Billions of Stars above Point Reyes

Milky Way Reflecting over McClures Beach

I’ve caught the fever – I can’t believe how fantastically, incomprehensibly, and unfathomably beautiful the night sky is! I’m hooked…. I’ve been watching the sky. Whenever it looks clear and the moon is dark, I find myself heading out to one of our wild and remote beaches at Point Reyes. (Once atop the Inverness Ridge, I hope to discover that the coastal fog is gone, making starry night photography possible.) I’m happy when conditions are right. I’ve photographed the night sky frequently, in the last few weeks, since I posted my essay, Starry Night at Drakes Beach.

I’ve visited McClures Beach on two evenings in recent weeks. McClures Beach is my favorite Point Reyes beach. It is the most northern accessible shoreline in the park, tucked below the rugged highlands of Pierce Point. Out there, it feels like I’m at the end of the earth. Windswept and carved by the Pacific, its wild shores are populated by mammoth stone seastacks. It’s a little spooky walking down the steep trail to McClures at night, alone. So, for my first night photo visit, I asked my wife, Jean, to come with me.

On a clear and moonless evening, we left the dogs in the car and walked down the creek-bed trail to the beach. We arrived shortly after sunset. We were the only souls on the beach that night. I found a fine place to stand where I could photograph the Milky Way streaming above the rocky point to our southwest. Jean ran the flashlight between exposures so I could adjust the settings on my camera. It was misty but the long exposures cut through the atmosphere to record the beauty of the starry night sky. From time to time, I’d hear Jean sigh. She told me she was so happy she was there with me, under the splendor of this star-crazed heavenly view! Later, as we walked up the trail, I vowed to return again, soon, to visit the “secret” beach at McClures.

Monolith, Elephant Rock & The Milky Way

A week later, I took my good friend Hadley to McClures Beach for a second visit. It was his first time there which was exciting for both of us. This time we walked further, past where I photographed the rocky point, until we reached the “secret” beach, which is unknown to those who do not walk far enough south. We slithered through the narrow chasm in the rocky point to the this steep crescent beach. It is treacherous there. The beach is narrow and steep, pushed up against even steeper, nearly unclimbable cliffs. I never turn my back on the sea when I’m on this beach.

We witnessed the final moments of light on the rugged sea stacks there.  Hadley had earlier alerted me to the fact that the moon wouldn’t rise ’til late and that the tide would be extremely low. This was good news as we were able to set up our tripods behind the “Monolith.” (I called this seastack “Monolith” when I photographed it pho on a winter afternoon some 20 years ago — this is also the cover photograph of my book, Point Reyes 20 Years.)

I’ve been coming to McClures Beach since 1974 and have made many of my favorite seascape photographs there. But on these two recent nights, first with Jean and then with Hadley, I photographed the night sky there for the first times.

The fever still rages…. I’ve recently added a number of new starry sky photographs to my website. Fine prints of the photographs in this post are available in a number of sizes and presentations. Additional night sky photographs are also available and can be found in my new online collection:  Night Sky.

Starry Night at Drakes Beach


Since childhood I’ve been fascinated with the unfathomable beauty of the starry night sky. On warm summer evenings I’d lie on the grass in the back yard of my Connecticut home and gaze in rapt wonder at the millions of sparkling stars above. These early experiences have had a profound effect on the way I see and think about light in my photography today. Light emanating from the darkness or glowing from behind, backlighting my subject, still draws me close.

Starry Night at Drakes Beach 86I’ve only just recently begun to photograph the starry night sky. On a trip to the eastern Sierras two years ago, I began exploring the heavens above places such as Joshua Tree or the Alabama Hills. However, until last week, the persistent coastal fog near my home at Point Reyes had kept me from attempting any star photography here.

Clear skies arrived last Monday, during an unusual heat wave. The fog disappeared from our coast. That evening, I drove toward Drakes Beach as the sun sank below the Pacific’s horizon. I arrived at Drakes Bay and found the parking lot empty.  Oh joy… I had the beach and the night sky to myself!

