Where is the Milky Way?

This photograph started with a mistake. I created this photograph of Mount Wheeler in Great Basin National Park a few days ago, but I first photographed this scene back in June.

Mount Wheeler with the Milky Way, Great Basin National Park

I messed up my first attempt because I had the wrong ISO setting which produced an image that was too dark. I thought my ISO was set much higher than it was, and everything looked fine in the LCD on location, but because of the bad setting, I had to raise the exposure significantly in post-processing. The photograph became too noisy and was not going to make a large, high quality print. But I loved the photograph. I thought the composition was good, and the photograph came out beautifully otherwise. So I wanted to recreate this image.

To recreate the photograph, I needed to go back to the same location later in the summer, but I wanted the Milky Way to be in the same location in the sky at that time. This timing needed to be coordinated with the moon phase and the moonrise/moonset time because the light of the moon creates light pollution, making it difficult to capture the Milky Way. The best time to go is during a new moon when then the moon is not in the sky at all for the entire night. So my next opportunity was going to be one month later, in July. The next question was what time of night would I need to be there to get the same composition?

Many software programs are available for mapping the night sky based on time and location. I use one called Night Sky Tools. With this program, I enter coordinates and a date and time. The program then shows me what the sky looks like at that time in that location. So to plan my photograph, I entered the coordinates of Great Basin National Park. Next, I entered the date in June when I was there. Finally, since I created my photograph between 12:15 and 12:30 AM, I entered that time as well. With these inputs, I saw that I was pointed just west of south when I was making my photograph. That gave me a reference. I knew where I needed the Milky Way to be located relative to due south one month later when the next new moon would occur.

Next I entered the date I planned to return to Great Basin. Then I adjusted the time until the Milky Way was in the same location relative to due south as in my photograph. That time was around 10:15 PM, almost two hours earlier. That would work, because it would be dark by then, and the twilight would be over. The moon would not be out, and the skies would be completely dark. So I planned to return in July to make my photograph. Because it was a new moon and I would be finished making my photograph by 10:30 or so, that would leave lots of time and dark skies for me to try to find some additional compositions in the park.

There was one more factor that had to be accounted for, however, and that was the weather. As the date of my trip approached, Hurricane Dolores was raging in the Pacific Ocean. When it was time for my trip to Great Basin, the hurricane had weakened to a low pressure system over the western United States. In Las Vegas and areas north, including Great Basin, we had cloudy skies and rain. Bad weather often creates excellent photographic opportunities, but not when you’re trying to photograph the night sky. I canceled my trip and went back to the drawing board.

I started to make plans for the next month, August. Now the timing was becoming difficult. The Milky Way was going to be in position earlier and earlier the later in the year I waited, so I did not want to wait until the next new moon. I decided to check the sky one week earlier, when the moon was in its last quarter. According to the calendar, the moon would not rise until after midnight, and according to Night Sky Tools, the Milky Way was going to be in position between around 9:15 and 9:30 PM. That was perfect, but this was my last opportunity for the year. By September, the Milky Way would be in position much too early and the sun or at least twilight would be polluting the darkness of the sky.

So, after a lot of planning and a couple obstacles along the way, I returned this past weekend to create this photograph of the Milky Way over Mount Wheeler in Great Basin National Park. It was an adventure, but it was worth it, and I’m happy I can now share this photograph with you.

About 30 minutes later, I moved to a different location and made one more photograph. The clouds were racing in, so I was lucky I got my first photograph. As the clouds approached, however, I thought it would be interesting to photograph them with the Milky Way. The photograph below is the result.

Strange Lightning, Great Basin National Park

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