Sand dune and the Milky Way at night, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Sand dune and the Milky Way at night, Death Valley National Park

One night during our Death Valley workshop we went out to the sand dunes. After some searching, I found this wonderful dune with it’s rippled foreground textures. Lighting it was a group project; we all set up our cameras, and took turns lighting the dune from the left and the right, trying to find the right angles to highlight those ripples. Then we set our interval timers to record star trails – and took naps on the sand while we waited for the star-trail sequences to finish. After that the Milky Way was in the right position over the dune, so before moving our cameras we made some more exposures of pinpoint stars as well.

Recording all these exposures of the same composition gave us the option of including either star trails or pinpoint stars in the final image, and having the dune lit either from the left, the right, or both. I liked the pinpoint stars better, and chose to include lighting from both sides. The final image you see here is a composite of three exposures (assembled in Photoshop using the Lighten blending mode): one for the sky, one with the dune lit from the left (colored blue), and one with the dune lit from the right.

We had a wonderful night out in the dunes. It was utterly quiet, peaceful, and relaxing. One of the things I love about night photography is how you can experience an otherwise popular spot in a totally different way after dark. This was a night I’ll remember for a long time.

— Michael Frye

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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, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, 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 has 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.