Category Archives: Landscape Astrophotography

Landscape astrophotography blog

Under the African Night Sky

While in Kenya, we stayed at the Mara Plains camp in the greater Maasai Mara ecosystem. Being here was the highlight of our fantastic trip. The camp itself is amazing with incredibly well-engineered, attractive and comfortable tents. Our wildlife drives were naturally excellent. Dinners each evening under the stars were sublime, including one evening with a campfire roaring at the edge of the Maasai Mara. I had no proper astrophotography gear — neither my preferred lens, camera or tripod — to make this photograph, so I jury-rigged what I could to make a panorama. The stars are not well-blended but you get the idea — this was a wonderful place to sit by the fire and enjoy an African evening.

Under the African night sky, during safari, Mara Plains Luxury Safari Camp, Olare Orok Conservancy, Kenya

Under the African night sky, during safari, Mara Plains Luxury Safari Camp, Olare Orok Conservancy, Kenya

Lunar Eclipse Sequence, Juniper and Standing Rock, Joshua Tree NP, April 2014.

For the eclipse of April 14/15, 2014, I wanted to depict the course of the eclipse across the sky with some recognizable landscape features in the foreground to anchor the composition. As the day of the eclipse went by, I watched the weather reports and decided Joshua Tree National Park would be a good place to shoot, since it was forecast to have clear skies. I have been shooting various spots in JTNP at night in an effort to produce a collection of nice landscape astrophotography images. I knew two locations in particular had orientations that would work well for the eclipse, which was going to occur almost due south. In 2011, Garry McCarthy and I shot original compositions at Arch Rock and the Juniper and Standing Rock incorporating the milky way, at the time something fairly new. Similar images have become fairly common, and the arch will now often have a crowd of photographers at night around the new moon. But since the next time a full lunar eclipse will occur centered due south is decades away, I knew this eclipse offered an opportunity to produce an astrophotography image at each of these well-known spots that was not likely to be appear in any other photographer’s portfolio anytime soon.

This is the third of the three images I made that night, with the lunar eclipse depicted from the point in time when the moon entered the shadow of the Earth to when it emerged again, above the small juniper tree and curious standing rock not far from one of the campgrounds in Joshua Tree National Park.

Lunar Eclipse over Juniper and Standing Rock, Joshua Tree National Park, April 14/15 2014.

Lunar Eclipse over Juniper and Standing Rock, Joshua Tree National Park, April 14/15 2014.

If you are curious, the other two images I photographed during the eclipse are Lunar Eclipse Sequence over Arch Rock, Joshua Tree National Park, April 2014 and Lunar Eclipse Blood Red Moon Sequence over Joshua Tree National Park. The second link explains the planning involved and how I executed the eclipse sequence — I used largely the same camera technique at all three locations but the artificial lighting was different in each, exploiting both hand held light and remote triggered flash depending on what was needed. (The arch rock composition differs from the other two in that not only is it a composite but it is a very wide panorama as well.)

This image is centered due south, which was the point during the eclipse when the moon would be both fully eclipsed and highest in the sky. I lit the juniper and rock with a small handheld light from the right. This image is a composite and the moon is a larger than it appeared to the eye. The moon was exposed separately from the stars in order to control for the fact it was much brighter than the stars and to better present the detail and color of the moon itself. The stars themselves were photographed earlier in the evening, when the full moon was just rising, so that it could illuminate the surrounding landscape not reached by my flashlight. My camera remained fixed on a tripod throughout to ensure the images were aligned perfectly and the moon tracked through the sky in the proper way.

Cheers, and thanks for looking!

Light Painting Delicate Arch under the Milky Way, Arches National Park, Utah

The first few times I photographed Delicate Arch in Utah’s Arches National Park, most of my compositions were close to the arch. After editing the results of my last visit to the park I resolved to make more distant compositions, for variety’s sake and to put the arch into its surroundings. I got the chance last month. We spent an entire night at Delicate Arch, trying different compositions and light painting techniques, and this was one of my favorites from that effort. Cheers, and thanks for looking!

Light Painting Delicate Arch under the Milky Way, Arches National Park, Utah

Light Painting Delicate Arch under the Milky Way, Arches National Park, Utah

If you like this, please take a look at more Astrophotography Landscape images. Thanks to my friend Garry McCarthy for collaborating on some inventive and impactful light painting.

