Adventures in Astrophotography

Chasing the Milky Way across the American West

The Milky Way shines brightly in the High Sierra of California (June 2018)

Gazing up at the night sky connects me to many things. It connects me to the long arc of human history in which untold billions have quietly done the same and also felt a sense of awe and wonder as they looked at the heavens above. It connects me with my childhood and spending many cold nights peering through a telescope with my father, an astronomer and professor, who shared his love of the cosmos with me. And it connects me to the improbable and beautiful story of the Universe and how, given the unimaginable vastness of space and time, life emerged here and now on this small rock. That the iron in my blood and calcium in my bones was forged in the hearts of giant ancient supernovas feels all the more real when I sit quietly under a blazing night sky.

The lights of Los Angeles have drowned-out the night sky.

These are some of the reasons I love astrophotography. But I also love the technical challenge in capturing and editing these images, and I've been chasing dark skies for over a decade. All photos here are single exposure photos taken with a Nikon D7500 and fast prime lenses. None of these are stacked/multiple exposures or photoshop-composites (those are great, just not my cup of tea). I rather like the challenge of having to dial in all of the settings, manual focus, composition and hoping to "get it right" in one shot. This story contains some of my favorite locations and photos and a few tips for finding really awesome dark night skies in the American West.

Only a few stars can be seen over the glare of lights in downtown Los Angeles, something which is normal for most of us. Our cities and our phone screens are so bright it's easy to forget the heavens are even there. To really see the night sky we have to travel hundreds of miles from our megacities, finding remote places that help us to see the night as our ancestors did. The aim of the dark sky movement / International Dark Sky Organization is to raise awareness of how to limit light pollution, establish designated dark sky sanctuaries, and reacquaint people with the magic of a truly dark sky.

The glow of our cities extends hundreds of miles out into the wilderness of the West

SITE 1: Eastern Sierra Nevada / California

Looking edge-on through our galactic disk.

In the photo above, I used a fast ultra-wide lens with a 105 degree field of view, which shows the center of our galaxy with its warm-hued older stars (bottom right), out to the outer reaches dominated by younger hot blue stars (top left). The dark patches in the Milky Way are not void of stars, rather these are areas with denser pockets of dust and gas which obscure the stars behind them. The light pollution in the bottom left of the photo is Bishop, California, about 35 miles to the south along Route 395.

14,000 ft snow-covered peaks, dark skies, and stunning views can be found in the eastern Sierra.

The Sierra offers three of the necessary ingredients for astrophotography: They are remote, dry, and high. Astronomers go to great lengths (and expense) to put their telescopes on high peaks to get above humidity, dust, haze, and smog. These photos of the remarkably clear air of the eastern Sierra show why it's worth the effort.

Two lone campfires illuminate the night at 9,000 ft above sea level, while a brilliant Jupiter dominates above Horseshoe Lake. 30 second exposure, f/2.8, 11 mm, iso 1600.

SITE 2: Lake Powell / Utah

Roasting marshmallows with friends in Gunsight Bay. With no roads and no cell signal, boating is the only way in and out of this vast wilderness.

Formed by damming the Colorado River in the 1960s, Lake Powell is hundreds of miles from the nearest big cities and has some of the darkest skies in the lower 48.

Despite being 50 miles away, the lights of Page, Arizona, look like a rising sun at midnight over the shores of Lake Powell, Arizona. Even in the vastness of the desert Southwest, light pollution intrudes.

In the next photo the Andromeda Galaxy shines as a fuzzy smudge near the top of the photo. At 2.5 million light years away it is (by a long shot) the furthest thing we can see with the naked eye. Put another way, that light is 2.5 million years old. For context, that is 10x older than we Homo sapiens have existed as a species. Even traveling at 186,000 miles per second, that light made it 90% of the way to your eyeball before our first Homo sapien ancestor walked across the African savannah. And this is the closest galaxy to our own, mere spitting distance in cosmic terms. Which is to say, the universe is kinda big.

A rare calm settles over Lake Powell Utah, unusual for place known for fierce desert winds. With over 1900 miles of coastline, Lake Powell is a breathtakingly beautiful place and also the second largest reservoir in the U.S.

“You are not in the universe, you are the universe, an intrinsic part of it. Ultimately you are not a person, but a focal point where the universe is becoming conscious of itself. What an amazing miracle.” – Eckhart Tolle

SITE 3: Palomar Mountain / California

Sitting a few thousand feet above the coastal marine layer clouds, Palomar Mountain is a "green island" floating above the heat and dust of Southern California.

This 6,500 ft peak, an hour north of San Diego, California, has a long and rich history with astronomy. From 1949 to 1975, this mountain was home to the world's largest optical telescope, the still-astounding 200" Hale Telescope that remains one of the great feats of optical engineering (it took 10 months just to cool the glass!). Open to the public for tours, it is easy to see why the University of California scientists settled on this location. Combined with a nearby beautiful state park that looks more like the Pacific Northwest than dusty SoCal, with wineries and citrus groves at lower elevations, Palomar Mountain is a wonderful day trip for anyone in SoCal.

A short drive from the major cities of LA and San Diego, Palomar Mountain is an oasis of green.

Second star to the left and straight on until morning...

SITE 4: Zion National Park / Utah

Zion is one of the most popular National Parks in the US, and it never fails to amaze.

Zion National Park is one of the great confluences of geology, biogeography, climate, and hydrology in the world. It is a place where four of the major ecosystems of the Western US converge to produce a remarkable abundance of life at the edge of the Colorado Plateau. And it is simply jaw-droppingly gorgeous; it should be on any photographer's bucket list. While it isn't as dark as some of the sites above (unless you hike deep into the backcountry and away from the town of Springdale), the juxtaposition of the sheer 3000 ft red sandstone cliffs, the lush valley floor, and the dark and dry Utah skies is a pleasure to photograph. Winter or summer, Zion is worth a visit.

“I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars” – Walt Whitman

A nearly full moon illuminates the valley floor and small rapids of the Virgin River.

SITE 5: Anza Borrego State Park / California

An abandoned building is illuminated with a cell phone in this long exposure on a hot desert night.

The Sonoran Desert comes alive at night. Flowers bloom, animals forage, and coyotes hunt in the distance. It's also a great time for hiking with friends and doing long-exposure shots in the dry air. Dust can be a problem in the desert, especially here where the air tumbles down a vertical mile from the Laguna Mountains into these desert valleys near sea level, but the surreal and stark landscape makes for a great foreground against the night sky.

At nearly the size of the state of Rhode Island, there is a lot to explore in California's largest State Park.

“For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream” – Vincent van Gogh

Watching the Perseid meteor shower with friends in the high desert an hour east of San Diego.

Getting good photos of the night sky requires a lot of patience and experimentation. Some times the photos don't work, and that's ok. Bring your friends and spend a night watching the sky, telling stories and enjoying food and drink, and you'll have good time either way.