The Milky Way Over Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree, California

Galactic Nights | Joshua Tree, California

It was a new moon this past Thursday evening and I had been planning for a month to go camping at Joshua Tree so I could photograph the Milky Way when it rises. I had also just picked up a 4x4 Chevy Avalanche and have been anxious go camping with it. Thursday morning came, I loaded all my gear up into the truck, and was on my way for the 120 mile trek out to the desert. As with all vehicles I obtain, I always get nervous about going on long trips with it, especially in areas with no cell phone reception. Thankfully the truck didn't hiccup once. First stop was at Indian Cove Campground to set up my tent at site 56. The wind was blowing really hard and I was nervous about my tent being gone when I came back. I had seen several other tents blown over already. It's starting to be rattle snake season too and the last thing I wanted was to encounter one while setting up camp in the dark. I proceeded to put my tent up and hoped for the best.

At about 8:30pm I arrived at the Arch Rock trail in the White Tank Campground. The public parking area at White Tank had a sign that said no parking 10pm - 7am, which basically threw a wrench into everything. I could park 3/4 mile up the road at Twin Tanks but I didn't want to walk along a road with no pedestrian walk way at night with minimal lighting for cars to see me with. I taped a note to my windshield saying "please don't ticket me" and went on my way. Let me just say this now. The trail for arch rock is very loosely defined. If you've never been to Arch Rock before, make sure you go there during the day so you can figure out where the actual trail is. I must have spent a solid half hour just wandering around trying to figure out how to follow the trail and get to Arch Rock. After much wandering and stepping carefully as to hopefully avoid a Rattlesnake, I finally made it there and found the spot I wanted to shoot from. Over the course of the evening there must have been 15+ other photographers who came out. It pays to get there early so you can pick your spot. Other photographers who showed up late had to leave because all the ideal spots were occupied already.

It was about 9:30pm when I was fully set up and situated. I searched around me for Rattlesnakes one more time and carefully picked a spot to sit down on. At that point it was purely a waiting game for the Milky Way to rise. I've been using the PlanIt! for Photographers app to research when and where to photograph the Milky Way. The app indicated it would start to rise around 10pm roughly. What I hadn't factored for was terrain, oops. All in all I was there for about four hours waiting for the right opportunity to begin shooting photos. That there is the less glamorous side of photography that you rarely hear about, the dark side of the lens you don't get to see when you look at a photographer's work. Still though, being under the stars, being away from the city, actually being able to see stars, feeling the hot desert cool off nicely, and chatting with other photographers had to have been one of the most peaceful experiences I've had as of late.

At about 11:30pm I started seeing a really good view of Milky Way, it was time to start shooting photos. Unfortunately I do not have a super wide angle lens that can stop down to f2.8, so I had to make do with my Zeiss 21mm lens. The 21mm lens is still considered wide angle, but with Arch Rock being in such close proximity, it really made me wish I had a 14mm lens with me. That's alright though, I've never been afraid to shoot a panorama and this evening was not going to be any exception. I clocked my camera around to portrait orientation on the tripod and proceeded to capture a sequence of ten vertical photos, each one at 20 seconds, f2.8, and ISO 3200.

It wasn't until 1am when I finally decided my bladder could wait no more and that I was done for the night. After packing up my gear, I proceeded to hop down from the rock I climbed onto and made my to the trail. I scoured the path before me for Rattlesnakes while sweeping the ground with the legs of my tripod and slowly made it back to my truck. Thankfully I didn't encounter any snakes but I always wonder if one might have been lurking in the bushes beside me, completely camouflaged from unsuspecting eyes. I checked my windshield fully expecting to see a ticket for illegally parking in an area beyond when you're allowed to. To much surprise there was no ticket. When I finally got back to my camp site at Indian Cove, my tent was also still standing. The evening couldn't have gone any better, except for the desert fox that was spying on me while I was photographing my tent under the stars. That was a little unnerving, especially seeing how he wasn't afraid of me at all until I raised my tripod in the air and proceeded to run towards him while yelling. Seeing as it was 1:30am at this time, I'm sure the neighboring tents didn't mind this one bit.

Ok now there's something I need to get off my chest. I've traditionally been a Canon shooter from day one. I started with a 40D and moved on to a 5D Mark III. The 5D has been an amazing camera for me. I've long been an advocate of good photos being a result of a good photographer, not so much the gear. However, there's one area where the 5D doesn't excel very well at, and that's with shadow recovery on low light photos. I don't care how good of a photographer you are. If your gear is limiting in this capacity, your only option is to blend photos into a composite. This is where my Sony A7R II comes into picture (pun intented). I plan on writing a separate post on my experience switching from Canon to Sony, so I won't go into too much detail here.

Let me just gripe about one thing though. The Electronic View Finder on the Sony was not designed to let you actually see anything in the dark of night. Oh how I longed for the Optical Viewfinder on my Canon. Generally speaking I love the EVF much more, but not for doing astroscapes. The experience was very much point the camera in the general direction you think you want to be photographing in, take a test shot, review, and repeat until you have the composition you want. Now I could have just shined a flashlight on the foreground but when you have 15 other photographers in the middle of a thirty second exposure, you can't do that. Thankfully my Zeiss lens manually focuses very easily, focus to infinity and you're good. Not so much with the Canon 16-35mm F4 lens I have adapted to the Sony. Autofocus was 100% impossible and manually focusing in the dark was a failed experience with all my shots on the 16-35 being slightly out of focus. I've come to the realization that there is no such thing as a perfect camera. The Sony A7R II isn't perfect by any means, but it does come really close. The highlight of the evening was being able to control the camera from my phone and hearing some of the Canon shooters ask me in awe about being able to sync the photos I'm taking to my phone. The night was a success and I certainly can't wait to go back.


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