Milky Way

The location is Cathedral Valley, Capital Reef National Park, Utah, USA. This very remote location requires about 1.5 hour off-road driving in good weather and the road can be quite challenging. This is supposedly one of the least polluted areas in the US. Its clean air, its remoteness, and its relatively high elevation mean the night sky is spectacular. When I saw these imposing colorful sandstone monoliths, I immediately told myself that I had to make a Milky Way shot with these monoliths as the foreground. That night we camped in a primitive campsite nearby, so we had the chance to execute my plan.

To clearly see our galaxy in its best, one needs a moonless night. However that means correctly exposing the foreground becomes a very difficult task because the environment will be very dark. If the foreground objects are relatively close and small (e.g. a tree or a house), I prefer to use an off-camera flash or a flashlight to light-paint the foreground. The light-paint method is easy to use, and it gives me very precise control on the brightness of the foreground.

For “grand” night-time landscape showing here, however, the best and the most realistic solution is to use the double exposure technique described below, unless you have some super-bright light equipment at your disposal. If you light-paint the grand-scale landscape, you may also need to use a high ISO and a wide-open aperture, which decrease the image quality. The results may be OK for a small size magazine picture, but are not adequate for fine-art large prints.

The first exposure was taken at night when I could clearly see the Galaxy. I carefully positioned the camera such at the direction and location of the Milky Way was ideal, then I made my first exposure. The exposure parameters were ISO 4000, F4, 30 seconds, and focus length was 17mm. The very high ISO is needed here to reduce the shutter speed. Because the earth is rotating, any extended exposure period will the stars to become mini star-trails. For wide-angle focus lengths such as 17mm, the 30-second exposure is the up limit. Longer lens requires even shorter shutter time.

Depending on your situation, you can (1) stay with your camera for hours, waiting for the daybreak and take the next exposure, (2) leave your camera on the spot for the night and come back later ; and (3) mark the location, pack your gears and go to sleep, and come back the next morning. In the last case, you must make sure the composition of the second exposure is identical to the first one.

For this picture, the second exposure was taken in the next early morning, before sunrise, using ISO 100 and F11 to ensure optimal image quality. I chose this time period because I did not want direct sunlight hits the foreground, otherwise the final result will look very strange and fake. Personally I think the key to make this type of shots somewhat believable is to make the foreground dark enough but still showing enough details, although I know other people might prefer more drama by choosing a brighter foreground with directional light. It?s a matter of personal taste.

The two exposures were captured in RAW format. They were opened in Adobe Lightroom. I chose the fluorescent white balance so the night sky and stars have a cool blue tone. I then exported the two images to TIFF files.

The TIFF files were opened in Photoshop and copied into two layers of a single file. The bottom layer contains the night shot (the first exposure). The top layer contains the second exposure taken at dawn. I then selected the sky of the second exposure, deleted the sky, and merged the two layers.

The spectacular starry sky can always evoke our deep feelings of awe and wonder, and the wilderness and scale of these monoliths further enhance such emotions.

6 thoughts on “Milky Way

  1. Great !
    How did you adjust the camera position to take the second exposure ? I mean that the both images should be taken in the exactly same position of camera for blending. Or you just leave the camera for the night and the next morning the second exposure is taken ?

    • Thanks. Most of time I will just leave the camera out there if it is safe to do so (say when I am camping in a remote area). However this is the only photo that I moved the camera. I used a hand-held GPS to record the camera position and came back the next morning. I also checked the previous night’s star photo on the LCD to make sure that the new composition matches the previous shot.

  2. I’ve just looked at every photo on your site. You are fantastic! And that you share your expertise with everyone makes you a very special person indeed. You’ve inspired me to pick up my camera again. Thank you for sharing your wonderful work.

  3. Your photos are very beautiful. I enjoyed looking at them tremendously. You are very talented and I wish you the best of luck in your future photography. It must have taken you a long time to learn your craft (art) and I hope you will continue to progress and chance upon whatever will help you become even better. You seem to be able to see the wonder of the world and capture the essence of its beauty. Thank you.

  4. First time viewer. Like the artist’s intro statement on my slide show. Reminds me of how I like my house. Diff shapes, curtains with a pattern that has random order or ordered randomness. Like Frank Loyd Wright’s organic architecture. You have a home interconnected with random patterned nature. What is interesting to me is that if someone painted some of the same scenes, you might say they don’t exist in nature.

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