Shooting the Stars

Yosemite National Park, California (Kyle Jones)

Tunnel View Stars – Yosemite National Park, California (Kyle Jones)

I truly enjoy making photographs at night. If I’m willing to give up some sleep and risk some cold, I have the opportunity to photograph some beautiful locations in relative solitude. It always amazes me how much detail modern cameras can pull out of a night sky. So with that in mind, here are some of my favorite night images from the last year.

Tunnel View – Yosemite

I’d wanted to photograph the Milky Way arching over Yosemite Valley for a while. Early this year I bought a new 14mm lens and decided that I needed to try it out in Yosemite. I checked the forecast and moon phase and decided to drive out to the park in early April. When I first started taking photos at night, I aimed for evenings with a full moon so I could use the moonlight to light up the landscape. As cameras got better in low-light, I started aiming for evenings with no moon in the sky. These dark nights were great for emphasizing the Milky Way. The downside was that there would be little or no light on the landscape. So lately I’ve been looking for evenings where a partial moon is low in the sky to light the landscape, while the Milky Way is in the right position for my intended composition. Those conditions end up being fairly rare, especially since Murphy’s Law pretty much ensures a cloudy sky on those nights!

For the shot at the top of this post, I estimated that the moon would provide some nice light for the valley at about 11:30PM and that the Milky Way would arch over the valley at about 2:00AM. The skies were forecast to be clear (there were some small clouds but those aren’t a problem) so I made the drive out to Yosemite. I arrived and got set up just as the moon was highlighting Bridalveil Falls so I captured some frames. I left my camera on the tripod and waited for the moon to set and the Milky Way to move into position. While waiting, I took some long exposures to process a version showing some star trails (below). Finally everything lined up and I was able to capture some frames of the sky. With a 14mm lens at f/2.8 I took 30 second exposures at ISO 6400 to get bright point stars. I then blended this frame with the earlier one of the valley for the final image above.

Yosemite National Park, California (Kyle Jones)

Tunnel View Star Trails – Yosemite National Park, California (Kyle Jones)

Upper Yosemite Falls – Yosemite

I’ve gone to Yosemite several times over the years to shoot Yosemite Falls by the light of the full moon, capturing a lunar rainbow (or moonbow) across the falls. I had seen shots of Upper Yosemite Falls with a moonbow from the trail to the top, but hadn’t attempted it myself. Beyond the usual challenges of needing sufficient water in the falls to provide a rainbow, clear skies, and having the moon in the right position, this shot also requires a 4-1/2 mile round trip hike in the dark with a 2000 foot climb.

I decided that wasn’t enough of a challenge, so I tried to find an evening where I could also get the Milky Way in the sky. For this I needed a partial moon that provided enough light for the rainbow but not so much as to wash out the stars. It also needed to be in the right position (essentially low in the sky behind me) to create a rainbow at the same time that the Milky Way would be in my frame. I use a couple of apps on my phone, including the Photographer’s Ephemeris and PhotoPills, to figure things out and decided that June 30th was the day. Using the apps, I find the location I want to shoot on a map and put a “pin” there. I can drop another pin in the direction I want to look. This tells me the direction I’ll be shooting and then I can scroll through dates and times and see where the moon and stars will be until I think I’ve found the right combination. I usually use a program called Stellarium on my computer to double check the Milky Way, since it is really easy to see how it moves throughout the evening. I like to know how it is moving since I’m never exactly sure where in the sky I will want it until I arrive on site and I like to give myself some margin for error.

I started the hike up the Upper Yosemite Falls trail in the late afternoon, allowing me to find a good spot before sunset. At that point I just had to line up my image and wait for darkness. I was excited when the moonbow appeared and tried both portrait and landscape compositions. Both of these are single frames with no complicated blending or layering. The landscape view includes some of the lights in the valley. I do think I want to try this again sometime, as I don’t think the sky was fully dark yet after sunset.

