Category Archives: Travel

Cross Country – Things Learned Driving East to West (Parts 1 and 2)

Last revised 6/14/2019

San Jose to East Coast by plane and then driving back over 15 days

If you already read this and are looking for the rest of the article (parts 3, 4 and 5)… Look HERE.

Steven’s father passed away last December and the family decided to hold a memorial in Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia on Memorial Day weekend. Seemed entirely appropriate as that is when all of dads cross-country scattered kin could convene… that and dad also served in the Army during the Korean War era. What I hope to illuminate in this article are some of the considerations to consider to take a multi-day or longer car trip. In this case, we flew to Roanoke Virginia via Chicago (the upper line) and then drove my fathers car back from Smith Mountain Lake through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and finally California.

I’ve divided the discussion into the following sections:

  1. Trip Planning Tools (Excel and Google Maps proved to be the most useful)
  2. Supplies and Provisions
  3. Booking Lodging and Excursions
  4. Photography and Night Photography Considerations
  5. Lessons Learned (What went wrong, what went right)

Trip Planning – Google Maps + My Scenic Drives + Excel

The way I started was simple: fire up google maps, enter my beginning city, added known stops (arranged east to west) and see what happened. To travel directly from Moneta, Virginia (Smith Mountain Lake) to San Jose mapped out as 40 hours of driving over 2722 miles. Since our actual mileage was 3982, clearly we did not take the “straight path” which would have been I40 nearly the whole way. One of the limitations with Google Maps is that you can have a maximum of 10 stops – unless you’re willing to do strange unnatural acts (or create your own map). But the key here was to see what the total distance was. Next I looked at breaking the trip up into digestible bits. The goal was to NOT drive more than 8 hours total in a day. And more significantly, to not be “on the road” more than about 10 hours including stops for sightseeing meals and potty breaks. Google maps was a bit unwieldy as I added more destinations and re-routed the segments to include driving to and through places of interest. One of the nice side benefits of using Google Maps, though, is that I could pull up the map on my laptop and send it to my phone directly. The phone then served as our GPS since the 12 year old navigation system in the car was clearly out of date.

One tool that I spent a lot of time on, and certainly helped was “My Scenic Drives“. The interface is a little clunky but My Scenic Drives can automatically divide up your driving based on time, but its method is not ideal. Indeed, the best use of My Scenic Drives was to “Find Nearby Attractions”. That proved to be it’s forte. “Avenue of the Ancients?” Why yes, thank you. “Valley of the Gods?” OF COURSE!, Chaco Culture, Mesa Verde, Bisti Badlands…. nearly all of these were suggested when searching in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. At one point I had at least 70 items “on the map” as potentials, and I paired it back to a mere 50. Reality eventually set it and I paired it back much further.

My Scenic Drives was quite useful for finding places of interest near or on the route.

I had a core list of must go places which included White Sands, NM; Monument Valley, UT; Lake Powell, AZ/UT; Lower Antelope Slot Canyons, Page, AZ; Toadstool Hoodoos, Kanab, UT; Valley of Fire State Park, NV. To that list there was a long list of LIKE-to-GOs that included Chaco Culture, Avenue of the Ancients, Mesa Verde, and many more. Since my wife traveled with me, it was also important to include stops and destinations that were of interest to her as well.

El Paso, We Have A Problem

Ultimately the reality of the distances, vehicle choice and time constraints dictated what stayed in and what fell out of the plan. And THEN it got even tougher… Scheduling it on some days required to-the-HOUR timing. To be clear, not every day needed to-the-hour scheduling, but 2 of the 14 did… and that’s when I turned to creating an Excel spreadsheet. The spreadsheet helped in a number of ways: accumulating miles (and thus predicting fuel costs and tracking lodging costs), accumulating time, and also keeping a record of addresses, reservation numbers and status… and more. The reality of one of the days made me realize that from Farmington, NM to Monument Valley, AZ, it was just not possible to go through Avenue of the Ancients AND Valley of the Gods as well. The reason: I had booked an overnight photography tour of Monument Valley and HAD to be at the View Hotel in Monument Valley by 2:30 PM or the photo tour was in jeopardy. It worked out just fine, however, as the Mrs. wanted to visit Four Corners, so we timed our Farmington, NM departure to arrive around opening time at Four Corners (a Navajo nation stop) and then budgeted time at the additional stops. Fortunately we ended up about an hour ahead of schedule on that day, and were able to take a brief detour into Valley of the Gods.