The Eyes of Utah – Natural Arches and the Milky Way

The Eyes of Utah? I think these two images look like “eyes”, at least to my eyes they do. The first one sort of looks like a evil serpent’s eye, while the second resembles a whale’s eye. (If you have never seen a whale up close, you’ll just have to trust me on that one.) Both of these arches are in Utah and are depicted here framing the Milky Way galaxy (“our” galaxy). My buddy Garry and I spent a long weekend photographing the night sky around Moab, Utah recently and these were two of my favorite images from the effort. We had to time our photography for when the Milky Way would be in the best position, since it rotates through the sky during the course of the night and can be anywhere from SE early in the evening to SW toward dawn. In each case I lit the surrounding arch with a bit of light to give some relief to the rocks. If you like these, check out my updated gallery of Arches National Park images, or my collection of Landscape Astrophotography. Cheers and thanks for looking!

Milky Way through Wilson Arch at Night, Utah

Milky Way through Wilson Arch at Night, Utah

Milky Way and Star through North Window at night, Arches National Park, Utah

Milky Way and Star through North Window at night, Arches National Park, Utah

Lunar Eclipse Sequence over Arch Rock, Blood Red Moon, April 14 2014

The lunar eclipse of April 14 and 15, 2014 was a wonderful event to see. I went up to Joshua Tree National Park to photograph it for two reasons. First, the weather forecast in the high desert was for clear skies and, for the most part, the skies were indeed were cloudless and very dark throughout the night. Second, I was fairly sure I could find several locations around the park to setup my cameras and let them record the entire lunar eclipse, from the moment the moon entered the umbra and began to be shadowed by the Earth until it was full lit again, including the dramatic blood red coloration when the moon is fully eclipsed. The moon was going to be due south of my position at the peak of the eclipse — I knew this thanks to The Photographer’s Ephemeris — so I selected a few locations that offered a nice composition facing due south and made my photographs. This image depicts the eclipse occurring in stages to the south of the White Tank campground area, with Joshua Tree’s interesting Arch Rock on the east side of the composition. (It follows the first full eclipse sequence I presented a week ago.)

Lunar Eclipse and blood red moon sequence over Arch Rock, composite image, Joshua Tree National Park, April 14/15 2014.

Lunar Eclipse and blood red moon sequence over Arch Rock, composite image, Joshua Tree National Park, April 14/15 2014.

Note: this image is both a panorama and a composite. The panorama spans over 180 degrees left to right, and is centered roughly SSE. I lit the arch with a remote-triggered tripod mounted flash to the right, hidden behind a rock. The panorama, depicting stars after astronomical twilight but before the full eclipse peaked, is composed of 8 frames. Planet Mars is the brightest “star” above the arc of moon stages and the blue star Spica can be seen just below and to the right of the eight moon image from the left. This image is a composite and the moon is a little larger than it appeared to the eye. The moon was exposed separately from the stars in order to control for the fact it was much brighter than the stars and to better present the detail and color of the moon itself.

Lunar Eclipse Blood Red Moon Sequence over Joshua Tree National Park

This is the first of my photographic efforts shooting the lunar eclipse the evening of April 14/15 2014. I spent the entire night out under the stars in Joshua Tree National Park, where I often shoot when looking for clear skies and stars at night. I photographed several compositions and locations within the park that evening, leaving my cameras out photographing unattended, but this is the one that caught my eye first. The rocks in the background are lit early in the evening by the rising moon when there is still some daylight blue left in the sky above, while the Joshua Tree itself is lit by my flashlight. There are some faint, short star trails in the blue sky but they are difficult to discern on this web version. The individual phases of the eclipse were photographed from 10:45pm through 2:45am, and are positioned in the proper locations and orientations in the sky but have been enlarged to illustrate how the illumination on the moon changes during the course of an eclipse and as it passes through the sky. I was fortunate that the sky remained clear enough throughout the entire eclipse that I could shoot quality images of all phases until the eclipse was done.

Lunar Eclipse and blood red moon sequence, composite image, Joshua Tree National Park, April 14/15 2014.

Lunar Eclipse and blood red moon sequence, composite image, Joshua Tree National Park, April 14/15 2014.

This image is available immediately as a print or for licensing, along with two other lunar eclipse sequence photographs from the April 14-15 2014 full eclipse. Please contact me for more information. Cheers and thanks for looking!

A few photographic notes and how I planned to take this image:

