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Reaching for Eternity: A Timelapse Journey with Ancient Bristlecones and the Milky Way

Updated: Oct 24, 2023


High upon the peaks of the Inyo National Forest, a council of mystical sentinels are assembled, standing guard as they have for millennia. Twisted, wrinkled, and worn through eons of wind, rain, and cold, they stand solemn, forever holding their ground against the passage of time. Observing all of planet earth’s children and the cycles of the night sky over the course of eons, these patriarchs have surveilled history, while collecting wisdom and experience, sharing it only with those who heed the call of the ancients and choose to make the journey.


This is the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in Eastern California. Remote, mysterious, and serene, it’s home to the oldest trees in the world, one of which is an unbelievable 4,800 years old.


Why does this place call to me so much? Often referred to as elders and sages, some of these trees have been around since the Roman Empire and Ancient Egypt. Knowing that they’re the oldest living organisms on earth makes me wonder how much they’ve been through, witnessed, and perhaps even heard. If only they could talk… I always imagine hearing the voices of the Ent trees from Lord of the Rings - telling stories of the past in a weathered yet wise voice, imparting insights, guidance, and lessons that we all could learn from.


Walking among these fathers of time is a very meditative experience, and a perfect setting for self-reflection. It’s insanely quiet, tranquil, and honestly, kinda spooky… you won’t hear any trappings of mankind, only the wind through the branches and the whispers of ancient history, while watching thousands of stars and the Milky Way dance across a clear and brilliant night sky.



MULTIPLE ATTEMPTS:

Although the forest never officially closes, the roads are not maintained during the winter. I found this out on my first trip here in April of 2021. I thought it was warm enough, but as I got closer to Patriarch Grove, there was still enough snow on the ground to make the road impassable, even for a more capable vehicle than mine. This was all part of a road trip to explore the magnificent Highway 395 for the first time, a beautiful scenic drive lined with majestic mountains that provides access to some amazing hikes, incredibly blue glacial lakes, and epic landscapes. Exceptionally diverse, it’s home to countless attractions and places to explore… and the fall colors are simply outrageous. While there were other areas I couldn’t get to because of the snow, a trip to the Eastern Sierra is never a waste of time.


So, in July of 2021, I set forth on another adventure through HIghway 395 and the Eastern Sierra, which has quickly become one of my favorite destinations. Finally making it to Patriarch Grove, I captured some great images and a couple of nightscape timelapses under cloudy conditions, but the rain that followed squashed any hopes of getting a long term motion timelapse of what most people refer to as the infamous “Leaning Tree.”


I made another attempt In May of 2022, where I took the scenic Tioga Pass into Yosemite, captured the night sky and Milky Way over Mono Lake, and scouted some other areas around Highway 395 and the Owens Valley, all with the intention of going to Patriarch Grove on the way home. But after four arduous days of driving, hiking, and late nights chasing the Milky Way, I was totally exhausted and on a tight schedule. Once I got to the Visitor Center at 5pm, I passed out in the parking lot, only to wake up four hours later, knowing that I didn’t have it in me to continue, so I drove home. Denied once again.


During our Sierra Nights Workshop in June of 2022, one of the planned spots was the Patriarch Grove in Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. After capturing some epic b-roll along the 12 mile dirt road, all I could think about was getting the time lapse I had been dreaming of, so I decided to stay the night and meet up with the team the next day. I’m so glad I did, because on this fourth attempt, I finally got the shot I had been chasing.


Conditions were perfect, with a clear sky near a new moon that set at 10pm. So I packed up all the gear, including a really heavy and bulky 42” slider (I really need to buy the carbon fiber version), and headed to the tree. Patriarch Grove is also at 11,000 feet above sea level; higher altitudes mean less atmosphere for light to travel through, therefore clearer photographs of the night sky.



THE GEAR:

Sony Alpha a7S III Camera

Sony FE 14mm f/1.8 G Master Lens

Rhino Camera Gear Arc II 4-Axis Motorized Pan/Tilt Head

Rhino Camera Gear 42” Slider

Rhino Camera Gear High Torque Motor

2 Lume Cube 2.0 (Pro Lighting Kit with dome diffusers)

1 Falcon Eyes F7 Mini RGB LED Panel with diffuser

3 Light Stands


The Sony a7S III is an incredible full frame camera that’s particularly great for low light, and even at only 12 megapixels, it’s more than enough for 4k images. It also serves as my video camera.


The Sony 14mm G Master Lens is an outstanding choice for astrophotography. It’s ultra-wide, extremely fast, super sharp, and the coma (a form of aberration distortion) is well controlled.



THE SETUP:

I laid the slider directly on the ground, using rocks to level it beyond what the built-in feet are capable of. Even with an ultra-wide 14mm lens, you’ll need to place the camera low to the ground in order to get as much of the subject and the Milky Way in frame, and for this particular shot, the foreground didn’t have much meaning at all. I’m terrible at judging distance, but I would say that the tree is about 40 feet away.


