Exploring landscapes and the Milky Way in the Desert Southwest
Last week, I took a quick getaway to eastern Utah with my Image Doctors podcast partner, Rick Walker. Rick and I have been photographing together for years, and we had a fun opportunity to do some night photography in a dark sky location in Utah.
We packed up our gear and made the drive from Colorado Springs to Green River, Utah, where we spent the night. Our plan was to do some location scouting the next morning in Capitol Reef National Park, and then spending the night in a yurt at Goblin Valley State Park.
Capitol Reef National Park
The next morning , we made the 100 mile drive to Capitol Reef, which is a really underrated National Park. While there aren’t the majestic overlooks like you get in some of the other Utah parks, there’s tons of color and textures to be found within and among the rocks there. Conditions were a bit tricky that morning due to the spate of wildfires in California and Arizona, and we quickly realized by about 10am that we were going to be facing a very long day in 100+ degree temperatures if we just hung out until check-in time at Goblin Valley.
Rick took a look at his GPS map, turned to me, and said, “you know, we could be at Bryce Canyon in about two hours.” Consider it a plan. We took the scenic route to Bryce through the Escalante Staircase area (great scenery, but limited overlooks for stopping). The scale of some of these areas is really hard to describe.
We made it to Bryce in time for lunch, and after grabbing a bite, we went into the park. We knew we wouldn’t have a ton of time to spend there, but we hit the major overlooks. I’d never been to Bryce before, so it was a good way to just get a feel for the location for when I return in the future. It’s definitely as impressive as the photographs indicate. One thing that was really fascinating to me was how the light bounced around the rock formations in the canyon. Even though it was the middle of the day, I feel I got some keepers.
Night Sky Photography in Goblin Valley
We made it back to Goblin Valley about an hour before sunset, and checked into our yurt. It was hot, but it had an evaporative cooler run off of solar power that we were able to use to make it more tolerable. Our intent was to photograph the night sky and Milky Way, because Goblin Valley is a special “dark sky” area… almost no light pollution there whatsoever.
I used the Sky Guide App on my iPhone to determine the location of the Milky Way at astronomical twilight. It turned out that the orientation of our yurt was such that we were able to set up our tripods right on the front deck. After 12 hours in the car, this was a welcome situation.
We sat back and waited for the sky to darken. I set up my Nikon Z7 ii with the 20mm f/1.8S Nikkor Z lens. While it was relatively light, I focused on the rock formations in the foreground. One of the new features in the Z6/7 ii cameras is that they no longer reset the lens focus point when you power down the camera (this feature was added to the Z6/7 cameras in a recent Nikon firmware update).
Once the sky started to get dark, the Milky Way began to materialize right above the rocks outside our yurt. I set my Z7 ii to capture exposures around 13 seconds long, with the lens aperture at f/2.2. These settings allowed me to keep the ISO setting relatively low (1600 or lower) and still minimize any star streaks in my shots. With high-resolution digital cameras, it’s important to keep shutter speeds fairly fast (relatively speaking) if you want to prevent streaks. I find that the old “500 rule” for night sky photography probably needs to be more like the “300 rule” for high-resolution cameras.
We dabbled with some minimalist light-painting using an LED headlamp, and then I turned my camera north to point at Polaris, the North Star. I set up my intervalometer to capture 60 shots, and I set my exposure to 30s, f/2.2, ISO 1600. By this time, the sky was pretty dark, so I bumped up the ISO. I also didn’t care about the 30s exposures, because my intent was to create a star trail composite from the 60 images later in Photoshop.
During the exposure sequence, headlights from a car from the adjacent campground briefly lit the foreground rocks. I wasn’t sure if it would look good in the final image, but I knew I could always tinker with the look in Photoshop by blending layers and using masks. The final result turned out pretty cool!
We returned to Colorado the next day, tired but happy after a little desert southwest adventure.