  • I realized beforehand that this lunar eclipse would be characterized by a symmetry that made illustrating its path through the sky a natural. The “peak” of the eclipse, when the moon is furthest within the umbra (shadow) of the Earth, occurred almost due south of my location which meant it would also occur at the highest point along the path the moon took through the sky.
  • The beginning and ending of the eclipse took place 67 degrees apart horizontally. To include the entire sequence in one image but without being wasteful of space at the left and right of the composition, I choose to use a focal length close to 20mm giving me a lateral field of view of 82 degrees. The inclination of the moon at the point of peak eclipse was 45 degrees above the horizon, which also worked well for a 20mm lens since it offers a vertical field of view of 62 degrees, enough to include some foreground below the horizon and space above the path of the moon. (I used the Photographer’s Ephemeris to figure the angles out as well as the due-south direction of the peak eclipse point.)
  • In order to have the composition pre-set correctly hours before the eclipse began, I used a compass to make sure it was aimed directly south (thanks REI for showing me how to correct for magnetic declination in southern California, otherwise I would have been off by about 10 degrees!). Once I choose my spot in what I call “Queen’s Valley” in JTNP, an area dense with healthy, tall, picturesque Joshua Trees and interesting rocks, I then did a kind of human protractor thing with my arms to convince myself the moon’s path would go above the tree but below the top of my field of view. I locked the camera down on the tripod, waited for dusk and had a beer. I second guessed myself until the moon finally reached the left edge of the frame in what looked like a perfect position. The geometry worked out about right! (I could have done this image entirely without worrying about the angles, assembling things pell-mell later in Photoshop, but I really wanted to get as much of it correct in the camera as possible.)
  • I used an intervalometer to cause the camera to take photos every few minutes. I did a little light painting as the night went on, but the base frame I liked the most occurred about 70 minutes after sunset, with the moon out of frame to the left. The moon illuminated the background rocks nicely and complimented the light painting I did on the tree.

Tips for Photographing the Blood Red Moon during a Total Lunar Eclipse

During a total lunar eclipse, the moon will pass through the Earth’s penumbra (partial eclipse) and then the Earth’s umbra (totality). At the peak of the eclipse, when the moon is totally within the umbra, no direct sunlight reaches the moon. At this time the moon is only faintly lit by sunlight refracting (bending) through the relatively thin layer of the Earth’s atmosphere. As this refracted light passes through smoke, dust, smog and haze in the atmosphere, it takes on a distinct red tint. Since direct light reaching the moon is whitish-yellow and is many orders of magnitude stronger than the red-tinged refracted light, the red color is only observed at total eclipse when it does not have to compete with direct sunlight. Thus comes the name “blood moon” for such an eclipse. Because of the very low level of light reaching the moon and the speed at which the moon travels through the sky, this is the most difficult part of the eclipse to photograph well. Here are a few tips I have accumulated while photographing past eclipses, and which I plan to use when I try to improve my eclipse photographs this coming week.

Lunar eclipse sequence, showing total eclipse (left) through full moon (right).  While the moon lies in the full shadow of the earth (umbra) it receives only faint, red-tinged light refracted through the Earth's atmosphere.  As the moon passes into the penumbra it receives increasing amounts of direct sunlight, eventually leaving the shadow of the Earth altogether.  August 28, 2007.

Lunar eclipse sequence, showing total eclipse (left) through full moon (right). While the moon lies in the full shadow of the earth (umbra) it receives only faint, red-tinged light refracted through the Earth’s atmosphere. As the moon passes into the penumbra it receives increasing amounts of direct sunlight, eventually leaving the shadow of the Earth altogether. August 28, 2007.

1) Use “live view” to focus. Don’t rely on your camera’s autofocus, if you are using a telephoto and trying to render the moon as clearly as possible, make sure the focus is dead on by using the live view mode on your camera. Bump up the ISO (e.g., 800, 1600 if necessary) to make sure the moon is bright enough to focus upon, then restore the ISO after focusing to whatever you plan to use to make your exposures.

2) Focus on the moon before it reaches totality (blood red stage), while there is strong contrast on the edge of the moon to achieve good focus. Once the eclipse reaches totality, very little light is on the moon and focus will be much more difficult, and your blood-red images of the moon may be soft simply due to poor focus.

3) Bracket and Adjust Exposures. Based on my exposures from the August 28, 2007 lunar eclipse, light levels change quickly by more than 5 stops between the point where the moon is approximately half-lit and when the darkest point of totality. So be ready to adjust your exposures quickly as the moon reaches the umbra and begins to take on the red color! Bracketing is helpful here.

4) Avoid camera shake / vibration. You will be struggling for shutter speed when the moon is in the umbra and is red. It is at this time that your technique needs to be at its best or your exposures will be blurry and perhaps ill-exposed. Besides using the obvious sturdy tripod mount, make sure you use mirror lockup and some sort of delay between the point in time the mirror locks up and when the exposure is made to avoid any shake (mirror-induced or photographer-induced) from ruining the image. On my Canon cameras, if I do not have a remote shutter release, I use both mirror lockup (on the first menu screen for 5D3) and 2 second delay (on the frame rate selection control). The combination of these two modes usually results in a very steady images free of any vibration that might be caused by the mirror slapping up. On my Nikon cameras, I use both mirror lockup (selectable as “Mup” on the frame rate control) and 2-second delay (selectable in menu “d4 Exposure delay mode”). For the Sony A7r I would use a wireless remote trigger to avoid touching the camera at the moment the exposure is made.

