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Phil

The Wave Under Stars at Night, North Coyote Buttes

By | Landscape Astrophotography

The Wave, a fantastic area of ancient, stone-frozen sand dunes and tortured rock, is a real favorite of mine. Among photographers it is both something of a Mecca as well as a cliche. There are quite a few photographers who shun the Wave since it is so popular, while at the same time folks visit from around the world hoping to receive a permit to make the hike to this special place. I have made at least four trips there (see past blog articles about the Wave), although the last couple times it was mostly for enjoyment and few new images came out of the effort. I wanted to do something very different this time. After some brainstorming with night photography expert and road trip buddy Garry McCarthy, we came up with a rough plan, watched the weather closely and finally decided it was worth a try. The following few images came from our efforts. It really was spectacular being alone at night at the Wave, with a slight warm breeze and occasional critter noises being the only sounds other than our time exposure camera clicks. If you like these, please check out a larger selection of Landscape Astrophotography pictures on this website or on my new Landscape Astrophotography website. If you are curious how some of the lighting was done, here is a self-portrait of me lighting the Wave during a long time exposure. These images were shot on today’s today cameras, with top optics, and will print well up to 4’x6′. Please contact me if you are interested in canvas murals or aluminum prints for your home or office. Cheers and thanks for looking!

The Wave at Night, under a clear night sky full of stars. The Wave, an area of fantastic eroded sandstone featuring beautiful swirls, wild colors, countless striations, and bizarre shapes set amidst the dramatic surrounding North Coyote Buttes of Arizona and Utah. The sandstone formations of the North Coyote Buttes, including the Wave, date from the Jurassic period. Managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the Wave is located in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness and is accessible on foot by permit only.

The Wave at Night, under a clear night sky full of stars. The Wave, an area of fantastic eroded sandstone featuring beautiful swirls, wild colors, countless striations, and bizarre shapes set amidst the dramatic surrounding North Coyote Buttes of Arizona and Utah. The sandstone formations of the North Coyote Buttes, including the Wave, date from the Jurassic period. Managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the Wave is located in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness and is accessible on foot by permit only.

Sky Rock and Full Moon, Chalfant Petroglyphs, Volcanic Tablelands

By | Landscape Astrophotography, Moonlight Photos

Sky Rock and Moonlight, Bishop, California. (See also my photograph of Sky Rock at Dawn, Bishop, California.) The Sky Rock Petroglyphs sit atop of an enormous volcanic block. The petroglyphs — dozens of them in many shapes and forms — face the sky, thus lending Sky Rock its name. My understanding is that Sky Rock’s orientation toward the heavens is unusual, but also curious is that this set of petroglyphs sits alone, isolated some 5+ miles from the rich Chalfant, Chidalgo and Red Rock petroglyph collections. Chipped into the rock, through the darker “desert varnish” that typically covers the exterior of such rocks, the Sky Rock Petroglyphs expose the lighter-colored rock underneath. The history of Sky Rock is not clear to me, although I have seen a number of published suggestions that the Sky Rock Petroglyphs were perhaps created by ancestors of what are today known as the Owens Valley Paiute (or Shoshone-Paiute) people.

Sky Rock at night, light by moonlight with stars in the clear night sky above. Sky Rock petroglyphs near Bishop, California. Hidden atop an enormous boulder in the Volcanic Tablelands lies Sky Rock, a set of petroglyphs that face the sky. These superb examples of native American petroglyph artwork are thought to be Paiute in origin, but little is known about them.

Sky Rock at night, light by moonlight with stars in the clear night sky above. Sky Rock petroglyphs near Bishop, California. Hidden atop an enormous boulder in the Volcanic Tablelands lies Sky Rock, a set of petroglyphs that face the sky. These superb examples of native American petroglyph artwork are thought to be Paiute in origin, but little is known about them.

