Dung Beetle and I

Dung beetle, a creature with a brain smaller than a rice grain, uses the Milky Way to navigate. (Image credit: Emily Baird)

 

But, we have our phones to do that for us. We rely so much on technology, mobile phones, Apps. I remember the time when my brothers(younger) visited me from India and we were driving from San Jose to San Francisco where I used to live. My phone died on the way and I was on the 101. I took the wrong exit and kept driving around being confident I was very close to my home. I lived in Lower Nob Hill close to the Financial district. With every turn I took, I grew confident I was closer to home and after 30 minutes, I saw the beach! Ocean beach, that’s where I was. The exact opposite end of the city. I felt so ashamed and embarrassed. But, of course, I didn’t show that to my younger brothers :P I knew it was the western end of the city, so I knew I had to drive the opposite direction. After about an hour, we finally reached home. I made the mistake of asking them if they were angry - definitely not a great way to start their vacation. But, hey, they got a tour of San Francisco. Boy, were my brothers angry. It’s been 4 years and they still don’t forgive me for it.

But...If only I had been paying more attention to the night skies back then. If only I had known to find the North Star. If only I had followed it. I would have reached home in no time. If you can identify the Big Dipper, you draw a straight line from the 2 stars on the outer edge of the Big Dipper and you reach Polaris. Polaris is the North Star. It always points to true North. Once you know where North is, the exact opposite is South. And if you are facing North, to your left is West and East is to your right. If I had known this, I wouldn’t have ended up in Ocean beach.

Credit: wikiHow Creative Commons. How to Spot the North Star

Credit: wikiHow Creative Commons. How to Spot the North Star

Technology is good, but we rely on it too much. If we have everything spoon fed to us, we lose the ability to think and ask questions. It is very important for kids to ask questions - that is how they learn the world around them. These days, when something goes bad, we toss it out and replace it with a new one. My dad always taught me to learn how things work. These days we don’t even think about fixing something when it goes bad. When we don’t ask these questions, we don’t learn and we definitely don’t innovate.

And that is why preserving the night skies is so important. It inspires us to ask questions and learn about the world we live in. Losing the stars, we lose a sense of connection, a belonging. We confine ourselves to the limits of our home and that is not a great thing for humankind.

MountainFilm on Tour

I'm very happy for Lost in Light to be part of MountainFilm on Tour and MountainFilm for Students. Mountainfilm travels year-round and worldwide with a selection of current and best-loved films from the annual festival in Telluride. MountainFilm for Students plays educational, entertaining and inspiring content for students all over the world. The playlists focuses on compelling educational and inspirational documentary short films to get students thinking. These playlists target films that are timely, regionally relevant, or topics not commonly discussed or seen. It also makes me very happy that the MountainFilm on Tour poster has my 'Milky Way over Crater Lake' image as a backdrop. 

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I’m extremely happy for this film to be part of MountainFilm for Students. Astronomy has inspired so many people throughout our history from Artists to Poets to Scientists. I think that we have lost the potential for thousands of great minds these days. Millions of children will never see a sky full of stars or the Milky Way. It is very important for children to be fascinated by the night skies and exposed to Astronomy. The nice thing about Astronomy is that it makes you ask questions. And when kids ask questions, they learn more about our surroundings and the world we live in and beyond. 

Check out their trailer. 

Saving the Dark

Follow up to Lost in Light

My short films on Light Pollution have been very successful - featured on Nat Geo, made the news in over 40 countries, seen over half a million times, used by NPS, schools and scout clubs for education and outreach and screened at film festivals. It spurred a conversation on Light Pollution, its effects and what we can do to fight it. When I attended the San Francisco Green Film Festival earlier this year, I realized how much people care about Environmental issues. I was inspired to make my own Documentary movie on Astronomy and Light Pollution. I wanted to make a movie on the significance of Astronomy and the night skies, the effects of Light Pollution on Astronomy, human health, wildlife and beyond, what we can do to fight it.

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My role at IDA

I reached out to the International Dark-Sky Association(IDA) about the idea and they were so impressed that they asked me to join them. I've been a Public Education Volunteer for the International Dark-Sky Association for a few months now. I'm proud to be a part of IDA and it has only made me more responsible. My drive to do something about Light Pollution has definitely increased several folds. Thank you IDA. 

 

SAVING THE DARK - Documentary Movie

The movie, 'Saving the Dark', will show what the people in cities are missing out on, the importance of Astronomy in our lives, the impact Astronomy can have on children, how Light Pollution costs a lot of money, affects our health, wildlife and our environment, show the work of nonprofits fighting to preserve dark night skies, tell what people can do at home to fight Light Pollution and talk to cities that have successfully handled this issue.

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The movie is going to be completely non-profit, made only for educational purposes. I do this out of my passion for Astronomy and the night skies and the drive to make people care more about it. I give my videos out for free for educational purposes and don't make any money off my photography. This project is funded by me, done solely on my personal time.

I've had so many great experiences and met the friendliest bunch of people over the past several months working on this project. I've got so much love and support. I’m interviewing and showing the work of folks at International Dark-Sky Association, National Park Rangers, Sea Turtle Conservancy, Audubon Societies, Astronomers, Star parties, Public Utilities Commissions, University Professors researching lighting and young children passionate about Astronomy. I want to thank all the non-profit organizations and other people that have helped me on this project. I will be adding short stories on each of my experiences in the coming days. Thanks for reading. Clear skies. 

My first photo of the Milky Way

This was my first shot of the Milky Way shot 2 years ago. I only had entry level gear, a flimsy $10 tripod, not much experience shooting with a DSLR and the first time shooting alone in the dark. But, one thing I did really well was planning. I scouted Google Maps for the best location(facing the mountain from N to S), picked the best possible day(weather, moon phase), time(2:30 AM when the Milky Way is almost vertical, this was in March), woke up at 1:30 AM and got the shot I wanted in just a few minutes, thanks to the meticulous planning. I even knew where I’d park the car and put the tripod before I even got there. I’ve taken many more photos and videos of the night skies since, but this is still one of my most favorite images.

