night sky festivals

A Star Trek: Reporting Back from our Time at the Grand Canyon Night Sky Festival

One of the things I love about my job is that I get to experience so much of what our national parks offer. From soul-easing sunrises to serene night skies, from windswept desert landscapes to alpine lakes and streams—I get to see it all and reconnect with the natural beauty we were all born from eons ago.

In addition to all the wilderness it preserves, the institution of the National Park Service offers countless opportunities to engage with these places and to interact with others who enjoy them so passionately. One such opportunity is the Grand Canyon Star Party, the annual festival of night at one of the world’s most famous natural spaces. And last week, National Parks at Night was fortunate and proud to be a part of this stellar event.

A Grand Party

Many national parks organize night sky festivals, but the Grand Canyon puts on one of the biggest. The party lasts eight days—long enough for us to participate last weekend, come home, write a blog post, and share the news with you today while the event is still going on.

Photographing the Milky Way at Mather Point. © 2019 Gabriel Biderman.

Photographing the Milky Way at Mather Point. © 2019 Gabriel Biderman.

Ten thousand night sky fans were expected to visit the park this week specifically for the festival, and scores more serendipitously joined the activities when they happened to find themselves in the right place at definitely the right time. Those folks enjoyed (and today are still enjoying):

  • lectures about dark skies, astronomy and nocturnal activities

  • more than 50 telescopes available for viewing planets and galaxies, arranged by the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association

  • ranger-led constellation walks

  • a general camaraderie among like-minded knights of the night

This year marked the 29th Star Party, and the biggest news of the event (no, it wasn’t that we were there) was this:

On the very first morning the International Dark Sky Association visited to certify the Grand Canyon as an International Dark Sky Park—the 70th and now the largest park of its kind in the world. It’s an honor that took three years for the park to earn, partly by converting over 5,000 lights to be dark-sky compliant—creating what Forbes Magazine recently dubbed “the $1 million Milky Way.” The retrofitting funds were raised by the Grand Canyon Conservancy, the park’s nonprofit partner.

Introducing: Night Photography!

What was our place in all of this? For two days Gabriel Biderman and I led education about—you guessed it!—night photography. According to the rangers we worked with, this is the first time the festival has offered a night photography component, and we were thrilled to lead the way.

The Grand Canyon Star Party is broken into two halves—one on the South Rim, one on the North. We were stationed at the former, working around the primary visitor center.

On our first night, we delivered a presentation titled “Night Photography in the National Parks.” The visitor center theater accommodates 233 people, and every chair was occupied. Moreover, we learned afterward that about 325 people were outside the theater watching the large-screen livestream of the talk—for a total of about 550 attendees! That fully reinforced how big an event we were part of. I can’t speak for Gabe, but I know it’s the largest audience I’ve ever spoken to. I’m not sure I could adequately describe how fulfilling it is to be able to share a passion with so many.

Gabe and I posing with our in-house audience.

The talk centered around—well, the title says it all. We relayed some of the experiences of the Grand Canyon South Rim workshop that we had just wrapped up a few days before, showing images that we’d created of the canyon under moonlight, in addition to some behind-the-scenes pictures of our workshop attendees enjoying the night. And then we spent half an hour showing our photographs from 29 national parks—from Acadia and Arches to Yellowstone and Zion—sharing stories about the experience of being in these wonderful places at night.

When the talk was over, we signed some books in the back. We usually sell books on our own at events like this, but the Grand Canyon Conservancy asked if they could make the sales. We were more than happy to have them take over. They do great work, and we’re on board with any way we can support them. (If you have a love of, or an interest in, the Grand Canyon, check out what they do at the link above.)

© 2019 Cindy Radich.

© 2019 Cindy Radich.

Then we met with 60 photographers who were on hand for the free night-photo walk we were leading. Everyone gathered in the theater, where Gabe and I walked them through setting up their cameras for night photography. Then we all walked under the night sky to Mather Point, one of the most stunning vistas in the park and the best spot on the South Rim to view the Milky Way. Everyone was able to create some great images of our galactic core rising over the rim—many of them for the first time! The smiles were so big that we could see them even in the dark.

