Beginners and the Milky Way

Warning! We are beginners. However, we are sharing so that perhaps, a maybe, you might be interested enough in night photography to try this. We have learned a lot already and are excited about the upcoming dark nights of June!

Dave and Karen were with me. Karen brought food (a highly appreciated item late at night and she makes a really good potato salad). For starters we made one mistake in not being at our shooting site early. I was looking for a place that I had spotted some days ago along I-8 between Casa Grande and Gila Bend, but had not gone back to thoroughly check it out. That made us late and we settled on a side road between Gila Bend and Buckeye that, as it turned out, was going to have light contamination incidents from side traffic. Additionally, because we were late we did not have time to really pick out the best foreground. But, we settled in with happy thoughts of at least seeing if we could get some shots of the Milky Way, regardless of the challenges.

Starting with Dave's image. Dave prefers keeping his images minimally processed.

ISO 2000, 14mm, f/2.8, 20 seconds with a Canon 7D and a Rokinon 14mm 2.8 lens.

ISO 2000, 14mm, f/2.8, 20 seconds with a Canon 7D and a Rokinon 14mm 2.8 lens.

My first shot shows the Milky Way lower on the eastern horizon.

ISO 1600, 24mm, f/1.8, 8 seconds with Nikon D800 and 24mm Nikkor 1.4 Nikkor prime lens.

ISO 1600, 24mm, f/1.8, 8 seconds with Nikon D800 and 24mm Nikkor 1.4 Nikkor prime lens.

As you can tell, white balance can make a difference. David set his manually at 4000. Mine was set at 3025. We both shot in RAW so we could have more control in post processing, but I noticed that I could not move the dial quite where I wanted it on those images that were shot at higher K values. Not sure why, but that is the case here.

The Milky Way rises and, as Dave explained, you can hold up your hand sideways and plan on the Milky Way rising about that much over an hour. So later . . .

ISO 400, 24mm, f/1.8, 13 seconds

ISO 400, 24mm, f/1.8, 13 seconds

This became the setting that I stayed with. Lots of experimentation!! I tried Long Exposure Noise Reduction in camera and could not tell a difference in the noise in the final outcome. I am betting that 13 seconds is not long enough for that setting to make a difference, at least not on my camera.

You may be wondering about that foreground tree or object. What a hoot we had with it. To give you an idea, let's use another problem we encountered. As a car would approach the road it would shine its lights right on our beloved, carefully picked out foreground. LOL!!

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Yikes!! It is not even Halloween! That sort of problem is OK if you are simply shooting some stills as you have just lost one shot. I was shooting a timelapse so it ruined the sequence. However, I did get enough shots in to know that I can set up a timelapse and the settings that I chose will work. I could actually see the whole Milky Way move across the sky. So cool!!!  Am jazzed about trying it again in a better setting. It is not just car lights that can interrupt a good shot. Just opening a car door can be picked up in the longer exposures.

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While the open door was light was accidental, it does show that controlled lighting might be the ticket in some instances to add interest. At least now you know that our foreground is actually a ragged cactus and an old tree!

Looking for Karen's images? Her camera has been sent to Canon for repair. She struggled with an older camera and finally gave up. In some cases gear just can't get you there.

A couple more thoughts. If you are interested in trying night photography let me know. You are welcome to join us. As for gear . . . I would not buy anything until you are sure you want to pursue this genre of photography. There are lots of resources online on shooting star trails, stars, and the Milky Way and I have lots of articles you can read. 

Was fun to share early learning. When Dave becomes famous for his night photography I am going to brag that I knew him when he was just beginning!! 

West Clear Creek

Definitely a better sign than the last post! Either that or Rick took it to remind me where we hiked!

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There are many hiking paths along Clear Creek. We took the easiest and it was worth every single foot of the 2.49 miles we hiked. We were struck by the varied vegetation, the most interesting trees, an easy path and finally . . .  water! We did not go beyond the first crossing of the Creek. Two hikers told us that if we crossed the creek four times and headed up the hill we would be able to see the red rocks of Sedona. Maybe next time.

After a 'too long for us' very bumpy rough road and before dropping into the creek's path, we were treated with a hint of things to come. The new spring green was definitely in 'show off' mode. Suppose that is why they call this area Camp Verde? From this point you can hear the creek. Smiles all around!!