Since the tree is the hero in this shot, I wanted to illuminate it using low level lighting. With a long exposure of 20 seconds, the light you apply can’t be noticeably seen with the naked eye, so there’s a lot of experimenting that needs to be done with placement and distance. Moving the lights around both in angle and distance meant doing about 30 minutes of test shooting in order to get the look I wanted.


When it comes to lighting any subject, you never want to put the main light directly coming from or near the camera source. In creating depth and character, shadow means as much as light, so the general goal is to place your main light, otherwise known as the “key” light, at around a 45 degree angle from the camera to the subject. In this scene, I really wanted to place it to my left to minimize shadows, but I couldn’t without it illuminating the other tree to the left while not getting in the shot, so I chose to put the key light to my right. This LED panel has color temperature adjustments, so after some experimentation and fiddling, I set it at 4650 Kelvin at 1% brightness. Now I needed to try to fill in the shadows a bit, so I placed a Lume Cube at 90 degrees to the left of the subject behind the large green tree at its second to lowest setting, as well as another around 30 degrees to the left at its lowest setting.


At this focal length, focus on your hero. The subject is far enough away to reach the minimum hyper focal distance. Wider focal lengths provide a deeper depth of field, so focusing on a subject like this at this distance will give you an acceptably sharp Milky Way, and it’s ok if the Milky Way isn’t optimal. Remember, depth of field depends on your focal length and distance to your subject.


Overlanding vehicle parked back country desert overlook

THE CAPTURE:

CAMERA SETTINGS:

RAW

ISO 3200

F 1.8

White Balance 4000k


TIME LAPSE SETTINGS:

20 second exposure

25 second interval

577 exposures

11:08pm – 3:13am


Time lapse is a compression of time, where we can speed up slow moving objects like clouds or stars. The two settings that control how fast things move are the exposure time and the interval, which is the total time between the beginning of one shot, to the start of the next, including the time in between. So, the longer the exposure and interval, the faster your time lapse will move. Generally, your interval should be twice the exposure time.


So, what’s the difference between a regular time lapse and a motion time lapse? In a regular time lapse, the camera doesn’t move, but in a motion time lapse, the camera moves with a slider or a motion control head, or both, changing the perspective and creating parallax, where the foreground, subject, and background move at different rates, creating more movement. With the motion of the stars and the Milky Way, this all adds up to a more complex, interesting, and dynamic composition. In order to maximize the parallax effect (see the illustration above,) I placed the camera to the far right at the beginning of the time lapse, ending at the far left, all while keeping the subject in the middle. The Rhino Arc II motorized head and slider system connects to the camera via USB, and controls the shutter speed and interval, moving the camera ever so slightly between shots.


Oh, and a quick note about PhotoPIlls. It’s an incredibly powerful phone app that’s essential in any photographer’s toolbox, and a no brainer for only $11.

There’s a panel called “Spot Stars,” and by entering your particular model of camera and lens, it will give you the optimal exposure time to minimize star trails. It also has an Augmented Reality function where you can see where the Milky Way, the Sun, or the Moon will be at any given time and location.



POST PROCESSING:

2017 Apple iMac

Lightroom Classic

LRTimelapse

Adobe Premiere


Editing a time lapse is just like post-processing a photograph, adjusting exposure, color temperature, highlights, shadows, etc., and my editor of choice is Lightroom Classic. In the RAW image below, you can see that the sky came out too green for my taste, so I cooled off the temperature, added a bit of magenta to get a pleasing blue (which I prefer), boosted the exposure a touch, as well as other adjustments for contrast and color fine tuning with the HSL panel. I then export each individual image as a 16bit TIFF.


LRTimelapse is an additional piece of software that works in conjuction with Lightroom Classic. Now, you don’t have to use this method, as there’s a much more straightforward workflow with Photoshop, but it unlocks another level of control, where you can automate the setting of virtually any adjustment with keyframes, and furthermore, it includes a workflow for Holy Grail timelapses that go from day to night. It’s too much to go into detail here, and it can be a bit of a beast to learn, but once you get your head around it, you won’t turn back.


At this point, I have LRTimelapse compile the time lapse sequence into a ProRes video file, which I export at the full resolution of the camera, which in this case is 4240x2832. It’s larger than 4K (3840x2160), which gives me some room to move the video around or zoom in and out within Premiere, adding another layer of movement.


In Adobe Premiere, I’ll make further tweaks and adjustments like vibrancy, contrast, and sharpness, amongst others, and add a crucial element… music! I use Epidemic Sound, but there are a lot of great choices out there for Royalty Free music and sound fx.


After all this was done, I plucked a single frame from the sequence, and edited it as a still photograph with Lightroom Classic, Photoshop, and Topaz Gigapixel AI, with an additional mirrored composition.


I call this image “Reaching for Eternity.”

By the way, if you look carefully at the 6 second mark, you can briefly see a little critter in the lower left coming up to inspect my setup.


If you’d like to get some time lapse training in the field, check out our Time Lapse Workshop scheduled for May 2024.



Robert Oleysyck is a professional photographer, time lapse film maker, and video producer who owns a creative agency in Las Vegas.


All In Creative Agency: https://www.allincreative.agency/



These images are available as fine art prints here:






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