I took four people out to Joshua Tree National Park to teach them how to shoot the Milky Way Saturday night. I was originally thinking to do a "Girls Night Out Under the Stars" with some adventurous Jeep friends and I posted an invite on my Facebook page, but the timing didn't work out for most people and I had guys asking to come, so we ended up doing a couples thing and I actually managed to convince my husband to join me in the desert in the middle of summer. The spouses had company while the shooters were busy, and I think it worked out really well. When we were finished shooting, we grabbed a few hours of sleep right there under the stars before heading home.
The galactic core of the galaxy is directly facing the earth this time of year, so if you want the best Milky Way photos this is the time of year. Saturday night/Sunday morning the moon was just a tiny thumbnail, it didn't rise until 2:57am and was only 12.1% illuminated; perfect for shooting the Milky Way. But as all outdoor photographers know, sometimes conditions don't work in your favor. As we were heading out to the park, when we crested the mountains and dropped into Riverside, the sky turned a dull gray and visibility was practically non-existent. We could barely make out the mountains. At first I thought it might be due to one of the wildfires raging in California, but as we continued toward Joshua Tree it only got worse and it didn't smell like smoke. I couldn't figure out what was going on - it didn't seem to be smog (and I've never seen smog that heavy way out in the desert, and although it was low to the ground it didn't seem to be fog either. I couldn't figure out what was going on because I had never seen anything like it.
It wasn't until I got home the next day that I learned from The Press-Enterprise it was due to a storm in Arizona -
"Across portions of the Inland area Saturday, the sky was filled with a smoky, grayish haze and many residents were scratching their heads and wondering why.So what caused the sky to look this way? National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Gregoria said you can blame a powerful storm in Arizona. He said the storm — which moved in over Arizona Friday night — not only produced rain and lightning there, it also kicked up lots of dust. That dust was then carried by down draft winds and pushed west as the storm moved west. It made its way across Yuma, into the Coachella Valley, through the Banning Pass and the rest of the Inland area. The storm eventually traveled into Baja California and dissipated. It didn't deposit any rainfall in Southern California on its way out -- just the dust, National Weather Service officials said.
Gregoria said it's a rare occurrence to have such dusty skies."
Just how bad was it? Here's the view from Keys View - above is how it looked on Saturday and below is from a previous trip on clear day. Normally you could see the San Andreas Fault, Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley, Mt. San Jacinto and Mt. San Gorgonio, and on really clear days you can see all the way past the Salton Sea into Mexico.
I knew that there was a monsoon blowing into Arizona, but it wasn't supposed to reach this area until Monday. Who knew that a storm in the next state could have such a drastic affect on us? We were hoping the wind would blow it out by sunset, and although much of it had dissipated by evening there was still a lot of low-level haze and the Milky Way, although visible, couldn't be seen in all of its glory. Disappointing for sure after we had all driven several hours, but we're all outdoors people who would still enjoy a beautiful evening under the stars even if it was a bust for the photographers. Knowing that the camera sees more light than our eyes do, I decided we would give it a try anyway, and as I had hoped my camera picked it up much better than I thought it would. We had a lot of fun shooting for several hours, playing around with some light painting, and enjoying the desert.
I did use much heavier processing than I normally would on the photo above in order to bring out the galactic center. That's always a judgement call and up to your own personal style. I usually prefer a more natural look, and I remember when everyone was shocked a few years ago when several photography heavy-weights were disqualified from the Astronomy Photographer of the Year contest due to excessive processing of the Milky Way. When post-processing an image I always keep in mind the intended audience and usage of the image when deciding how far to go. I love creating art but I also pride myself on doing spot-on documentary work. You can really see how hazy it was from all of the dust in the air. The ambient light from Palm Springs doesn't bother me much as it helps emphasize the silhouette of the rock formation. I've only processed one Milky Way shot so far; I shot material for several DrivingLine articles while I was in J Tree and as soon as I get those articles put together I'll come back to my Milky Way photos.
I have several people asking me to do another "mini workshop" so I'm going to try to do another one this month. Hopefully we'll have better weather conditions!