Ancient Bristlecone Pines, Full Moon and Starry Night, Patriarch Grove

By | Landscape Astrophotography, Moonlight Photos

This is the best image I made during a May trip through the White Mountains and Tioga Pass. I set out to find new, photogenic ancient bristlecone pine trees, something other than the two iconic brutes along the Discovery Trail near Schulman Grove and the oft-photographed leaner near the Patriarch Grove parking lot. I found some really nice ones, and spent the last light of the day photographing them, returning again after dinner to photograph them under the moonlight and stars. This is the panoramic image I wanted to create on this trip, depicting a stately old bristlecone, somewhat alone on the dolomite-white slopes of the White Mountains but with its brethren in the background of the composition, with a view along the crest of the White Mountains and the Sierra Nevada in the distance. It is humbling to know that his tree owned such an expansive view for centuries, watching storms peel off the distant Sierra Nevada, pass over the Owens Valley far below and crash against its rooted home in the White Mountains, the bitter winds blowing the tree eastward and sculpting it into its now-gnarled form. This panorama is actually an enormous image which, at full resolution, will print up to 4′ high by 11′ long. Please contact me for licensing, printing and any use of this image. Cheers and thanks for looking!

Ancient bristlecone pine trees at night, under a clear night sky full of stars, lit by a full moon, near Patriarch Grove, White Mountains, Inyo National Forest, California.

Ancient bristlecone pine trees at night, under a clear night sky full of stars, lit by a full moon, near Patriarch Grove, White Mountains, Inyo National Forest, California.

Milky Way over the Watchman at Night, Zion National Park

By | Landscape Astrophotography, Milky Way Photos

The Watchman is one of the iconic landmarks in Zion National Park, such that throngs of photographers line the bridge each fall at sunset to photograph the Watchman with the Virgin River and autumn trees in front of it. We elected for a much different image, one with the Milky Way soaring over the Watchman at night. We imaged the peak from a variety of locations, moving as the Milky Way crossed through the sky in order to keep the composition balanced. In this case I elected for a time exposure too long to freeze the stars but shorter than a typical star trail, and was pleased with the result. The Milky Way is still recognizable while the streaking stars add some movement to the image. I used the same technique on another composition several hundred miles away, which I will post in the coming days. Cheers, and thanks for looking! (See also a photo of the Milky Way over the Virgin River and the Watchman.)

Milky Way over the Watchman, Zion National Park. The Milky Way galaxy rises in the night sky above the the Watchman.

Milky Way over the Watchman, Zion National Park. The Milky Way galaxy rises in the night sky above the the Watchman.

Ancient Bristlecone Pines Under a Sky Full of Stars

By | Landscape Astrophotography

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Trees, Pinus longaeva, White Mountains, Inyo National Forest

Ancient Bristlecone pine trees (Pinus longaeva) live in a relatively restricted area of eastern California, Nevada and Utah, typically at altitudes above 9500′. The ancient bristlecone pine tree is considered to be the world’s oldest species of tree (and indeed the world’s oldest sexually reproducing, nonclonal lifeform). A number of individual bristlecone pine trees are known to exceed 4000 years of age; the “Methuselah tree” in the Schulman grove was estimated to be 4838 years old in 2006. These extraordinarily hardy, gnarled and lonely trees are best seen in the White Mountains of the Inyo National Forest in California. The photograph below, along with some of my gallery of bristlecone pine tree photos, was taken on a clear night in the White Mountains with stars filling the sky above — a moving and serene experience indeed.

Ancient bristlecone pine trees at night, under a clear night sky full of stars, lit by a full moon, near Patriarch Grove.

Ancient bristlecone pine trees at night, under a clear night sky full of stars, lit by a full moon, near Patriarch Grove.

Ancient bristlecone pine trees live at extremely high altitudes. In some regions, the lower treeline for bristlecone pines exceeds the upper treeline for all other species. Bristlecone forests often occur in areas where there is a strong carbonate content (limestone, dolomite and/or marble). In these barren, remote mountain areas, exposure to constant wind, excessive sun and bitter cold has molded the trees into remarkably gnarled, twisted shapes that have captured the interest of photographers and artists for years.

The trees do not grow tall — 60′ is about the tallest — but tend to be girthy with a wide base and roots that splay outward in all directions. Ancient bristlecone pine trees grow very slowly, and pine needles are infrequently dropped with some living for 30 years. Pinus longaeva has evolved a few strategies that yield such a long lifespan. Their wood is extraordinarily dense, and full of resin, making it nearly impossible for invasive bacteria and insects (what few there are in that inhospitable climate) to bore into and damage the wood. Bristlecone pines also tolerate a gradual dieback of their bark, in such a way that old specimens may have only a small amount of living bark. While the tree may appear dead or nearly so, this is actually an advantage as it lessens the bulk of living material the root system and crown must support. In some old trees, a thin strip of bark a foot or less in size is enough to support a healthy specimen.

