Photographing the Milky Way

One of the treats of visiting a dark location far from major cities is seeing the night sky. Looking up and seeing all those stars and the galactic arms and center of the Milky Way is an awe-inspiring experience. There aren’t too many places left in the world that afford a spectacular night sky view because of the continual expansion of light pollution from cities and towns. One of the better remaining places, however, is Death Valley National Park.

Lighting Up the Racetrack in Death Valley

One of my goals during my visit to the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley was to do some astrophotography and create a photograph that includes the Milky Way with the moving rocks. I specifically chose to go when there would be a new moon so that the skies would be their darkest. I also planned my trip for late spring, when the Milky Way starts to become visible at night. It’s visible throughout the summer as well, but summer is not a good time to visit Death Valley!

I was not disappointed. It was incredible! When I woke up at 2 AM and took a look outside, in my half-sleeping daze I had to convince myself that I was seeing the Milky Way and not just some low clouds obscuring the rest of the stars. When my night vision was ruined by turning on lights as I got things together and I could still see this “cloud,” I was convinced that’s all it was. I took a test shot, and there it was. That was no cloud! That was the Milky Way spreading across the entire sky. I immediately picked up my gear and headed out to the playa.

Running from the Light

I had two main challenges in creating these photographs. The first was finding the right moving rock. The stars provide a decent amount of light. You can easily walk around without fear of tripping over anything, but your vision is impaired. You can’t really see any details 10 or 15 feet out. I had a flashlight, but I didn’t want to use it, and I’m not really sure it would have helped too much. I didn’t want to use it so that I could preserve my night vision as much as possible. There were also a couple other people out on the playa stargazing and photographing, and I’m certain they would not have appreciated an intense light being shined all over the place.

So I walked. I headed in the general direction I had been at sunset the previous evening. Sometimes I would cross a rock path. I would turn and follow that trail. A couple times there was no rock or the trail kind of died away. Frequently the rock at the end was no good because of footprints around it. One time I just didn’t like the trail of the rock. And a couple times it went on and on, and I felt like I was moving too far from the area where most of the moving rocks are located. In those cases I turned around and headed back to that main area.

I wandered around still somewhat half-asleep in a zombie-like search for something. It did occur to me how strange it felt to be doing this, but I knew the rocks were there and I would be able to create a spectacular photograph if I could just find one. One time I just stopped and looked around. I knew that there were rocks around me, probably not that far away, but I couldn’t see them! Everything is a dark gray in starlight. I was trying to find a very dark gray object in that dark gray background. It wasn’t easy.

After about 45 minutes I came across one more rock. I set up a test shot to see what it looked like, and I knew I found my rock. It was perfect. I liked the rock so much that I used it at sunrise as well to create a couple additional photographs of it.

So now I had my rock. The other challenge was setting focus for the stars. You pretty much just set the lens to focus at infinity, but you can’t just do that because the infinity setting on a lens is not always accurate. Here’s a hint for anyone interested in trying this kind of photography. I set my ISO to the maximum of 25600 and took a quick test shot. I then adjusted the focus and repeated until the focus was correct. Setting the ISO very high allowed me to take a shorter exposure so I could quickly iterate through the process until the focus was right. Once I had it, I took note of where that focus is dialed in on the lens so I could more quickly reproduce it. Then I switched back to ISO 100 to minimize noise and began making my longer exposures.

All my efforts paid off. I was absolutely thrilled with these photographs I created that night, and they are among my favorites of the photographs I made at the Racetrack.

The Star Traveler