Yosemite National Park, California (Kyle Jones)

Upper Yosemite Moonbow Portrait – Yosemite National Park, California (Kyle Jones)


Yosemite National Park, California (Kyle Jones)

Moonbow and Milky Way – Yosemite National Park, California (Kyle Jones)

Shark Fin Cove – Davenport

My two favorite (reasonably) local areas for night sky photography are around Yosemite and on the coast. Both areas have some dramatic landscapes along with some views that avoid problematic light pollution from nearby cities. The town of Davenport, just north of Santa Cruz has some great beaches and I decided I wanted to capture the stars over the “fin” at Shark Fin Cove. Looking at my planning apps, I found a night where a partial moon would be setting while the stars were in the right position. I bribed my wife with a seafood dinner and she joined me on a drive out to the coast. The dinner was great but the clear skies in the forecast were nowhere to be found. The shot was a bust.

A week later I saw another opportunity and this time I convinced both my wife and my daughter to come along. The seafood was again delicious and this time I could actually see stars! Unfortunately the clouds poured in before the sky got fully dark, and I wasn’t able to get the detail in the sky I was really after. You can see in the shot below, though, that the setting moon did provide some nice light on the cove.

Davenport, California (Kyle Jones)

Shark Fin Moonlight – Davenport, California (Kyle Jones)

I had scoped out another composition in Davenport, and booked a nearby hotel room so I could be there at 3:00am in mid-August when I expected everything to line up. After dinner in a local restaurant I looked outside and saw a clear Milky Way in the sky. I quickly grabbed my gear and headed back to Shark Fin Cove. There was no moon in the sky (it wouldn’t rise until later) but there was enough light from the town to brighten the cove. The result is below.

Davenport, California (Kyle Jones)

Shark Fin Milky Way – Davenport, California (Kyle Jones)

I blended several exposures for this image to minimize the noise. My approach and processing are summarized in an article I provided to the Focal World forum here. Back in my room I set an alarm for 2:00AM and got some sleep. Unfortunately the clouds moved in again during the night (summers on the Northern California coast are notorious) and my main plan for the evening was thwarted. I’ll try again in 2018…

Soberanes – Big Sur

Later in August, I was in Carmel with my wife where she was playing in a tennis tournament (she’s awesome by the way). I’ve been to this spot in Garrapata State Park at the north end of Big Sur several times, and have always liked the arch in the ocean and with Soberanes Point in the background. I thought it would work well with stars and the sky and estimated that the Milky Way would appear to erupt from the peak as the moon was setting.

I drove out in the evening and made the sketchy hike to the spot I selected. The sky wasn’t fully dark yet so I had a little time to set up and figure out my composition. I started with some portrait shots, and captured on with a shooting star in the frame.

Garrapata State Park, California (Kyle Jones)

Stars Over Soberanes – Garrapata State Park, California (Kyle Jones)

I then tried some landscape shots and since the sky was a little darker I was able to pick up more color in the stars. After that I felt the Milky Way moved too far to the right and decided to call it a night.

Garrapata State Park, California (Kyle Jones)

Soberanes Night – Garrapata State Park, California (Kyle Jones)

The Watchman – Zion

I went to Zion National Park at the end of October hoping to photograph the fall foliage in the colorful canyons for which the park is famous. This view from a bridge over the Virgin River is a very popular spot at sunset – especially when the trees are full of yellow leaves. With clear skies and an aversion to crowds, I decided to take advantage of the quarter moon and try out the scene at 10:00PM when most other photographers were back in their rooms. I knew that the Milky Way wouldn’t be visible in this direction, but I was happy to see the moon backlighting the trees and highlighting the Watchman in the background. The quarter moon allowed some stars to shine through as well. This is a relatively straightforward photograph, easily captured with a single frame. For this photo I used my Canon 5DSR and a Tamron 15-30 f/2.8 lens at f/2.8. I exposed the scene for 20 seconds to keep the stars sharp and ISO 3200 to keep noise reasonable.

Zion National Park, Utah (Kyle Jones)

The Watchman – Zion National Park, Utah (Kyle Jones)

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