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.