To accommodate our desired focus points, we elected to “force march” from Raleigh, NC to Amarillo, TX with no sightseeing except for one lunch stop in Omni Oak Grove in in Asheville.

Oak Grove Inn View, Asheville, NC

That’s nearly 2/3 of the total east-west distance, and we did it in three LONG days (each less than 8.5 hours of driving, however). I micro managed the stops. The locations I picked for lodging initially were Knoxville, TN, Little Rock, AR; and Amarillo, TX. But the Little Rock to Amarillo drive was almost 9 hours, and the Knoxville to Little Rock was similarly long. There was also the matter of potential rush hour traffic, so the plan changed to drive 40 miles farther west on the first day (Harriman, TN), and about 20 miles farther west the next day (Maumelle, AR instead of Little Rock). That evened out the driving a bit more and got us away from major cities during rush hour. Mind you I still had to find cities with decent lodging. While I might be willing to stay alone in a flea bag hotel for a night, that wouldn’t fly with the Mrs. Choosing better lodging made the trip better overall, anyway!

One thing I highly recommend doing is making sure to add in an extra day or two here and there for two reasons: one is to have a cushion in case you run into delays, or find places more interesting than you expected, and the second is perhaps obvious: rest is good! No sense hauling your luggage into and out of the car twice a day every day. We elected to stay two days in Albuquerque, NM; and three days on the Pacific Coast of California – the latter came about because Las Vegas was just TOO hot to stop, and we needed some cooler “wave time”.

What I wish I had done was to pick the same “chain” of hotels as much as possible. But my strategy of not booking everything in advance proved helpful for changing plans as needed. See the Booking Lodging and Excursions (part 3) for the rationale behind each.

Maps Can Lie – BEWARE!

One last comment about using any mapping software (Google Maps, for example), is to inspect the path carefully. I’ve seen mapping software make bone-headed decisions. On the planning for this trip, for example, it routed us over about 50 miles of dirt-road driving until I forced it to pick a different route by adding intermediate destinations. Once in California, the mapping software assumed that the East Pinnacles National Park and West Pinnacles National park were connected by a road – but they AREN’T. The best you could have done is carry your car about 3 miles over a foot path… And of course there are many examples where people have relied on outdated maps of places like Death Valley and ended up in a heap of hurt.

Supplies and Provisions

Because we were flying from the West Coast to the East Coast, we couldn’t possibly take all the provisions we would want on the plane. Some of the things that just were impractical to take included:

  • A cooler for drinks (plus snacks and ice)
  • A tow strap (in case we got stuck in sand or mud somewhere)
  • Bits of carpet for traction
  • Jump Start cables & jump start battery
  • Keurig Cartridges
  • Supplies, blanket / pillow
  • Gallon or more of water
  • Quart of the proper oil
  • Gallon of Bug / Windshield cleaner

And despite my normal camera-bag-full of equpiment (2 cameras, lenses, two tripods, etc), I elected to take ONE camera – the Nikon D600 – and ONE lens (24mm manual focus), and one tripod. I also took my Mavic Drone, but was only able to use it once… most locations prohibited drones, the wind was excessive in other locations, and a complication with the software made it impossible to use in one area that I wanted to use it… more on that in the Photography and Night Photography Considerations chapter.

My father’s car is an older model Lexus and so it wouldn’t be suitable for going down the bumpy off road areas where I might take an AWD high clearance vehicle like my Subaru. I also knew that some of the destinations included driving on unpaved roads. Indeed, some of the destinations that we removed from our itinerary were removed because of the off-road driving required. Since we clearly couldn’t take all needed provisions on the plane with us, and it was not clear that we would be able to acquire all that we desired, I used Amazon to order and have shipped to my father’s house the hard-to-find supplies that I needed. We figured we could pick up a cooler, snacks and drinks, water, oil and windshield cleaner along the way. Indeed, after we noticed that the first two lodgings had in-room Keurig machines, we bought Chai and Pete’s coffee cartridges. I am a Chai drinker, and my wife is a coffee snob. Only about 40% of the places we stayed had such machines, but when they had them, it meant we could enjoy our normal morning and evening beverages.

