Monument Valley Milky Way

Below is one of my all-time favorite astrophotography images of the Milky Way.
I captured this shot while on a road trip through Utah in May of 2018. 

Monument Valley Starscape.jpg
 
 

LOCATION

Monument Valley, Utah, USA
US Hwy 163 between Ojalto and Mexican Hat, Utah
GPS: 37.064385, -110.068728

To get there: 
Drive northeast on US Hwy 163 Scenic from Ojalto/Monument Valley area towards Mexican Hat. After passing between Eagle Mesa and Brighams Tomb, the road will dip down, curve slightly right and straighten out for a long shallow rise. This location is the second scenic view turnoff, as counted driving northeast, on that section of straight road. 

There are several elements to consider when choosing a location for astrophotography. 

1. What do you want in your foreground?
For this shot, I wanted the unmistakeable buttes of Monument Valley to be in my foreground. Pictured are Brighams Tomb and Stagecoach buttes

2. Which direction will you need to face? 
In the northern hemisphere, the galactic core is generally 'to the south' from your position, regardless of specific location. I knew I needed to find a location north and slightly west of whatever I wanted in my foreground. This required selecting a road that crossed in that location relative to the Milky Way and my foreground. 

3. How large do you want objects in your foreground to be? 
Astrophotography is usually captured with as wide a lens as possible in order to capture as much of the night sky as possible in a single shot. Shooting on an ultra wide angle lens (I used a focal length of 16mm for this shot) will cause landscape features at any significant distance to appear quite small in your picture. In the above photo, I was between 1.5 and 2 miles away from the buttes. I considered trying the shot from further away, but given the direction of the road, my foreground buttes would be further and further to the west the farther I traveled northeast on that road. 

 

TIMING

Stellarium-logo-300x300.jpg

Timing is the crucial element in any photo, and perhaps more so for astrophotography. There are three major components of timing to consider when planning an astrophotography shoot.

1. Light Pollution
Nothing kills an astrophotography shot like ambient light, whether that's light pollution from a city, moonlight or cars driving by. Your first and foremost concern should be to find a location that has as little ambient light as possible. There are a number of light pollution websites and apps available for general levels of light pollution.

Yet even in an area like Monument Valley, there is local light pollution. The View hotel and campsite where I was staying has sodium orange floodlights that remain on all night long and cast significant light on the surrounding area. For this shot I drove away from the hotel and developed area around Ojalto to a location on the far side of the buttes where the light would be blocked from my shot. Even taking those precautions, you'll note the orange hue that local light pollution casts behind the buttes. I just happen to love the silhouette effect that creates.  

2. Moonlight
If you have much experience with astrophotography, you'll know attempting to shoot stars while the moon is shining is quite challenging. While it's not impossible, you won't get the deep blacks and sharp contrast that you can when the moon is down.

Shooting during a the nights surrounding a new moon is not required, but provides a much larger window to shoot while the moon is down. For this shot, It was 3 days after the new moon and the moon set about an hour after sunset. 

3. Position of the Milky Way & galactic core
When I think of astrophotography, I think of shots featuring the Milky Way galaxy, and ideally the galactic core. The Milky Way galaxy rises and sets like other astronomical features. Facing southward, the galaxy rises like the arm of a clock from the 9 o'clock position, through 12 o'clock in a clockwise fashion.  

The time it rises, and it's 'clock' position/orientation vary throughout the year. I'm partial to shots that feature the galaxy at a fairly vertical orientation. 

I use an amazing desktop program, Stellarium, to help me track the orientation of the galaxy through the nights I plan to shoot. Stellarium allows you to input GPS coordinates for any location on the planet and then change the date and time to show what will be 'up' in the sky at your location/date/time. It's also a 360º view, so you can drag the screen to change your viewing orientation. It uses a generic flat landscape, so you'll need some idea of what foreground or obstructions your area will feature. 

For this shot, I input Monument Valley GPS coordinates, May 17, 2018 oriented the viewer to face south and then scrolled through time by the hour to figure out what hours the galaxy would be visible. For that location/date the galaxy was visible from the time it rose from the near horizontal 10 o'clock orientation (~12am) through near vertical orientation at astronomical twilight at ~4:30a-5am. Astronomical twilight is the onset of ambient light prior to dawn/sunrise and can be found in the detailed forecast on sites like Weather Underground.  

This shot was captured at ~3:15am local time in Utah. 

*Be aware Stellarium calculates times based the timezone you set in the app, not necessarily the local timezone. Be sure to check the bottom bar to ensure accuracy. (My app is synced with my normal computer timezone, UTC -4 (EST))

 

EQUIPMENT & SETTINGS

Astrophotography is possible on most cameras that have a manual mode. There are a number of different methods for capturing photos of the stars, including single images (like this one), stacks, blends, panoramas and tracking shots. Each has it's own benefits and different looks to them. 

You need: 

1. A stable tripod
Any astrophotography image will be a long exposure image. Exposure times range from 10s to 30s or more, depending on the look you're going for. Accordingly, you need a solid, not wobbly tripod for your camera. Lighter weight travel tripods can be made more stable by hanging your camera bag from the hook on the underside of the tripod mount post. 

2. Wide angle lens
For this shot I used my Canon 16-35mm f2.8L II lens. Most wide angle lenses should work, though 18mm or wider is ideal. If you're looking to capture using a single image, rather than a stack, I generally prefer a f2.8 lens, but you can likely get by with a f4 lens, or use the f4 lens with one of the other techniques. 

3. Delayed or remote shutter release
Long exposures of any type require a stable, unmoving camera. Your finger depressing the shutter button will cause your camera to shake. I usually prefer a cable based shutter release, or the in-camera delayed shutter release of 2 or 10 seconds. 

4. Manual focus mode + test focus shots
Your camera cannot effectively focus at night if you're trying to autofocus on the stars. There is simply not enough light to find the necessary contrast required for accurate focus. Turn off autofocus either on your lens, in your camera, or just avoid using your back-button focus if you have that set up like me. 

There are generally two ways to focus on the stars. First is to find your spot during the day, focus on the horizon and then don't touch your camera's focus until the stars come out. (Who has time for that?! - people doing blend shots that combine a foreground lit in daylight or dusk with a star field from several hours later at night.) I generally don't have time to set up a shot like that, so I use the following process: 

1. Pick your composition
2. Rotate your focus ring all the way to infinity, and then pull back ~3º
3. Take a test shot, then using the back of camera monitor, zoom in all the way on the stars and check for sharpness and focus
4. Make a minor adjustment to the focus, take another test shot for comparison, and check again
5. Find your best focus point and leave it there*

*If you change focal length, you will likely need to check/adjust your focus again.