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The hike started off with us walking under a canopy of HUGE trees. We did not get far before our tripods were firmly planted and the clicking started. Right off, Rick composes a tack sharp sunburst! We are impressed.

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Then Tom goes for two. Show offs!!

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Nancy pointed out that this tree looked like a dragon.

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When your neck gets tired of looking way up, you can find all sorts of interesting bark at a more reasonable shooting level.

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Even the roots did not disappoint.

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Just a couple more before we leave the trees. Barbara goes for black and white and dead branches and wildly placed rocks. Tom creates odd looking trees paired with cactus (fish eye). It is an easy place to get a visual overload.

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Leaving the shade of the trees we headed out onto grassier, almost savannah-like, fields. To our right we could hear the creek but there were no real paths down to the water. It was cool so the easy walk just turned into another photo-stopping opportunity.

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Below, Barbara, Rick and Nancy. Tom was behind me so he was missed.

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What great scenery! And birds everywhere. Just one group of hikers passed us. Heavenly hike.

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Below them, in front of them, a moderately steep trail down to water for Barbara and Nancy.

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Finally! Water!!! Rick was very serious in working shots with his Big Stopper, a 10 stop ND filter that looks like black glass. It allows a photographer to take longer exposures than can be achieved by just using camera settings. I don't even have a polarizing filter for my new lens yet (much less a 10 stop ND) so I focused on some damselflies. You know I want one of those for my new lens!! His photos are awesome. We were at the creek for a long time. Enjoy our photos.

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Barbara does not miss a trick! I love this image.

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Nancy sent me a photo to post and it stumped me. "Where did she take this photo?" I asked Tom. "Oh, from an inside wall of the rock house with the roof caving in." He did not get any good photos from there and I did not even try. The rock structure is just off the trail. Great job Nancy! We hope you go with us often. Nancy has a knack for seeing trees as dragons or rabbits, and in finding faces in trees, rocks and even painted walls!!

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Finally, we headed back to the car, another bumpy ride and trip home. But, not without a few more stops.

Rick got water swirls. Barbara went for cloud swirls.

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Yes, there were some beautiful flowers . . . 

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My special thanks to friends who share my passion for photography. A very special thanks to Rick for driving his car down a miserable road. Kudos to Nancy for trusting us and bringing a very nice presence to our group. Am grateful to Barbara for getting a fabulous photo of my #1 photo buddy and very best friend in the world. I am so very blessed.

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Thanks for sharing.


The name of this national monument site comes from the Apache and it means 'crooked water'. Built between 1000 and 1400, it sits atop a hill overlooking the Verde Valley. We stopped there after visiting Dead Horse Ranch State Park. The Visitor Center is full of helpful displays and stories of the people that lived at the site and includes the story of how the site was excavated and preserved.

We did not even get in the door of the Visitor Center before Tom had started taking photos of a lovely and colorful flower . . . with his fisheye lens!








And that is exactly what we did!!

Dead Horse Ranch State Park

How have I missed this park in all the years I have lived in Arizona? Maybe it was the name. No, we saw no dead horses. We saw plenty of wonderful opportunities to warrant a return trip or two.




Elaine and Charlottes met up with us. They had been there earlier in the week and their photos motivated us to go and check this place out. So how does a park get a name like this? The story goes that in the late 40s a family was looking to buy a ranch. They took their kids with them and at one of the ranches there was a dead horse on the road outside the ranch. Later, when the kids were asked which ranch they liked the best they all wanted the ranch with the dead horse. That is the name given to the ranch by the family and it was kept by the Arizano State Parks in 1973 when it acquired the land (condition of sale by the family).

According to the brochure you can pick up at the Visitor Center, the park covers 423 acres and its unique ecosystem is comprised of the Cottonwood and Willow riparian gallery forest (one of less than 20 such riparian zones in the world). There are campgrounds of all types, excellent facilities (including showers), room for large picnics and trails galore. There are three lagoons, hikes by the river, horseback riding . . . 

Enjoy the rest of the show. Oh, the little town up in the hills below is Jerome!
















I suspect that this park is very popular in the summer. Many spots already had reserved signs posted for this weekend. Probably more people than I want to cope with, but during the week it should be just fine. Or, I can find out where to rent a canoe and just get away from them!!

We will all go back. We are still looking for an endangered rose and I want some dragonfly photos. The reflections are lots of fun and I'll bet some of the hikes down to the river would provide a lot of photo opportunities.

Thanks for sharing our day.

