Stars from Mauna Kea

A family trip to the Big Island of Hawaii (called Hawaii) held the promise of many beautiful new locations for my landscape photography. In preparation, I did some research in the hope of making the most of the unique opportunity. I thought of tropical sunsets or sunrises and views of live lava flows, perhaps from a helicopter. What I did not realize until well into my research was the opportunity for night time photography of the stars from the high (up to 14,000 ft.) dormant volcano Mauna Kea — one of the finest astronomical observatory locations in the world.

One of my landscape photography mentors Don Smith offered a helpful blog with tips to help me prepare. He recommended this app for the iPhone. Focalware gives you a handy compass, the exact time of rise and set of the sun and the moon at a given location on a given day. It also gives information such as the phase of the moon.

Don Smith also suggested a wide angle lens, such as a 14mm lens. I realized I would also need the flashlight app on my iPhone, my Really Right Stuff tripod, two fresh camera batteries, plenty of space on my compact flash card for my Nikon D700 and warm clothes. The Mauna Kea Observatory website indicated that the temperature could dip to freezing temperatures by 10 pm, when I hoped to capture some images. Astronomical twilight would last for two hours after the 7pm sunset, so the sky would be dark enough for shooting around 9:30pm.

My research informed me that the moon would be absent from the night sky on July 7, and the Milky Way would be clearly visible in the Eastern sky. My daughter Courtney was both kind and adventurous enough to accompany me on this adventure up Mauna Kea that dark and chilly evening. We were pleased with the images we captured:

The Milky Way from Mauna Kea 7/7/13 by Cathy Kelly

ISO 3200, 14mm, f 2.8, 25 seconds

Here is a different effect: a night time image showing star trails about 10:15 pm.

ISO 400 14mm f 2.8, 606 seconds (10 minutes, 6 seconds)

Whenever I go back to Hawaii, I will return to Mauna Kea and will drive there earlier next time (at dusk) to find the Visitors Center and learn more from the educational program they have. It is exciting to see as many stars in the sky as the ancient people who lived in a simpler world without electricity. Imagine that! When the stars put on this spectacular show every night in the pitch dark sky each night, it is no wonder that there was more curiosity about the stars, the moon and their movements.

Author: cathykellyphotography

Independent photographer based in Pittsburgh PA and Naples FL. Nature, landscape and portrait photography. Portfolio includes international work in USA, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Email to review work in your area of interest. Nature portfolio includes flowers and wildlife. Prints and digital files for sale. See website:

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