Finding Point Reyes Again – The Night Sky

After more than thirty years of photographing the magnificent landscape of Point Reyes, I had lately become less interested in her charms. So, I began exploring other vistas… dewdrops on flowers, light spilling through barn wall cracks, bubbles in glass… you name it. All this is well and good, but the Point Reyes landscape had stopped appearing in the viewfinder of my camera. So, what happened this autumn is the story of how I found Point Reyes again. But, first, to find Point Reyes again, I had to leave it.

Although the story has very deep roots going back to childhood and my fascination with the mystery of the stars above, I will skip those memories for now to tell you about my more recent exploration of the heavens.

It began on a recent photo trip I made with friends to the Alabama Hills in the Eastern Sierra. My friend, Hadley Johnson, had learned the secrets of how to photograph the Milky Way. One night he coached us at a rock formation known as Boot Arch. There I made my first photograph of the Milky Way as it streamed skywards adjacent to the arch. Fascinated by the unfathomable beauty of the cosmos, this first photograph kindled my creative spirit.

Boot Arch & the Milky Way

So, this spring, I returned to the desert at Joshua Tree National Monument. There I made a second photograph of the Milky Way with Joshua Trees anchoring the vault of the heavens. Making this photograph of a starry night sky, in connection with a beloved landscape enlivened me. When I returned to Point Reyes I knew I was hooked. I wondered… what about Point Reyes under a starry sky?

Milky Way 32, Joshua Tree

The Milky Way at Joshua Tree

I dreamt of making a new series of landscapes that included my favorite Point Reyes locations under a starry sky. Each dark moon cycle would provide an opportunity. On some nights as my wife and I relaxed in our outdoor tub, the stars shone brightly above. On several occasions, I drove over the ridge at 2 am only to discover the heavens were occluded by a thick blanket of fog, so my dreams were stymied repeatedly by this pervasive coastal fog.

But, in late September, an unusually warm weather front visited our coast. The temperature rose to the mid-nineties, and the coastal fog went away. It came at a perfect time during the new moon cycle when the sky would be darkest, and the stars would shine their brightest! This could be the night….

I was hopeful as I drove at sunset to Drakes Beach. Not a soul was on the beach, and as I wandered slowly south, the sky gradually darkened. Then, I saw the band of light, our Milky Way, glowing overhead. Time seemed suspended in the silent darkness. I wandered along the beach, trying different compositions, but could not find one that pleased me. I decided to wrap things up. As I headed back to my car, I noticed the Milky Way streaming heavenward next to one of the iconic Drakes Beach cliffs. This scene stopped me in my tracks. As I composed my image, it struck me I was photographing the very bluff on which I’d stood 26 years earlier while making my photograph, Drakes Moonrise!

Starry Night at Drakes Beach

The posting of this first new photograph, Starry Night, Drakes Beach, and the story I wrote about it created an unprecedented positive reaction at my website. I continued my photography of Point Reyes, but now, under the stars. Over the next two months I re-visited and photographed the night sky at many of my favorite Point Reyes landscapes. I had found Point Reyes again!

The Night Sky exhibit at my gallery, through January 16th, features the photographs I made at Point Reyes this autumn. The Marty Knapp Photo Gallery is open Friday, Saturday or Sunday between 11-5. The Night Sky Collection is the online version and includes secure ordering access. A boxed set of  notecards, Starry Nights has just been released and is available at both the gallery and online.


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.