It is time to recount my latest “Chase The Milky Way” trip that took me to Lake Thomas Edison and Sequoia National Park. These were two different trips, made within just a few days of each other. This article is going to cover these last two trips, and I am going to go a little in-depth into my post-processing as I tried a new-to-me technique that I now love.
When I first developed this concept, I had several goals in mind. Those goals were to motivate people to get outside at night to become aware of what is in the sky and how light pollution affects what we see
FLEXIBILITY AND CHANGES
Since those first two trips, everything has been left to my own personal whims. The next trip was going to take me to the coast, but life happened. I ended up staying close to home and headed up to Hume Lake in the Sierra Nevada. It was actually two trips in one. Again, I stayed closed to home and headed up to a mountain lake. A couple of days later, I went out with a local photo club.
Several weeks ago, I began the process of trying to come up with a location to go for my next “Chase The Milky Way” trip. Although I really wanted to head to the coast and sit on the beach, the Valley heat told me to go back up into the high country. The Sequoia National Park Sierra is dotted with lakes, large and small. Some lakes are accessible by most daily driver vehicles. Other lakes are at the end of some world-class and challenging 4WD trails. Lastly, there are a lot of lakes that are accessible only by foot. They all have one thing in common, and that is, the surroundings are fantastic.
Even though I live a short drive from the Sierra, most of the region which is accessible by daily driver vehicles rests in the mountains east of Fresno, northeast of where I live. I started looking at those lakes. Most of them are very popular with the summer lake crowd. While researching where I wanted to go, I ended up booking a vehicle shoot at one of these lakes, so I had to cross that one off the list.
LAKE THOMAS EDISON IT IS
I finally found a lake on the map that raised my eyebrows. The way the map read, this particular lake, Lake Thomas Edison, was actually located at the end of the road. I narrowed my research to this lake. The last 15 or so miles to the lake consisted of what was described as a “one lane, blacktop mountain road.” I hit up YouTube where I found some videos of the road and my mind was made up. I then pulled up Google Maps and was told that it would take me 3.5 hours to drive the 120 miles. As we all know, Google Maps can be somewhat conservative with time estimates. This prediction was not one of those conservative estimates.
The lake is part of a series of lakes that were built to provide hydroelectric power to the area. Checking in at an elevation north of 7000′, this body of water had almost all the qualities that I have been looking for with mountain lakes.
My research with Photopills had me concerned. This time of year, the core of the Milky Way comes up in the south. The map showed that the road stopped on the northwest corner of the lake. The way the lake was laid out, the western edge of the lake angled from northwest to southeast. I was concerned that I would not be able to have much of the lake in anything that I shot. But when I would look at the satellite view, I could see a lot of dead logs on the lakeshore.
ALWAYS HAVE A PLAN B LOCATION
I also found a couple of smaller bodies of water in the immediate area. On paper, these locations had better vantage points with more lake in any possible shot. Since I had never been to the area before, I would leave early. Leaving then would allow me to get in a few hours before it got dark. Everything I was reading was this “one-lane mountain road” was the curveball in this plan, and I needed to plan accordingly.
Driving through the Central Valley of California is somewhat unique. State Route 99 is just a hair away from being a nightmare like found in LA or the Bay Area. I really like to take back roads, so I ignored Google Maps advice to going down SR 99. A lot of the back roads are semi-nice, less traffic and the scenery is nicer. Unfortunately, the route that I picked this time was full of stop signs. Yay me!!!
Once I got onto State Route 168, it was time to start climbing, but at least there were no stop signs. Well, that was until I got to Shaver Lake and hit the first construction zone. That was a good 20-minute wait. We received the “go” signal from the flagman, and I continued the jaunt around Shaver. That is until I hit another construction zone. This time around, I was able to keep going until I hit the THIRD zone. The wait though was minimum. About 5 minutes after stopping, I was moving again.
ONTO THE ONE LANE MOUNTAIN ROAD
I finally got to Kaiser Pass Road, which was the “one-lane mountain road” that would take me to my final destination. None of the descriptions online, or the videos came close to describing what the reality was. It is a fact that a lot of California roads rival Oklahoma roads when it comes to “quality of crappiness.”
Kaiser Pass Road though stood high atop the pile when it came to being the worst blacktop road in America. This road represented the last 15 miles of my trip, and it took me well over an hour to get over it. The drive over this road is also made better by others who were too impatient to let me get entirely over to the shoulder so we could pass without knocking mirrors off. I do hope that the driver of the big rig tanker truck that had to make a deliver over this tank trail receives a healthy paycheck.
Portal Forebay was a smaller lake on the way to Edison that I stopped to check out. I really wanted to shoot at this location. I decided that I would on my way back down the mountain. At this point, I was starting to worry about daylight. The road was horrible, and I needed to get to Edison so I could scout things out to see if I could shoot.
THE DRIVE WAS LONG
When I left my house, I expected to arrive at Lake Edison in Sequoia National Park three hours before sunset. The construction and Kaiser Pass Road though turned that 3.5 hour Google Map estimate into a 4-hour drive. Reaching it with just under two hours before sunset, I needed to check things out and make a decision fast on what I was going to do.
I went down to the shore of Edison and started looking around. Within about 15 minutes, I found several decent compositions. At this point, I made a drastic plan change. Even though I was about five miles from another location that I wanted to look at it, I figured it would take me close to an hour to go, look around, and get back.
