I enjoy night photography, though I’ll be the first to admit that I have a lot to learn. I have previously written on the topic. However, in that case, my post focused on night photography in the city. In today’s post, I’ll focus on night photography in the wilderness (or at least far from city lights).
During my recent backpacking trip in the Olympic Mountains, I played with night photography on two nights. My main focus on those nights was to capture some shots of the Milky Way. When shooting star filled skies, and not trying for star trails, here are a few hints:
- plan your shot by seeing where the Milky Way will be – download the free program Stellarium, a planetarium for computers which can show you how the night sky will look anywhere in the world at anytime now or in the future.
- pick a spot outside of cities – light pollution blocks many visible stars; my trip to the Olympic Mountains was perfect
- for the best star shots, avoid times when the moon is up – like light pollution, moonlight will drown out many stars; it was just after new moon when I was in the Olympics, moonlight was not a problem
- use as “fast” a lens as you can – I used my f4 17-40mm zoom because I wanted the wide-angle view. However, my f2.8 24-70mm lens would have been a better choice for its better light gathering ability
- don’t be afraid of high ISOs, you will need it – I used ISO settings of 3,200, 6,400, and 8,000 coupled with noise reduction in Lightroom.
- avoid shutter speeds more than 30 seconds, otherwise you will start getting star trails – up to 30 seconds typically works okay for wide-angle shots (perhaps up to 24 mm), but if you use a less wide-angle lens, you will need a faster shutter speed. The shots here had shutter speeds of 20 to 30 seconds
- use a wide open aperture – I had my lens wide open at f4 (again, an f2.8 lens would have been better)
- use a tripod – goes without saying
- if you want some color to the sky, don’t wait until it is too dark – the length of time after sunset the sky will retain color depends on which direction you point the camera and your latitude (it gets darker quicker at lower latitudes); my shots here were taken between 1.5 and 2.5 hours after sunset
- auto-focus will not work, so turn it off – auto-focus does not work in low light; to focus you can choose to take some test shots and check a magnified view on your LCD panel of some of the stars; alternatively, manually set the focus to the hyperfocal distance or biased to the infinite side of the hyperfocal distance (that’s what I did)
- consider using less vignetting correction in post-processing – the profiled vignetting correction for my lens in Lightroom adds a lot of noise to the edges of the images (not a problem in full light conditions, bad news in low light)
The 7 Lakes Basin/High Divide hike is one of the premier backpacking trips in the Olympics if not in Washington State. The scenery is superb and varied. It includes one of the best waterfalls in the state, old growth forest, multiple lakes in both sub-alpine and alpine settings (don’t let the name 7 Lakes Basin confuse you, there are many more than 7 lakes), and views north to Vancouver Island, west to the Pacific, and a fantastic view south to the Hoh River and Mount Olympus.
Wildlife is also abundant. Sightings of deer, elk, mountain goats, and black bears are very common (however, on my recent trip, of the four species, we only saw deer; although based on other hikers’ and backcountry rangers’ comments, we were in the minority). In particular, the mountain goats are so common in frequenting trail and campsite areas, that (at least when I was there) rangers direct hikers to throw rock at them to get them to move off the trail (apparently, the goats are starting to believe they are the dominate species and think humans should move off the trail for them rather than the other way around; the rangers are trying to teach them the opposite).
While the loop is just over 18 miles in length, several of the campsite are not directly on the loop, so the actual length for most people is 19 miles or more. Most people complete the loop in 3 days. We decided to take it slow, and spent 4 nights in the basin. There are four “large” backcountry campgrounds with 6 to 16 campsites: Deer Lake, Lunch Lake, Heart Lake and Sol Duc Park. There are at least 14 other campgrounds with just a single site. Camping is only allowed at the designated sites, and a permit is required. 50% of the campsites can be reserved in advance, and the most popular fill up fast (particularly Heart Lake). This trail is very popular. If you are seeking solitude while camping, avoid the major campground and reserve some of the single sites. For example, we spent one night at Round Lake which was quite private even though it is close to Lunch Lake.
