Follow Mint Lounge

Latest Issue

Home > News> Talking Point > Shooting the sky in Ladakh

Shooting the sky in Ladakh

  • The window to shoot the Milky Way was a narrow one, between 17-21 June—taking months of planning. But shooting in the dark, and in freezing weather, is not easy

The Milky Way at Hanle, located in an area that has been designated India’s first Dark Sky Reserve
The Milky Way at Hanle, located in an area that has been designated India’s first Dark Sky Reserve (Ishan Saxena)

Hello darkness, my old friend/ I’ve come to talk with you again. Simon and Garfunkel may have been singing of people’s inability to communicate in their evergreen song from the 1960s, The Sound Of Silence, but I found myself seeking out and making an appointment with darkness earlier this year. For darkness would be my one true friend when it came to photographing the Milky Way, something I had wanted to do since I first visited Ladakh in the early 2000s.

It took months of planning because my window to shoot the Milky Way was a narrow one, between 17-21 June, when the galaxy would be at its brightest best and there would be no moon in the sky between sunset and sunrise (the illumination of the moon is a sort of light pollution). I could not do it anywhere in the vicinity of Leh because lively Leh now shoots light through the night like a shiny disco ball. It was to Zanskar that I headed, taking a route from Manali to Jispa, and then peeling away from the Manali-Leh road at Darcha to climb the mighty Shinku La and descend into Zanskar. In the desolate reaches of Zanskar, where tarmac, tourism and lumens are yet to arrive, the darkness is complete.

After experiencing our fair share of frost, falling rocks and heavy snowfall at Shinku La, we arrived in Zangla, 25km from Padum, the district headquarters of Zanskar, on 18 June. Zangla is a little village where people are happy to sleep early; it is usually “lights out” by 9pm and this suited us well because that was the day of the new moon, and the Milky Way would be visible from 7.50pm to 3.24am.

Also read: The Buddhist ateliers of ancient Magadha

Gemur Khar at Jispa, in Himachal Pradesh
Gemur Khar at Jispa, in Himachal Pradesh (Rishad Saam Mehta)

Since winter was still at war with summer, it was freezing cold when we stepped out at 10pm to walk to a vantage point. I was lugging my 14-year-old Nikon D700 with a 28-300mm lens, my tripod and a headlamp. I waited for my eyes to adjust but suddenly realised that the absence of light was complete. I looked up to the sky—and like a luminescent reel, the Milky Way was stretched out to the horizon.

I fumbled with my headlamp’s push-button to light our way to the vantage point; the powerful beam startled a big marmot that was sitting on the trail. It waddled away and we began our walk to the base of the ruined Zangla Fort.

It was one thing to have studied the theory of shooting in the dark but another thing altogether to put it into play on a cold, dark night. With my gloves on, I couldn’t turn the dials or hold down the small buttons of my camera and with my gloves off, my fingers started freezing. We managed to get some great shots that night, but, all too soon, the clouds closed in, signalling the end of that session.

The next day, we drove from Zangla to Khalsi on the Kargil-Leh road, an adventure in itself. We made our way through 200km of rain, snow, slush and ice brought about by dense fog thanks to dark clouds that hung low, well below the 15,000ft-high passes, Singhe La and Sirsir La, which we had to cross. During those 10 hours, we crossed a maximum of four cars and one solitary dhaba, where we had the tastiest Maggi noodles. We reached Leh safely but soon news reached us that such heavy snowfall had followed that evening that the passes had been shut. The road remained closed to civilian traffic for the next two days.

The two days of crisp linen, cosy quilts and freshly brewed coffee at the Grand Dragon Hotel were a much needed break after long 10-hour drives. The city of Leh, though, has sadly lost the bohemian vibe it had two decades ago. Gone are the bakeries and bistros that used to do wholesome breakfasts; they have been replaced by bars where beer and butter chicken rule the roost. After two days in Leh, we were back on the road, heading towards the Nubra Valley after crossing the 17,852ft-high Khardung La.

Also read: Exhibition of maps of Tibet aims to preserve cultural memories

Hunder and Diskit are the tourist hubs in the Nubra Valley and bonfires and general revelry mean light pollution. But at the isolated Lchang Nang Retreat in Tegar village, this was not the case. Lchang Nang literally means “House of Trees” and the conscious connection with Ladakhi culture can be felt through the architecture, the methods for the upkeep of the grounds, and the cuisine. Sunshine, an ample resource in Ladakh in summer, generates most of the resort’s electricity and the water is filtered glacial snowmelt.

The Lchang Nang Retreat in the Nubra Valley
The Lchang Nang Retreat in the Nubra Valley (Rishad Saam Mehta)

On our first night there on 21 June, the skies were clear and we got a fantastic photograph—though it meant standing outdoors during the coldest time of the night. This time around, though, I was wiser and set all the parameters on my camera in the comfort of my warm and well-lit room before heading into the cold darkness.

Our final stop in this “shoot the sky” sojourn was Hanle, 345km south of Nubra, located in an area that has been designated India’s first Dark Sky Reserve. It is home to the Indian Astronomical Observatory and bright sources of light are banned there. It is truly the place for astro-photography enthusiasts.

It is located in the Changthang desert, where the weather is bitterly cold all year round, but this dry, cold weather also means the skies are really clear. By now, I was accustomed to the cold and surer of operating my camera in pitch darkness. On 24 June, the moon set at 11pm and the Milky Way shone in the sky for seven and a half hours, from 8pm to 3.30am. I got all the photographs I wanted, but, at the end of it, I realised that capturing the brilliant night sky isn’t half as enrapturing as staring at it, without a lens or a screen, for hours. 

How to shoot the Milky Way 
1. Mount your camera on a tripod. 
2. Switch your camera to full manual mode. 
3. Set the aperture to the lowest your lens will allow. 
4. Set the ISO, which determines the sensor’s sensitivity to light, in the range of 3200 to 6400. 
5. Keep shutter speed between 15 to 30 seconds and take shots at various speeds. 
6. Set white balance values between 3800 kelvin and 4200 kelvin to catch the natural colours of the stars. 
7. Finally, shoot in RAW mode so that you have greater editing control.

Where to stay 
1. Zangla is 25km from Padum on the road to Singhe La and there are basic home-stays (clean sheets, squat toilets, vegetarian food). 
2. Lchang Nang Retreat in the Nubra Valley is 117km from Leh and secluded and dark post 9pm. This is a very good option if you don’t want to go all the way to Hanle. 
3. Hanle is great for photography but it is very cold and the accommodation is tented, with basic, attached bathrooms.

Rishad Saam Mehta is a Mumbai-based author, travel writer and budding travel video maker.

Also read: Travel: The small village in Wales with a really big name


Next Story