A Wonderful Mistake

San Francisco Peaks and Milky Way

Milky Way over San Francisco Peaks, Flagstaff Arizona

Not long ago, I was told that there was a chance of seeing the Northern Lights over the northern horizon in Flagstaff, Arizona. I didn’t hear the news until 8:30 at night and the article said the best chance to see it was right after sunset, so I rushed over the closest spot I knew of where I could see the northern sky above the San Francisco Peaks. I was hoping I hadn’t missed it.

I’ve never seen the Aurora Borealis in person, and I thought it would be so cool to make a time lapse video of the Northern Lights the very first time I saw them. I didn’t notice anything unusual while I was setting up, but when I first took a test shot, I saw a very faded green area over the San Francisco Peaks. I thought it might be too dim to be seen with naked eyes, but hoped the camera would be sensitive enough to pick it up. I hurried to set up my cameras and proceeded to run them for 3 hours. I didn’t see any colorful lights in the sky while I was waiting for the camera to finish, but I was imagining that the faded green light would wave like a curtain blown by the wind once I made a video.

When I came back home and processed all the frames and created the time lapse video the next morning, there was nothing moving except millions of stars circling around the North Star. The faded greenish light was just the color of the sky. Oh well, maybe next time.

But that night, when I was packing up my equipment, I noticed that the Milky Way was over the San Francisco Peaks. I made some still images of it. It turned out that it was my favorite shot of the night. It even made me go back to the same spot and spend over night in the car to make a time lapse video of Milky Way over the peaks.

Not what I expected but it was time well spent.

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Starry Night of Northern Arizona

In the mist of discovering star night time lapse, Kristen and I were asked to have a meeting with people at the local observatory to possibly photograph staff and facilities. I thought this would be a great opportunity to show star time lapse videos around Northern Arizona at the meeting.

So, I spent several weeks photographing stars around Flagstaff. I had a peaceful time looking at stars in the middle of night and realized how lucky I am to live in the world’s first “Dark Sky” city. As I started this project, I quickly discovered that I had to research ahead of time to plan where I needed to be and at what time I needed to be there. I only got one or maybe 2 scenes from one camera a night due to long exposures and the length of the time I recorded. When I used two cameras, I got 2 – 4 clips from one night’s work. I needed to know what time the moon would rise and set so that I could show the foreground and the moon wouldn’t blind the camera. It was a very different workflow than I have had for still shoots. It took me a while to get used to coming back home with 2 or 3 shots after spending several hours in the field.

Towards the end of my project, we learned that the meeting with the observatory was cancelled due to staff changes, and I lost the stage to showcase my debut short film. But I had such a great time learning about time lapse, star photography, and spending time looking at stars that I can’t complain. And most of all, I got the chance to see the world in a different way. I hope you enjoy the movie.

Starry Night of Northern Arizona from Keiji Iwai on Vimeo.

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Looking back…. and forward


I’ve been thinking about how photography has changed since I first started out. In “the old days”, I can remember making 50 prints in the darkroom to arrive at one good print. The image at left shows the instructions I made on one of my prints to guide me when I was printing in the darkroom. Early “Photoshop!” These days I rarely make prints from my images at all. Unless the are printed for my fine art work, they are licensed electronically for stock photography.

This summer, nearly 20 years after I first became inspired by the work of Ansel Adams, my family finally visited Yosemite National Park in California. It was a very brief visit due to our tight schedule, but I was definitely blown away by its beauty. Driving through the valley, images by Ansel Adams kept popping up in my head and I was again amazed by his ability to capture the essence of this beloved place. I felt like I experienced and enjoyed Yosemite through his eyes.

As I photographed and made some video clips with my digital camera in Yosemite Valley, I couldn’t help wondering how Ansel Adams would   photograph this place again with all the technology available nowadays. I have no doubt that Ansel Adams would have dove into new technologies to become a pioneer of the digital revolution. After all, he was the inventor of Zone System, such a technical, control-freak process. He would have loved using Photoshop when he was printing one of his masterpieces. Then I realized that the creative process has not changed a bit in all these years. When you have something in your head, it’s only a matter of how to get it out on the paper or screen. A darkroom or computer, filter or white balance, enlarger or Photoshop… I guess it doesn’t matter what you use.

What I love about photography that it allows us to see how other people see the world. I sure would love to see how Ansel Adams would photograph Yosemite again today.

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