Apache Trail to Lake Roosevelt

Apache Trail is raw, rugged, wild and unbelievably beautiful. The road is narrow, bumpy, dusty and slow with tight corners and blind spots. It is worth every inch along the way.

To get to this point, you must start at either Roosevelt Lake and travel south or head up past Canyon Lake and Tortilla Flats and travel north on Highway 88. This time we went north.



It is a good idea to stop at Tortilla Flats before heading up for several hours of slow driving and no facilities. Besides, it makes for some interesting photos.



There is little traffic on the Trail and few pull-out spots. Even so, Rick who offered to drive his four-wheel vehicle, found several places where we could stop and actually get out of the car. The image below is an artistic take on the bridge at Fish Creek.

Other views in the Fish Creek curve. There was no flowing water but we could see where water would come down the narrow canyon and over rocks above us. Bet it is a sight to behold after a good storm.


For miles you are treated to the just the majesty of the mountains. There are dots of yellow from the blooming palo verde trees and the saguaro look like they are almost ready to really show off.




Finally, we see water at Apache Lake. It is so blue and stands out against our brown background.

The beautiful blue does not last. As we drive north we follow the Salt River that is fed by Roosevelt lake and its dam. We go from blue to green. A really, really green! No, this color is not enhanced!

We were so pleased to see reflections in what might have been a dull green. But, no it was not, and even the wind did not spoil too much.

Finally, we rounded the corner and were treated to the sight of Roosevelt Dam. The road was now paved! Yeah! Better still, lunch or dinner was not too far off!

One thing about a scene this big . . . there are many ways to shoot it.


Beyond the dam is the bridge that connects to Highway 188. Once again, so many ways to shoot, so many lens to choose from!

I just love this reflection!!

Too much monkey business? Only my Tom!

We headed west towards food. But, of course, we stopped along the way. Somehow the sounds of stomachs growling seemed as natural as the birds and waves of the lake.

I am printing out the image below and keeping it for inspiration. This is the foreground I want for a night shooting session. We went to scout for sites and we found several, but Barbara captured the foreground for me to keep front and center.

After eating at the Butcher Hook we drove back towards the bridge, catching some late afternoon golden sun. I was struck by the patterns created by the various micro-ecosystems that have been created where Tonto Creek drains into the lake. What a difference some water can make.

The area is a rich and productive riparian and we spotted heron and an eagle flew right over us!


I gave Rick two whole seconds of warning of the eagle flying towards us. He was the only one sporting glass that would give us a chance at getting the shot. Next time I will give him more notice!

I would like to take a moment and thank a very special person. That would be Barbara. You see, she describes herself as a beginner (ahem, look at her images above). She is a beautiful woman but not . . . .

Barbara may not be able to explain how she got her ISO set at 1600, or how to set some fancy shmancy setting on her 'baby' camera, but she gets the shots that will mean a lot more to me in five years than any photo I took all day. Barbara captures meaningful people shots. Thank you so much, Barbara, for being there and making the trip special. Oh, and we love your homemade chocolate chip cookies too!

Her caption for the image below was, "See, you don't look fat." Well, just hide it with a tripod . . . In case you can't figure it out, that black thing around my neck is a camera strap!

Tom had headed down to the car. "Bring me up my (long list)!"  Is this not Tom as you know him?  Perfect!

Finally, da boyz! Uh, Rick, where is your hat?

Tom and I got home about 9:30 pm. What a day we had! We hope you enjoyed following along.

Tomorrow we are headed for another adventure!


Lost Dutchman Sunset, Picketpost Milky Way (New)

Some adventures get made as you go.  It starts with an email, "Gentleman from New York is interested in shooting the Milky Way at Lost Dutchman is looking for someone familiar with the area/desert  . . ." The email came from the AZ Night photography meet-up. I was in. Tom too.  We met up with Brian, our New Yorker and Scott, another volunteer for adventure who resides in Phoenix.

Brian has shot many night and Milky Way shots. He knew what he was doing. The rest of us were just hoping to learn from him. An ER doc by trade and a seemingly passionate photographer, Brian enthusiastically taught, shared experience, and reviewed the displays on our cameras to offer both advice and encourangement. He was so excited when the Milky Way started rising behind Picketpost that we could not help but join him. No matter the late hour or the cold wind. It was lots of fun and I am now more determined than ever to get better at night photography. Thank you Brian!

