Hawkins Photo Alchemy

Photography by Joseph B Hawkins, Jr.

"Alchemy" - A Power or Process of Transforming Something Common Into Something Special


Sheltering in place and social distancing continues. As is likely true for many of us we have had to find new ways to spend our time, hopefully in a constructive way.  I have taken the time to improve my photo skills studying and practicing using tools and techniques to capture the night sky.  This blog entry shows the results of my recent project and its results so far.  


Every project begins with a plan or idea. Mine was to find a location near enough to my home to be able to reach with less than an hour’s drive and would provide an interesting foreground and a view of the southern sky for Milky Way visibility. Pine Flat Reservoir located on the Kings River in Central California near Fresno California fit the description and I hoped it was far enough out of town to minimize the city light pollution.  


With the idea in place a little reconnaissance was in order. Using the PhotoPills app during a daytime drive I was able to search and discover potential vantage points overlooking the lake from the north side and was able to use another great map app Gaia GPS on my phone to pinpoint the locations so that I could easily return in the dark of night to the precise location.

Pine Flat Planning

Planning Night Sky Photo Shoot



The day of the month and the time of the day is critical in order to not have the sky washed out by a bright moon. During my first attempt the night sky conditions were perfect – new moon, dark sky’s unfortunately the sky and stars were obscured by high rapidly moving clouds.  


One week later I planned my second attempt at the project. This time, accompanied by my good friend Newton Seiden, the conditions were a little different as the moon was at first quarter and would not set until ~ 3:30 am. That meant that most of the night when the Milky Way was visible it would be washed out by the moonlight, but by 3:30 should be visible in the dark sky. This timing provided an opportunity to photograph the foreground in the abundant light from the moon and to await the darker sky later for a Milky Way capture.


With everything I was planning i decided to use two camera setups. First, was my Canon 5DIV and 16-35 2.8 – III which I used to frame the scene of the curve in the river and the trees in the foreground and mountains and sky in the distance. Set at 16 mm, f2.8, ISO 1600 and 30 sec exposure. Using the built in intervalometer I let it run a couple of hours capturing the still images as well as creating the time-lapse video below.

The second setup was using my Olympus EM-1 M-III with the Olympus 7-14 2.8 lens mounted in the Move-Shoot-Move star tracker. I acquired the start tacker last fall but have not had much chance to use it. The idea of photographic while tracking with the rotation of the earth allows for longer exposure time, greater light gathering and less noise. This remains a work in progress as I learn how to set and adjust the tools.  


We left the house around 11:30 and arrived at the planned location around 12:30 and set up the two cameras. Around 3:00 am the moon was dropping behind the horizon and finally it was getting dark enough to clearly see the milky way. After getting final images of the river and sky we decided to change the composition to adjust for the movement of the Milky Way across the sky and try some light painting of a beautiful blue oak tree. Using the Litra Pro LED light placed at the trunk of the tree and with the phone app we were able to try different lighting durations to create the lighted tree with the milky way over head. Around 4:00 am we moved to our third location of the night – the milky way now nearly vertical to the west just before astronomical twilight was about to begin capturing our final images of the night. Made if home around 6:00 am after a very productive night.


This was quite a project and it required more tools than I have ever combined before.

·      Lightroom, for basic photo organization and editing

·      Photoshop, used mostly for compositing foregrounds and sky’s and a little bit of spot removal

·      Topaz Denoise AI – for noise reduction

·      NIK Color Effects Pro 4, for color and tonal adjustments

·      Starry Landscape Stacker – to layer multiple images to reduce noise in the night sky

·      StarStax – Star Trails  


This project was very rewarding. I learned many new tricks and techniques, had a wonderful and therapeutic experience, came out with a few images I liked and wet my appetite for more -Stay tunned !!

Happy Trails  – The Photo Alchemist

Joseph Hawkins

Click on Photo Below to view Gallery


  1. Quite the interesting read with comprehensive background story to your wonderful night shots. If there is anything like a favorite I would chose “Pine Flat Stars-13”!

    • Thanks Peter for taking a look and for your comment.

  2. Planning a night sky shoot is fun. Enjoy using photo pills and google earth doing so.

  3. New blog format with additional features – Looking Good!

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