Jack Nichols Photography | Night sky and landscape photographer in Seattle, Washington | Seattle photographer
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Journal

Sun Lakes State Park

Sun Lakes State Park is a bit of a hidden gem state park, a few hours from Seattle and fairly close to Grand Coulee Dam. It's located in Washington's coulee country, with lots of interesting rock formations, washes, coulees, and more. The park itself is huge, with lots of opportunities to explore, and also offers abundant camping opportunities. As the name suggests, it also has a bunch of lakes, one of which you can swim in.

I wound up at Sun Lakes a few weeks back because I was looking for something different. In the last few years, the popularity of Palouse Falls State Park (a few hours southeast of Sun Lakes) has exploded, primarily because it is an excellent dark sky site and features a photogenic waterfall. Nearly every picture you'll see of Palouse Falls, however, looks the same - there's essentially one "trophy shot", and coupled with limited camping and hiking opportunities results in a lot of the pictures looking the same.

Sun Lakes feels to me like untapped potential. It has the same type of scenery as Palouse Falls (minus the big waterfall), but is huge and has lots of places to roam. The skies are very dark, too - I'd actually argue they are better than at Palouse Falls as there is only one smallish light dome from Moses Lake, versus the two big ones at Palouse Falls from Walla Walla and the Tri Cities. 

I was just at Sun Lakes for a night, looking to grab some night sky shots before my daughter was born. I got there right before sunset and so sped out to go catch that shortly after arrival.

Desert Sunset

Reflected

You can't really tell in these pictures but the bugs were fierce. Bring bug spray and lots of it. 

I set my alarm for 2am and drove up to the viewpoint overlooking Dry Falls to work on some Milky Way shots. My objective was to use my new star tracking mount (a SkyWatcher Star Adventurer) to make these photos, and I love the results.

Darkness

Comet

Saturn, Mars, and the Milky Way

he small green dot you can see in some of the pictures isn't a sensor problem - it's a comet! Comet 252P/LINEAR to be precise. These were shot in early April, so I imagine the comet is still there, but it's pretty faint and you need a long exposure to see it.

If you aren't familiar, tracking mounts rotate at the same speed as the earth's rotation (just in the opposite direction) so that the stars appear to stay in a fixed position for the camera. This allows for exposures that last minutes instead of seconds, which means you can shoot at much lower ISOs. As well, you can usually shoot stopped down, which eliminates the need for fast glass and avoids optical problems that show up shooting wide open. 

I was completely blown away by the quality shooting this way. The noise is essentially non-existent, and the stars are tack sharp. I wasn't even shooting in ideal conditions either - there was a strong, persistent wind, and I only spent a few minutes polar aligning the mount, and nonetheless was able to shoot for 3 minutes on some of these exposures. Really, really fun. I'm pretty sure I'll do all of my Milky Way shots this way going forward.

In case you're wondering, that first shot is two different exposures combined together, since making the stars fixed means the ground is blurred (and vice versa). It was a pretty simple matter to shoot - shoot the ground with the tracker off, then shoot the Milky Way with the tracker on, then blend in Photoshop. I don't really consider it a composite since the shots were done on the same night just a few minutes apart. 

I hope to get out again soon to shoot more with the tracking mount. A few days after I shot these, our daughter was born, so I've been pretty busy with her! :)

Jack Nichols