Day Work

The next day we were up early (well, early for us) so we could set up our table at the festival. The park was kind enough to station us right outside the main visitor center, in the heart of the goings-on. We spent the afternoon (a beautiful, sunny, cloudless, blue-sky day) meeting and greeting fellow photographers and night enthusiasts, talking about the Grand Canyon and other parks, sharing info about our workshop program, and giving out a lot of NPAN stickers to kids and kids-at-heart.

Photo © 2019 Jen Bookman.

Photo © 2019 Jen Bookman.

Gabe and I with our hard-earned Junior Ranger Night Explorer patches.

Gabe and I with our hard-earned Junior Ranger Night Explorer patches.

(Funny story: We were stationed so much in the middle of the activity that people kept asking us for general information about the Star Party—what it was, where to be for events, and so on. We were happy to oblige. Late in the day a ranger noted how helpful we’d been, and he thereby awarded us Junior Ranger patches.)

On that second night we led another photo walk, exactly the same as the previous night’s, except this time about 70 photographers partook. Many of them were people we’d met and chatted with during the day—lots of new friends and smiling faces.

One notable difference between the first- and second-night groups was that more than several of the latter hadn’t come to the festival with the intent of photographing at night, and thus didn’t have tripods. Fortunately for us, Manfrotto has treated us well over the past couple of years, so we had a few extra tripods we could loan out—all from the Traveler series.

Even more than the previous night, people were walking away from Mather Point with the first Milky Way images they’d ever created. And some went even further. One attendee tried his very first Milky Way pano, a couple of more decided to venture into star trails for the first time, and the last photographer standing that night, by the time Gabe and I left, was well into his inaugural run at making a Milky Way time-lapse.

Winding Down

At the end of the two days, Gabe and I were simultaneously wiped out and reinvigorated. Neither of us had ever been involved with an event quite like this, and now we can hardly wait to be involved in one again. We could feel two communities coming together—introducing our night photography community to astronomers and avid stargazers, and likewise enjoying being embraced by them in return.

There are so, so many people who love to soothe their souls with sunrises, desert landscapes, and alpine lakes and streams—and who love to seize the night. And now we’re lucky to be friends with more of them.


Notes

We owed, and conveyed, gratitude to several people for helping us make this happen. But three we’d like to mention here:

  1. Thank you to Rader Lane, the ranger who brought us into the fold and served as our point person on-site. He also spent his morning off from work saving my laptop. Upon leaving the park I left my bag behind in the house. Rader retrieved it and ensured that it found its way to FedEx. If not for him, I wouldn’t have been able to write this post—in more ways than one.

  2. Thank you to Jen Bookman and Cindy Radich, two of our Grand Canyon workshop attendees who stayed for the Star Party and shared their photos with us for this post. It was nice to have personal photographers on hand, and we always enjoy their company.

Chris Nicholson is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night, and author of Photographing National Parks (Sidelight Books, 2015). Learn more about national parks as photography destinations, subscribe to Chris' free e-newsletter, and more at www.PhotographingNationalParks.com.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT

Celebrating Darkness: The National Park Night Sky Festivals of 2019

If you’re a regular reader of our blog, then a couple of weeks ago you may have caught the post announcing our involvement with the annual Grand Canyon Sky Party. We’re really revved up about this. It’s an opportunity for our night photography program to be integrated into a dark-sky festival at one of the country’s—nix that, one of the world’s—grandest national parks.

The Grand Canyon Star Party is an event that no night-loving parks buff should miss. But it’s not the only event of its kind. The National Park Service (NPS) is dedicated to preserving night skies and to letting people know about it. Want evidence?

  • Exhibit A: the NPS Night Skies webpage.

  • Exhibit B: the wide range of parks and rangers that commissioned artist and astronomer Tyler Nordgren to produce the “Half the Park is After Dark” poster series

  • Exhibit C: the commitment that’s led to an ever-growing number of units being designated as Dark Sky Parks by the International Dark Sky Association

  • Exhibit D: the night sky festivals that so many NPS units host each year

That last point is the point of this post. All year long the parks host events all across the continent. Below are many of the noteworthy ones coming up in the next several months, including a couple in Canada.

Petrified Forest National Park. NPS Photo/Jake Holgerson.

Petrified Forest National Park. NPS Photo/Jake Holgerson.

