‘Find the darkest sky you can’ – Interview with astrophotographer Julia Icenogle: Digital Photography Review Leave a comment

Washington Pass Observation Site, Mazama, WA, July 2, 2022.

Fujifilm X-T4 + XF8-16mm F2.8 R LM WR @ 11mm
Blended exposure, ISO 2,000 | F2.8 | 120 secs (sky, with star tracker), 240 secs (foreground).

Julia Icenogle is a self-taught night photographer who lives in the Seattle area with her dog, Lyra. She sat down with us recently to speak about her work, what inspires her to go out into the wilderness at night, and how preparation is the key to successful night photography. You can find more of her work on Instagram.

What first got you interested in night photography?

Several years ago, I had a friend who thought it would be fun to go out into the darkness to take photos of the Perseid meteor shower. I have been interested in astronomy and photography since I was a child, but those two interests had never crossed before, so I was intrigued. We drove out to a trailhead parking lot somewhere outside of Seattle, where I was quickly taught the basics: point the camera upward, dial up the ISO, take an exposure, check focus, and then keep shooting, checking, and adjusting until the stars appeared as tiny dots.

Burned Olive Trees, Mattawa, WA, March 13, 2021.

Fujifilm X-T4 + Fujifilm XF 8-16mm F2.8 R LM WR @ 8mm
ISO 10,000, | F2.8 | 20 secs

With my DSLR, flimsy tripod, and beginners’ luck, I managed to get sharp focus with just a couple of test shots. I looked at the pixelated LCD screen and saw a sky full of stars against the silhouetted coniferous trees. I fell deeply in love.

How are the skills required for night photography different from other disciplines?

The hardest thing about night photography is that you can’t see anything you’re shooting until after you’ve shot it. If there is a mountain in the distance that you want in the shot, you have to know where it is ahead of time. Our planet is always rotating, so if you’re wasting darkness time getting a perfectly composed foreground, the night sky will have moved by the time you’re ready. Preparation in daylight is essential.

There are so many different things that can go wrong and mess up your exposure. A gloved hand might bump the focus ring. A gust of wind could turn all the stars into squiggles. Batteries get cold and can die without warning. A mountain goat might investigate your timelapse setup…

In your experience, what was the most important technique you had to master?

Knowing your camera well enough that you can work it in complete darkness, and bonus points if you can do it with gloves on. If you happen to be shooting with other people, they will thank you for not ruining all their shots with your headlamp.

Highland School House, Soap Lake, WA, August 21, 2022.

Fujifilm X-T4 + Fujifilm XF 8-16mm F2.8 R LM WR @ 14mm
Blended exposure, ISO 160 (sky), ISO 2000 (foreground), | F2.8, 120 secs (sky, with star tracker), 240 secs (foreground).

What’s the most important piece of gear in your photo kit?

It would be my smartphone. It’s difficult to do landscape astrophotography without a plan. I’m constantly referring to PhotoPills, Astrospheric (a weather and dark sky map), Windy (detailed weather), and three different Aurora apps. During daylight, I’m also marking locations and making notes on which direction has the view. And more than once, my phone has gotten me out of car trouble.

Julia’s photo kit:

  • Fujifilm X-T4
  • Fujifilm XF 8-16mm f/2.8 R LM WR
  • Fujifilm XF 18mm f/2 R
  • Fujifilm XF 56mm F/1.2 R
  • Heavy star tracker: Sky Watcher Star Adventurer
  • Lightweight star tracker for hiking: Move Shoot Move Rotator
  • Shimoda camera backpack
  • Sirui and Gitzo carbon fiber tripods

What advice would you give to someone just starting out?

Find the darkest sky you can. The darker it is, the better your photos will be, regardless of what gear you’re bringing. There are fewer and fewer dark skies available in the US, but National Parks are a great place to start. Just don’t trample the meadows to get the shot!

What are your tips for staying safe in the wilderness at night?

Use the buddy system! Being with other people is far more fun (and safer). It doesn’t hurt to bring bear spray, too. The more remote the location, the less likely you’ll run into humans and the more likely you’ll have some wildlife encounters.

Self-portrait with Lyra. Kalaloch Beach, WA, July 15, 2023.

Fujifilm X-T4 + Fujifilm XF 18mm F2 R.
ISO 6400 | F2 | 6 secs

When I was first starting out as a night photographer, I often found myself with only my dog for company and security. On one particular winter night in the North Cascades, I felt the vibration of her growl and saw that her hackles were raised. She was alerting me quietly – whatever it was that she was responding to, she didn’t feel confident chasing it off. I picked up my tripod and camera mid-exposure, and we headed down the trail to the car. Later, I found out that that particular area is known for frequent cougar activity.

What’s your dream kit for astrophotography?

I’ve been pushing my APS-C equipment to its limits, so I think the next thing would be a full-frame or medium-format camera.

What was the biggest mistake you made when starting out, and what did you learn from it?

That would be the (lack of) preparation for photographing my first total solar eclipse in 2017. I bought a solar filter for the camera, had some eclipse glasses, and had taken my setup outside to test the filter and make a game plan. When it was time for the main event, however, I was thoroughly unprepared for how awestruck I would be. When totality began, my brain went completely blank. I also realized too late that I had neglected to work out exposure settings for the dark sky. Given that I only had seconds to figure out what to do, I decided to do nothing.

Total Solar Eclipse, Río Hurtado, Coquimbo, Chile. July 2, 2019.

Fujifilm X-T3 + Fujifilm XF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR @ 100mm.
ISO 200 | F5.6 | 1/30sec

I learned that sometimes you need to stop and just enjoy it all with your eyes. Fast forward nearly two years, and I got the shot in Chile in 2019. I had rehearsed exactly what I would do repeatedly until it became rote. I was able to stay in the moment AND work the camera. When I glanced down afterward to review my shots, I was absolutely giddy.

Frenchman Coulee, Vantage, WA, May 8, 2021.

Fujifilm X-T4 + XF 8-16mm F2.8 R LM WR @ 16mm
Blended exposure, ISO 2,500 (foreground), ISO 5,000 (sky)| F2.8 | 60 secs (sky, with star tracker), 40 secs (foreground).

What’s your favorite location?

There are for sure better locations in the world, but I owe a lot of my skills development to Frenchman Coulee in Vantage, WA. I have been there more times than I can count to shoot the night sky. It is not too far from home and is in the desert region of Washington, so the sky is usually clear. The basalt rock columns in this region attract rock climbers who camp out overnight, so there’s always that sense of security you don’t get when you’re on a mountainside by yourself in bear country.

What’s your favorite astrophotography subject?

The ever-elusive Aurora. The first time I saw it was completely by accident. I was shooting the Milky Way in the North Cascades at the Washington Pass Overlook. There were four of us at this location that night: myself, a photographer buddy of mine, and two other photographers who had arrived in a hurry after dark. One of them saw me facing north to polar-align my tracker, and asked in very broken English what I was shooting, as the Milky Way was the exact opposite direction (clearly the subject we were all there for).

Fujifilm X-T4 + Fujifilm XF 8-16mm F2.8 R LM WR + 8mm.

Blended exposure, ISO 2,000 (sky), ISO 640 (foreground) | F2.8 | 20 secs (sky), 900 secs (foreground).

I tried to explain the tracker, but he misunderstood and flipped his tripod around and started shooting the northern sky. Moments later, he excitedly waved me over to show the green glow of the aurora he had just captured. As we watched, the Aurora started sending incredible pillars of light high above the horizon. It was only thanks to a language barrier that we even noticed!

Where are you headed next?

I’d love to go to Iceland. Hopefully, the Aurora won’t be so hard to find!

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