About Wally Pacholka

Wally Pacholka was an accountant by day, but it's his moonlighting "job" where he's always shined. He's aglow in winning national awards for his pictures, lofty kudos for being in the right place in the middle of nowhere in the dead of night.
 
Pacholka shoots celestial events — comets, close visits by other planets, meteor showers and the occasional Milky Way cluster — with our national parks and other down-to-earth scenery gracing the foregrounds of his frames.
 
Ventura County Star
Not exactly an original pursuit to anyone who recalls the 1960 Ansel Adams masterpiece "Moon and Half Dome," but the freelance astrophotographer does it well, too. Pacholka is a three-time "Picture of the Year" winner for Time and Life magazines' end-of-year photograph editions. Both magazines honored him in 2003 for shots he took when Mars made its closest pass to Earth in almost 60,000 years, and Time also tabbed him in 1997 for a picture he took of Comet Hale-Bopp above Joshua Tree National Park.
 
National Geographic also has used several of his shots, and NASA has shown more than two dozen of his images, including 22 of them as the "Astronomy Picture of the Day" on its Web site.
 
The 57-year-old Long Beach resident left accounting three years ago and now focuses full time on his passion — sayonara book ledgers and hello rocky ledges, the kind on which he can mount his camera tripod and await the majesty of the heavens.
 
His current project is blazing around the West's bevy of beautiful national parks for some late-night sky collaborations with the stars. He's done the Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree, Arches and others. Next up are Yosemite and Yellowstone.
 
"I feel like I'm on a life's purpose," says Pacholka.
 
But first, he'll freeze his frames long enough to speak about his work and show off some of his more dazzling stuff Friday night in Camarillo at the Ventura County Astronomical Society's monthly meeting.
 
'I just love the night sky'
 
Pacholka's nocturnal wanderlust began as a kid growing up in a small town outside Montreal.
 
"I just love the night sky," he said. "Even as a teenager, I'd be out all hours of the night searching. My friends and family would ask me, Why?' So I started taking pictures of the night sky to show them ¿ what they were missing."
 
He lost the night sky after his father moved the family to Los Angeles when Pacholka was 16. But a couple of years later, he got his wheels and fell in love with the desert, where the stars shine brightly away from the city lights. He later discovered Joshua Tree.
 
As his hobby developed, Pacholka hit upon the idea of using his work to combine the celestial wonder in the lens with the beauty of the landscapes in front of him. Zooming in on an object in the sky can mean great shots, he said, but they offer little or no perspective.
 
By getting earthly scenery and surroundings in the frame, Pacholka opined, "it's more real to the average person."
 
Pacholka said he employs simple techniques and does nothing extraordinary to get his shots. He uses a standard 50mm lens mounted on a tripod, and points a small flashlight on nearby desirable rocks and other land features he wants to stand out in the photo.
 
He allowed that his digital camera has a light-gathering power that is in some instances more than 50,000 times greater than a typical daylight camera setting. Pacholka runs his exposures anywhere from a few seconds to a minute. But he doesn't consider himself a guru.
 
"This is something the average person could do, absolutely," he said.
 
Uphill, alone, in the dark
 
Maybe so, but there's talent, timing and luck involved. The work can mean a great deal of tedium in the inky wilds waiting for the right moment to occur — and also can force some odd habits.
 
Such as hiking alone out to Delicate Arch, the signature landmark in Arches National Park in remote eastern Utah, in the wee hours of the night.
 
"It's always interesting to hike somewhere in the dark," he recalled.
 
It was uphill; Pacholka also was lugging 50 pounds of photography equipment. Of hiking solo at that hour, he said, "No one was crazy enough to follow me."
 
He estimated he took more than 4,000 images of the close Mars approach in 2003 from various parks, and some 2,500-plus shots of Comet Hale-Bopp above Joshua Tree in 1997. That type of devotion and patience can wear on some people.
 
One of them was the lab tech of a one-hour photo shop in Yucca Valley near Joshua Tree. After about 800 images, the guy looked at Pacholka and said, "Don't you have enough pictures of that comet?" While the answer to that is debatable, the fact is that Pacholka didn't have his winning shot yet.
 
"If I had listened to that guy," he noted, "I wouldn't have gotten that picture. He just thought I was this nutcase who was taking all these pictures of a comet, worse than someone with pictures of their grandkids."
 
Postcard images
 
In addition to selling his work to various publications, Pacholka is a fixture in gift shops at some national parks.
 
Carl Ashley, the local Astronomical Society's publicity chairman, knows this firsthand. He was in Zion National Park in southwestern Utah last month and spied some of Pacholka's images on postcards in a store there.
 
"Great stuff," remarked Ashley, who had seen Pacholka speak two years ago at a museum near Joshua Tree. "He does some weird things with lights. It's unusual, but it's something you or I or anyone could do — or at least he makes you think we could do it."
 
Pacholka said he plans to train his camera on the infinite night sky "forever." He hopes people gain an appreciation for natural wonders and become aware of the issue of light pollution.
 
"We're losing our night skies," he said. "They say 90 percent of the younger generation has never seen the Milky Way. That's because most of them live in cities."
 
But he's seen the Milky Way, first as a kid in wide-eyed fascination and then in a wide-open lens as a cool talent. Now he frames it and other heavenly attractions as eye candy for stargazers and park lovers alike. 
 
Article by: Brett Johnson of Ventura County Star Lifestyle.

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