Petrified Forest National Park

Arizona, June 21

Annual Dark Sky Celebration

  • ranger- and astronomer-led programs

  • ancient solar petroglyph viewing at Puerco Pueblo

Yosemite National Park

California, June 22-23

Stars Over Yosemite

  • public telescope sharing

  • group camping

  • night-photography shoots

Grand Canyon National Park. Fujifilm X-T2. 30 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400. © 2018 Gabriel Biderman.

Grand Canyon National Park

Arizona, June 22-29

Grand Canyon Star Party

  • held on both the North Rim and South Rim

  • constellation tours

  • daily presentations at the visitor center

  • a night photography talk and two night photography walks by National Parks at Night partners and instructors Gabriel Biderman and Chris Nicholson!

Bryce Canyon National Park

Utah, June 26-29

Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival

  • led by Bryce Canyon's Astronomy Rangers and local astronomical societies

  • keynote speaker: Dr. Amber Straughn, associate director of astrophysics science at NASA

  • model rocket assembly and launches

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Colorado, June 26-29

Black Canyon Astronomy Festival

  • guest speakers

  • astronomy activities

  • held on the South Rim of the canyon

Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve

Idaho, June 28-29 & September 27-28

Craters of the Moon Star Party

  • run by the Idaho Falls Astronomical Society

  • telescopes available for viewing star and planets

Badlands National Park. NPS/Gary Joseph Cohen.

Badlands National Park. NPS/Gary Joseph Cohen.

Badlands National Park

South Dakota, July 5-7

Badlands Astronomy Festival

  • evening presentations with special guest speakers

  • nightly telescope viewing sponsored by the NPS Night Sky Program and Celestron

Harpers Ferry National Historic Park

West Virginia, July 12

Harpers Ferry Night Sky Festival

  • guest speaker and kids program

  • stargazing activities after dusk at the Murphy-Chambers Farm

Ochoco National Forest

Oregon, July 30-August 4

Oregon Star Party

  • guest speakers, including NASA Solar System Ambassador Greg Cermak

  • observing programs for every level, from binocular to beginner to intermediate to advance to photographer (yes, in that order)

  • many, many programs

Lassen Volcanic National Park  Dark Sky Festival. Photo by NPS/Alison Taggart-Barone.

Lassen Volcanic National Park Dark Sky Festival. Photo by NPS/Alison Taggart-Barone.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

California, August 2-3

Dark Sky Festival

  • nightly constellation tours and stargazing

  • discussions and demonstrations by National Park Dark Sky rangers, NASA, the International Dark Sky Association, StarChazerz and the Astronomical Society of Nevada

Shenandoah National Park

Virginia, August 9-11

Night Sky Festival

  • ranger talks and programs

  • guest presentations ranging from topics such as space weather, space travel and our future in space

Wood Buffalo National Park

Alberta and Northwest Territories, Canada, August 22-25

Dark Sky Festival

  • presentations by Bob McDonald, host of CBC Radio's Quirks & Quarks, and Wilfred Buck, a science facilitator for the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre

  • fire circle and drumming

  • aurora and astrophotography workshop

sequoia dark-sky-logo-2018-01.jpg

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

California, August 23-24

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Dark Sky Festival

  • takes place in various locations, including the Foothills, Mineral King, Giant Forest, Lodgepole, Grant Grove and Cedar Grove, as well as Lake Kaweah in Three Rivers

  • over 50 programs, including tours, stargazing, guest speakers, movies, musical performances and more

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site

Pennsylvania, August 24

StarFest

  • organized by the ChesMont Astronomical Society

  • presentations, kids activities, telescope demonstrations and door prizes

Kejimkujik National Park

Nova Scotia, Canada, August 24-25

Dark Sky Weekend

  • Canada’s only Dark Sky Preserve

  • presented in partnership with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

North Dakota, August 30-September 1

Dakota Nights Astronomy Festival

  • rocket building and launching

  • half-mile Solar System Hike

  • stargazing and telescopes

Chaco Canyon National Historical Park. Nikon D5 with a Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, light painted with a Coast HP7R flashlight and a Luxli Viola panel light. 10.5 minutes, f/11, ISO 100. © 2018 Chris Nicholson.

