Zodiacal light over Manly Beacon and a dust storm, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Zodiacal light over Manly Beacon and a dust storm, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

On the last night of our Death Valley workshop we went down into Golden Canyon, preparing to capture a star-trail sequence above Manly Beacon. As the skies grew darker we noticed a low cloud in the main valley, behind the Beacon. It looked like fog or mist, but that didn’t make sense, since there hadn’t been any recent rain, and, well, we were in Death Valley, the driest place in North America. So we figured it had to be a dust storm.

It was gusty in Golden Canyon, but not windy enough to create a dust storm. Clearly, however, it was windier in the main valley. And the dust cloud seemed to be moving our way. We debated whether to leave or stick it out. It didn’t seem likely that the dust cloud would reach us, so we decided to wait a bit longer, and then a bit longer again.

As the skies got darker I noticed a triangle of light to the west. I asked Robert, my friend and assistant, if he knew what it was. He said he thought it was zodiacal light, which he had seen on a trip to Namibia. I’d heard of zodiacal light, but had never seen it before. I decided to quickly change compositions to capture this scene.

Cameras can often “see” better at night than our eyes, and that was true in this case. To our eyes this was a faint wedge of brighter light, but the camera showed this wedge – along with the dust cloud and Manly Beacon – much more clearly.

This article in Wikipedia says that zodiacal light is sunlight scattered by space dust in the zodiacal cloud. No, that doesn’t make much sense to me either, but the article explains it in more depth. It also says that it’s best observed in the western sky in the spring after the evening twilight has completely disappeared, or in the eastern sky in the autumn just before the morning twilight appears. This photograph was made looking west, in spring, in the evening, during the last minutes of astronomical twilight. And if you Google “zodiacal light” you’ll find many photos that look almost exactly like this one. So I have no doubt that zodiacal light, and it was pretty cool to see and photograph it. And now that I know where and when to look for it, I hope to see it again.

The wind gradually died down, and the dust cloud didn’t seem to be moving any closer, so were able to capture our star-trail sequences after all. The dust obscured the lower part of the sky, but created an interesting effect where the stars trails faded and became thinner as they descended into the dust:

Star trails over Manly Beacon, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Star trails over Manly Beacon, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Despite the wind we had a great time in Death Valley, and I’ll post more images from there soon.

— 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 Yosemite, Yosemite 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: 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.