The 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.

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