Milky Way over Lake Irene (Oct 24)

Astrophotography interests me, but I'm not really an astronomer-type with a camera and telescope (like my talented photographer friend Pat), but I do enjoy trying to make images of the stars.

I like being outside, especially in a really dark sky area and observing and photographing the Milky Way. The last really good dark sky experience was in Walden, Colorado when we went there to see the Perseids meteor shower.

Image from near Walden, Colorado during Aug 2013 Perseids

Though most of Rocky Mountain National Park isn't in a truly dark sky location, it's still better than being in Denver or Estes Park where there's quite a bit of light pollution.

Light pollution map for Colorado (from 2006 satellite data)

But ever since I saw some of Erik Stensland's night sky photos taken at Lake Irene in RMNP, I've been wanting to get up there. So finally we did.

We went up the day after my hike to Estes Cone, partly because the skies were supposed to be pretty clear, plus, on this date, there was a new moon which had already set earlier in the evening. This, combined with the shorter days in late October, we could go out pretty early and have it be pretty dark.

Lake Irene is about an hour from our house on Trail Ridge Road, so we left about 9pm and arrived at the parking lot to find only one other car (which was one more than I expected!).

We took our Saab convertible up there and shortly after arriving, we put on a bunch of layers and then put the top down. Susan laid down in the back seat to stare up in to the sky, and I wandered around the parking lot with the camera and tripod getting accustomed to the darkness.

Night sky above Lake Irene

The Milky Way above the parking lot at Lake Irene

In 15-20 minutes our eyes got used to the darkness and the Milky Way was there in all its glory. And not only that, staring up into the sky allowed us both to catch the occasional meteor streaking by.

After awhile, we decided to turn our headlamps on and walk on the maintained path to Lake Irene. I was hoping to find still water on the little lake to catch reflections of the stars.

Lake Irene

For the most part, we weren't disappointed. :-)

The starlit trail along Lake Irene

We walked along the edge of the lake, eventually walking around a good bit of it. I was concerned that maybe there was another photographer there because of the car in the parking lot, but we never saw or heard another person.

We were having lots of fun stumbling around in the dark and did a couple of light-painting experiments.

A favorite shot of Susan shining her headlamp on the trail near the lake

Finally, we decided to leave and see what else we could find on the way back home.

We stopped for a few minutes at Rock Cut, but this was even closer to the city lights from Denver, Longmont, Loveland, and Fort Collins.

Continental Divide from Rock Cut

Looking west from Rock Cut with a car on Trail Ridge Road

We made one quick stop at Rainbow Curve for a photo of the lights of what we call "the Valley", and then headed home and to bed.

Looking east from Rainbow Curve

The shot above from Rainbow curve is really interesting. First, you can see there are far fewer stars visible because of the light pollution from the I-25 corridor. You can clearly see the outline of Deer Mountain right of center, with the lights of Estes park to the right. The two light streaks at bottom center are other cars coming up Trail Ridge Road. And there are two small reflections (not lights) in Horseshoe Park -- those are Sheep Lakes! And if you go full screen you might even see meandering Fall River.

If you're curious about camera settings, here's some info. These were shot with a Canon 5D Mark III and a "fast" lens, the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L. A tripod is a must. Most shots were about f/2.0, about 2500 ISO and about 25 second exposures. You're "supposed" to use a shutter release, but I often just use the 2 second timer. The hardest part is getting good focus. I switch the lens to manual focus, find a very bright star, and then switch to "Live View" and use 5x or 10x magnification on then adjust the focus ring until the points of light are focussed.

It was a great night to be out, and I finally got to capture the night sky from Lake Irene. I didn't get the fine art results someone like Erik gets, but it was a lot of fun to try!

Lake Irene

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