grumpy.

Where to Go for Dark Skies?

No matter where you live on earth you have a chance to witness the incredible experience of watching bits of space debris streak through our atmosphere and create cosmic fireworks. In an older column I described How to Photograph Meteors – it is a daunting and luck laden process. Here I want to give some useful hints about WHERE to go to get the best view. These same hints may also help you find a location to view the Milky Way.

What I am not planning to tell you is where *I* would go because many of you are reading from all over the world and it would be little help to you for me to mention Yosemite, or Windy Hill Open Space Preserve.  Instead, what I want to do is to give you the insight to figure out where the best place is for YOU.  Here are the parameters to weigh:

  1. Goals
  2. Weather
  3. Accessibility
  4. Distance
  5. Darkness


It might seem strange, but I pick different locations depending on what it is I want. If I just want to watch meteors then I will pick a place that may compromise the other factors.  Assuming my goal is to photograph meteors, I have a second important decision: Do I want meteors, or do I want meteors in the context of a landscape?  For me the answer is almost always in the context of a landscape for the reasons I illuminated in this article.  In my opinion a shot of a meteor might be interesting, but a shot of a meteor over a lovely mountain, lake or landmark is WAY more interesting. For example compare the two photos below. The first shot is an Iridium flare (not a meteor, though it looks like one). The second is definitely a meteor. Which one is the most interesting? Yeah, the second one!

Meteor or Iridium Flare? [5_028205-dk] Star Man and Perseus [C_059960-1]

The next part of the goal is to figure out WHICH direction the landmark needs to be.  For example the Geminid Meteor shower is one of the few showers where the “radiant point” is visible all night long. But that also means that it may be best to shoot East after sunset, or West before sunrise and around midnight you’ll want to point south when the constellation will be high in the sky.  Of course meteors appear anywhere in the sky, but I like to keep a part of the radiant in my shots.

Once I’ve figured out which direction I’d like to face, only then can I start including and excluding locations. Of course an ideal place would allow me to face ANY direction, but the truth is not many ideal places are left in the world.


Now that I know which direction I’d like to face, I have to decide how much I am worried about bad weather.  Out here on the US West Coast a drive of 4 hours will get me to a mountain – the Sierras, 5 to 7 hours can take me to a desert area where it will generally be clear – but often windy, and a shorter drive will get me to a coastal area that may be fog plagued in some seasons.  In short, I would like to be as certain as I can about the weather conditions and thus will always have a plan B.  I have previously discussed the tools I use to track and plan for the weather.


While I would love to pass the time at a High Sierra location watching a meteor shower (awesome!), it might be really impractical or impossible for me to get there with my equipment in the dead of winter – even if the weather itself is not the problem. Road closures, park closures, etc. may interfere.  If I want to take friends or clients I need to restrict the amount of schlepping and walking required.  Some areas, like state, county and local parks which might be ideal are usually CLOSED, locked and gated at night.  National Parks and BLM designated land are generally open at night so rank high on my favorite places list.

Not only should my desired location be easy to get to by car but I would prefer a short walk to a safe location, and preferably in an area that has little or no car travel at night to ruin my night vision or my night shots.  Sometimes little intangibles like the direction and slope of any nearby roads makes a big difference. If a location is the top of the hill but a road points directly at it means I probably want to be on the other side of that hill to prevent the intrusion of headlights.  The arch shot above is an example of that hazard – a bend in the road causes cars to sweep their headlights across the landscape at that location.

It’s also unwise to attempt to use private land without permission. Being an unwelcome guest could result in embarrassment, hassle or hazard!


I have already touched upon this, but by distance I really mean time, effort and cost to reach the location. Since meteor showers occur annually, I am less inclined to make a huge effort if the circumstances do not look like they will be ideal.  On the other hand, I had no problem driving 1,000 miles roundtrip to put myself in the path of the Transit of Venus – an event that will not happen again in my lifetime (or yours).


The one commodity that we are perhaps in the least supply of is darkness. So many cities, so much light pollution. But I do not need TOTAL darkness. If I have decided the best view is to the south, I just need to make sure no major cities lie south of my location. If my intended view is east, then I want mountains or distance to insulate me from the glow of light pollution to my east.  Unfortunately darkness is also a function of weather.  Humidity, clouds, water vapor and air particulates can turn a generally dark location into an awful mess through the effect of human-made light sources. A place that is clear and dark during most of the winter might be horrible in the balmy summer.

Prior experience is often the best indicator of where deepest darkness is found. Sometimes the easiest way to find a dark place is to simply look at a map – making note of the terrain and where the cities are in relation to your desired direction of view.  There is a dark sky locator that may help as well.  And you can do your part by joining the International Dark Sky Association and being an advocate for responsible lighting ordinances. I am a member.

Putting it All Together

You’ve probably already figured out that finding a combination of an interesting foreground that is easily accessible but a not too distant place with reliable weather is no small feat.  Some people think that if you go where astronomers like to go you’ll get all the right stuff. But that’s not true. Astronomers do care about almost all of these things, but the one thing that matters little to an astronomer is the landscape.  Astronomers are looking at the sky so a featureless high plateau is just fine. Oh, and if you want to light paint your foreground, you will really tick off astronomers!

So now you may have also surmised why I do not freely share my hard found locations. BUT if you join me on a workshop or webinar you will find out!


