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The Stars Came Out to Play

Iriomote Night Skies

I wouldn’t necessarily call myself an astrophotographer as such. I mean, I can’t identify by sight all of the constellations in the night skies, I know a few, not all. I don’t sit glued to a telescope scanning dark skies in the hope of catching whatever event those who stare at dark skies through telescopes are waiting for. However, I am very much attracted to the potential to photograph the majesty of the Milky Way constellation, and especially when I can do so whilst incorporating another eye catching aspect within the shot. All of the planning that had gone into a recent shot saw me travelling to the far boundaries of the Ryukyu Islands where I spent an incredible few hours under Iriomote night skies.

I had been looking for a dark sky location, by that I mean one devoid of any local ambient light pollution, and Iriomote island is perfect for that. Located some 440Km from the main island of Okinawa its landmass of 240sq/mi is comprised of mountainous peaks and ravines it serves as home to just over 2,500 people. Looking at the island it is basically a mass of Jungles, waterways, spectacular waterfalls and hidden trails. It is, to all extents and purposes a modern day Garden of Eden. I would hazard a guess as to why this island remains predominantly in a wild and natural state is due to the lack of an airport. Travellers wishing to visit the island must fly into the closest airport located on the neighbouring island of Ishigaki and then take a 40min Ferry crossing to Iriomote.

With any photo shoot planning, specifically when it relates to the natural World, I use a range of smart apps with the aim to stack as much as possible the success of the shoot in my favour. Thus my quest to once again photograph the Milky Way in the night skies began, I had documented my last attempt in the form of a short film that went on to win an award at the World Time-lapse Film Festival in Santa Monica, California last year. All I needed was dark skies, great weather, no ambient light pollution and a waterfall positioned so that I could shoot both it and the Milky Way in the same shot. This meant that the falls had to be large enough with enough open space around them to allow for the use of my super wide-angle Irix 15mm f2.4 lens. These requirements discounted the waterfall options on the main island of Okinawa, but highlighted the potential of Iriomote.

I’d passed the info around a few friends, other shooters from Okinawa who thought the idea of photographing Iriomote night skies sounded too good to miss up and decided to join me in my quest. Beyond my plan to shoot the Milky Way I was also very keen to shoot long exposure imagery, in daylight hours, of rivers, streams and other bodies of moving water. Iriomote, due to its topography and annual rain fall is littered with a network of rivers, streams and waterfalls, it fitted the bill perfectly. In fact there are so many waterfalls that most under 10m/33ft in height don’t have a name as there are simply too many!

With a mixture of scouring maps and researching online imagery I singled out one particular waterfall in the North West of the island. Sagara Waterfall is accessed predominantly by Kayak, not many people walk the overgrown route through the jungle, and especially not at night time. We were about to break that routine. A guide we were using for other activities suggested it would be a bit of a demanding route due to its infrequent use, in my case that’s like waving a red flag to a bull. I’d come this far into the planning, confident in my research that a one hour nocturnal trek along a seldom used and overgrown jungle pathway would be the last obstacle between me and my planned image. If there are any, the weather Gods were shining as we set about our plan to depart.

Stepping out into the night we noted from our accommodation in the main Northern settlement of Uehara that even with the ambient light pollution the night sky was just so vividly clear, game on. Our start point was a 15min drive away. We never even knew if we would be able to find the start point. Our guide had said the last time he trekked this route was a number of years previous, he wasn’t sure if the route markers would even still be in place. We had to try. We eventually found the start of the route, marked with a simple red ribbon and a slight parting in the jungle vegetation, we pushed into the inky darkness. With the night skies blotted out by the overhead canopy we stumbled, swore, farted and sweated our way through the undergrowth whilst following a succession of red ribbon route markers. Ever conscious about the potential presence of venomous ‘Habu’ Pit Vipers or seriously aggressive wild pigs that roamed these regions of low to no human intrusion, our minds raced and conjured foe from the shadows where none existed. Every now and again the sound of distant thunder created by our quarry carried on the wind, foreboding, and then we saw it…

If there was one thing I’d learned during my 12yrs of Military service, it was the Rule of 7 P’s, as in “Prior Planning and Preparation Prevent a Piss Poor Performance”. The hours spent poring over maps, checking compass settings, figuring out the trajectory of the Milky Way and at what time of the morning would allow for optimum potential to photograph the Milky Way all fell into place. It was perfect. For the next couple of hours, like kids in a candy store we shot, explored and painted with light. We’d arrived at a time when the Milky Way was just visible at the top of the falls, I needed to wait a couple of hours in order to get it as vertical as I could and for us to be truly into the dark hours of night. And then it was time…

With a head lamp at the lowest power set to its widest beam and with no other light sources from the other members of the team I initiated the above shot at 02.54am. For the first 12seconds of the planned 30second exposure I carefully ‘painted’ the surrounding vegetation with a few passes of light. Given I was shooting at ISO3200 with the lens aperture wide open at f2.4 it meant that I would record both the light of those passes as well as the stars before me in these incredible Iriomote night skies. Given the distance between the vegetation and the Milky Way also meant that I would not create any visible light pollution in the sky areas of the shot. By using that amount of time for my shutter I also incorporated the silky water aesthetic on the waterfall, an element that creates the second, or first depending on how you look at the shot, key component of the scene. As the shutter closed I waited with bated breath the few seconds until the display LCD on my Canon EOS5DSr flooded the surrounding darkness with light. The shot was good, I was content. There remained another hour of jungle trekking to negotiate before we could contemplate the notion of sleep. It was a trek that was done in high spirits, everyone nailed their shots, we were a content little band of imaging brothers. Good times.

For those interested plans are afoot that I and another Okinawa based professional shooter will be leading two more trips to Iriomote for a Slow Shutter Photography Workshop with this very same adventure figuring for a night time shoot. We are currently in the planning but both trips will be three day turnaround. That is we leave Okinawa main island early on a Friday morning and then return with the last flight from Ishigaki on the Sunday evening, believe me, it’s more than enough time to learn and nail a full range of slow shutter techniques and imagery. If that is something you’d be interested in getting the pricing on please feel free to drop me an email using the form on the Contact Page using Iriomote Night Skies and Slow Shutter Workshop as the subject line. At this time the tentative time frames will be last weekends of May and June. Price wise will be sent initially to those interested in the trip.

As always if you wish to see a full screen higher resolution shot of the above image simply go to the top of this page and click that circular expand Icon you see in the top right of the screen. Enjoy.

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