In Case of Emergency

For our peace of mind, I purchased and activated a plan on a Garmin InReach mini. I had the device shipped to my home before we left so that I could make sure it worked, and the service was active. The Inreach mini is a portable satellite communication device that can be used to track your location –

Emergency Communication and tracking

indeed that device supplied the tracking information for the map presented at the top. One of the plans allows you to track your location every 10 minutes – you can see I turned on tracking somewhere over Nevada on our flight out. The mini can also be used like the SPOT emergency location device to send 3 different canned messages to pre-canned destinations. The mini is about twice the cost, but it’s bi-directional. The messages I chose were: All is well, just checking in when arriving at lodging for the night; Look what I found to mark a particularly interesting place for posterity; and Delayed, or rerouted to indicate we were fine, but not going to arrive as planned. The device also allows an SOS to be sent, and you can then communicate by text with the emergency personnel to indicate what your needs are, and they can text you to indicate their status. Fortunately we had no need of sending an SOS, but there were many areas where we had little and NO cell coverage on either Verizon or ATT (my wife and I have different plans on purpose), so the peace of mind was worth the about $50 of service… and no doubt I’ll use the $300 device in the future.

Enroute Planning

Strorms Ahead. (Actually the blue is from shooting through the screen in the top of the windshield ;-), but it did dump a heap of rain and hail on us just a bit father down the road in Oklahoma.

It wasn’t enough, of course, to merely plot out the path. We also had to be mindful of the weather and road conditions. I’ve written extensively about how I >> plan for weather << so visit that link to learn how I use Weather.gov to be aware of what is going on. On this particular trip, we drove through the middle of the country prior to and during tornado and flooding events. Without the maps, we might have ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. As it was, a tornado struck 1 mile away from our path two days prior to arriving (El Reno, Oklahoma) and major flooding was experienced in Little Rock and Fort Smith, AK the days of and following our trip segments there. Amarillo, TX and Roswell, NM were also hit with violent thunderstorms, and we used the forecast to refrain from heading up into Santa Fe, NM due to severe storm warnings. One Android tool I picked up and used was the NOAA Radar app. That offered alerts about nearby events – it was worth one month of subscription at $3 just to get those!

One of the other things that I discovered, but wasn’t aware of is that Google Maps in addition to notifications of slowdowns and road construction also has notifications about speed (radar) traps. We weren’t speeding anywhere, but the heads up certainly came in handy in case we decided to “blow the doors off a slowpoke driver” at an inopportune time.

Keeping Cool

Sugar free beverage + excellent “ice bottle”

We did acquire a decent cooler, small enough to fit in the backseat, but with a velcro latch so that it would be easy to open while underway. It had to be spacious enough to hold a half dozen drinks, ice AND chocolate. Since it was quite hot during our trip, even a short stint with the A/C off would result in a choco melt-down. I employed a trick I often use when hiking. After finishing an Ice beverage (sparkling sweetened drink), I rinsed it and refilled it with tap water. In lodgings that had a freezer component of the mini fridge, I put the refilled bottles in the freezer. Those frozen bottles then served as ice, and in a pinch, cold drinking water on some of our hot hikes. Do not try this with your average bottled water, however, they are too thin and flimsy to stand up to freezing.

It is also a good idea to buy a one or two gallon bottle of water that you can use for drinking (when the tap water is sketchy), and as an emergency source of coolant should your car need it.

See The Rest of the Article!

>>> Click here for parts 3, 4, and 5 along with many photos! You’re also welcome to use my excel planning sheet for yourself. The sheet contains links to the maps I used (divided into daily segments), a TODO list, as well as a heap of web references I used to select the events and locations I visited.

Sky Drift

Geminid Meteor (and other) Shower Tips

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Psst. It’s not a secret but we love meteor showers here at StarCircleAcademy.com. So much so, that we frequently schedule expeditions to capture meteors in interesting dark sky locations.  The latest expedition is in a few days. But if you look through our catalog of events, (e.g. the latest and this one) you’ll see we’ve been hunting meteors for quite a long time.

Star Man and Perseus [C_059960-1]

The things you want to happen for a meteor shower include a non-intervening moon. Showers peaking on or near full moons are usually disappointing. Then, of course you’ll will want good weather, and an interesting foreground.  However there is no cookie-cutter approach to getting that to all work out.  For the Geminid meteor shower, it’s useful to know that Gemini rises in the East a little after sunset and sets in the west around sunrise. If you want to get the MOST meteors, you generally want to shoot after midnight and before dawn (so southwest), and thus southwest is the direction you’ll want the darkest skies. But if spending midnight to dawn somewhere is not practical for you, consider finding dark skies facing the south East instead.