I would stay at Edison and shoot 3-4 compositions. I would then start down the mountain and stop at Portal Forebay for a few minutes. After that, I spotted a beautiful overlook above Shaver Lake which overlooked the lake and the Valley itself. That particular shot piqued my interest.
WHERE THERE IS WATER AND MOUNTAINS
Even though there were no clouds in the sky, I ended up shooting several sunset compositions. I took a break and then went back to the sand for the Milky Way.
I finally called it at about 11 p.m. and packed up and headed home. Going down Kaiser Pass Road was going to be almost as slow as going up. Stopping at the overlook, I shot for a couple of minutes and then continued home.
TIME TO GO HOME
When I finally got home, the clock told me the trip
Overall, Sequoia National Park was a great location that I have to return. I do have a goal to create a panorama over the lake once the time is right. I do not know if it will happen as Kaiser Pass Road stays closed for a good chunk of the year due to snow.
I am pretty open to using different techniques. Sometimes I use my LED panels with CTO filters so I can use Low-Level Landscape Lighting (LLL) for some shots. Another method that I have started to use is long exposure shots for the foreground. The few times that I have shot star trails, I use a series of 10 minute, ISO 100 exposures to create the images. The one thing that I have noticed with these shots is they are usually long enough to bring out the foreground.
Although I have not dialed in the exact number I need, I have been using a 5 minute, ISO 5000 exposure for foreground shots when I don’t want to use LLL. The settings are a little too much at this point. The sky does get blown out, which I do not care about, but my foregrounds are too bright, but I can change that in Lightroom. Not a big deal at this point.
For my sky shots, I am setting up at ISO 10,000 and using a shutter time of 10-20 seconds, depending on what I am getting. I do try to keep shutter speeds as short as possible.
When I came home from Arizona/Utah, I started using a different technique for post-processing some of my images. By switching up camera bodies from Pentax to the Nikon 750 that I use now, I also had to change some of my post-processing. The first images I shot with it was portrait shots. With the Pentax, I had a specific Lightroom preset that I used for a base, and then a Photoshop action that I used to get the look that I wanted for the portrait shots. With the Nikon though, all of that was out the window.
For the most part, my Nikon files were already where I needed them to be with the portrait shots. While messing around in Photoshop one day trying learning about Color Lookup layers, I discovered the NighttoDay.CUBE. This particular gem was the central part of what I was trying to achieve. Fast forward to the long exposure foreground shots without any artificial lighting; I decided to try it out. Sure enough with some tweaking, I had found my “secret sauce” to what I wanted to achieve. I even used this “new to me technique” on a couple of LLL shots from Arizona, and it worked fantastically.
If you ever want to see how integral proper lighting is, use this technique on an image and see what the end result is.
TOO FAR? IT’S ART, GET OVER IT
What I do is take my sky and foreground shots, open them in Photoshop as layers and then put a Color Lookup Adjustment layer over the foreground shot and use the Night To Day.LUT. I will then mask in the sky and then adjust the Color Lookup layer to match the sky shot.
Several months ago, I went to a local photography club presentation and met Ivan Mendoza. Ivan is a landscape photographer who produces great imagery. Since then, I have been following him on Facebook. Every so often he mentioned how he used the LRGB method for post-processing his astrophotography images, so I decided to give the process a whirl.
I used that process with my newest group of images from Edison, and I am delighted with the way they turned out. The LRGB method involves using Black and White Adjustment layers to tweak the colors of the image to make them pop more. Feel free to check out this video from Lonely Speck that goes into detail about the method:
The Valley Photography club is the host club where I met Ivan several months ago. Ivan gave a presentation on astrophotography that evening. I was intrigued by Ivan’s talk because he had several images that were shot right here in the Valley. The SR 99 corridor, amongst being a disaster of pavement and traffic, also possesses a world-class case of light pollution. From Bakersfield to Sacramento, you cannot escape it. Ivan’s photos memorized me. I was so used to the Bortle Class 1 and 2 skies of rural America.
The club had a meetup several days after my Edison trip, and since they were staying local, I decided to join up so I could burn a couple of hours. I was impressed by the turnout as I estimated at least 15 photographers showed up. Ivan also gave me a quick class on his tracker, which was the first one I had seen in person.
All in all, it was a pretty successful meetup that saw the introduction of Milky Way photography to a new crop of photographers.
All in all, I am pretty happy with my trip up to Lake Thomas Edison in Sequoia National Park. I had received my Tokina 16-28 just about a week before to this trip. In the last two trips I had made with my camera, I felt naked without it. I really missed this glass when I was in Idaho. The lake I shot sunset at dictated wider glass than what I had with me.
I did learn that any future visits to Sequoia National Park and Lake Thomas Edison will be at the very least an overnight affair. Although I am not against turn around trips, Kaiser Pass Road takes a lot out of a person. The number of compositions at the lake is numerous, and I would like to check out some of the other locations that I had to miss.
I have one more official trip to make for “Chase The Milky Way.” Like the Arizona/Utah trip, I already had this last trip’s general destination planned. Unfortunately, life has reared its ugly head. Nothing is official yet, but I am looking for an alternate location. Options include the coastal areas that have been on my radar. I have also had a closer location pop up on my radar that I have to research. I still have a few weeks to decide where I am going.
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