Improving at Astro Photography: My First Attempt’s an Epic Failure

A Pineapple Express was dumping rain and clouds over Western Washington. Still, I desperately wanted to try my hand at Astro Photography. If I wanted to try it, I had two options. Wait for my next camping trip or pull an all-nighter and bear through a sleepless next day.

I’ve always loved all things outer space. Combining my renewed interest in improving my skill at photography with my love of the night sky only made sense. How hard could it be, right? I mean really it’s just finding a patch of “dark sky,” the right focal point, and having long shutter speed, right?
I could not have been more wrong.

It was 10 p.m., my kids were in bed, and my wife was about to go to bed too. I’ve always been a bit of a night owl and was wide awake.

I meekly asked my wife if I could drive north to take some nighttime shots. I told her I wanted to head up near Deception Pass with the added benefit of grabbing some shots of the sprouting tulip fields nearby in the morning.

I had checked the weather and the Dark Sky app, and it looked like it would be a great place to grab shots. The Pineapple Express was flowing just south of Deception Pass, and while there were some clouds, it looked mostly clear.

My wife gave me the thumbs-up, and I started to make the 3-hour drive north. I quickly gathered up my gear and hit the road with my Labrador.

The wind blowing destroyed most of my shots, but this one turned out comparatively okay

About an hour into the drive, I stopped to grab a cup of coffee and checked the weather up north. The Pineapple Express had moved north, and my idea was shot.

Or was it, my second choice Ellensburg, Washington. Looking at the streaming clouds, there appeared to be a spot where the clouds split, and the sky cleared.

I thought, “Huh, that’s interesting, it’s probably why the University of Washington chose that area for their observatory.” I’ve always wanted to visit it but never had the chance.

I plugged Manatash Ridge Observatory into my phone and started heading east across the mountains.

As I was going through Snoqualmie pass, I kept glancing upward at the sky. The further I drove, the more the dark gray blanket of clouds began to dissipate. The further I drove, the more the light pollution from Seattle started to wane, and the stars began to get brighter and more numerous.

I didn’t realize how powerful a street light a hundred yards behind me could be.

I saw the lights of Ellensburg glowing in the distance as I started the decline out of the pass. I took the exit my phone alerted me to and started to wind my way through darker and darker country roads.

“In one mile, your destination will be on the right.” Siri announced to me.
One mile later, Siri announced, “You have arrived at your destination.”

Except there was nothing. It looked like someone’s house. It was too dark to see much of anything, but what I absolutely didn’t see was a domed building. I was also in a valley, and I wondered, would they put the observatory down here to block some of the light pollution? It seems like the mountains going up either side of the road might limit the view.

I drove back and forth and assumed that Siri gives terrible advice, but I had lost cell service miles ago and couldn’t look more into it. I decided to continue to follow the road until I found somewhere to park. The road eventually dead-ended into a snowmobile park. There were a handful of RVs parked at the park. I got out. It was significantly colder than I expected. And as soon as I set up, three nearby RVs flipped their outside lights on. Probably curious as to why this person just arrived this late at night and concerned for their expensive snowmobiles parked here and there.

I felt a bit awkward. The lights were a bit too much. I was disappointed in not being able to find the observatory. I remembered the Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park wasn’t too much further.

I got back into the car and headed that direction.

By the time I arrived, it was 3:30 a.m. The skies were perfect. I parked outside the entrance to grab a few shots with the welcome sign.

I stepped outside of the car and was blasted by powerful winds.

Lowering my shutter speed and ISO killed some of the stars, but the glow from the city off in the distance is kind of nice.

I set up the tripod and camera. I let go of the tripod for a second, and the wind instantly started sending the tripod and my camera down to the ground. Fortunately, I was able to grab it, but I was concerned about the long shutter speeds and the high winds.

I was right. Each of the photos came out distorted and blurred.

I decided to drive into the park and hopefully find somewhere a bit protected from the wind.

No luck.

The last time I felt wind like this was in a tropical storm on the Gulf Coast. I regretted leaving my first spot. It was cold, but it was relatively windless.

Still determined to get a shot, I set up my tripod in my van and tried to get photos. The wind rocked the van back and forth. None of my shots were going to turn out.

Disappointed, I crawled back into the front seat, reclined it, and closed my eyes.

I woke up an hour or two later and was staring at a huge lake that I had somehow entirely missed. I took a quick peek at the large chunks of petrified wood dotting the grounds. I snapped a few photos and thought. I really need to come back here.


Written by Corey Dembeck

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