5) If you are planning to shoot a wide scene containing the entire eclipse, including both penumbra phases and the umbra phase, know that the horizontal (lateral) field of view for this is about 67 degrees, while the lateral field of view for just the umbra phase is about 30 degrees. In other words, the moon will move left to right about 67 degrees during the eclipse. The vertical field of view for the entire eclipse is only about 7 degrees, i.e., it will be moving almost horizontally with a relative small amount of arc. You can use these to figure out what focal length lens you might want to use. I plan to use several lenses in 20mm, 24 and 28mm ranges for my compositions. (These figures are for a point in southern California, use the Photographer’s Ephemeris to figure them out for your location.)

6) Today’s high ISO cameras are the night photographer’s friends. I plan to shoot a lot of my exposures tomorrow night using ISO 3200 and ISO 6400. On my Canon 5DIII and Nikon D800e cameras, these ISOs generally result in surprisingly good images. During totality, when the moon is red, I want to get the shutter speed down as low as possible to avoid motion blur due to the moon hurtling through the sky, and since I do not use a tracking mount and my lenses have a limit to how wide open they can be, the only option available to me to freeze the motion of the moon by jacking up the shutter speed is to increase the ISO.

7) Timing. In the Pacific time zone, these are the notable times for the eclipse (times are Pacific Daylight Time the evening of April 14-15, 2014):

  • Partial umbral eclipse begins: 10:58 p.m. PDT on April 14
  • Total eclipse begins: 12:07 a.m. PDT on April 15
  • Greatest eclipse: 12:46 a.m. PDT
  • Total eclipse ends: 1:25 a.m. PDT
  • Partial eclipse ends: 2:33 a.m. PDT
Partial eclipse. August 28, 2007.

Partial eclipse. August 28, 2007.

Above: partial eclipse. This is the easy phase to photograph, just use the blinkies to get your exposure close to, but not clipping, the brights. Try to keep the shutter speed as short as possible if you are shooting a telephoto. Typical exposures I used for the above partial eclipse photo, rendered at 1000mm on a full frame camera, were approximately ISO 200, f/8, 1/125 second. I will definitely use a higher ISO next time, now that today’s digital cameras produce clean images up to ISO 1000 and more!

"Blood red moon" observed during total lunar eclipse. While the moon lies in the full shadow of the earth (umbra) it receives only faint, red-tinged light refracted through the Earth's atmosphere. As the moon passes from the umbra back into the penumbra it receives increasing amounts of direct sunlight, eventually leaving the shadow of the Earth altogether. August 28, 2007.

The moon is shown here transitioning from the penumbra to the umbra and has mixed lighting (some directly sunlight, mostly refracted sunlight). August 28, 2007.

Above: there will be a point in time when the moon is entering the umbra of the Earth and is lit only by dim refracted light, rather than strong direct sunlight. During this transition exposure settings will change relatively quickly. Consider bracketing to ensure you get good exposures. I plan to bracket at least 1.5 stops on each side of what I think is the optimal exposure, to ensure that I have something good to work with when I get back to the computer. During exposures such as the one above, which has about 10% of the moon receiving direct sunlight and the other 90% of the moon lit by reddish refracted sunlight, my exposures have been about ISO 800, f/8, 1/2 second. Note this is eight stops darker than the first image, and totality (below) will be darker still.

"Blood red moon" observed during total lunar eclipse. While the moon lies in the full shadow of the earth (umbra) it receives only faint, red-tinged light refracted through the Earth's atmosphere. As the moon passes into the penumbra it receives increasing amounts of direct sunlight, eventually leaving the shadow of the Earth altogether. August 28, 2007.

“Blood red moon” observed during total lunar eclipse. While the moon lies in the full shadow of the earth (umbra) it receives only faint, red-tinged light refracted through the Earth’s atmosphere. As the moon passes into the penumbra it receives increasing amounts of direct sunlight, eventually leaving the shadow of the Earth altogether. August 28, 2007.

Above: eclipse totality, the beautiful blood red full moon. My experience in the past show exposures about ISO 1600, f/8 and 1 second work well. Note that this is another two stops darker than the transition (edge of umbra) second photo, for a difference of at least six stops from partial eclipse to the darkest point of totality — it could be even more depending on the strength of the refracted red light illuminating the moon during totality. In the future (such as the lunar eclipse of April 14/15 2014) I won’t hesitate to use considerably higher ISO settings (e.g., 3200 or 6400) and a wider aperture (e.g., f/4 or f/5.6) in order to get the shutter speed down as short as possible. A little bit of motion blur does affect the above image, and that’s what I want to improve upon in my next set of eclipse photos.

