Astrophotography - shots of the night sky & Milky Way · California · Photo Prints available for Purchase · Southwest · Travel Blogs, organized by region

Astrophotography: Shots of the Moon, Stars, and Milky Way

I am a lucky guy.  Dirk is an incredibly patient and understanding companion on road trips.  He is understanding of my photographic proclivities, 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 dark canopy expanding overhead was a picture that I could not help but try to capture.

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 capture the moon, stars, and especially the Milky Way, and was itching for the chance to 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.

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 last year’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.

Last 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 without a tripod.  I had to content myself with simply absorbing the night sky into my soul.

This year I came prepared, armed with my new Nikon digital camera, several lenses (and a tripod), a photography class plus my own online learning, and the prior experiences described  above all under my belt… and, of course, Dirk’s aforementioned easy-going personality.

It helped that we were remarkably lucky this year.  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.

Monday Night:  Mojave Desert (click for map)

Milky Way mountain California Mojave desert
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
moonrise stars Mojave desert
The moonrise over the Mojave Desert creates a stark and beautiful landscape
campfire campsite Mojave desert airplane trail
Dirk watches a plane fly past our campsite 
campfire Mojave desert campsite tent camping
Dirk reflects on our excellent campsite in the shadow of the Three Sisters in the Mojave Desert

 

Tuesday Night:  Joshua Tree National Park (click for map)

campfire campsite Joshua tree stars starry sky
The stars expand overhead as our campsite is bathed in the glow of firelight.
Milky Way Andromeda starry sky stars Joshua tree national park
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.
stars starry night sky constellation constellations Joshua tree
A starry night expands endlessly over the Joshua trees after which the National Park was named.
Milky Way galaxy campfire Joshua tree national park stars starry sky
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.
campfire campsite joshua tree national park camp tent camping stars starry sky
The only picture of the both of us from this trip, we relax fireside and reflect on the remarkable scenery surrounding us.

 

Wednesday Night:  Sawtooth Canyon (click for map)

stars starry rock formation mountains Big Dipper
Starry skies glitter over the “kissing rocks.” Can you find the Big Dipper?
Milky Way Andromeda galaxy stars starry rock formations
The Milky Way and Andromeda float over a couple rock formations on Bureau of Land Management property in Sawtooth Canyon.
stars starry sky night mountains California rock formation
The night sky offers a starry silhouette for the rock formations surrounding our campsite.
Milky Way galaxy campfire rock formation stars California
The Milky Way arches over the rock formations sheltering our campfire
Milky Way Andromeda galaxy pleiades California desert rock formations mountains
The galaxies rise over the California desert (Milky Way, Andromeda, and the Pleiades)
campfire Milky Way galaxy campsite California rock formation
Our campfire makes the rock formations surrounding it look like a glowing volcano under the Milky Way
Milky Way galaxy stars starry sky star trail shooting star night mountains California
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.
camp camping tent camping Milky Way galaxy stars starry sky night mountains California
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.

 

**As always, if you want to order prints of any of these pictures,

they are all available for sale**

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2 thoughts on “Astrophotography: Shots of the Moon, Stars, and Milky Way

  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

    Like

    1. 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!

      Like

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