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Milky Way Dreams At Columbine Lake
In what turned out to be one of my biggest adventures of the summer, I finally made it to Columbine Lake. There are actually several lakes that go by this same name… this one is located near Silverton in the Colorado San Juans.
Columbine Lake is known for having some wonderful deep blue color and even though it's not far from Red Mountain Pass, it's very difficult to get there - which explains why I've seen so few pictures of it...
I wanted to capture its color under some starry night skies (I know, big surprise). And with my previous nighttime adventures, I'd learned that the deep blue color from a mountain lake typically doesn't show up well in a photograph if you don't have enough natural illumination to bring out the color - meaning I couldn't just get to the lake… I had to get there under good light.
This meant timing with a fairly thin moon, somewhere around 20-50% full. On its own, this had some challenges, but when you add the stormy weather patterns I was seeing, I almost had to pass on the idea. There were so many storms passing through that the unprotected area above timberline had me looking carefully for a good opening. I really didn't want to get caught with storms passing over in a place like that where I had so few options for cover (from lightning).
But then, I need to explain a bit about the remote location of Columbine Lake. As I mentioned, it's not far from the popular road between Ouray and Silverton called Red Mountain Pass. But in terms of vertical climb, it's no easy task to ascend the "trail" from the bottom of the valley up to the lake in the high mountain perch far above. I liked the destination but had little interest in the route until I happened to find a book in Ouray that pointed out another route - a ridgeline route that starts from the 4WD high point in Porphyry Basin. Having just explored up there, this became a realistic route that did not require a hike so intimidating.
So with some more planning on my own, this is the route I ended up using to get to Columbine Lake - Porphyry Basin to King Bouillon Lake up over the ridge into the next basin where I had to descend a little before climbing up another pitch. By this time, it was completely dark and the all sounds I was hearing were keeping my senses on their toes. Being new to the route, finding my way in the darkness was an exciting experience.
I made my way to Columbine Pass where I looked off toward Lewis Lake and Telluride but couldn't see any of it in the darkness. The moon wasn't timed to rise above the horizon for another several hours. So with Columbine Lake just a little ways further, I did some exploring and tried to pick some spots that would work well when the moon rose up and provided some gentle light. In the end, I huddled with a couple of rocks to hide from the wind while I waited for the moon to get into position.
Here are some of the key things that went into this colossal effort:
1. Find the book that showed me the ridgeline route to Columbine Lake
2. Watch the weather for weeks for an opening in the stormy patterns. That's right… not days, weeks!
3. Drive from Denver to the trailhead near Silverton - 8 hours
4. Drive up the jeep trail to the 4WD high point in Porphyry Basin - 1 hour
5. Hike to the lake (starting at sunset) - 6 hours
6. Avoid turning into a popsicle while I waited for good moonlight - 3 hours
In the end my strategy sure paid off because that high mountain lake was especially pretty once the moon got high enough to bring out the lake's color. In this panoramic sequence, I was able to capture the moon rising on the left and the Milky Way before it rotated out of the scene on the right.
How I Got The Shot
As I arrived at the lake under dark skies, catching the Milky Way was pretty easy. What I wanted though was to get good light on the lake and mountain foreground and Milky Way. With the Milky Way rotating further out of position to the right however, this presented a challenge - with subjects in different directions. With one of the visions I came prepared for being a super-wide take on the scene and decided this might work well with subjects being so far apart. I decided I'd use the moon rising to the east as my anchor on the left side.
Once I picked a spot and the moon was high enough, I set up my tripod legs & head and camera body & lens, set my focus, and started dialing in my exposure settings. Then with a wireless remote, I clicked and rotated my panoramic tripod head for the next image making sure to leave plenty of overlap between each image in the sequence (around 40%).
• Camera Body - Nikon D800 Digital SLR Camera
• Camera Lens - Nikon Fisheye AF Nikkor 16mm f/2.8D Autofocus Lens
• Tripod Head - FEISOL CB-50DC Ballhead with QP-144750 Release Plate
• Tripod Legs - FEISOL Elite CT-3472 Rapid Tripod Legs
• Remote Trigger - Vello FreeWave Micro Wireless Remote Shutter Release for Select Nikon DSLRs
Exposure Settings - Panoramic Stitched Image (4 Frames)
• ISO: 6400
• Aperture: f/2.8
• Shutter Speed: 20 seconds
In each of the 4 frames, I applied some manual Lens Corrections in Lightroom - primarily to minimize the vignetting in the sides and corners. Then, I stitched the 4 frames in Microsoft ICE.
I typically prefer PTGui but found that for this image (and other images with low light content in the foreground), Microsoft ICE was the better choice. With the relatively dark foreground and mountains, PTGui struggled with having enough control points to stitch the images together. Sure, I could have added more control points manually but that's where MS ICE was able to handle the stitching without any of the additional time needed to add control points.
After exporting a PSD, I used Photoshop's Adaptive Wide Angle filter to correct curving distortion problems caused by my not having done a good job getting my tripod level before shooting and rotating. In the future, I'll be using a leveling head that will help to minimize the need to fix the curving distortion I described.
Then, I just added a levels and curves adjustment layer to bring out the detail in the Milky Way with a mask to keep the foreground mountains and lake looking realistic. I found that a dodge & burn layer went far in helping me bring out colors just by lightening or darkening specific areas. I also added a copy of my base layer and set the blending mode to multiply. Then I gave it a black mask (to hide the layer) and selectively painted with a low opacity where I want to add a little color. I used this to darken and bring out some of the warm colors on Lookout Peak.
January 28th, 2014
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