Chaco Canyon National Historical Park

New Mexico, September 20-22

Astronomy Festival

  • sun and night-sky viewing through telescopes

  • learn about celestial alignments in the park’s ancestral Puebloan great houses

  • guided hikes

Joshua Tree National Park

California, September 21

Night Sky Festival

  • held primarily at Sky’s the Limit Nature Center and Observatory

  • viewing through at least 20 telescopes

  • astronomy lectures

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument

Maine, September 21

Stars Over Katahdin

  • campfire chat with hot cocoa and s’mores

  • science lessons

  • astronomy presentations

Acadia National Park. Nikon D3s with a Nikon 28-70mm f/2.8 lens. 20 seconds, f/8, ISO 3200. © 2017 Chris Nicholson.

Acadia National Park

Maine, September 25-29

Acadia Night Sky Festival

  • internationally recognized speakers

  • poster artwork contest

  • events and workshops for everyone from families to the serious amateur astronomers

Great Basin National Park

Nevada, September 26-28

Astronomy Festival

  • daytime and evening telescope viewing

  • ranger talent show of astronomy-themed acts

  • night sky photography workshop by the Dark Rangers

Capitol Reef National Park. Nikon D750 with a Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 lens. 30 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 3200. © 2016 Matt Hill.

Capitol Reef National Park

Utah, September 27-28

Heritage Starfest

  • a dark-sky run/walk

  • constellation tours

Cedar Breaks and Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monuments

Utah, September 27-29

Southwest Astronomy Festival

  • night hikes

  • star parties in various regional parks and places

Jasper National Park

Alberta, Canada, October 18-27

Jasper Dark Sky Festival

  • keynote speaker: Jad Abumrad, creator and host of Radiolab

  • VIP stargazing reception

  • stargazing along the shores of Lake Annette

  • “Science for Breakfast” with Nick Pope, former head of the British government's UFO project

Other Opportunities

These aren’t the only opportunities to celebrate the night skies of the national parks. The above represents the larger events and the annual events—at least the ones that we know of at press time. (Blog time? Press-Enter time?)

In the 400-plus units of the park system, there’s often something going on involving night. Ranger-led walks. Telescope parties. Meteor-shower viewing. Moonlight strolls. And so on. To find an event in a park near you, or in a park near where you’re traveling, go to the NPS’ Event Calendar page and do a search for “night,” or “stars,” etc.

Moreover, if you live outside North America or you’re traveling internationally, you can look for night programs all over the world, such as the Exmoor (National Park) Dark Sky Festival in England, the Mayo Dark Sky Festival in Ireland and the Queensland Astrofest in Australia.

Really, there’s a whole world of seizing the night to be had. So … go seize!

Chris Nicholson is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night, and author of Photographing National Parks (Sidelight Books, 2015). Learn more about national parks as photography destinations, subscribe to Chris' free e-newsletter, and more at www.PhotographingNationalParks.com.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT

Drifting Away to Summer Nights: 3 Events in 3 States

One of the reasons we love doing what we do is because we enjoy spreading the word about dark skies and night photography.

We get to do this a bunch of times per year on workshops in an intense, concentrated format with a small group of attendees, many of whom quickly become friends. But we also get to do this on a larger scale when we participate in conferences and events. Spending time as speakers and photo-walk leaders gives us a chance to meet thousands of new night photography aficionados of all levels.

In that spirit, we’re excited to announce a few upcoming major events that we’ll be participating in:

For more information about these events—including how we’ll be helping out, as well as other useful info—keep on reading below! (And to always be kept abreast of places we’ll be speaking, be sure to sign up for our quarterly Events email announcement.)

OPTIC Imaging Conference

New York City, June 2-5, 2019

The f stops here. Hands down, one of our very favorite conferences. And we’ve been there from the beginning (this is their fifth anniversary!), with different combinations of us participating as speakers, leading photo walks, offering portfolio reviews, and so on.

The OPTIC Imaging Conference is run by B&H Photo and Lindblad Expeditions, both of which are the best at what they do in their niches. Together they put on one of the premier outdoor-photography events on the calendar. OPTIC features scores of top-notch speakers (including National Geographic photographers), a sunset cruise down the Hudson River, parties, photos walks, shooting stations and more.

Our role? We have a few:

  • Tim will deliver a talk titled “The Grand Landscape: Creating Impact with Perspective, Proportion and Position” on Sunday at 10 a.m.

  • The “Nikon Night Adventure.” Sponsored by one of our biggest partners, Chris, Gabe and Tim will lead a night-photo walk at Brooklyn Bridge Park on Sunday night. Participants will be chauffeured from B&H to Brooklyn on complimentary double-decker tour buses.

