This happy photo - Road to Argus

by Jon Sullivan - 2019-09-21 - Photography

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For me photos should be an intersection of technique, subject, composition and story. Here's the story behind this photo.

Milky Way photos are kind of an odd duck. They take a huge amount of planning and logistics, but depending on the weather you could show up and get exactly nothing. It sweeps across the night sky fairly quickly, so to even get the composition you want you need to be in place and set up at a precise time. This involves monitoring software for star maps, weather, light pollution. And you need to be out in the middle of nowhere since even a small town 30 miles away can wash out a lot of the stars.

They are also pretty technical. You need a very wide lens with a very wide aperture, you need a camera that does high ISO like a beast, you need a long shutter speed but not too long, plenty of math involved. And you're doing it in the pitch dark where you imagine disturbing noises all around you. Cactus is a problem.

On the night I took this one, the plan was to be in middle of the Mohave desert at 1am where I'd find a photogenic Joshua tree (somehow in the dark) and use it as a foreground. Nothing ground breaking, but I was mainly trying to get my technique dialed in.

So I roll out of my not-even-trying-to-be-comfy hotel bed at midnight and head into the desert.

I park where I know there is a big stand of Joshua trees and wander around with a flashlight to find a nice one that also happens to line up with the Milky Way just right, which is tricky with a wide angle lens. Foreground can be way too big or small, and if it's to the side too much the perspective will look ludicrous. All of this is extra difficult since I can't actually see the Milky Way.

Oh.... I forgot to mention.... It's cloudy. There is no fucking Milky Way.

I decide to wait. I've seen clouds move through the desert pretty fast at night. And there aren't many options. So I wait. Wander around in circles. Take some test photos which are awful. Wait more. A couple hours go by. Still clouds. I'm getting VERY CRANKY.

Keep in mind it's very dark. Obviously I've picked this spot since it's literally one of the darkest places in the country. And there are no stars due to clouds. I feel silly.

Eventually it just becomes obvious I'm wasting my time. And I've had time to work on plan B. Nothing is close by, but if I leave now maybe I can get to something. Drive to Vegas and get some Strip photos at night? Give up on night photos and cut my losses with some day time Death Valley photos? Head home and drown my frustration in video games? Wait.... checking the map... drive times... solar calculator.... weather.... If I leave right now and drive like hell I can get to Zabriskie Point just before sunrise. Fuck, go, now now now.

I load up, turn the car around, and start greatly exceeding the speed limit. Surely there are no highway patrol between me and Death Valley at 3am. I might hit a couple rabbits, but they'll make more. I have my "don't fall asleep while driving" playlist blasting on the stereo, racing North, hoping the lights to the East are Vegas and not the sun. Maybe I kind of nod off a few times at 90 mph. The roads aren't great.

I glance in the rear-view and think I see a star. Hmmmm.... Foot off the gas, look closer, those are stars!!! Ahead of me it's obviously the sun and not Vegas. NOW I'M AWAKE.

I slam on the breaks, swerve off the road, grab tripod camera remote shutter flashlight, set things up right in the middle of the road as I can sense the sun behind me. No time to find a foreground. I take a couple test shots to line things up as the last of the clouds dissipate. This is working. As I look at a test photo I have a crazy idea. My remote shutter works to 50 yards. I run down the road with my flashlight, click the shutter and wave the flashlight around. Run back to the camera to check it. Shit, the sun. Photo looks okay, but not right. Run back down the road and stand still 20 seconds for another. Repeat a couple times.

And I got it. That's a great photo. Let's try another one. Run down the road again. I hear something behind me. Shit. A car. Run back to the tripod and get out of the way.

And the light is gone. The sun isn't up, but it's up enough to wash out the stars. But I got this one photo, and that's enough.

(For those wondering, Argus is a planet in World of Warcraft. The home planet of the Draenei, which we will all inevitably return to as we battle demons across the galaxy.)

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