Searching for Dark Skies in Rural Louisiana

Fortunately, I don’t have to spend that many nights away from home. I drive a lot, but it’s usually there and back. I get up early, work, then try to get back at a decent hour.

Sometimes work schedules dictate otherwise. Sitting around a hotel doing nothing drives me nuts, since I’m used to so much going on at home. So if I can I try to go out and shoot. Since I like to shoot at night or very early in the morning this works out sometime.

Recently I was in Lake Charles, Louisiana overnight, and I wanted to try something different. I’m developing an interest in astrophotography and wanted to find a place away from city lights to shoot the night sky. Enter Dark Site Finder.

This site allows users to search locations worldwide for areas away from light pollution. There’s a color coded map overlaid a Google Maps style display. Lighter colors mean bright areas, close to cities, and darker areas mean areas out of town. If you find a site you consider dark, you can add it to the list of sites. In my case this wasn’t a problem – Lake Charles and most of the communities nearby are very brightly lit.

Screen Shot 2018-12-16 at 6.38.27 AM

This box represents where I spend 95% of my time – so mostly very bright areas. But it’s possible to get into some relatively dark areas.

The blue area shown below is where I was heading:

Screen Shot 2018-12-16 at 6.40.07 AM.png

I ended up driving about an hour northwest of Lake Charles, close to the Louisiana-Texas ┬áborder. It was quiet – and dark. The moon was pretty full, so there was a ton of moonlight. Not ideal conditions, but it’s not like I could pick a different time. Maybe in the future I’ll be able to set up a trip that coincides with the new moon.

In the end I stayed out until around 8. I drove the hour back to Lake Charles, happy that I’d gotten some good (at least for me) shots, and more importantly, increased my skill in finding good locations and working on getting better shots in-camera. This is definitely something I’ll do again when I get a chance.

Blue Hour on the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge

I’m not quite to the point in my photography where I know for sure a shoot will go exactly as I imagine. But a while back that’s what happened while shooting from a rooftop vantage point in downtown Baton Rouge.

And I had the added bonus of enjoying family time and an excellent meal at Tsunami, a spectacular downtown restaurant.

It was really nice to set up my Nikon D5300 and my tripod and shoot away. I got some nice sunset shots looking west across the Mississippi River, but this one I think is my favorite. I would have liked to zoom in a bit, but I was shooting with my 30mm Sigma. Still, not bad.

Old Man River at Blue Hour

An Afternoon Stop in Avoyelles Parish

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve driven by a great photo, only to keep going because I was in too much of a hurry to get somewhere. Or I didn’t have my camera and tripod with me. Or I didn’t feel like shooting just with my phone.

I’ve read blog posts from other photographers that suggest always having your camera with you. I’ve taken that to heart recently, even going out of my way to stop and get pictures if I can. I think it’s paid off. For one thing, I think we can learn from every great or terrible photo – especially when it comes to technique and settings.

About a month ago I drove a couple of hours to a meeting, and along the way saw an open field with a barn and a large tree kind of out in the middle of nowhere. And I thought it’d make for some pretty good afternoon shots if I could get back in time. So I set my odometer (trying not to mess with my phone while I drive!) so I could find my way back.

I made it back and drove along a dirt path to reach the barn and the tree. I setup and got some bracketed shots. Nothing magic here – just used the bracketing feature in my Nikon D5300, my MeFOTO tripod, and Nikon remote. Putting together HDR shots in Lightroom is super easy, especially if you’re shooting on a tripod.

It was so quiet and peaceful. In a way I wish I’d have stayed past sunset, but part of the work/life/photography balance sometimes keeps me from shooting where and when I want. That’s ok – I wanted to get home and see my wife and kids because the next day I was hitting the road again. Sometimes there’s too much noise, too much work, and not enough quality time with them. But the 30 minutes I spent out there was worth it.

So my advice is to carry your camera all the time, and of course, watch the road, but if you see something interesting, make time to stop and get some shots.