Night Photography

Starry Skies

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 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

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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Sand and Stars

Milky Way over the Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Milky Way over the Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley. We set up continuous, low-level lighting on the dunes, using two LED light panels, so that we’d have consistent lighting for each frame while capturing multiple-image panoramas. I gave everyone a homework assignment before the workshop to practice capturing panoramas, as you don’t want to try that for the first time in the dark in the sand dunes! Everyone did really well and managed to capture a panorama that stitched together properly. I used Lightroom’s Panorama Merge to blend three images together for this final photograph. The exposures for each frame were 20 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 3200.

As I mentioned in my previous post, we had two beautiful nights in the dunes during our recent Death Valley workshop. Photographically, the dunes work really well both day and night, as the sculptural quality of the sand that works so well with low-angle sunlight also lends itself to light painting.

One night we stayed out in the dunes through the wee hours of the morning, photographing star trails, then the Milky Way, followed by the moonrise and moonlight on the dunes. And when the sky started to lighten we decided we may as well wait around for sunrise.

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Lunar Eclipse over Death Valley

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



As I thought about locations to photograph last Wednesday’s lunar eclipse, I kept coming back to the idea of putting sand dunes in the foreground. Dunes seemed appropriately lunar.

I initially planned to go to the Mesquite Flat Dunes in Death Valley, but as the eclipse approached the forecast called for high clouds moving through much of the western U.S., so I kept a close eye on the forecasts. Two days before the eclipse it looked like the further south we went, the fewer clouds there would be, so Claudia and I headed for the Kelso Dunes in Mojave National Preserve.

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The January 31st Lunar Eclipse

Lunar eclipse sequence, April 14th and 15th, Trona Pinnacles, CA, USA

Lunar eclipse sequence, April 14th and 15th, 2014, Trona Pinnacles, CA, USA

In case you haven’t heard, there’s a total lunar eclipse coming up on January 31st. The total eclipse will be visible in central and western North America, Australia, and much of Asia. It will also be a “blue moon,” (the second full moon of the month), and a “supermoon,” (with the moon closer to the earth than normal, so it will look slightly larger). This page shows where the eclipse will be visible, as well as the timing of the event.

In North America the eclipse will occur as the moon is setting in the west just before sunrise. The further west you go, the higher the moon will be during totality, and the longer the eclipse sequence you can see. People in the mountain states should be able to see the entire one hour and sixteen minutes of totality, while those of you in the northwest could see (with clear skies) all of totality plus all of the partial eclipse phase afterwards. Unfortunately, the total eclipse will not be visible on the east coast of the U.S. and Canada.

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