My First Milky Way Photo, Almost

We planned our road trip to take photos of the Milky Way. We would visit three national parks known for dark skies around the new moon. We scouted rock formations to add foreground interest to the Milky Way. Near Moab, Arches National Park has interesting rock formations, but Arches roads were closed weekday nights. Canyonlands NP was open at night, but using canyons to add foreground interest to star photos seemed difficult.

Our first opportunity for open roads at night at Arches NP was early Saturday morning, and we took it. We went to bed early, got up at 2 am, saw stars, and drove to Balanced Rock.

At the Balanced Rock parking lot, I changed lenses and adjusted the camera settings for night photography. We walked to a nearby clearing with a view of Balanced Rock to the south, but much of the Milky Way had disappeared!

I took this photo to test the camera settings — my first photo of the Milky Way. To the right of Balanced Rock, a bit of the Milky Way is visible through the clouds, and the lights of Moab are in the distance. It was 3:09 am. From the image on the camera back, I could see part of the Milky Way, the red Balanced Rock, and clouds.

But clouds got in my way, 3:09 am

I didn’t expect Balanced Rock to look this red, but I didn’t know any better. My night vision hadn’t kicked in yet. I was using a new lens at night for the first time, and a long exposure is more sensitive than our eyes. This was my first photo with full-on night photography settings.

After waking up at 2 am and driving for miles, we waited, hoping that the clouds would move on. Waiting in the darkness, we took periodic photos.

Having studied star and sun data in advance, I knew that the sky would begin to lighten soon after the last photo, and the cloud cover still looked heavy. We packed up and slept briefly in the car, preparing to move on to take photos at dawn (6 am).

Looking back, this was my third attempt to photograph the Milky Way. The first time was in California (too much haze and lights so the Milky Way wasn’t visible to me). The second time was in Hawaii, when we drove up 8,000 feet to the Mauna Kea visitor center, only to find clouds that probably wouldn’t lift for hours.

I’m pleased that my prepared camera settings seem right. For a Canon 6D camera and Rokinon 14mm f2.8 lens, I used a 30-second exposure, f2.8 aperture, 6400 ISO, and a 14mm focal length. The Milky Way was where my phone app said it would be.

Did you notice that Balanced Rock changed color across the photos: red, white, then black? I used the same camera settings across the photos, except the last photo had a 20-second exposure instead of 30 seconds for the others. Apparently another photographer was illuminating Balanced Rock during my exposures, but we didn’t notice this.


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I enjoy travel, art, food, photography, nature, California native plants, history, and yoga. I am a retired software engineer. The gravatar is a Nuttall's woodpecker that visited our backyard.

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