Meteors CAN appear anywhere in the sky, however, so even when we suggest dark skies to the south, do not let that stop you from finding dark skies in any direction.  The interesting foreground you want may only work with a Northern view.

We describe at length how to find dark skies in this article and in the discussion consider alternatives, such as  distance, weather, and goals. In that article we also link to a resource to help you find dark skies. But do not be mislead: not all dark skies are created equal and there is really no substitute for having been in a location a time or two to know how “dark” is “dark.” Understand that weather conditions significantly affect the darkness of skies. Dry, arid places as a rule will be darker than moister climes.

Once you have landed on a place, you need to know how to shoot those meteors – so we have an article for that, too!  And once you get those little streakers, you will want to be confident that they really ARE meteors (most of the time they are not). So if you want to know that what you got are indeed meteors, please read our article on identifying those streaks accurately.

Satellite Flash (Iridium) [5_033852-4br]

 

To fully enjoy a meteor shower we suggest the following preparations:

  1. Dress appropriately. Assume it will be 20 degrees F colder than the stated overnight low. Not because it will be colder, but because with no sun to warm you at all plus little activity it will FEEL colder.
  2. Bring a fully reclining chair or sleeping mat so you can lay down and look straight up (or toward the darkest skies).
  3. Bring a blanket or sleeping bag and a pillow.
  4. Bring some hot (and/or cold) beverages in a thermos and some snacks.
  5. Set up you camera with an equatorial mount to track the skies, or just point it toward the dark. Use an intervalometer to automatically take photos (using the settings we suggested in this article – don’t want to read that: try ISO 6400, maximum aperture, 20 seconds or less).
  6. Bring a friend. You will be encouraged to hear your friends going OOOH and AAAAAH when you do – and if nothing else, you can keep each other awake and share stories.
  7. Be sure your family knows where you’re going and when you’ll be back (if they aren’t coming with you).

There is always more, of course, but ultimately we suggest that when possible, you consider joining us when we schedule a workshop or field expedition.

Happy space debris hunting to you!

Top Ten Destinations in the West

Published: January 26, 2018

Well, What Sea?

Well After Sunset Along the Pacific Coast


I know my top ten may not be the same as your top ten. After all what interests me may NOT interest you (though for the life of me I can’t think why not!)  As a Landscape Astrophotographer I tend to gravitate to interesting views, unusual geology, natural landscapes and places where the sky is dark and clear at night.  I’m not a city guy. The chance that you’ll find me in a tavern or night club is extremely slim.  And while I do appreciate great architecture, and (ancient) history you’re much more likely to find me on a mountain top or along the shoreline or in the desert. Forests feel crowded to me unless they are surrounded by granite, basalt, sand dunes or lava.  Flat is usually boring.

I also want to be frank that this list is based on the places *I* have been. There is an equally long list of places I have NOT been but where I wish to go.  I’ve also narrowed this list to Nevada, California, Western Utah and Arizona. I am listing my destinations in order of the eye appeal and “spiritual oneness” I get from visiting them.  I’ve also provided some hints what seasons are best, and the amount of effort it takes to reach these places.

 

    1. Nightfall at Cathedral PeakYosemite National Park.  There is a really good reason Yosemite is so heavily visited. The first time I drove into the valley with the family I went slack-jawed. It is hard to imagine how beautiful Yosemite is. And the first time I stood on Half Dome – long before permits are required to make that hike – I literally wept – and not just because the hike was arduous, but because the view makes the heart flutter.  You feel tiny and the granite feels big and solid.  Yosemite is a very large park and there are four primary areas to visit.
      A> The valley which in the summer is overrun with tourists, and noise and distractions but quiet and beautiful when snow laden in the winter.  The summer is also when the mighty Yosemite Fall becomes a whimper. To really be astounded the best time to visit Yosemite Valley is in the early spring.  Late April to Early May.
      B> Another area of Yosemite worth visiting is the entire Tioga Pass road: especially Tuolumne Meadows area. There is awesomeness nearly everywhere along the 54 miles of road and it is always less busy than the valley. Warning: Tioga Road (Hwy 120) closes November through May.
      C> A third place that is justly popular for its scenic splendor is Glacier Point. The road to this amazing overlook is also closed in winter.
      D> And finally there is Wawona and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees. Impressive, but not as impressive as the huge trees elsewhere in California e.g. in Big Basin State Park.
      There are also many, many spectacular landscapes to be seen far from anywhere a car can go. Some of the most rewarding views of Yosemite require backpacking into the High Country, like the photo above which is Cathedral Lake – a trail from Tioga Road.


