Milky Way

A Trip to the Moon

I love to photograph the Milky Way. For me it’s just one of those things I love to do. This time I was in Death Valley.

A Trip to the Moon, Death Valley National Park

Yes, this is Death Valley. It may look like I took a trip to the Moon, and that’s exactly what I wanted this photograph to look like!

It’s not difficult to photograph the Milky Way. It takes a little preparation and planning, but once that’s out of the way, if you point your camera at the sky and make an extended exposure on a solid tripod, you’re going to capture the Milky Way easily. So there are really no technical hurdles to photographing the Milky Way.

The real trick is finding a way to fit the Milky Way into your overall composition to make something interesting and perhaps unique. There are lots of obvious things to do. For example, one of the most popular places for photographers in Death Valley is Zabriskie Point. The Milky Way positions itself nicely over Zabriskie Point, so it’s a good place to photograph at night. Here’s the photograph I made there.

Milky Way over Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park. Note Jupiter in the upper right.

Milky Way over Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park. Note Jupiter in the upper right.

But that was the last photograph I made that night, and I really only stopped there on my way out of the park to check it out. There were a couple other photographers there--a crowd at 1:00 AM--so clearly this was a relatively standard place to photograph from.

While I was considering locations during the day, I stopped at Zabriskie Point, but I later found something that gave me an idea. I found a mound or large hill covered with volcanic-looking rocks. To me it looked like the surface of the Moon, and that inspired my idea. Why not make a photograph from this location and make it look like it was taken from the Moon?

There was no vegetation or other signs of life, so it was perfect. The rocks look grey just like on the Moon. The only things that give it away are the slight haze from the atmosphere and some light pollution. Otherwise, I think this is a pretty good representation of the surface of the Moon.

I moved around and made a couple other compositions there. Aside from being a not too hot 80 degrees at night, a strong wind, my car sitting about 250 yards away, and a vehicle driving down the road every now and then, I felt like I could have been standing on the Moon. It was great fun!

Lunar Surface at Death Valley, Death Valley National Park

Into the Darkness - Waiting for the Light

One of the primary requirements for landscape photography is patience. It is rare to arrive at a location and create a beautiful landscape photograph within a minute of arriving. That’s called luck. Good landscape photography requires both patience and planning because we often need to wait for the best light and the best skies. We have to wait for the weather, too. Maybe we want stormy weather, or cloudy skies, or clear skies. We might need to wait for the wind to do what we want. Often all these desires mean having to return to a location multiple times before capturing the image we really want. That’s what landscape photography is about, though. As an artist, I have to present my vision of a place. For me, that vision is not going to change, but the environment is not always going to allow me to capture and express my vision. So I return another time. And another. And another. You get the idea.

Milky Way and Buttes, Sedona, AZ

But on this night in Sedona, AZ, everything was ideal for night sky photography. The weather was clear, the moon was not up, and at this time of year the Milky Way was in the sky at the right time and positioned nicely with key elements in the landscape. I arrived at my selected location before sunset. I knew the Milky Way would be in the position I desired between about 10:30 and 11:30 PM. So I had several hours to wait for the darkness to descend fully and for the light of the Milky Way to rise above the horizon and settle into the position I wanted for my photograph

What did I do in all that time? Well, first I got everything set up while I had enough light to see without a flashlight. I ensured my lens was focused properly on infinity so that the stars would be sharp points of light in my photograph. I took some time to frame my composition the way I wanted--that’s much easier to do when you can see what you’re looking at.

Preparing for night photography, Sedona, AZ

While there was still enough light, I read my book. The sunset was around 7:40, and very shortly after that I no longer had enough natural light for reading. With about three hours to go, the real waiting game now began. So what do I do at these kinds of times?

Well, this is one of the aspects I like about landscape photography. It gives me time to be alone and to think. That’s mostly what I did. I sat and I thought. A couple times I tried to lie down and nap, but the bare rock did not make the most comfortable bed. So I thought. Sedona is a thought-provoking place because of its beauty, and as night descends and you start to see the light of the stars taking over, it gives you even more to think about.

One of the brightest objects I saw in the early evening was Mars. I was amazed by how bright Mars appears in the sky. I was also excited that I could see Saturn. You can’t see Saturn’s rings with the unaided eye. I wasn’t going to capture the rings in a photograph with my 24 mm lens either, but it was exciting to see the planet in the sky. I liked the triangle formed by Mars, Saturn, and the star Antares, which were the three brightest objects in that area of the sky. So, just for the fun of it I made this photograph an hour or so after sunset.

Mars, Saturn, Antares, and Two Buttes, Sedona, AZ

Here I’ve pointed out the important objects I was looking at.

Details of previous photograph showing Mars, Saturn, and Antares

I started to think about these three objects in the sky. Mars is our neighbor. At about 140 million miles away on average, it’s less than a stone’s throw away, relatively speaking. Saturn is about 850 million miles away from us on average. Again, that’s next to nothing in the universe as a whole. Antares is 619.7 light years away. Now that’s a huge distance! We’re no longer talking in miles because miles no longer sound sensible at this distance. Who can fathom what 3,718.2 trillion miles is? It might as well be infinite. Instead, we know that the light from Antares takes 619.7 years to reach us, so we say it’s 619.7 light years away. But when you think about the size of the Milky Way galaxy, let alone the entire universe, Antares is also very close to us. Wow.

These are the kinds of things I think about when I have nothing to do but wait for the light. It doesn’t bore me. I just look up at the grand show going on in the skies above, and I enjoy it. It’s worth it because not only do I come back with a beautiful photograph, but I also come back a little humbler and more aware of my place--my very, very small place--in this universe.

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