Night Sky Photography: Shots of the Moon, Stars, and Milky Way

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The Moon sets over our campsite in the Mojave Desert

I am a lucky guy.  Dirk is an incredibly patient and understanding companion on road trips.  He is understanding of my astrophotography addiction, and was content with relaxing fireside while I fretted over settings, lens selection and composition each night we spent camping in California.

But thank God he is, because the glittering night sky expanding overhead was a picture that I could not help but try to capture.

Photographs of the Milky Way

I am a lucky guy.  It was on a motorcycle trip with Brian through Ohio and Kentucky that I first witnessed the Milky Way in person.  I’d been learning about photographing the night skies for a little while, and practiced every time I had the chance… even shooting pictures from my back deck.  I read up on how to best photograph the Milky Way, Moon, and stars, itching for the chance to finally capture it for the first time.

While Brian and I were not technically lost on that fateful night, we were on a pretty hopeless mission of trying to find a suitable place to camp in some particularly inhospitable woods in southeast Ohio.  We pulled over to consult the map and spitball potential options when Brian abruptly asked me to shut my bike’s lights off.  Confused, I obliged and asked what was up.

What’s up, indeed.  Once my eyes adjusted to the overwhelming darkness, the night sky exploded like a fireworks display.  We were a bit confused, though:  it’s a perfectly clear night… what’s the long thin stripe of cloud running across the middle of the sky?  Curious, I got my camera out, took a 30 second exposure aiming straight up….  and forever cemented the desire to capture the Milky Way deeply into my soul.

The Milky Way glows in the middle of a purple and black night sky
The first photo of the Milky Way that I ever took.

Night Sky Photography, the Milky Way, and Camping in the Desert

I am a lucky guy.  With much of our night sky at home washed out by light pollution, it was a month before I got another opportunity to capture the Milky Way.  Amanda and I were staying in a friend’s cottage on the Delaware Bay, and the darkness of the coastal sky afforded an excellent chance to capture the outer edge of our galaxy… for about 15 minutes. Completely eaten alive by horse flies and mosquitoes, I retreated to the safety of the cottage and lamented the missed opportunity.  I got some good shots, but the biggest thing I got was the desire to capture even more.

Which brings me back around to the recent week camping with Dirk.  As I first discovered during 2016’s journey into the desert, the western skies put those back east to shame.  With vast stretches of unpopulated land, light pollution is minimal, especially as you venture further and further from the major cities.

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That year, I was completely unprepared to capture pictures of the night sky.  Though I did have my old Minolta 35mm camera with me, it was stocked with ISO 400 film (…for the blistering brightness of the desert daylight?!  What was I thinking??) and I was completely devoid of astrophotography skills – not to mention a tripod!  I had to content myself with simply observing and absorbing the night sky into my soul.

For this trip, I came prepared!  Armed with my new Nikon digital camera, several lenses (and a tripod!), a photography class and my own online research, plus the prior experiences described above were all collected under my belt… and, of course, I had Dirk’s aforementioned easy-going personality to keep me company.

Night Sky Photography – Equipment Guide:  Click HERE
Night Sky Photography – Basic Steps:  Click HERE
The best back road in California:  Click HERE

It helped that we were remarkably lucky.  It was a waning crescent moon, so the moon raised later and darker every night.  The skies were completely clear each night except one, and those few clouds were wispy streaks across the desert sky that actually provided a pleasing contrast to the starry palate.  Being there in mid-October, we encountered mild daytime temperatures, tolerably cold evenings, and zero threatening wildlife… and with a blazing campfire every cold night, we were able to keep plenty warm.  We found utterly breath-taking campsites every single night, each one progressively better than last.  The campsite we found on the final night… well… you’ll just have to see for yourself.

In preparing for this blog, I found that I have such a plethora of great pictures to share  that I have to divide them up into multiple posts:   One consisting of shots captured while we camped in the desert, one from the nights we camped amongst the hills, mountains, and ponderosa pine forests, and a third of shots taken from our final day.

I am a lucky guy, and these are my pictures.

Looking for the second astrophoto blog?  Click HERE
Looking for the third astrophoto blog?  Click HERE

Monday Night Milky Way:  Mojave Desert 

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Milky Way galaxy over what we called the Three Sisters (third sister not visible in frame), California mountains in the Mojave desert
Milky Way mountain California desert Mojave
The Milky Way rises straight over the middle Sister in the Mojave Desert
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The moonrise over the Mojave Desert creates a stark and beautiful landscape
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Dirk watches a plane fly past our campsite
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Dirk reflects on our excellent campsite in the shadow of the Three Sisters in the Mojave Desert

Tuesday Night Constellations:  Joshua Tree National Park

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The stars expand overhead as our campsite is bathed in the glow of firelight.
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The Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies shine over Joshua Tree National Park
Milky Way andromeda galaxy stars starry night starry sky
The Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies hang over a couple airplane light trails and a few of the rock formations Joshua Tree NP is famous for, while the Pleiades peak over the mountain.
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A starry night expands endlessly over the Joshua trees after which the National Park was named.
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The Milky Way stretches over a pair of Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park. The campfire created a unique effect on the color of the night sky.
Sitting by the campfire in Joshua Tree National Park under a dark canopy of stars
The only picture from the whole trip of the two of us together, relaxing by the fire and reflecting on the remarkable scenery surrounding us.

Wednesday Night Wilderness:  Sawtooth Canyon 

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Starry skies glitter over the “kissing rocks.” Can you find the Big Dipper?
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The Milky Way and Andromeda float over a couple rock formations on Bureau of Land Management property in Sawtooth Canyon.
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The night sky offers a starry silhouette for the rock formations surrounding our campsite.
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The Milky Way arches over the rock formations sheltering our campfire
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The galaxies rise over the California desert (Milky Way, Andromeda, and the Pleiades)
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Our campfire makes the rock formations surrounding it look like a glowing volcano under the Milky Way
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The Milky Way hangs over the Sawtooth Mountains and Bureau of Land Management property south of Barstow CA – how about those shooting stars?! How many can you find?
Milky Way galaxy stars starry mountain rock formation
The Milky Way creates a bit of a distraction away from the contrast between the fire-lit rock formations and shadowy mountains in the background.
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The Milky Way provides a gorgeous backdrop to our campsite in Sawtooth Canyon.
Milky Way galaxy campfire California desert
This is one of the coolest pictures I’ve ever taken. Capturing the Milky Way over our campfire was a pretty exciting moment. Yes, this is a single picture, not a composite.

Want Help Planning Your Next Road Trip?  Click HERE


  1. Wow!! One of these days we’ll be able to see it all. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? I look forward to seeing it with you. Thanks for the photos. You far surpass you mom and me in the photography line. Love you. Aunt Joan

    • Aunt Joan – yes, I know what you are talking about, and you are right! I’m really glad you enjoyed the blog and the photos, and thank you for your compliments! Love you too!

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