    2. Reaching for the Sky Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California. Lone Pine is a small town with plenty of restaurants. But at the doorstep of Lone Pine are the Alabama Hills – bizarre rounded rock formations many of which you have probably seen before in movies like Planet of the Apes and car commercials and westerns.  It’s a gorgeous landscape with so, so many places to explore. There is plenty of quiet in Alabama Hills and there are many places to roll up and enjoy the dark skies and the fantastic rock formations. Rising out of Alabama Hills is mount Whitney – the tallest mountain in the United States – the lower 48, that is.  Alabama Hills is lovely in any season – prefer late fall – but beware the summers can get hot. 100 degrees Farenheit is not unusual.  A high clearance vehicle is definitely a plus if you want to go on some of the dicier roads, but not needed for the main roads.  There is a good reason we offer workshops here. It’s awesome.

    3. Mono Lake South Tufas before Dawn [4776] *Explored*Mono Lake near Lee Vinning, California.  Mono lake has a very alien vibe due to the tufa formations that have been revealed because of Los Angeles’ thirst for water.  Mono Lake has grown touristy – it’s not unusual to see a busload of photographers disembark and jostle for the best spots to set up a tripod. Despite that, Mono Lake is well worth a look. Not far from Mono Lake are other interesting attractions like Bodie – a ghost town, June Lake and the June Lake Loop, and the entire stretch of the Eastern Sierras all the way down to Alabama Hills. Any season is good to visit Mono Lake, but winters are harsh and cold.

    4. Dream Highway [C_071601]Big Sur. Big Sur is the name of a town in about the middle of a region loosely defined by a long stretch of winding Pacific Coast road (Highway 1) that runs from Carmel, California all the way down to Cambria. The Hearst Castle which is an interesting historical, artistic, and cultural anomaly can be found in San Simeon. The road hugs tall mountain cliffs with sheer drop offs into the often churning Pacific Ocean below. If I have to pick a favorite spot in Big Sur that’s easy. Pfeiffer Beach.  Often in the summer in particular Big Sur can be cold, foggy and windy, but really any time is good to go. If you’ve never dipped a toe in the Northern California Pacific Ocean, don’t expect it to be warm EVER.  Big surf comes in the winter – from November to February. Accommodations along Big Sur are scarce, expensive and heavily booked especially when school is out. And there are LOTS of destinations worth visiting: Point Lobos, Pfeiffer Beach, McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

    5. Famous III [C_035478]
      White Mountain, near Bishop, California. If you want to see the most amazing and oldest living things on the planet you will need to drive up White Mountain to the Patriarch Grove or at least to the Schulman Grove.  And while Bishop to the West and Nevada cities to the east are doing their best to light pollute the skies, it is still well dark there and you will see the Milky Way if you look.  Like many other places, the road is often closed in the winter, but it usually closes later than the Sierra roads and opens sooner.


    6. The Overlook at Zabriskie Point 7118Death Valley National Park.  First you need to know that Death Valley is HUGE. And yes, it is extremely hot from late spring to mid fall. But the spring flowers can be amazing and the scale of the place is hard to fathom.  And while it is a desert, you may be shocked at how colorful it is. As with many places in the west, the most desolate and difficult to reach areas of Death Valley are the most interesting: the Racetrack Playa, the peculiar Darwin Falls, Eureka Dunes and Dante’s View.  Expect to travel hundreds of miles to see all these things and to pay a princely sum on gasoline.  If you go, you had better visit Zabriskie Point – sunrise is better than sunset at the point. Accommodations are hard to find.  If forced to choose between Death Valley and the Grand Canyon, Death Valley wins easily.

    7. Watching the Watchman [42-011228]Zion National Park, Hurricane, Utah. I’ve visited Zion in the winter when snow and Navajo Sandstone conspire to make a beautiful landscape, and in the summer. I preferred the winter. My wife took this photo.

