I know this is not my most popular or even most beautiful picture, far from it but I find the story quite funny. It was taken in Ladakh during a Shoot to Help report in the campus of the NGO school of SECMOL. Yep, that’s the school with the most amazing view I have ever seen. You wake up to the sunrise over the Himalayas and the stars are like nothing I ever witnessed.
After asking around, I found out that the best sunset and sunrise spot was on the hills overlooking the campus, 10 minutes walk or, even better, the hill overlooking the hills, steep ascension of 20 more minutes. All seems well in normal circumstances but we, as weak occidentals that we are, are not made to live at 3 500 meters of altitude. At least not after only one day. I think the symptoms of altitude sickness vary between people but for me, there was nothing for the first couple of hours, then a very strange and quite uncomfortable feeling of general physical unease followed the day after of just constant short of breath.
That was the case when I’ve climbed all the way to the top of the second hill to see the amazing sunset over the prayer flags. You’re tired, breathing does not bring half the oxygen you are used to and just the sights are enough to make you breathless. That’s when I thought, on top of that hills, overlooking the valley, the mountains and keeping in mind of the amazing starry sky: “well that would be the perfect first try for a star trail image with the prayer flags in foreground and the Himalayas in background”.
Usually people rest for three days after arriving in Ladakh to get acclimated to the altitude. On my second day I’ve climbed the two hills. Three times. Two times in the night. As soon as the sky was dark enough, I took my stuff, Brian the tripod, put on my headlamp and tried, breathless, in pitch black, to climb back the rather slippery sand hill. Still, everything would have been easier without the omnipresent growls and barks of the dogs around me…I hadn’t think of that before but while climbing, I could hear them getting close, fighting together and I could just see their flashing eyes in front of my lamp…yaaaay… At least, I was vaccinated against rabies…not. At least, I was in good shape and could run fast…not. At least, I found a stick…on the third climbing!
Finally, on top of the hill, freezing my hands setting the camera and Brian, I had the hardest of times to frame and focus on the prayer flag as it is too dark for the camera. The little trick is to flash your light on your subject, frame and focus manually with live view with the minimum light and aim for the stars as they said. I use a little cable release, not only because it’s more stable but because it allows you to keep the shutter open in bulb mode for as long as you want. Once it’s framed and clicked, you have to close your lamp as not to alter the image with it, meaning you are now alone, on the top of the world and in pure darkness except for the sky and the stars.
The only thing remaining is to forget you’re cold, lie down on the ground, put on some music on your cellphone and stare at the magnificent sky. Feel the stars moving, the closeness to them, the silence and the serenity of this highly spiritual region. That’s the fun part. After a couple of songs and before freezing dead cold, I’ve checked the first results, reframed a little bit, made some adjustments and went back down to warm myself because each of the images are around 20 minutes of exposure to get the stars. After that, rinse and repeat, go back down, escape from the dog, slide down in the sand in the dark, climb back, try to get your breath back and look at the pictures.
For a first try, I was quite satisfied with the results so I packed everything and went back to my room only to find that my camera was messed up and that I was shooting in small jpg from the beginning…Nothing to do except repeat all over again the following day…
Important things to remember if you do not want to read the whole story even though you should
- Ladakh is the most beautiful place in the world, go there
- Take it easy the first day on altitude sickness, take some pills and start climbing small hills on the second day
- Lie down, look at the sky, realize the beauty
- Try some different types of photography sometimes, for me it was star trail photography
- ALWAYS check ALL your settings before important and long shots
- Get a walking stick when walking in the night alone in Ladakh
- Get some good gloves and warm clothes
- Have some good music on your cellphone
- Always carry at least a small lamp in your camera bag, you never know when it can come in handy
- For star trail photography, use Bulb exposure mode (B) and a cable release for really long exposures (at least 15 minutes)
- It goes without saying, use a tripod
- Frame and focus before by pumping the ISO and aperture and lighting the subject, you’ll see better on the screen, put everything back to normal after
- Use large aperture, long exposure and relatively high ISO