Ancient bristlecone wood is so resistant to decay, and occurs in such an arid and cold environment, that fallen pieces dating back 8000+ years have been found in some groves. These pieces have been used in the calibration of the radiocarbon time-dating method, a technique which is employed in a broad range of scientific disciplines.

Please see my gallery of ancient bristlecone pine tree photos. Thanks for looking!

Tufa and Stars, Mono Lake at Night

By | Landscape Astrophotography

Mono Lake sees a crush of photographers at dawn and dusk, but in the middle of the night I expected to be alone here and indeed I was. I was really just scouting the tufas along the lake to find some good ones to photograph later in the summer, but made a few exposures while I was there and was happy with what my camera was able to record. This image depicts the northern arm of the Milky Way, the dimmer section opposite from the much brighter galactic center. Some green air glow can be seen as well, along with some distant air pollution along the horizon. Cheers and thanks for looking!

Mono Lake Tufa Towers and Stars at Night, Milky Way galaxy, Mono Lake, California

Mono Lake Tufa Towers and Stars at Night, Milky Way galaxy, Mono Lake, California

Milky Way Galaxy, Live Oak and Rocks, Joshua Tree National Park at Night

By | Landscape Astrophotography, Milky Way Photos

I have spent many evenings photographing the landscape and night sky at Joshua Tree National Park. The terrain is harsh and there are few trees other than Yucca and Joshua Tree. I did find one attractive live oak nestled up against some tall boulders, and made a point of photographing it when the Milky Way galaxy was high in the sky above it. This four image panorama, shot with the Nikon D800 and Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 lens, will print up to 100″ wide and 60″ and would make a great wall mural in your home or office! Cheers and thanks for looking.

Live Oak and Milky Way, rocks and stars, Joshua Tree National Park at night

Live Oak and Milky Way, rocks and stars, Joshua Tree National Park at night

Fire Wave and Milky Way, Stars at Night, Valley of Fire State Park Nevada

By | Landscape Astrophotography, Milky Way Photos

The Milky Way and Stars at Night over the Fire Wave in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

The Fire Wave in Valley of Fire: an interesting striped expanse of sandstone, now commonly photographed. I wanted to make some uncommon images of the Fire Wave, so I set up my camera with an intervalometer to photograph it all night long. This image shows the Milky Way rising over the horizon with the Fire Wave in the foreground. Distant lights of Las Vegas and nearby urban communities can be seen but the sky above was surprising clear of light pollution. The Valley of Fire sure is a beautiful place! Cheers and thanks for looking!

The Fire Wave, a striped sandstone formation in Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park, with the Milky Way rising above in the night sky.

The Fire Wave, a striped sandstone formation in Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park, with the Milky Way rising above in the night sky.

Scripps Pier Perfect Solar Alignment at Sunset, La Jolla, California

By | Landscape Astrophotography

Scripps Institution of Oceanography Research Pier in beautiful La Jolla, California, with the setting sun perfectly framed within the pier pilings.

This remarkable solar alignment occurs rarely, and is difficult to capture in a photograph since the weather is often overcast. This is what the perfect solar alignment through the SIO Pier pilings looks like — it is a spectacular sight! Contact me to inquire about a print for your home or office of this San Diego icon, captured at the peak moment of a rare celestial event. This image is available up to 54″ high x 36″ wide, presented on canvas, metal and traditional photographic substrates. Cheers, and thanks for looking!

Scripps Pier Sunset Solar Alignment, the setting sun is framed perfectly within the pilings of Scripps Institution of Oceanography research pier, a rare event. Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, San Diego, California.

Scripps Pier Sunset Solar Alignment, the setting sun is framed perfectly within the pilings of Scripps Institution of Oceanography research pier, a rare event. Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, San Diego, California.

What does this image have to do with astrophotography? Well, the sun is a star, which makes this an astrophotograph, albeit one taken during the day which is unusual for landscape astrophotographs. Cheers and thanks for looking!