From a photography prospective, unless you want forest shots, the best views are high up in the basin – so you may want to concentrate camping at Heart Lake, Lunch Lake, and Round Lake. For sunrise or sunset views of Olympic Range (and Mount Olympus in particular) without a long hike from your campsite, options are limited. Mount Olympus is only seen from the portion of the trail which actually traverses the High Divide ridge. Other than the Heart Lake Junction campsite (which I didn’t specifically visit, but from the main trail, it appeared to be a dry camp) and a campsite in Cat Basin (which is off the main trail by at least a mile), the High Divide part of the trail is about a 1/2 mile hike and several hundred feet elevation gain from Heart Lake and several miles from Lunch Lake. Without camping at Heart Lake, Heart Lake Junction, or Cat Basin, it is likely you may only see Mount Olympus in mid-day. Inspiring yes, but not the best light as Olympus is directly south of High Divide.
Another consideration about where to camp is what direction you do the loop in. Most people do the hike counterclockwise, spending the first night at Deer Lake (about 3 1/2 miles from the trailhead) or Lunch Lake (about 8 miles). The advantage of going this way is that the elevation gain is a bit more spread out. However it is also possible to go clockwise, which has little elevation gain for the first 6 miles or so (in the Sol Duc River valley), then climbs steeply over 2,000 feet in about 2 miles through Sol Duc Park to Heart Lake. I’ll discuss the photo worthy highlights from a counterclockwise perspective, since that is the direction we did the trip.
The trailhead (elevation about 1,870 feet) is just down the road from Sol Duc Hot Springs resort and campground. Sol Duc Falls (elevation 1,927 feet) is 0.8 easy miles from the trailhead. These falls are one of the most photogenic waterfalls in the Olympics and perhaps even Washington State. The falls consist of three side-by-side drops of approximately 35 feet where the Sol Duc River drops sideways into a narrow gorge. There are several viewpoints from which to photograph the falls, the two main ones being a footbridge a short distance north of the falls and a viewing area directly south of the falls. Set in a beautiful old-growth forest, the scene from both viewpoints is spectacular. However, being in the forest, contrast can be a big problem photographically. Sunlight shining on the falls creates extreme contrast differences. Photographing the falls on a cloudy day or early or late in the day when the falls are in shadows are preferred times.
These preferred times may also help with the second problem photographing the falls. They are extremely popular, and it is hard (at least in summer) to find the falls without people climbing on the rocks above the falls. Luckily, if you take the loop hike, you go by the falls twice, giving you two opportunities to find good light and few people. On our hike, on our first visit, there were perhaps 50 people there, including several women in bright clothes performing some sort of yoga(?) exercise on the rocks at the top of the falls. Further, it was mid-afternoon, and with part of the falls sunlit, the contrast was bad. Our stop at the end of the hike was in late morning. And though there were still a lot of people present, they were mostly out of the frame when shooting the falls. And although sunlight was still an issue, it was more controllable with post-processing.
From Sol Duc Falls, the trail rapidly gains elevation as it makes it way along Canyon Creek to Deer Lake, 3.4 miles from the trailhead (elevation 3,527 feet). This portion of the trail is in forest, but there is a nice view of the creek where the trail crosses on a well constructed bridge. The first view of Deer Lake is where the trail crosses the outlet stream, a good place to photograph the lake (depending on light conditions of course). The lake is set in a sub-alpine forest with occasional meadows, making for some nice views (see this image from my previous post), though certainly unspectacular compared to the higher lakes further up in the basin. The lake is aptly named, we had a buck wander through our campsite in the evening and saw several does in the morning.
Past Deer Lake, the trail resumes its climb toward High Divide, coming out of the forest into a mixed forest and meadow area at the Potholes (4.9 miles, 4,115 feet elevation). The Potholes consist of several ponds and small lakes and a small (one or two sites) campground. This may be worthy of a quick stop or at least a few shots taken from the trail. At the time of our visit (and likely through much of August), wildflowers were abundant from this point on the loop all the way to Sol Duc Park.
Beyond the Potholes, the trail grade moderates somewhat as it eventually reaches the divide that separates the Sol Duc drainage from the Bogachiel drainage (6.1 miles, 4,750 feet). Eventually the trail settles on the Bogachiel side, traversing a very steep hillside along fairly level path below the top of the ridge. The trail eventually reaches a side trail junction that drops down into the 7 Lakes Basin, and specifically to Lunch and Round Lakes (7.05 miles, 4,862 feet).
The 7 Lakes Basin is named for seven lakes within the basin: Round, Lunch, Sol Duc, Clear, Long, No Name, and Morgenroth Lakes. However, the basin name is a misnomer. There are many other lakes in the basin including Lake Number Eight and the Wye Lakes (see below).
