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Photographing Stars - Visions of the Cosmos

Guest Post By: Matthew Crowley

This photo is very special to me, even more-so than the one of Delicate Arch. While one may argue that the Delicate Arch shot has more of a stunning foreground element, and you see more of the Milky Way in that shot, I have a much stronger emotional attachment to this place and the circumstances behind it. Sorry for another text wall, but this is my story. I will offer free high-fives for anyone that reads it ;-)

Photo By Matthew Crowley

The name of this place is False Kiva. A kiva is a subterranean room found in ruins in the American Southwest. The structure was used for religious or cultural uses by people such as the Ancient Pueblo Indians. As the human-made stone circle at False Kiva does not have any entrance to a subterranean room, it is not a real kiva, hence the name. The alcove in the canyon wall is fairly large, probably 50 or 60 feet from left to right and a third as high. The stone structure itself is about 15 foot in diameter, with a grainery ruin and several archaeological dig spots located against the back wall. The origin and purpose of False Kiva is not clearly known.

False Kiva is a Class II archaeological site, meaning you will not find a reliable, exact location or directions to get there very easily. In some ways, that is a good thing as the remoteness of the site finds less public exposure than most other spots in Canyon lands. This site was first made popular by photographers such as Tom Till, a local Moab photographer. It offers a very unique frame to take shots from Island in the Sky towards the canyons, buttes and sky in the south.

Not that I could really tell you myself how to get there, as you really have to be shown, but when I was researching how to get there I was very nervous about hiking in by myself. I watched a few videos that had bits and pieces of the trail, collaborated that with Google Earth and text accounts, and got a general sense of where to go. But it was like a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. I was even more interested to be there for shooting the Milky Way, but was even more nervous about hiking out in the dark. I have a fairly reliable app for my iPhone called AllTrails that I was hoping would plot my course down and then I could follow it out, but that could have just as easily set me up to fail if it didn't record properly.

Luckily for me the morning of the day I planned to visit False Kiva, I went to get photos of Dead Horse Point State Park at sunrise. That is where I met Christian from He had the best seat in the house, a rock outcropping at the very point of the overlook. As a lot of photographers do I started gravitating towards where he was. We got to talking and I realized I had actually watched his YouTube video days earlier while researching False Kiva. I told him how I had photographed the Milky Way over Delicate Arch the previous night. It turned out that he was going to False Kiva as well for sunset and was interested in photographing the Milky Way down there as well. Even more luckily for me he has hiked to False Kiva over 30 times and knew the way quite well. So following him in gave me a giant sigh of relief.

If I had gone it by myself, even with the most descriptive written or verbal directions, I don't know if I would have made the time I did getting down there. I'm even less confident that I would have ever gotten back out in the dark by myself. There are places where you follow footsteps, and then suddenly you're on slick rock and there is no longer a trail, and you have to scramble up or down looking for a cairn or more footsteps in the soft soil. In some places the cairns even seem to lead you in the wrong direction, so they are not even always reliable. But I didn't have to worry about that too much as Christian was a great guide and we made it down there just fine.

My first reaction to the place was awe. It was larger than I imagined. The view out was also more dramatic than I had seen in photographs or what I imagined. When we weren't talking to each other, the only thing that you could hear was a slight whisper of the wind. Sometimes you would hear the flapping of birds' wings echoing from above. It was a very special place and it makes you wonder what the ancient peoples would have done there so long ago. They certainly knew how to pick the view!

So we were there for sunset, I'll post photos of that later. But the main event for both of us was star photography. Using my SkySafari3 app on my iPhone I had estimated where the Milky way would end up in relation to where we set up our tripods. We just had to wait for another 2 hours after the sun set for the show to begin. We tried different tests during the waiting period to again be ready to get down to business when the time came. We tried different lighting ideas, ratios and techniques til we finally nailed down what we were going to do. We used Christian's 3 LED spotlight in combination with the Gary Fong Amber Dome, over the spotlight to act as a diffuser and add some soft, warm light to the alcove and the stone ring. Again the ISO was really high, experimenting with ISO-1600 and 3200. For the 30 second exposure we settled on a little less than a third of that time spent light painting the alcove. It worked out better than my expectations.

Photographing Stars setup
Exif Data: Canon EOS 7D | Canon EF-s 10-22mm | 10mm | 30 sec | f/16.0 | ISO-160

As it turned dark, mice began to come out and scurry around our feet, every once in a while messing with gear or packs. We'd shine a light at them and they would scatter. But we finally nailed down our shots and decided to head out. Christian carried a big Dewalt work light with him, which lit up the entire cliff-side and helped us easily navigate our way out. It took about 50 minutes to climb back out and get back to the parking area for Alcove Springs. Another 45 minute drive back to my hotel afterwards and it was again after midnight. Two days of being up before sunrise and up past midnight and I had some serious red eye. But the shots I brought back were completely worth it!

I'm not entirely sure why the star Sirius or parts of Orion were so incredibly intense in this photo in relation to other stars. That's how they looked right out of the camera for me. Perhaps their extra brightness combined with distortion from the curvature of my lens, but I can't be sure.

But, if you read all of that, you can understand why this place means a lot to me and why this photo might be more meaningful to me than even my Delicate Arch shot I posted yesterday.

Again, my hat's off to Royce Blair (IronRodArt) for arming me with the knowledge, and the courage, to try to take these shots. And to Christian for guiding me in and working together to get this right.

And yes, there's going to be noise with a shot like this at ISO-3200 for 30 seconds. Even after noise reduction in Lightroom, this is what I'm left with. Maybe I'll have to pick up that new Canon EOS 60Da that was just announced yesterday, specifically for astrophotography, and do this again. I sure would have no problem with going back down there again!

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