Milky Way Over Death Valley

A few months ago I had the pleasure of visiting Death Valley National Park, and it was unlike any place I'd ever been. I understood immediately why the unbelievably warped terrain was deemed "amargosa chaos" years ago. It's truly an alien landscape. 

I was heading to the park from Las Vegas around 8 pm, hoping to photograph the Milky Way. Death Valley has very little light pollution and on a clear night it's one of the darkest places in the United States. 

I realized I had forgotten my flashlight and decided to pull into a Home Depot in Pahrump. I asked a gentleman if he could point me in the direction of the flashlights, he decided to show me where the lights were at. As we walked through the aisles we got to talking, and I showed him some of my photographs. As soon as he saw my style, he began telling me different locations around Death Valley to visit, he had an amazing amount of information! There was one place in particular where he thought I'd be able to get my Milky Way shot, at Dante's View. 

I purchased my light, said thanks, exchanged information with him, and headed straight for the place he had recommended. After driving up a mountain in unbelievable darkness, I turned off all my lights and after a few moments, I was greeted with the most stunning Milky Way scene I had ever scene. 

 Dante's View

Dante's View

A quick tip for improving your landscape shots

One of the easiest and most impactful ways to instantly improve your landscape photographs is to get the camera low. I mean super low. I'll give you an example:

In this photo of half-dome which I took in late October, my camera was literally an inch away from the water. Why? 

  • it makes my foreground object (in this case the leafy log) much larger and prominent in the frame
  • allows me to establish a relationship between the foreground and background
  • the motion in the water creates a powerful leading line to the mountain in the distance.

 

 Last light hitting half dome  

Last light hitting half dome  

The Aurora Star Lapse Experiment

 

The Upper Peninsula is truly magical, and the fact that you can see the aurora, with a little research is mindblowing. This shot was taken at a road-side turnout east of Marquette (Marquette has a bit of light pollution) right around the Deerton area. 

 The Idea with this shot was to capture the blur of the stars as the earth rotated during a period of about 2 hours. I recently purchased a very very wide lens, the Rokinon 14mm F2.8, and this was my first time using it. There are a few different ways that you can pull this shot off, some better than others. One way of doing it, is to keep the shutter open for the full two hours. I don't recommend this as it can lead to a very hot sensor, and an over-accumulation of noise; not to mention, your almost guaranteed to under or over expose. It's extremely easy to blow-out the aurora during a long exposure, and this is almost guaranteed if your exposure is too long. 

I Iwill be posting a full tutorial on the specific techniques I used along with the post processing involved. 

How to See the Northern Lights in Upper Michigan

A lot of things have to go right in order to be able to see the Northern Lights. Especially in the lower latitudes.

 You have to be in a location with very low light pollution. The moon phase need to be around the new moon, The forecast has to be clear, the temperature has to be just right. And that's not even considering the main ingredient: You need a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME). Basically we need to catch the sun on a bad day and it must hurl billions of charged particles directly at the earth. These particles will travel millions of miles per hour and if they hit, the shockwave can cause a large disruption in the earth's magnetosphere (earth's magnetic field). 

This might sound bad, and i'm sure it is in extreme scenarios. But for myself and anyone else who wants to see nature's most beautiful phenomenon without leaving the United States, it is the key ingredient. 

So in essence, in order to view the lights, a whole lot of things have to line up perfectly, at the perfect time of the month. Which happened last night. And being the nerd I am, I had aurora alerts sent to me 2 days in advance. I dropped everything and drove straight to Copper Harbor, Michigan. Copper Harbor is one of the furthermost points in the continental United States, it sits on Lake Superior. I think 7 people live there. Jk. No but seriously there's not that many people out there. 

Lake Superior is amazing, and monstrous, its actually  larger than all the rest of the lakes combined, and then some. The fact that with some luck and a lot of planning you can see the aurora over it's wonderful water is another testament to how amazing the state of Michigan is!

 

I'll be updating this post with pictures and video frequently.

 

Akash