Exposure Settings. Some informal personal notes to keep me in the right ballpark tonight vis-a-vis exposures (I’ll be shooting several cameras and don’t want to mixed up without notes):

  • 10:58pm begin partial eclipse, entering umbra
    • Try ISO 400, f/8, 1/250
  • 11:30pm moon is halfway into umbra (drop one stop)
    • Try ISO 400, f/8, 1/125
  • 12:06am moon completely eclipsed, wholly within umbra (drop about 7 more stops)
    • Try ISO 800, f/8, ½
    • Try ISO 1600, f/5.6, 1/8
    • Try ISO 3200, f/4, 1/30
  • 12:45am deepest part of umbra
    • This part is hard to predict because the amount of refracted light reaching the moon varies considerably from one lunar eclipse to another. I will start with about ISO 3200, f/5.6, 1/2 second and increase exposure a stop or two as necessary. I have seen some recommendations of up to 10 seconds for this period of the eclipse but in my experience the moon blurs during such lengthy exposures on moderate to long telephotos (70mm to 1000mm) although it works fine for wide angle views (e.g., 24mm, 28mm).
  • 1:24am leaving umbra (increase about 7 stops)
    • Try ISO 400, f/8, 1/125
  • 2:00am moon halfway out of umbra (increase another stop)
    • Try ISO 400, f/8, 1/250
  • 2:33am leaving umbra, eclipse done, go home

Lens Choices for a Wide View. Typical rectilinear lens field of view measurements, in degrees, based on a full frame 35mm camera. H=horizontal, V=vertical, assuming orientation is landscape.

  • 16mm: 95 degrees (H) x 74 degrees (V)
  • 20mm: 82 degrees (H) x 62 degrees (V)
  • 24mm: 74 degrees (H) x 53 degrees (V)
  • 28mm: 65 degrees (H) x 46 degrees (V)
  • 35mm: 54 degrees (H) x 37 degrees (V)

The full eclipse will occupy 67 degrees laterally (left to right) in the southern sky, almost due south at mid-eclipse. It will be about 39 degrees above the horizon at start and end, and about 45 degrees off the horizon at mid-eclipse. (45 degrees above the horizon means “halfway” between the horizon and straight up.) The path will be approximately horizontal, with only about 7 degrees of arc (vertical variation) as it travels through the sky. These measurements are based on a point in Southern California.

Cheers!

Venus and Milky Way at Astronomical Twilight, Arch Rock, Joshua Tree National Park

Venus was often referred to as the “Morning Star” by ancient civilizations (and as the “Evening Star” as well). On this day, it was indeed the morning star, rising just moments before astronomical twilight began. This allowed us a very brief window of time, a few moments really, to make a balanced exposure including the Milky Way galaxy and a sky full of stars, the planet Venus, the onset of dawn’s blue sky, and a softly lit Arch Rock. Just a few minutes later and the impending dawn became bright enough to make the Milky Way unseeable This image required no compositing or local adjustments, just global contrast, shadow recovery and white balance. I managed to make a huge 180-degree panorama of this same scene just two days later, but an alignment such as this allowing me to compose Venus under the arch, with the Milky Way just above, right at the transition of astronomical twilight (with its accompanying deep blue sky) will not reoccur for quite some time and I will probably never have another opportunity to see it. Cheers, and thanks for looking.

Venus and Milky Way, Arch Rock, Astronomical Twilight

Venus and Milky Way, Arch Rock, Astronomical Twilight

Full Moon Rising over the San Diego City Skyline

The full moon, rising at dusk over a view of downtown San Diego and its beautiful harbor front and city skyline, viewed from Point Loma, California. The building that is nicely lit in the center is the San Diego County Administration Building. I have recently made a nice series of new images of the San Diego city skyline and harbor, many featuring the rising full moon. Among them are several large, high resolution panoramas. I am posting them on my other website, Natural History Photography Blog. Cheers and thanks for looking.

Full Moon Rising over the San Diego City Skyline

Full Moon Rising over the San Diego City Skyline

Landscape Arch and Milky Way at Night, Arches National Park, Utah

I have photographed many natural arches, but Landscape Arch in Arches National Park was the most difficult. Landscape Arch is broad, with a span of over 300′ (99m), and it is seen at some distance. I visited this arch on two separate nights and waited both times until the skies cleared and the Milky Way (our galaxy) had rotated into the best alignment, before I made this photograph. I was alone here, as I was during all of my evening photographic efforts, accompanied only by the small animals in the surrounding bushes and the sounds of a slight breeze over the rocks.

Landscape Arch and Milky Way, stars rise over the arch at night.

Landscape Arch and Milky Way, stars rise over the arch at night.