Most hikers, us included, hike down to Lunch Lake, dropping about 500 feet in less than half a mile. The views of Lunch and Round Lake are spectacular along this side trail. We spent one night at Round Lake and a second night at Lunch Lake. There are many photo opportunities in the area immediately around the two lakes. You can also venture further out in the basin. From the east end of Lunch Lake, there are trails to Clear Lake and into the Wye Lakes area.
We day hiked into the Wye Lakes area and were pleasantly surprised by the many small lakes we found. These lakes are not shown on some maps (including the Green Trails map we were using). The Wye Lakes are located in a treeless bowl below Bogachiel Peak (see the post-opening photo above). We counted at least 10 lakes in the area, though some would more rightly be classified as ponds. From the southern end of the Wye Lakes area, it looked like you could fairly easily bushwhack down to No Name and Morgenroth Lakes.
During our two nights in 7 Lakes Basin, we saw plenty of deer, including several fawns, but no other wildlife other than frogs (lots of frogs), salamanders and fish. The volunteer ranger at Lunch Lake said the mountain goats loved to hang out in and near the Lunch Lake campground, but they were absent when we were there. (She later told us that while we were camping at Lunch Lake, the goats had traveled to Heart Lake and were staying at the campground there. However, the next day when we hiked to Heart Lake, the goats had left).
To continue from the Lunch Lake area, you have a choice: you can hike back up to the main trail or take a short cut through the Wye Lakes area. Back on the main trail, the way continues traversing the side of Bogachiel Peak, working around the west and south sides of the peak, nearly reaching the summit at 8.12 miles (5,377 feet elevation, the high point on the trail) from the trailhead. Along this part of the trail, shortly before reaching the high point, there is a side trail down to Hoh Lake, a steep 800 feet below the ridge southwest of Bogachiel. From the high point on the trail, it is an easy walk, but airy on the north side, up to the top of Bogachiel Peak. From the high point, the main trail continues atop the High Divide Ridge line eastward with fantastic views of Mount Olympus, the Baily Range, and the Hoh River valley to the south and the 7 Lakes Basin to the north. If you take the short cut through the Wye Lakes area, you reach High Divide at about the 8.8 mile point at just under 5,000 feet elevation. (This short cut saves, by my calculations, about 400 feet elevation gain and about 0.75 miles). We took this route, dropping our packs and hiking back up the main trail to the top of Bogachiel Peak.
The trail continues along the top of High Divide until finally turning northeast to drop to Heart Lake at 9.95 miles from the trailhead (5,042 feet). The two miles of trail from the Hoh Lake junction to the Heart Lake junction are incredible for their view of Mount Olympus. Unfortunately, as mentioned previously, you will likely be hiking this portion in mid-day, and with Olympus due south, the light for photography is not prime. From shortly before the Heart Lake junction all th the way back to the trailhead, it is all downhill.
Heart Lake (10.3 miles, 4,744 feet) is a small, pretty lake and is definitely worth a stop for photos if not camping there. Below Heart Lake, the trail descends rapidly, gradually entering the forest and leaving the alpine lands behind. This part of the trail is known for being frequented by elk (though we did not see any). The trail reaches Sol Duc Park at 11.1 miles (4,135 feet), a nice sub alpine forested campground. The trail continues dropping, never far from but with only occasional views of the Sol Duc River. The forest eventually morphs from sub alpine to low land old growth with seemingly impossibly tall fir and hemlock trees. We spent our last night at the Appleton Junction campsite (13.35 miles, 3,082 feet, next to the Appleton Pass trail intersection with the High Divide trail). This camp is near by the very scenic Rocky Creek (there is another campsite right on the creek), full of mossy logs and rock amid rushing white water. The final five miles of trail are gradually downhill through old growth forest, eventually once again reaching Sol Duc Falls at about 17.3 miles and the trailhead at 18.1 miles.
All in all, this is a great photography trip and is one of the highlights of Olympic National Park. (Note: I borrowed mileage and elevation data from the High Divide trail description on the Pro Trails website.)
I spent most of last week on a backpacking trip in Olympic National Park, making the 19-mile loop trip around the 7 Lakes Basin and along High Divide. Together with my two partners (my brother Rob and his grandson Izzy), we spent 5 days on the trip. In the next few days, I hope to write a photo guide post for the 7 Lakes Basin, but until then, here are a few images from early in the trip to give you an idea about what the 7 Lakes Basin is all about.