Landscape Astrophotography

By | Landscape Astrophotography, Technique

What is Landscape Astrophotography?  Landscape Astrophotography is the discipline of photographing scenes that include both astronomical elements and terrestrial landscape elements.

The motivation for landscape astrophotography is a desire to depict the night sky, including stars, planets, comets, meteors, the Milky Way galaxy, space dust and our Moon among other elements, along with some recognizable piece of planet Earth. This approach differs from the classic “deep space” images that, for instance, NASA produces, since those typically show nothing of the Earth and are thus disconnected from the type of scenes we experience when we view the night sky ourselves. In my landscape astrophotography, I choose to use lenses and compositional choices that produce an image similar to what the viewer would experience with his own eyes.

The Milky Way galaxy arcs above Arch Rock, panoramic photograph, cylindrical projection.

The Milky Way galaxy arcs above Arch Rock, panoramic photograph, cylindrical projection.

A few details that characterize landscape astrophotography, both my work and the way I believe most photographers practice landscape astrophotography today. Landscape astrophotographs:

  • are made at night, or at the edge of night (dawn and dusk).
  • use exposures “long enough” to record relatively dim objects in the night sky. Almost all landscape astrophotography involves the use of a tripod.
  • sometimes employ artificial light on foreground elements in a technique known as “light painting”.
  • sometimes will combine, or “stack”, multiple images to produce a final image. Naturally, in this case the resulting image is not what one would have been able to see in person, but the image can serve to illustrate the passage of time (e.g., star trails) or a relatively infrequent phenomenon (e.g., meteor shower).
  • often use relatively high ISO settings. This is made possible by the recent technological improvements in the sensitivity and noise characteristics of digital camera sensor.
  • often will use lenses “wide open”, or at or near their maximum aperture, in order to capture as much light as possible.
  • use focus that is typically near or at infinity so depth of field is not an issue.
  • benefit from maximum corner sharpness and minimal coma distortion, at or near “wide open” aperture — two highly desirable lens characteristics for landscape astrophotography.
  • require considerable post-processing techniques in software such as Photoshop, Lightroom and Starstax to adjust white balance, contrast, exposure and especially noise.
  • often will push a digital camera to the edge of what it is capable of recording. This means that as the technological capabilities of our cameras continue to improve, new possibilities in landscape astrophotography continue to emerge.

Below are few of my favorite landscape astrophotographs, made during the last two years with both Canon and Nikon equipment, all in California, Nevada and Utah. If you like these, please see my landscape astrophotography limited edition prints for others.

Delicate Arch and Milky Way, lit by quarter moon, hiker's flashlight and the fading blue sky one hour after sunset.  Arches National Park, Utah.

Mesa Arch and Milky Way Galaxy at Night, Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

By | Landscape Astrophotography

Panoramic Photo of the Milky Way Arcing Over Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Mesa Arch with the perfectly centered Milky Way Galaxy arcing above, at night, Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

Mesa Arch with the perfectly centered Milky Way Galaxy arcing above, at night, Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

In mid-June of this year I spent an evening photographing Mesa Arch, the famous and oft-pictured natural stone arch at the precipice of Canyonlands National Park. I photographed Mesa Arch at sunrise twice previously — quite fortunately alone both times — but that was years ago before the explosion of photography interest on the internet. Based on the many reports I have read during the intervening years of elbow-to-elbow photographers and workshops going postal at sunrise when the sun lights the underside of the arch, I had essentially given up on ever photographing Mesa Arch again. This year I decided to try for an image I have wanted to make there for some time and which might allow me to enjoy the arch in solitude again — the Milky Way arcing over Mesa Arch. Photographer buddy Garry McCarthy and I have executed versions of this idea with other arches. It is surprisingly tough to do well, since lighting must be consistent across the many frames that are blended to make the final image. The result must be flawless with no blending artifacts if one wishes to print the image for display. Using hard-earned uber-secret lighting and processing techniques from past night photography efforts, combined with several different compositions and attempts at lighting the arch in various ways, I ultimately decided upon this highly detailed 50″ x 80″ panoramic photo of Mesa Arch as the final result of my efforts.