Landscape Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, is considered to be the longest natural arch in the world, having a span of 290 feet (89m) . Landscape Arch is gradually falling apart, with at least three sections of the arch known to have fallen since 1991. I set out to photograph this amazing arch under the star-filled Utah sky and it turned out to be one of the most technically challenging nightscapes (nighttime landscape photos) I have made. Because the trail that formerly went under the arch is now closed (National Park lawyers know what is good for us better than we do), viewing of the arch is from several hundred feet away. That is a long distance to light at night. Furthermore, in order to use side lighting as a way of illustrating detail in the rock, I had to use remotely controlled equipment since I was working alone. After two nights of experimentation, I managed to make four keeper images, of which this is my favorite. This image was shot with the technically excellent combination of Canon 5D Mark III and Nikon 14-24 lens so it is very sharp and clean while still freezing the glorious Milky Way galaxy (the galaxy in which we live) in the sky above the arch.

Milky Way Galaxy over Arch Rock, Joshua Tree National Park, California

The Milky Way galaxy — our galaxy — arcs through the night sky over “Arch Rock” in Joshua Tree National Park. I have photographed this arch at night many times over the past several years in order to practice my light painting technique and experiment with various lenses and methods for producing high resolution stitched panoramas. These two images are a couple of my favorites. The first is the result of a single exposure, while the second is a Mercator projection of a panorama composed of 12 source images. Garry McCarthy, a shooting partner and friend of mine, originally conceived this composition — the Milky Way positioned in the night sky to echo with the shape of the arch itself — in 2010, and we have executed it many times since, always looking to improve on our results and try different lighting styles and approaches. Cheers and thanks for looking!

The Milky Way galaxy arcing over Arch Rock

The Milky Way galaxy arcing over Arch Rock

Panoramic photo of the Milky Way galaxy over Arch Rock

Panoramic photo of the Milky Way galaxy over Arch Rock

To my knowledge, this composition was original at the time we first shot it. In the intervening years I have fielded many emails from others wanting to know where it is and when to photograph it. We have always been alone while photographing the Milky Way over Arch Rock, but since it is now a draw not only for individual photographers but also for workshop groups, it is increasingly unlikely that one will experience solitude at this arch. It is not a large location and one or two photographers are about all that it can accommodate effectively.

Milky Way, Sky Rock Petroglyphs and Sierra Nevada

Milky Way over Sky Rock, Volcanic Tablelands, Bishop, California. In spite of having made this image several years ago, I’ve never shared any images from that evening’s photographic efforts. I have made many visits to the Volcanic Tablelands, at all times of day, to explore the rocks, admire the vistas over the Owens River, and photograph one of the finest petroglyph panels in the world. In this composition, I waited for a specific date when the Milky Way could be effectively photographed above the petroglyphs with Mount Tom and the Sierra Nevada range aligned in the distance. It was a very cold evening, I wore all the clothes I had on hand, but after several hours of trying different compositions I managed several images I am very happy with. Sky Rock is a magical place at night, with ancient light emanating from stars many hundreds and thousands of light years away cascading down upon these special, old and impressive engravings. It is just the type of place I enjoy photographing at night, with no other people around, no photo workshop groups, no RVs, no automobile sounds — nothing. Solitude. I have also photographed these petroglyphs under a full moon as well as under pastel dawn skies, as well as a massive panorama of this location that I will be sharing soon. Cheers and thanks for looking!

The Milky Way at Night over Sky Rock.  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.

The Milky Way at Night over Sky Rock. 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.

Starry Night over the Tower of Babel, Arches National Park, Utah

Stars fill the night sky over the Tower of Babel, Arches National Park, Utah

Stars fill the night sky over the Tower of Babel, Arches National Park, Utah

The Tower of Babel is one of the most imposing and distinctive sandstone structures in Arches National Park. An enormous narrow freestanding wall or “fin” of Entrada sandstone, the Tower of Babel may, over the course of eons, erode into a arch. It is very near the main road through Arches National Park so few photographers who visit the park do not at least take a snapshot of this icon. I allocated a few hours one night trying to figure out how to photograph it against a sea of stars. It is such a tall and long expanse of sandstone that I was not even sure I wanted to try it, assuming there is no way I could effectively light paint the beast in the 30 seconds of exposure I was using. It took me some time but, after trying a number of different lighting angles and even resorting to mixing my own car’s headlights and those of another passing vehicle in some experimental images, I managed to produce this one image.