    8. Snow Flocked Bryce Canyon [IMG_151594]Bryce Canyon. Unfortunately I have only visited in the winter. It was drop dead gorgeous with the snow and the hoodoos.

    9. The Colorado River Makes A Grand ArcHorsehoe Bend. The scale and grandeur of this magnificent bend in the Colorado river is every bit – and more – breathtaking than any vista I’ve ever seen in the Grand Canyon. And Horsehoe Bend has the great advantage of being very close to the Antelope Slot Canyons and Page, Arizona. Page is a large enough city to rest and resupply in. Lake Powell is nearby, too. Horsehoe Bend is “just one place” and is easily accessible with about a 1/2 mile walk from the road.

    10. The Goodbye Look [5-001753]
      Antelope Valley Slot Canyons. On Navajo tribal lands it’s worth every penny you might be charged for a tour.  When you stroll through this majestic place – even if you do so amidst throngs of tourists you’ll find it hard to not feel a oneness with the beautiful and intimate windswept colors and curves.


    11. Black Rock Desert, Gerlach, Nevada. If you look up the definition of desolate, this place might well be mentioned in a footnote.  Unless you make the mistake of going during the Burning Man festival in which case this empty flat dry lakebed ringed with modestly sized mountains becomes a sprawling metropolis of what seems like a zillion people. Or so I’ve been told. The good news is it is still very dark here.  It did not make my top ten, but it did beat out the rest of our list.

    12. Lake Tahoe – Many places around this picturesque lake to drink in photos and views.
    13. Mount Shasta – Right off highway 5 going north/south you’ll find vistas, waterfalls, and some remarkable history and views.
    14. Lassen National Park
    15. Sedona, Arizona – Hard to argue with the wind sculpted Navajo Sandstone all around.
    16. Tucson, Arizona – Not only are there desert stretches, the Saguaro National Forest, Mount Lemmon, and the Santa Catalina Mountains, but also Kitt Peak Observatory and many dark areas around. Unlike, e.g. Phoenix which is Las Vegas – like in its light pollution intensity.
    17. San Francisco – As cities go, San Francisco has many lovely vistas and landmarks. Especially from, e.g. the Marin Headlands.
    18. Seattle – like San Francisco, Seattle has some great views, landmarks and vistas. They are a little harder to find because of the heavy forests all around. But when it is clear enough to see the Space Needle, Mount Ranier, or the snow covered Olympic Mountains, it is awesome.

    How Do These Rank Against my Top 7 Most Beautiful Places in the World?

    I’m not as well-traveled as some, but I’ve been quite a few places. Here are my top 7 most gorgeous places to be – ranked from 7th to 1st.

    • Horsehoe Bend, Page, Arizona. Described above.
    • Antelope Slot Canyon, Navajo Lands near Page, Arizona. Described above.
    • Petra, Jordan.  The ancient, expansive and elaborate hand carved tombs of this ancient Nabatean city are winsome. And to make the stay even more pleasant the many Bedouin people I met while there made me feel very welcome.
    • Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California.  Described above.
    • Patriarch Grove, White Mountain, California. Described above.
    • Thira/Oia/Firostefani, Santorini, Greece
    • Granite Park, Inyo National Forest, California. On my GPS I put “Saw God here” – it was THAT awesome. Granite Park is well above the tree line at about 11,000 feet and it will take a serious back-packing effort to reach it.

Got a top 5 super favorite place in the west we did not list? Please comment (and include a photograph).

Cruising

Publish Date: 29-November-2016

I, Steven, have recently completed one of my bucket list items… capturing stars and astro landscapes aboard a cruise ship. My interest in the idea is based on several observations:

  1. Night photography can be about movement – like star trails, for example – and cruise ships move.
  2. Cruise ships go to and through some of the darkest spots on earth – far away from any land producing artificial light
  3. Being aboard a ship means NOT having to drive anywhere or fly anywhere. Bed, food, drink and entertainment are never farther away than the length of a football field.
  4. I can still spend time with my family rather than alone in the wilderness because… we are all in the same “wilderness” at the same time.

brillianceoftheseas

My particular cruise was aboard the Brilliance of the Seas by Royal Carribbean. The ship departed from Tampa, Florida to Key West, then to Cozumel and back to Tampa. The good news is the things I feared most did not happen: I only gained 1.5 pounds and none of my equipment fell into the sea. I also had no motion sickness – though some I traveled with were uncomfortable in what were relatively light seas.