I’ve come a long way since with better gear and techniques, but it’s definitely the planning that has helped me stand out - featured on Nat Geo and several leading magazines/news and recently selected to be screened at film festivals. I cannot insist enough on how planning is more important than anything else to get great shots of the night skies. Thanks for reading.

Success and reach of my short films

My short film on light pollution was selected to be screened at the Environmental Film Festival at Yale and the San Francisco Green Film Festival. The film’s reach has been nothing short of amazing - featured on Nat Geo, screened at film festivals highlighting environmental and social issues of our time. So many policymakers, educators, observatories, scout clubs, non profit organizations including the National Park Service have reached out to me to use the film for education and outreach. Hearing from common people changing their lighting choices after watching the film makes me feel very optimistic. To have a special liking for Astronomy and feeling sad that light pollution is ruining it is something. But, to have the world turn back, listen and call for action on the issue is something I never imagined. 

Lost in Light - Behind the scenes

A writeup on how I made the short film on light pollution. 

PLANNING

  • First the idea, followed by scouting for places to shoot at every level of light pollution using http://darksitefinder.com/maps/world.html and http://www.cleardarksky.com/csk/faq/2.html

  • I wanted the film to be less than 3 mins.

  • Detailed planning on Google sheets with various possible locations with the video time for each. I, then, calculated how long I'd have to shoot given approximate exposure times. Once I decided on music that resonated with my thoughts, I started adjusting sequence times to fit the tunes in the music. For example - the jump from level 6 to 5(my favorite)

  • For every location, I spent hours planning the shots/frames on Google Maps Street View, Satellite View and anything else I can find about the location taking out any guess work. I, mostly, look for an interesting foreground.

  • Ironically, finding locations to shoot at higher light polluted areas was more difficult(levels 7,6,5). Most places restrict being there after dark. You'd get a ticket or car get towed.

  • Planned trips to the farther locations around New Moon. I shot between May 29th and August 5th.

  • Stellarium to decide the time of shoot and check on Milky Way’s position

  • Weather - Wunderground, Weather.com, Google Weather - check for cloud cover, wind and sunset time

GEAR

  • 2 Canon 6Ds paired with Rokinon 24mm f1.4 and Rokinon 14mm f2.8. One 6D rented from Borrowlenses. Three $45 Dolica tripods with 5lb dumbbells suspended off the center column hook for stability

SHOOT

  • Try to visit the location during the day to plan

  • Start before it's entirely dark. Focus, compose frame, wait for it to get dark. Ensure all settings are manual(White balance, Bulb mode, RAW, full battery, lots of space on memory card, turn off image review - drains battery)

  • Once it's dark, take test shots. Zoom in to check for focus, stars streaking. 

  • Setup intervalometer - interval = exposure + 5 secs. Set N = infinity 

POST PROCESS

  • Lightroom - Adjust tint, reduce noise

  • Photoshop - S curve

  • Adobe premiere pro for putting together the images and creating the video

  • Music licensed through www.musicbed.com

Last but not the least, a lovely wife that accompanied me to the darkest of locations and supported and motivated me throughout this project :)

I'm glad this film has got so much attention. It has got people talking about light pollution all over the world. I hope it makes a difference. May be one day, we'll start seeing more stars :) Thanks for reading.

Summit of Haleakala NP, Maui

October 24 2015 -

My wife and I drove to the top of Haleakala in Oct 2015. The drive up was dark, winding and steep. I was in awe when I saw the Moon upside down for the first time in my life. The summit is at 10,000 feet and above the clouds. I was there very early to do a time lapse. The first visitors to the Haleakala summit asked me if I worked there because they weren't expecting to see anyone that early. I mistook zodiacal light for light pollution and minutes later when I realized, I wanted to shout, oh my goodness, it's zodiacal light! I used a walkie talkie from the summit to periodically tell my wife that I'm safe. Out in 0C at 10, 000 feet with heavy winds for 3 hours straight, my face shrank considerably and lost a few pounds, making my fitness conscious wife jealous :)

Night skies in Grand Canyon National Park

September 4th 2015 - 

I shot in Grand Canyon as part of a time lapse movie in September 2015. Grand Canyon, being an International Dark Sky site, has extremely dark skies. It was very very dark and windy. I setup my cameras(6D and 70D) right next to each other and stood guard to protect against the mighty winds. It had an eerie feel to it with the darkness, a sky full of stars, the insect sounds and a canyon a mile deep centimeters from me.

A cop stopped by to check if I was spending the night at the lot and felt ashamed that he was actually screwing up my shots. The nice guy, then, wished me luck and told me I could stay as long as I wanted to The respect for night sky photographers wherever I go is unbelievable

Pristine skies in Eureka Dunes, Death Valley

Aug 5th 2016 - Drove for 24 hours and 1,200 miles in 2 days, last 4 hours of which on steep backcountry dirt roads up the mountains, sweltered in 120F(49 C) desert heat, set up tent in gusting winds with sand from the dunes blowing all over the body, no humans in the near 50 miles, hardly any sleep and energy left, running a fever and the fear of scorpions, venomous spiders and snakes at night...All for one reason - Pristine night skies with absolutely no light pollution at the remote Eureka Dunes in Death Valley. The Milky Way dazzled so bright that it cast shadows. We felt like the only beings on an alien planet; such an ethereal experience, hard to come by these days. I’m grateful to my kind-hearted, lovely wife Priya for being an integral part of this crazy trip.