April 27, 2014

by Cathy Liu in


I took this picture on the high mountains roughly 30 miles north of Camargo, Bolivia. I’m not sure whether I had the Milky Way or a nebula, all I knew was that I won’t be able to see this at home because stars of the southern hemisphere are different from the northern hemisphere. At the time, we were driving thousands of meters above the sea level on dangerous curvy mountain roads, there were a couple of street lamps distanced away, cars passed by very rarely on the road. I requested to stop for pictures, the moment I opened the passenger door of the ambulance, I saw the night sky I’ve dreamed of for years.

I’ve always been fascinated by heavenly bodies. My first attempt to photograph the moon was about ten years ago, using my first digital camera, the pocket sized Casio Exilim. The Casio Exilim had some manual settings which allowed me to do long exposures on a tripod for night scenes, but unfortunately, the moon didn’t come out well. Since then, I failed a few more times to capture the moon and the stars as I had hoped. The moon was my trials of failures before success, just before this trip, I borrowed my dad’s Nikon D700 and took a couple of satisfying pictures of the moon. The Milky Way, on the other hand, has been a fantasy that I only saw in textbooks and online tutorials. I’ve never even seen the Milky Way with my own eyes.

The moment I stepped out of the car, I knew that a dream was coming true, I walked into the phantom night sky shown on textbooks and NASA pictures. Immediately, I fetched the camera and the tripod, it was my chance to produce a textbook picture! When I took this picture, I couldn’t see anything through the view finder because it was too dark. I aimed at a section of the sky and pressed the shutter, 30 seconds later, I discovered what the picture looked like, then adjusted the camera settings and the angle of the camera to try again. While I gazed at the millions of stars, waiting for the exposure to finish, I wished for a wider lens which could get more coverage, I wished for our more experienced photographer Mike to be here, maybe Mike would have a clever way to position the camera to get the village at the far horizon. There were no shooting stars to grant my wishes.

After a few shots I realized my lens was only able to capture a small fraction of the grandiose sky, nonetheless, a small fraction was enough to produce my splendid picture. A more experienced photographer with better equipment would definitely be able to compose a more gorgeous shot, but when nature is so magnificent, it doesn’t take much talent to produce a great picture.

Perhaps my picture only demonstrates 20% of nature’s greatness, maybe a more professional photographer would be twice as good, but no pictures or words can do nature justice. You must stand high above the sea level, breath in diluted oxygen, and feel the cold breeze in the quiet darkness to live our stargazing experience. It is not humanly possible to replicate this fantastic moment. We can share our pictures and videos, tell our stories, but we cannot bring anyone to live the experience, you must adventure out there yourself.

We resigned from our jobs, drove ten thousand miles and traveled four months on the road, then of all a sudden, one night, I stepped out of the vehicle and realized my long cherished dream. Sounds very amazing, right? I stared at this picture for a while in solitude (please understand that to be in solitude is very had for me, I’m now used to eating, sleeping, and doing almost everything accompanied by someone else) and questioned myself what it really takes for me to produce something like this. First, I need a camera with long exposure capability, that’s not hard, I have many friends with good cameras and lenses. Then, I need to go to a place to take this picture. For at least 3 years, I knew Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania is famous for stargazing, and this state park is about 4 or 5 hours away from Manhattan. Well, so what does it take to borrow a camera, rent a car, and drive there to take pictures? It’s one day’s work? Make two days? Why didn’t I go? On a chilly clear night, way up high in the Bolivian mountains, I realized that perhaps some dreams were never too far away, I just didn’t chase them.