Milky Way Galaxy at Night in the Sky over Mount Rainier

In this single image (not a composite), made with a special combination of low-light camera and extremely fast lens to best capture the details and colors of the gas areas of the Milky Way, our galaxy rises in the night sky over Mount Rainier. A few specks of light can be seen on the mountain itself — these are the lights of climbers who are ascending the mountain. A few months earlier or later and this composition, with the Milky Way aligned directly above the extinct volcano, would not have been possible. I was fortunate with weather, having tried to make this image several nights only to be shut out by heavy cloud cover even at the high altitude setting of Sunrise. On my last evening of the trip, I was lucky to have clear skies and spent most of the night, alone in a meadow with the sounds of small animal flitting about, photographing the stars as they wheeled in the sky over the Mount Rainier.

Milky Way and Stars at Night above Mount Rainier

Delicate Arch at Night, Milky Way and Shooting Star, Arches National Park, Utah

Delicate Arch at Night, Milky Way and Shooting Star, Arches National Park, Utah

This is spectacular Delicate Arch, the most iconic and popular of the arches in Arches National Park in Utah. I worked hard to produce a strong series of Landscape Astrophotography photos in 2012 — and this image is one of my favorites. It combines Delicate Arch, the Milky Way galaxy, just a tad of blue in the sky from the sunset earlier, and a shooting star crossing the sky directly above Delicate Arch. That last element was sheer luck of course, but luck favors the prepared and I was certainly prepared on this evening, shooting three cameras aided by special lights and remote triggers for my camera. Cheers and thanks for looking!

Milky Way and Shooting Star over Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, as stars cover the night sky.

Milky Way and Shooting Star over Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, as stars cover the night sky.

In the time since I did most of my astrophotography shooting in Arches National Park, I have seen an explosion of similar images, particularly stemming from many “workshops” being held in the park. I was alone when I shot this, and all my other images, in Arches National Park. I have a feeling that won’t be the case next time I am there. This is what solitude in the evening next to the world’s most iconic looks like: Self Portrait photographing Delicate Arch and the Milky Way at Night.

Mount Rainier, the Milky Way galaxy, Star Trails and Climbers’ Lights at Night

On my recent trip to Mount Rainier National Park, I had one particular image in mind, and I managed to achieve something very close to what I envisioned with this photograph. Seen here is the northeast side of Mount Rainier, with star trails in the sky and climbers’ lights tracing their paths over Rainier’s snow-covered slopes. The colorful area of the sky to the left of Rainier is the Milky Way moving through the sky from left to right as the Earth rotates, intentionally blurred in a time exposure but still recognizable. I’ve used this technique a number of times this summer to good effect, to make Milky Way images somewhat different than the norm. Cheers and thanks for looking!

Mount Rainier, star trails, the Milky Way galaxy and climbers' light, seen at night.

Mount Rainier, star trails, the Milky Way galaxy and climbers’ light, seen at night.

Perseid Meteor Shower, Milky Way, Half Dome and Yosemite National Park

I spent two evenings at Glacier Point during the peak of the 2013 Perseid Meteor Shower, hoping to capture my first photographs of meteors. I have a few landscape astrophotography images that have chance meteors recorded in them, but this was to be my first attempt at photographing meteors as the principal subject. Conditions were nearly ideal. There were virtually no clouds on either night, little wind, and the air was dry and clear, perfect for astrophotography. This image is the result of those efforts, showing the Milky Way galaxy, about 16 meteors, Half Dome and Tenaya Valley and some of the Yosemite High Country in the distance, and the amphitheater at Glacier Point with a few people (and lights) enjoying the evening’s show.

Perseid Meteor Shower and Milky Way, over Half Dome and Yosemite National Park

Perseid Meteor Shower and Milky Way, over Half Dome and Yosemite National Park

As you might imagine, this image is a composite. The Milky Way was aligned above Half Dome in just this way during the mid-evening. Note that the Andromeda Galaxy can be seen as a oval blurry object just above and to the left of Half Dome and to the right of the Milky Way, and the Pleides star cluster is seen at the lower right of the sky, just above the horizon. The individual meteorites, however, came from separate images taken over the course of 12 hours of continuous photography. I selected the best exposed and brightest of the meteorites that I photographed, rotated them about Polaris (the North Star) as necessary to account for the fact that the night sky “rotates” above us all night long, and composited them with the baseline image of Half Dome and the Milky Way. A little green “air glow” is seen near the horizon, and some distant smog or haze is also seen as a brown horizontal layer just above the horizon in the distance.

The Perseid Meteor shower, which is considered to have the brightest meteors of all annual meteor showers, is named for the constellation Perseus from which they appear to emanate. Note that most of the meteors in this image appear to radiate from the lower portion of the Milky Way in this photograph — that’s where the constellation Perseus lies.

