Night Photography

Death Valley after Dark

Stars, Orion, and zodiacal light over an eroded gully, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Stars, Orion, and zodiacal light over an eroded gully, Death Valley. Robert Eckhardt, Claudia, and I found this twisting gully while scouting for the workshop, and I thought it might line up well with Orion and the zodiacal light just after dark. It was actually Robert’s idea to light-paint the gully, though he didn’t join me on the night I photographed it. The focal length had to be very wide (16mm) in order to fit everything in the frame. I made eight exposures for the sky, each at 15 seconds, f/4, ISO 12,800, and blended those together with Starry Landscape Stacker. I made another longer exposure to record more detail in the landscape (4 minutes at f/4, ISO 6400). Then I captured four light-painting frames, adding a little light from the right and left, and tracing the gully with a flashlight as I walked beside it. All these images were blended together in Photoshop.



Death Valley has been used as the setting for many Hollywood movies. Not surprisingly, some of these films use the austere, other-worldly landscapes of Death Valley as a stand in for another planet. (This includes two titles from the original Star Wars series – Episode IV: A New Hope, and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.)

This same other-worldly feeling works beautifully for night photography. I’ve made many nighttime images in Death Valley, and had a chance to capture a few more both before and during our recent workshop there. We had some challenging conditions at times, with wind, and plenty of clouds. But we also had one clear, calm night out in the dunes.

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A Lunar Experience

Lunar eclipse sequence, Trona Pinnacles, CA, USA, 1-20-19

Lunar eclipse sequence, Trona Pinnacles, CA, USA, January 20th, 2019

The weather forecasts prior to last Sunday’s lunar eclipse showed lots of clouds over the western U.S. Lots of clouds. On Thursday before the eclipse it looked like we might possibly find clear skies in southern Arizona, or around Death Valley, but the chances for either location looked slim.

By Saturday it appeared that southern Arizona would probably be covered in clouds at eclipse time. Yet computer models for the evening of the eclipse kept showing a small slot of clear sky extending from about Lancaster, California (in the desert north of Los Angeles) northeast through the Trona Pinnacles, Death Valley, and continuing into Nevada and Utah. I couldn’t think of anything in Nevada to use as a foreground, but Death Valley or the Trona Pinnacles could certainly work.

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Photographing the Lunar Eclipse January 20th and 21st

Photographer's Ephemeris 3d, Lunar eclipse sequence over the Mesquite Flat Dunes, January 31st, 2018, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Lunar eclipse sequence over the Mesquite Flat Dunes, January 31st, 2018, Death Valley NP, CA, USA



In case you haven’t heard, there will be a total lunar eclipse on the night of January 20th and 21st, 2019. The totally eclipsed moon will be visible in all of North and South America, most of Europe, and western Africa. This page shows where the eclipse will be visible, as well as the timing of the event.

Here in the western U.S. the eclipse will take place on Sunday evening, January 20th. The peak eclipse occurs at 9:12 p.m. on the west coast, and the moon will be high overhead to the east-southeast. In Yosemite, for example, at peak eclipse the moon will be 47 degrees above the horizon with an azimuth of 102 degrees (just south of due east). In the eastern U.S. the peak eclipse occurs at 12:12 a.m. on the 21st, and the moon will be even higher in the sky – 69 degrees above the horizon in New York City, with an azimuth of 183 degrees (almost due south).

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Starry Skies

Starry Skies and Milky Way, mountains, and reflections, Inyo NF, CA, USA

Milky Way, mountains, and reflections, Inyo National Forest. 20 frames blended together with Starry Landscape Stacker to reduce noise. Each frame was 10 seconds at f/2.5, ISO 12,800.



As most of you know, California has endured a rash of wildfires in recent weeks. One of those fires, the Ferguson Fire, has been burning along the western edge of Yosemite for the last month. The park service eventually closed Yosemite Valley due to smoke and the threat of fire cutting off the roads that access the valley.

Our recent Starry Skies Adventure workshop was based far away from the fire in Lee Vining, near Mono Lake, but the Ferguson Fire kept sending lots of smoke over the mountains, making it questionable whether we would be able to find clear skies. In the end, however, we were able to find surprisingly clear skies all three nights of the workshop.

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High-Country Panorama

Milky Way over a high-country lake, Yosemite NP, CA, USA, Milky Way Panorama, High Country Panorama

Milky Way over a high-country lake, Yosemite. A five-image stitched panorama made with my Sony a7R II and Rokinon 20mm f/1.8 lens. Each frame was 30 seconds at f/2.5, ISO 6400. Stitched with Lightroom’s Panorama Merge.

Landscape photography doesn’t often lend itself to advance planning, because the weather is just too unpredictable. You’re usually better off being flexible, making last-minute plans based on the weather and conditions, and then being prepared to change plans again on a moment’s notice.

But some things require advance planning, and hoping that the weather cooperates. About 18 months ago I photographed the moon rising over May Lake. That image required quite a bit of planning to find a location where the moon would be in the right position. Later, it occurred to me that this same spot might also be a good location to photograph a Milky-Way panorama. That would, of course, also require the right conditions, including clear skies, and – ideally – calm winds, so that stars would be reflected in the lake. And it would only work during a narrow window of time in late May or early June, after the Tioga Road opened, and before the Milky Way moved out of position. (After about the middle of June the full arc of the Milky would be too high overhead for a panorama by the time the sky got dark.)

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Milky Way over Yosemite Valley

Milky Way over Yosemite Valley, Yosemite NP, CA, USA, panorama-stitching

Milky Way over Yosemite Valley. Four frames stitched together with Lightroom’s Panorama Merge. Each frame was 30 seconds at f/2.5, ISO 6400.

Sometime around the middle of April a small weather system passed through our area, dropping about half an inch of precipitation on Yosemite Valley. In typical fashion, the temperature dropped toward the end of the storm, and rain turned to snow in the valley.

I kept my eye on the weather, as usual, and it became obvious that this small storm wouldn’t clear before sunset. It looked like it would clear sometime during the night, but it was hard to tell exactly when. My best guess, based on the radar and satellite images, was that it would clear sometime between midnight and 2:00 a.m. Should I grab a couple hours of sleep first, or stay up? Or just skip the whole thing and get a good night’s sleep?

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