Time slowed as I ambled along the shore enjoying the balmy evening. Then, emerging slowly from the darkening sky, a glorious river of light appeared. As the sky darkened this band of sparkling light brightened. Millions of stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way, streamed from the horizon up to the heavens, high above my head. I found a place near a favorite bluff and set my camera for the long exposure.

Fine prints of  Starry Night at Drakes Beach are available in a number of sizes and presentations. Other star photographs can also be found in my online collection:  Night Sky.


Think More and Shoot Less

Reflections, Clear Lake

Reflections, Clear Lake, California, New Year’s Day, 2001

What shooting film taught me:  Think More and Shoot Less
There are many reasons I love using digital technology to make my photographs. The immediacy of the capture process invigorates my creativity and the quality of the printed image exceeds my expectations. Digital photography has a number of clear advantages over traditional film/darkroom technology. However, one digital advantage was so attractive, that, for a time, it seduced me away from the way I create my best photographs.

Some things I love about digital photography:
• Instant image capture provides powerful feedback loop for confirmation and/or adjustment.
• Development of the negative and print in safe fresh air instead of hazardous, smelly chemicals.
• Prints are superior in visual quality to previous darkroom prints.

Here’s the feature that got me, temporarily derailing me from my creative rhythm:
• Tiny memory cards that hold a seemingly inexhaustible number of captured images.

A Great Feature?
Wow!  Why wouldn’t I want an endless supply of film, taking up virtually no space and weighing next to nothing? Wouldn’t you? Maybe if you never shot film, this potential wouldn’t seem so incredible. But, coming from where I was, this was like winning the lottery, or finding a pot of gold.  When I wired with film I’d  keep track of how many exposures I had left, making sure I’d save several frames for the magic hour – the time when the good light might come. My film was a precious commodity and as such was allotted out carefully. But, now, through the miracle of digital I could make as many photos as I wanted… any time I wished. The days of counting exposures and rationing film was over. Boy, was I seduced!

What Went Wrong?
I was wealthy beyond my imagination. Or, was I….? At first, I shot like a madman. I was the crazy guy in the desert, who when finding a pool of water from which to drink, starts scooping it up and pouring it over his head. I had it all..everything but the yippee! I shot wildly for the first few times, happy to never run out of my digital film. I was sure that I was getting lots of great photos, as I jumped from one great scene to the next. Each evening, though, my spirits sank as I reviewed the results on my laptop screen. I spent a long time sorting through the hundreds of images searching for winners. Usually, there were none. Something was missing, something that volumes of shooting wasn’t providing. I wondered what?

A Lesson from the Past
As I thought about what went wrong, I remembered how I had worked when using film. Things had changed. Now, in my current excitement to make lots of images (because I could!), I was going so fast that I had lost my focus, my attentiveness to my subject, the landscape. Previously, when shooting film, its scarcity and made it precious – it slowed me down. The film attained value, and as I conserved it I became more conscious of how I went about making an exposure. My tempo in the field, seemingly driven by the scarcity of the film, also had a positive side-effect on my awareness. I had developed a heightened consciousness and care about every photograph I made.

Less Really is More
Since this realization, I’ve changed the way I work, returning closer to the method I used with film. Just because I can make tons of exposures, doesn’t mean I should. I now work much the same way I used to work with film. I slow down, examine my subject from every angle, consider if there is even a photograph worth trying for. In short, I think more and shoot less. Because of this, I now find a higher percentage of my compositions have value. They express a deeper way of seeing and are imbued with the thoughtfulness that occurs when enough time is allotted.

Getting Connected
There is another benefit to a practice of careful, thoughtful shooting. By making fewer exposures, you will be more connected to the ones you do make. The increased attention you give to your photos will bring you to a deeper connection with them and you’ll better understand both your successes and failures. This feedback will provide you with accelerated improvement in your expressive work.

Precious Time
One of the greatest wealths you will obtain is time. The hidden cost of mindless shooting is the loss of your precious time… time lost not only while you were making all those poorly considered images, but again, later, as you sort through and then trash the hundreds of bad photos you made. Your time is the only wealth you’ll never recover when it’s gone. I hope you’ll consider that the next time you go out photographing. Think more, shoot less and be glad you did!

Blue Oak Group, Briones Regional Park, California

Blue Oaks, Briones Regional Park, California