Sunrises, Sunsets and TimeStacks

It does not have to be all about night photography, right?  My travel from the West Coast to the East Coast for the cruise made it a lot easier for me to be awake at sunset and near impossible to greet a sunrise.
Sunset Reversal

Location Is Important

These two trails were taken on different days (one when the ship was cruising south, another two nights later when cruising north). Both were taken from Deck 5 with no moon. The first trail was from near the bow (front of the ship), the other from off the stern (back).

South Bound

South bound star trails from near the bow of the ship** Please read below for how I got here… it is an important detail.

Stern Seas

Looking south from the stern of a north bound cruise – with unfortunate clouds – but look at all the motion!  That bright  streak (and the cloud illuminated above it) are another passing cruise ship.

The ship was steadier when southbound – thus the first star trail looks pretty normal. The second one from the stern of the ship looks like a seismograph! Want to get a feel for the motion from the stern? Watch the video.

Tips and Insights

I did not meet any resistance or complaints from the crew or passengers using my tripod on deck. That is in part because I was mostly using it at night and had already scouted out areas to place it. My first recommendation is to …

Scout!

First scout your vessel thoroughly… do this before embarking (using deck plans available on the internet), then during the first day, and at night.  I discovered that a passageway open during the day, was gated at night. Unfortunately, that passage led to the darkest part of the ship. More about this in a minute.

Too Little Darkness on Board

Cruise ships are floating cities, and like cities, lights are everywhere and unavoidable. Onboard the Brilliance there were 2 darkish places to go and one dark place where I could not go*. One darkish spot was the top deck toward the bow. There are lights everywhere, but if you shield your eyes and moved deck chairs to cover over some of the bulkhead lights you could make out stars. What I could see, however, was nowhere near the glory that I’ve seen in even moderately rural areas. A darkish spot – mentioned by guest relations, was the starboard (right hand) side of deck 5 near the stern (back of the boat). Again, lots of lights everywhere, but that area was dark enough that with some eye shielding I could easily make out Orion.

See the next photo to see just how much light a ship casts about… the moon illuminated the sky as well – but you wouldn’t be able to see even this many stars by eye in a dark clear sky in any normal area of the ship.

Over the Railing

The light from the ship illuminates the water around it, while the moon illuminates the sky (Cuba is glowing in the distance). Notice how the ship’s pitching and rolling turned stars into squiggles.

Getting Where it Is Really Dark

You may be wondering how I pulled off the photography on the bow given that the passageway was barred at night. It happened innocently. I took advantage of a quirk on the Brilliance of the Seas. In the theater on the ship on the upper level there are what are best described as “box” seats adjacent to the wings of the stage. That area has nearby doors, one marked “Exit” the others are marked crew only. I took the “Exit” and it put me out by the passage to the Helicopter landing pad on the bow of the ship.  There was then another “gate” barring access to the helicopter landing area itself – but it was plenty dark up front. I swung my tripod up on the helopad area and controlled it with my intervalometer being careful to create as little light as possible. That’s how I got images for the first of two star trails above. I then stood at the outer rail of the helipad and took a panorama of the bridge area. Straight up and forward were MUCH darker.

Much of the crew area and the wheel house spanning the entire front of the ship is kept dark with little extra light.

Much of the crew area and the wheel house spanning the entire front of the ship is kept dark with minimal extra light. Note how much light there is on the top deck where you can see silhouettes of passengers through the glass. This is a stitched 4-shot panorama.

Packing for the Cruise

For a 5 day cruise, I took one camera, two smaller lenses batteries and a tripod. I packed almost all of my clothing for the trip inside a single large (carry-on size) bag with some extras in a small carry on “personal item”. That packing arrangement works great for short trips. To accommodate “Formal Night” I stole some space in my wife’s luggage for dress shoes and a suit.

Would You Like To See Celestial Delights On a Cruise?

Knowing that many travelers have never seen a properly dark night sky, I contacted Royal Caribbean and let them know I thought a potentially great ship resource was untapped. If you had a chance to view incredibly dark skies on board your cruise ship, would you relish that opportunity?  Please let us know in a comment below or on our Facebook Page. Perhaps the cruise line will contract SCA to teach night photography in addition to the many other courses on board. I, for one, would love to get on a dark deck and stare up into the Geminid meteor shower – or view the Milky Way at its finest.!