Some statistics:

  • Cameras: Canon 5D Mark III, Nikon D800, Nikon D800e
  • Lenses: Nikon 14-24 at 14mm, Nikon 24-70, Canon 16-35 at 16mm
  • Meteor exposure: ISO 6400, f/2.8, 30 seconds
  • Shooting continuous from 9:30pm to 5am the evening of August 10/11, and 11pm to 3:30am the evening of August 11/12
  • Obtained approx 2050 exposures. 93 meteorites were captured. 16 were deemed good enough to contribute to the final image.

Photographing Zodiacal Light over Yosemite National Park

August 11-12 was near peak viewing for the 2013 Perseid meteor shower, and many people including myself were viewing the show from Yosemite’s Glacier Point all evening long. However, because the moon was nearly new and it was late summer, I knew there was an opportunity to see the faint, remarkable Zodiacal Light the following morning. My plan was to let my cameras run all night capturing Perseid meteors until about 90 minutes before sunrise, when I would reset them to photograph the (hoped for) Zodiacal Light. I managed to get a couple nice images of Zodiacal Light, better than my one previous attempt!

Zodiacal Light and planet Jupiter in the northeastern horizon, above Half Dome and the Yosemite high country.

Zodiacal Light and planet Jupiter in the northeastern horizon, above Half Dome and the Yosemite high country.

Zodiacal Light arises from sunlight that reflects off a disk of space dust that orbits our inner solar system. Zodiacal Light is purely a solar system phenomenon (relatively local to our planet) and is not associated with stars that are observed alongside (behind) it. The aforementioned “space dust” is thought to arise primarily from asteroid and meteor collisions (Nesvorny and Jenniskens, 2010), and resides on the plane of the ecliptic. (The plane of the ecliptic is the plane in which planets orbit around our Sun.) While aligned with the plane of the ecliptic, this dust cloud is not thin. Because it extends outward from the sun to the vicinity of Jupiter (with its strong gravitational field), the dust cloud is disturbed in such a way to give it a thickness, explaining the width of the Zodiacal Light that we observe. The Poynting-Robertson effect causes this space dust to slowly spiral inward toward the sun (where it is consumed), so a constant supply of new dust from colliding comets and asteroids is required to maintain the dust cloud. Sunlight reflecting off this dust can be seen in our night sky when there is little or no competing moonlight and/or light pollution from nearby cities. Zodiacal Light appears as a faint pyramid or triangle glowing on the horizon, with the apex of the pyramid tilted in line with the path of the Sun and the plane of the ecliptic. In these photos, planet Jupiter (which lies in the same plane of the ecliptic as our Eath and follows the Sun’s path through the sky) is clearly seen as the brightest object within the triangle of Zodiacal Light. This view is roughly northeast, looking past Half Dome from Glacier Point with the Yosemite High Country in the distance and Little Yosemite Valley at bottom middle.

The faint northern arm of the Milky Way is also discerned in these photos, crossing from upper left to lower right.

Milky Way and Stars over the Virgin River and the Watchman, Zion National Park, Utah

I spent some time this summer photographing Zion National Park at night, enjoying the warm (but not hot) evening temperatures, the relative quiet (compared to the crowds of the daytime) and clear skies. The following composition has become notoriously commonplace and iconic, with photographers and workshops lining up at this location at sunset to capture a postcard-perfect view. We instead elected to photograph it at night, using a little bit of light to illuminate the foreground and allowing starlight and the glow of the town of Springdale to bring the Watchman into view. Cheers, and thanks for looking! (See also another photo of the Milky Way over the Watchman.)

Milky Way over the Watchman and Virgin River, Zion National Park, Utah.

Milky Way over the Watchman and Virgin River, Zion National Park, Utah.

Owachomo Bridge and Milky Way at Night, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

After making the long drive to Natural Bridges National Monument, we arrived in time to enjoy a colorful sunset and eat some dinner while waiting for the sky to become dark enough for us to begin our photography. The weather was quite warm and still, and small bats were flitting about capturing insects. The goal of our visit was to depict enormous Owachomo Bridge beneath a sky full of stars, including the broad swath of the Milky Way galaxy. Unlike many of the natural arches I have photographed at night, Owachomo Bridge is a natural bridge, having been formed by different geologic forces than what creates natural arches. Owachomo Bridge is 106′ high with a span 180′ wide. This photograph is actually a self-portrait, as I can be seen at lower left illuminating the arch while my camera is positioned about 100′ away taking the photograph. Cheers, and thanks for looking!

Owachomo Bridge and Milky Way. Owachomo Bridge, a natural stone bridge standing 106' high and spanning 130' wide,stretches across a canyon with the Milky Way crossing the night sky.

Owachomo Bridge and Milky Way. Owachomo Bridge, a natural stone bridge standing 106′ high and spanning 130′ wide,stretches across a canyon with the Milky Way crossing the night sky.