Moonlit sand dunes and the Milky Way, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Moonlit sand dunes and the Milky Way, Death Valley. This is the photograph I originally envisioned from Death Valley, with dunes lit by the setting moon and the Milky Way above. (20 sec. at f/2.8, 6400 ISO)

Where do you go to escape the crowds on Labor Day weekend? How about Death Valley, where the temperature was forecast to be 112 degrees! That should keep the tourists away.

Okay, escaping the crowds wasn’t really the motivation for going to Death Valley in August. I had an idea for making a photograph with low-angle moonlight illuminating the sand dunes, and the Milky Way above. The moon had to be in the right phase: too much moonlight and the sky would become washed out, obscuring the Milky Way and most of the stars; too little and you wouldn’t see the effect of the moonlight on the dunes.

The moon also had to be far enough from the Milky Way to keep the moon itself out of the photograph, as it would be impossible to properly expose both the moon and the landscape in the same frame. The moon also needed to be close to the horizon, and off to the side (with the camera pointed at the Milky Way), as that low-angle sidelight would emphasize the form and texture of the dunes.

Not long ago I wrote about two apps for forecasting the position of the Milky Way and moon, PhotoPills and Star Walk. Consulting both of these apps I had figured out that the moon and Milky Way would be in the right position for the photograph I had in mind on the Friday and Saturday before Labor Day. And the next time the moon and Milky Way would be in a good position for this would be… next April, or even May. I decided to brave the heat rather than wait.

I had initially planned to go to Death Valley on Friday, but a thick bank of high clouds moved in – the remnants of Tropical Storm Marie. Since the skies looked clearer further south, Claudia and I kept driving and headed for the Trona Pinnacles.

Regular readers might recall that I went to the Trona Pinnacles for the first time in April to photograph the lunar eclipse. I really loved the place, with its surreal, otherworldly landscape. I wanted to go back to do some more night photography, so this seemed like a good opportunity, despite the heat. Trona is a little higher in elevation than Death Valley, and therefore slightly cooler, but not much. It was certainly hot when we arrived just before sunset. The thermometer in our car had stopped working, but it was probably around 105 degrees.

As day gave way to night, the temperatures gradually moderated, and the stars came out. There was a brief window when the skies were dark enough to see the Milky Way while the moon still hung above the horizon to the west. But the moon was only 18% full, which turned out to be too dim to cast any significant light on the pinnacles. But just for fun I made a photograph using the lights of our Ford Explorer, the Milky Way, and a hint of moonlight on the pinnacles:

Vehicle among the pinnacles at night, Trona Pinnacles National Natural Landmark, CA, USA

Our Ford Explorer among the Trona pinnacles at night

With the moon below the horizon, the pinnacles would become silhouettes unless I added my own light. Light-painting the towers made them, if anything, even more dramatic and other-worldly, so that was perfect. During our daylight scouting I had found four sharp pinnacles well positioned to line up with the Milky Way. I lit the towers from the left side with a flashlight, with the Milky Way above:

Pinnacles and the Milky Way, Trona Pinnacles National Natural Landmark, CA, USA

Trona Pinnacles and the Milky Way. In order to better control the light-painting, I blended together three separate exposures: one for the Milky Way (20 sec. at f/2.8, 6400 ISO), and two for lighting the rocks (each 30 sec. at f/4, 1600 ISO).

Claudia also found two isolated pinnacles beneath the north star. After composing the scene to include a lot of sky, I lit the two towers with a flashlight, and set my interval timer to capture a two-and-a-half hour star-trail sequence. Then we set up camp nearby and went to bed.

Star trails over pinnacles, Trona Pinnacles National Natural Landmark, CA, USA

Star trails over pinnacles, Trona Pinnacles National Natural Landmark. This is a blend of 44 separate exposures: four to light the towers (various exposure times, f/8, 1600 ISO), and 40 for the star-trail sequence (each four minutes, f/8, 1600 ISO).

The next afternoon we looked for a cool place to take naps, and got the last available room at the friendly, funky, Panamint Springs Resort, about 35 minutes west of the Mesquite Flat Dunes in Death Valley. A resident cat, a Manx and Maine Coon mix called Bob, came in and took a nap with us. He must like early check-ins; if he can finagle his way into the room he has a cool place to spend the afternoon.

We had an early dinner at the resort (the food there is very good), then headed to the dunes. The clouds had gradually cleared out, so things looked promising. We arrived at Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley at about 6:30. It was still too hot to go hiking into the dunes (108 degrees according to the thermometer outside the ranger kiosk), so we killed some time by browsing in the air-conditioned gift shop. When the sun sank behind the ridges to the west we made the short drive to the edge of the dunes, loaded lots of water into our packs, and headed out.

One advantage of photographing the dunes in summer: no tracks. Few people were willing to venture very far from their vehicles in the heat, so once we skirted the area closest to the parking lot and climbed into the dunes the only tracks we found were made by kangaroo rats. And we made it out there in time to catch the sunset, with a few lingering clouds to the west turning orange and red.

Dunes at sunset, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Dunes at sunset, Death Valley

Sand dune pattern at dusk, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Sand dune pattern at dusk, Death Valley

After the color faded I looked for interesting dunes that might line up with the Milky Way to the south-southwest. There were several candidates, but I finally found a beautiful, curving ridge that seemed to be perfectly positioned. It was already dark enough by then, and the moon and Milky Way were in the right spots, so I didn’t waste any time, and made the image at the top of this post.

This comes very close to the photograph I had envisioned. The light is all natural, from the setting moon and stars. The moon was 27% full that night, which, with the moon so low on the horizon, turned out to be a good balance between the moonlight and Milky Way. I used my standard, dark-sky settings for the stars: 20 seconds at f/2.8, 6400 ISO.

After the moon set it was time to try light-painting the dunes. This was just too much fun, as the dunes lend themselves beautifully to light painting. I’ve put my two favorite images below; the first lit with amber light from the left, and blue light from the right, with the northern end of the Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxy above; the second just lit from the left with amber light, and the Big Dipper above. In both cases I used separate exposures for the sky and the light painting, as that gave me more control over the light. As she did at Trona, Claudia assisted by opening and closing the shutter once I was in position to light the subject. (Without an assistant I would have used my interval timer and set, say, a one-minute delay to allow me to get into position, but that’s a bit more complicated – and more work!)

Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxy over sand dunes, Death Valley NP, CA, USA (light-painted)

Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxy over sand dunes, Death Valley. A blend of three exposures: one for the Milky Way (20 sec. at f/2.8, 6400 ISO), two for lighting the dune (various exposure times, f/5.6, 1600 ISO).

Sand dunes and the Big Dipper, Death Valley NP, CA, USA (light-painted)

Sand dunes and the Big Dipper, Death Valley. Another blend of two exposures, one for the stars (again, 20 sec. at f/2.8, 6400 ISO), and one to light the dune (42 sec. at f/5.6, 2000 ISO).

We got back to the car well after midnight. It was still around 90 degrees by then, and we had consumed most of our water. But we had such a great time. It had been many years since I’d photographed sand dunes, and I’d almost forgotten how beautiful and serene the dunes are on a desert evening.

– Michael Frye

Related Posts: Starry Skies Adventure Workshop; Lunar Eclipse Over the Trona Pinnacles

Did you like this article? Click here to subscribe to this blog and get every new post delivered right to your inbox!

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to YosemiteYosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.