Oh the Weather Outside is Frightful – or Not

Published: May 18, 2012
Updated: May 3, 2016

One of the necessary tools a night (or landscape) photographer must have in their tool bag is a decent weather forecasting tool.  Though I’ve been known to ignore the forecast for some events, like an Annular Solar Eclipse, I definitely am more inclined to go where the weather is clearer (Nevada) than where it will be cloudy (Crescent City, CA).

A forecast like this despite how detailed it seems to be is all but useless to me: forecast forecast

This is the hourly forecast. The “daily forecast” is less helpful. How partly is partly cloudy? And how mostly is mostly cloudly? Other sites sometimes just say “sunny” during the day and give no idea what night will be like.  Compare the above with the forecast from NOAA.

NOAA to the Rescue (no Ark)

Fortunately the US National Weather Service provides a nicely detailed “click point” forecast with charts of the hour-by-hour conditions. oh yeah. oh yeah.

There is quite a lot to take in here but it’s all good stuff.  The “partly cloudy” at 7PM  shows as 72% cloudy (Sky Cover) on Not only are the forecasts different, but I get more useful numbers.  It looks like the wind will be very gusty during parts of the day. But the humidity won’t be so severe that dew will form.  If it weren’t for the mostly cloudy skies, night photography might work out ok.

Where do you find this great tool. Start here:

Once you get to the forecast, look for a small graphic on the right under “Additional Resources”.  But that, my friend, is where the good stuff is. Before you rush off on the hourly thing, though, take a look at the little map window. forecast area highlighed in green. forecast area highlighed in green.

You can get a forecast for any specific area by clicking on the map!  So, for example clicking on the summit of Mission Peak (just off the screen to the north) may give you a significantly different forecast – one that is adjusted for the difference caused by altitude.

Do remember that these are “forecasts” not actualities, so be prepared for whatever may happen.

Wunderground Classic

I used to use Weather Underground. Then they changed it so that the good stuff was only in “Classic”. But really, no need to use it at all any more.

May the wind not be at your back or in your face, may the road not be muddied by rain and may the clouds gather only when you really want them i.e. at sunrise and sunset.

Zoom Zoom

Phil McGrew had an out of this world idea. Capture the International Space Station as it hurtled across the face of the pre-dawn moon.  Great Idea – because it worked!

This is the raw data we used to decide where to go.

[google-map-v3 width=”620″ height=”320″ zoom=”12″ maptype=”hybrid” mapalign=”center” directionhint=”false” language=”en” poweredby=”false” maptypecontrol=”true” pancontrol=”true” zoomcontrol=”true” scalecontrol=”true” streetviewcontrol=”true” scrollwheelcontrol=”true” draggable=”true” tiltfourtyfive=”false” addmarkermashupbubble=”false” addmarkermashupbubble=”false” kml=”” bubbleautopan=”true” showbike=”false” showtraffic=”false” showpanoramio=”false”]

We agreed to meet at a spot that fell near the “blue line” in the graph above. Namely, Muir Beach Overlook.  I woke up at 3:00 AM and arrived there at 4:45 AM. Everyone showed up on time at 5:00 am and we lugged our equipment into the conveniently located World War Two era machine gun bunkers which kept us out of the wind. There were 3 such bunkers and I took up residence in the closest one since I had the most gear to haul (and am the most lazy).

Bunkered Down for the Morning…

My companions picked two other bunkers, while Rick headed further North along the coast highway.  Note: Don’t let the term Highway confuse you it is a tortuous winding road hanging on sheer cliffs above the Pacific Ocean.


Resources and References

Notes about the Event

Before we left we had some discussions about whether the ISS would be visible and how to prevent it from “streaking” and smearing. The ISS is moving at  17,800 miles per hour. At its altitude from our location, that means it crosses the ½ a degree wide moon in under two seconds! At minimum I needed to select an fast enough shutter speed to max out the camera’s frames per second (more chances to get at least ONE hit) which on the Canon 50D is about 5.3 fps.  However we weren’t sure about the comparative brightness of the ISS compared to the moon.  If it were sufficiently dimmer then the moon brightness would overwhelm the ISS.

It’s interesting to try to get the ISS against both the lit and unlit portion of the moon – and we indeed got both.  The ISS trajectory and where you choose to go affects what you will see.  One of our group went farther north and got the ISS brushing the lit edge of the moon, though not crossing it.  This proved to be a quite interesting shot as it is definitely true that the ISS does not stand out well against the moon.

I went with about f/9. This is a rough calculation factoring the f/7.5 refractor  [80mm aperture with 600mm focal length], and a 1.4 teleconverter.  I had to tape over the pins on the camera-teleconverter or it would not let me take the shot “cannot communicate with lens” well – duh, the lens in this case is a TELESCOPE.  ISO 800, speed 1/500th of a second and the camera in BURST (continuous high speed exposure) mode.

We were not expecting a whole lot but were all high fives and thumbs up afterward.  Now that I’m groggy from sleep deprivation I’m wondering if driving about 4 hours round trip was worth 3 seconds of glory.  Yeah, I think so.

If you’re interested in catching the moon near your favorite STATIONARY object, I’ve got a well reviewed, well attended webinar on that.  Want to try some Astrophotography? I’ve got webinars and field shoots for that, too.  Join me and let’s do something unusual with night and low light shots.

For the latest predictions for the San Francisco Bay Area, Yosemite National Park, and Research Triangle North Carolina see this page.