Enjoy our shots. I will save some tips for the end. I am adding metadata this time, even though it might detract a bit from the aesthetics of just enjoying the photos. But, this blog is to share and LEARN.

Let's start with Lost Dutchman. Sunset was enhanced by light pollution from Phoenix.

ISO 50, f/13, 60 seconds with an ND filter, at 60mm with a Sony SLT-A99V camera and 35-70mm lens.

Sorry, I do not have the metadata for this image.

ISO 200, f/32, 1/45 at 122mm with Nikon D600 and 70-300mm Nikkor lens.

ISO 200, f/16, at 31mm with 24-70mm Nikkor lens.

ISO 200 at 35mm with 24-70mm Nikkor lens.

ISO 100, 1/500 with 35-70mm lens.

ISO 200, f/16, at 70mm with 24-70mm Nikkor lens.

ISO 200, f/16 at 24mm with 24-70mm Nikkor lens.

ISO 200, f/16 at 15mm with 15mm Sigma fisheye lens.

As it got a bit darker the stars just start popping. The light you see up on the mountain was coming from a couple of hikers that started up just as the sun set.

ISO 3200, f/2.8, 20 seconds at 28mm with 35-70mm lens.

ISO 4000, f/2.8, 10 seconds at 55mm with 35-70mm lens.

ISO 1600, f/4, 6 seconds at 16mm with Nikon D7000 and 11-16mm Tokinna AT-X-116 Pro lens.

ISO 1600, f/3.3, 30 seconds at 16mm with Tokina lens.


After shooting the sunset we decided to head further east to Picketpost Mountain, much lower than the Superstition range and maybe with a more interesting foreground with a windmill. I tried some timelapse shooting at Lost Dutchman site but the light was not helpful and there was not enough motion to make it an interesting timelapse by my ever increasing high standards.  A grumpy LOL here!

By the time we got to Picketpost it was quite dark but you could still see some light pollution on the face of the mountain and some light from nearby Superior.

Scott set up a star trails while we waited. I am so excited to see how the windmill turned out as part of the star trails. Wow!

Sorry, I don't have the metadata for this image.

The Milky Way started up around 10:30 or so. Before then some clouds went through. Must admit I was a bit discouraged. For one thing, I did not know what to look for. That is where Brian was so helpful. He knew just what he was looking for. For Brian, the Milky Way is his dear friend. 

After a bit Brian said, "It is starting! Do you see it?" No! It takes a trained eye to see it early and a bit of post to bring it out later. At the moment I had settled on putting the windmill on the right. Later I would change my mind.

But, Brian was right. There it was! Rising. Finally, what we had waited for.

ISO 6400, f/2.8, 15 seconds at 28mm with 35-70mm lens.

I learned a couple of things that, as a beginner, might be helpful:

First, go with someone who has done it before. I would not have seen the Milky Way for what it was. I might have thought of haze or clouds. People who tell you they can clearly see it from (name your not at all light polluted place at the right time of year and night) . . . well not so easy, actually. There are apps that help you see the night as it will be, such as Stellarium (free for computer use).  Look into that and read up on night photography.

Second, post processing is key. When you see a photograph of the Milky Way and you gasp in amazement, you are looking at a post processing effort that was used to bring out the detail and inherent color of the Milky Way. That should not surprise you. But how to post process? Ah! Now we get into personal preference and artistry. As you look at the shots above you will notice that they are on the blue/green and some yellow side of the color scale. Brian says that the green is natural and is called airglow. But, below, I went the other way with my white balance! Garrish? Unreal? Over the top? My choice? Personally, I prefer the post approach of the images above. But it is fun to experiment.

Third, planning is important. I am scouting sites for my next night photography session. And next time I have a plan . . . take a lounge chair, a good pillow, hot coffee or chocolate, a good friend for late night conversation and a nap the prior afternoon.

Fourth, it goes without saying but I am going to say it anyway . . . a tripod is essential for these long shots, and a headlamp makes it easier to set up your camera with two free hands. 

I so hope that at some point you might want to join me in shooting at night, be it star trails, the Milky Way or a timelapse. Practice is going to make my night photography better.

Thanks again Brian. It was a pleasure meeting you and it good to know you made it home safely. You can follow Brian Greenberg at  Worth a trip over there to check him out.

Thanks also to Scott, the wizard of iPad and CamRanger. You can check out his website at Scott is a fellow member of the AZ Night Photographer's Meetup.