Manly Beacon at night with star trails, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Manly Beacon at night with star trails, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Manly Beacon is Death Valley’s most iconic feature, seen in millions of photographs from Zabriskie Point, including the image on the cover of the park map and brochure. So naturally I thought it would be fun to light it up at night.

One evening during our recent trip to Death Valley, Claudia and I, accompanied by our friend Robert Eckhardt, started down the Golden Canyon Trail from Zabriskie Point, carrying my powerful (3200 lumens), battery-powered spotlight, and radios for communication. Robert and I wanted a lower vantage point where the Beacon would poke up into the sky, and found a perfect spot. We set up our cameras and made some dusk exposures. Then after dark I hiked about half a mile further down the trail, carrying the spotlight and a radio, to a location I thought would work for the light-painting. Claudia acted as radio operator, and Robert tripped the shutters on both our cameras, while I used the spotlight to illuminate the Beacon.

We took a guess at the exposure, initially leaving the shutters open for 30 seconds at f/4, with the ISO set to 2500. According to Claudia and Robert’s radio reports, this exposure – surprisingly – turned out to be perfect. It did take several tries to get the lighting balance just right, but the problem was that the ridges underneath the Beacon weren’t getting lit from this spot. So I climbed back up the trail to a different location, closer to the cameras, which proved to be perfect for lighting those foreground ridges.

With the lighting done, Robert and I started capturing star-trail sequences, and all three of us chatted and dozed for the next 90 minutes. After the star-trail sequences were done, we hiked out and drove back to our campsites at Furnace Creek.

Putting the images together wasn’t too difficult. Again, as with the sand dune image, I stacked the images together in Photoshop and used the Lighten blending mode, adding layer masks to mask off the sky in the light-painting layers, and mask off the ground in the star-trail layers. There are 23 exposures included in the final image: two light-painting layers, plus 21 four-minute exposures for the star trails.

This was another really fun night. I wasn’t sure whether it would be possible to light something this big, but it actually turned out to be relatively easy with that spotlight. In fact I think it might be possible to light something bigger! 🙂

— Michael Frye

Related Posts: Sand Dune and the Milky Way; Nice Curves

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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.