There is nothing I love better than spending a night under the stars in the desert, especially when the weather is good and the temperature is comfortable. This past winter was not a good one for night photography for me, the desert was cold this year, not like the year I could hike in just a t-shirt at midnight on NY Eve's. And the winds were ferocious. I spent so many nights hunkered down in my three-season tent and three-season sleeping bag that I was beginning to feel cursed by the wind, especially when it would follow me home.
But summer nights in the desert are absolutely wonderful and the summer months are the best time to photograph the Milky Way while it is high in the sky, something I've wanted to try for a while. You don't get to see the Milky Way growing up on the East Coast because there is too much ambient light. The first time I saw it was down in the swamps of Louisiana and it blew me away. Now that I live in the Southwest and can visit the desert whenever I want it is a regular sight but it still amazes me every time I see it. There is something very primal about gazing at the Milky Way spanning from horizon to horizon over an untouched landscape.
The center of the Milky Way galaxy is near Sagittarius. Following the advice of my friend Jeff Sullivan who points out that Sagittarius is at it's highest at midnight on July 22 I planned to shoot on the night of the new moon closest to that date, which was last Tuesday August 6. Peter Tellone was up to the challenge of making a wild overnight run out to the desert and helped me plan the trip. We both figured that Joshua Tree National Park would be a good location, relatively close by with great rock formations and Joshua Trees for foreground interest. We agreed that Geology Tour Road would be the best, with a side bonus that it would get me a trail where I could do some night shots of the jeep (more on that to come!!). What neither of us realized was that JTNP is an ambient light nightmare. The brighter south end of the Milky Way rises in the south and moves to the southwest. Palm Springs is directly southwest and we couldn't believe how bright it was. To the north is Twentynine Palms and although it isn't as bright as Palm Springs it still caused major problems because the northern end of the Milky Way isn't nearly as bright as the southern end. We tried to make the best of it with creative compositions that would block the worst of it, but all in all it wasn't what we had hoped for.
It was still a beautiful night under the stars with great company, stumbling around in the dark under a moonless sky enjoying perfect temperatures while listening to the coyotes howl. I would be happy just sitting out there under the desert sky even without my camera, and once in a while I would put it down and do just that. We shot until 3am because it was such a perfect night that no one wanted to leave.
I'll have another chance to shoot it this weekend when I head back out with some friends to shoot the Perseid meteor showers this weekend and hopefully the location we've chosen won't have the ambient light problem.
Here are a few more images from the night:
I might have a few more to share later. Post-processing the shots was not as easy I had hoped, it takes a lot of work to bring out the Milky Way when using an older camera. But this was a great learning experience and I hope a try a few different techniques next time.
The experience made me realize how much I really really need/want/need a 5D Mark III for the high ISO performance if I'm going to continue with astrophotography and other night photography. Although my 7D was up to the task of capturing the Milky Way the images weren't as clean as I hoped for. My other limitation was that my Canon 10-22mm lens has a max aperture of 4.5. I'm happy with the 7D up to about ISO 500 and photographing the Milky Way requires an ISO of 3200 and up (ideally 6400). New technology really does make a difference when it comes to clean images with little noise at high ISOs. Now I just need to sell $5000 of prints to get the 5D Mark III and an ultra-wide lens for it. If you want to help me out, all prints and merchandise on my site will be 20% off until the end of August using the code "MilkyWay".