Adventures in Astrophotography
Chasing the Milky Way across the American West
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.
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.
SITE 1: Eastern Sierra Nevada / California
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.
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.
SITE 2: Lake Powell / Utah
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.
“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
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.
SITE 4: Zion National Park / Utah
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
SITE 5: Anza Borrego State Park / California
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.
“For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream” – Vincent van Gogh
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.