  • Chris and Tim will be working in the Portfolio Review room during parts of Sunday and Monday.

  • Chris and Gabe will participate in livestreamed image reviews on Wednesday morning.

We’ll also have a table in the trade show area. Tim and I will be available to chat when we’re not engaged in the aforementioned activities. Also behind the table will be Sandra Ramos, the National Park Patch Lady, as well as Sherry Pincus, the backcountry instructor for our Shi Shi Beach workshop. If you’re at OPTIC, be sure to stop by and say hi!

For more information, visit the OPTIC Imaging Conference website.

Further Opportunities

If you can arrive for OPTIC a few days early, you can snag what’s perhaps the best celestial photo opportunity in New York City: Manhattanhenge. Twice per year, the setting sun lines up perfectly with the grid of Manhattan’s streets, and this year one of those two suns will set on May 29, just four days before the conference begins. To learn more, read Neil deGrasse Tyson’s article, brought to you by the American Museum of Natural History.

Grand Canyon Star Party

Arizona, June 22-29

Last year when we started prepping our 2019 workshop at Grand Canyon National Park, Gabe met with a couple of rangers to discuss permits and the like. Gabe’s a friendly guy. So fast-forward 24 hours when the second meeting ended with the rangers inviting us to run a night photography program at the 2019 Grand Canyon Star Party. Whoa. “Excited” doesn’t begin to describe how we felt about the opportunity.

This is one of the biggest night sky festivals in one of the grandest national parks. The party will be held at both the North and South rims, and will feature slide shows, presentations, constellation tours, telescopes, and so on and so on.

Photo courtesy NPS/Michael Quinn.

Photo courtesy NPS/Michael Quinn.

Our program will entail:

  • On June 23, Chris and Gabe will present a talk titled “The Daydreamer’s Guide to Night in the National Parks,” which will document the many night-sky photo opportunities in the park system, as well as how photography can be used for helping to protect darkness.

  • On June 23 and 24, Chris and Gabe will lead one-night photography workshops on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Also on June 23-24, Gabe and I will have a table at the Visitor Center where we can meet and greet current and aspiring night photographers. We’re looking forward to making lots of new friends!

For more information, visit the Grand Canyon Star Party website.

Further Opportunities

Three other national parks in the western U.S. are hosting night sky festivals around the same time: Petrified Forest (New Mexico, June 21), Bryce Canyon (Utah, June 26-29) and Black Canyon of the Gunnison (Colorado, also June 26-29). You could make a whole road trip out of these events. Ya know, drive during the day, and enjoy millions of stars at night. (Stay tuned for more about these events, and others, in an upcoming blog post.)

Smoky Mountain Foto Fest

North Carolina, September 11-14

Based in Asheville, North Carolina, the Smoky Mountain Foto Fest features a packed schedule of lectures, field seminars, photo shoots, technique demos, portfolio reviews and more.

Our programs will include running a table in the trade show where we can meet-and-greet with fellow night enthusiasts, as well as helping with night-photo shoots and portfolio reviews.

In addition, we will be delivering five presentations:

  • “10 Night Photography Challenges and How to Solve Them” (Chris and Lance)

  • “When One Image Isn't Enough: Shooting Multiple Frames for Night Photography” (Chris and Lance)

  • “Photographing National Parks” (Chris)

  • “The Evolution of Night Photography” (Lance)

  • “Light Painting Demo with Live Tethered Shoot” (Chris and Lance)

For more information, visit the Smoky Mountain Foto Fest website.

Further Opportunities

September is, quite simply, a spectacular time of year to spend in the southern Appalachian Mountains. If you come to Asheville for the conference, you’ll be right near two of our workshop locations from the past couple of years: Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway. It will be a little early for fall foliage, but the weather should be fantastic, with warm days and cool nights. And for some of the best grits ever, check out Cafe 64 on Haywood Street.

Note: To stay abreast of all our commitments at conferences, trade shows and other events, visit our Speaking Engagements page—or, better yet, sign up for our quarterly Events email.

Chris Nicholson is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night, and author of Photographing National Parks (Sidelight Books, 2015). Learn more about national parks as photography destinations, subscribe to Chris' free e-newsletter, and more at www.PhotographingNationalParks.com.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT