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Photography In The National Parks: Shooting Grand Teton National Park In The Dark Of Night


Last Friday morning, I left the trailer at about 5 a.m. with plans for a quick trip out to Lamar Valley in Yellowstone to see what was happening in wolf world and hopefully back home by 1 p.m. to do some of the computer work that us photographers love so much.

Somehow, at 1 a.m., on Saturday morning, I awoke from a nap and looked out of my car window to see the Milky Way gracefully arced over Caldera Rim. No, I don't drink alcohol - just photography in the parks at all hours of the day and night. 

It was obvious that the Perseid Meteor Showers had begun because the light streaks were crashing across the sky in all directions. In my mind I saw those stars, the bursting meteors, and the Milky Way above the jagged edges of the Tetons Mountain range in Grand Teton National Park. I weighed my options - sleep more, head to Old Faithful, Lamar or Hayden for some scenic star shooting, or head home?

Off to the Tetons I went!

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Grand Teton's starry night skies post a challenge for photographers, but the rewards are ample. Deby Dixon photo of the John Moulton Barn.

Luckily, I carry a tent, sleeping bag, camping pad, backpacking stove, and cookware and a cooler in the back of my car. So what if there was no toothbrush, change of clothes or computer - those I could live without. Well, I did purchase a toothbrush and a t-shirt along the way.

After my experience of trying to capture the Perseid Meteor Shower while in Stehekin, Washington, at North Cascades National Park last year, I knew that seeing and photographing were completely different. The eyes see what they see, while the camera depends on many factors, such as speed, depth and timing. My task was to choose the best location to capture the stars and the Milky Way, while hoping for streaks of light.

After all, it is not as though you can go crashing around in the dark, scouting locations for night photography - well you can try, but I believe it is best to select a place that is familiar if you want to maximize your chances for some successful shots.

Picking A Shooting Location Can Be Tricky At Night

My choices were Oxbow Bend, Schwabacher's Landing, or the Moulton Barns. Except that the famously iconic Schwabacher's has been closed due to some expense issues of cleaning the vault toilets, and I was not going to hike that gravel road in the dark.

The Oxbow, I reasoned, would be difficult for lighting a foreground subject, and I would not be happy with star trails caused by the long exposure times that would be needed to capture the reflection of Mount Moran in the Snake River. There was no moon to light up any part of the landscape, which made the stars all that much brighter, but also more difficult in getting interesting shots.

That left the famous Moulton barns on Mormon Row in the Antelope Flats area of Grand Teton. Would I go left or right - north or south. The Thomas Alma Moulton barn, which is south on Mormon Row, just recently celebrated its 100th birthday and it is possible to park the car close by, which is comforting when out in the dark all by yourself.

Once I had decided on the T.A. Moulton Barn, everything was easy. From much experience of shooting at night, I already knew which camera, lens, and settings that I would use. I could even visualize the approximate location for the camera and tripod, though that changed a little because the tail of the Milky Way was still to the south when I arrived at the barn. The only thing that was unknown was the lighting of the barn, but I would figure that out when the time came.

On Sunday morning I awoke at 2:30 a..m., rearing to go, and was leaving Signal Mountain Campground in a matter of minutes, headed to the barn.

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"Painting" the barn with light can add greatly to the scene. Deby Dixon photo.

The night was so dark, with no moon in sight. Millions of stars twinkled and I could make out the Tetons in the distance, with the glow of several climber's headlamps on their surface.

Before leaving the car, I made sure that my camera was ready by removing the polarizing filter and changing the settings.

Equipment used: Nikon D600, which is a full-frame camera that does well with noise in images, caused by using a high ISO. A Nikkor 17-35mm ƒ2.8 lens and a Gitzo tripod.

Equipment-wise, the only area that I am challenged for this kind of shooting is in not having an L-bracket for vertical and horizontal shooting. I can adjust the tripod head, but the mount will not secure on my camera body and so the camera will move around. And, so I improvise with a bean bag placed over the tripod head. Don't laugh! It works.

I also grabbed my headlamp and a jacket. As you might have guessed, my car is filled with the tools that might come in handy for any impromptu shooting adventure that I might find myself on.

Settings used: ISO 1600, shutter speed 25 seconds and ƒ3.2. I turned on the timer for 2 second delays after pressing the shutter, giving the camera enough time to stabilize before the image is taken. And, I always have the noise reduction feature turned on for long exposures.

Focusing On Infinity

I set the focus at infinity. In my opinion, getting the scene and the stars in focus is the most difficult part of night shooting and it is necessary to figure these things out beforehand. Zooming in on the scene will cause the focus to be off, so know your camera! It is not as if you get a lot of chances to stand by yourself, under the stars, in front of the Moulton Barns in Grand Teton, so you are going to want to get it right.

A word about the shutter speed. I prefer 20 seconds, if at all possible, and could have accomplished this with a higher ISO and ƒ2.8, because the stars begin trailing at 25 seconds. So, no matter how well you are dialed in for the night shot, there are always choices to be made.

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More light painting adds a reddish hue to the setting. Deby Dixon photo.

Luckily, I know the Moulton Barn well and knew about where to stand but, as mentioned previously, had to move slightly left to capture the Milky Way as it swept over the barn. This caused a problem because my images captured the leaves of a tall aspen tree behind the barn.

The other difficulty is capturing as much of the sky as possible, while keeping the foreground element in the frame. I failed at this a few times but should have done a better job of "chimping" (looking) at the images on the back of my LCD.

Without light the scene was not going to work. I did not know, until about an hour ago, about "light painting," or I would have been better prepared. As it was, I had left my flashlight in the tent.

My vision of the scene was to have just the barn lit, with no light on the ground in front of it and so it was time to get creative. Back to being prepared, I carry a headlamp in both of my camera bags and so I went back to retrieve one of them to use for lighting.

I tried different angles, but had too much light on the ground, and a blown-out barn with only portions of it lit. I kept trying.

Finally, I found a ground squirrel hole very close to the front of the barn and placed the lamp down in that, angled up so it lit the barn and not much else. After another blown out image, I took a napkin out of my coat pocket and carefully wrapped it around the headlamp, filtering the light. Yep, that was what I wanted.

After everything was set up right, it was just a matter of horizontal and vertical shots at different angles. And, beating the sunlight, because, believe it or not, morning was approaching rapidly.

Morning Is Coming

Speaking of morning, don't forget to look behind you as the sun begins to rise because there might be some surprising views. Also, don't stop when the blue hour begins. And, since you are already there, don't leave before that first bit of sun hits the tips of the Tetons or the front of the barn.

On my second morning in the Tetons, also up at 2:30 a.m., I stopped by Jackson Lake Dam and Oxbow Bend to try some shots before continuing on to John Moulton barn. The results were varied, but all-in-all well worth the time.

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Once the stars vanish and the sun rises, the barn remains a beautiful subject to photograph. Deby Dixon photo.

At the John Moulton Barn, running late, I quickly grabbed my equipment, which included bear spray. Wish I had not done that because my faulty can of spray hit the side of the door and went off, despite the safety being on. I impatiently gagged and sputtered, trying to get it out of my system so as not to miss night time on the barn. I won't talk about what it did to the inside of my car.

I remembered the flashlight this time and so my first shot was taken as I ran the light over the different elements of the barn and fence. I liked the effect, but decided to use the headlamp again, which was more difficult because of the posts in front of the barn. The posts blew out while the barn was lit perfectly. I moved the lamp back, into a hole and covered it with two layers of napkin, which worked perfectly, just in time for blue hour.

Once I got home and looked at my images, I would have preferred the reddish light from the flashlight, although it was near impossible to not light the ground in front of the barn.

In post processing, I adjusted light and contrast some, added a little saturation to the color, and cloned out just a bit of light where the headlamp was in front of T.A. Moulton barn. Cloning out the light was not necessary on the other barn because the lamp was far enough back and angled just right to avoid being in the photos.

And, now I have the story and memories of another adventure in the national parks. 

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