Friday, July 3, 2020

Photographing the Milky Way


Milky Way over Hoodoos
Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm
(Click on Image to Open)

Photographing the Milky Way in beautiful and dark Utah, had been on my mind for many years. I had made several trips to Southern Utah in the past to visit Zion National Park and the GSENM - however, I was either visiting during the fall or winter months, when the Milky Way was not visible or during a full moon, when it was washed out by the moonlight. Well, in June of this year, I finally got a chance to go on a road trip across Utah and seized upon the opportunity, to finally photograph the Milky Way.


Milky Way and the Hoodoos
Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm
(Click on Image to Open)

I decided to head to Kanab, Utah, as I wanted to photograph the Milky Way over Toadstool Hoodoos, which lie around 40 miles East of Kanab, on Highway 89. I had planned my 4 night stay in Kanab, to coincide with the new moon - doing so would ensure that I had dark skies to shoot the Milky Way. Since my style of photography doesn't involve using light painting to light up the foreground, I had to rely on natural light for my foreground exposures. I thus needed to take a dual exposure for each of my compositions - one for the foreground, taken at dusk and the other for the Milky Way, taken at night, when it would be at an angle conducive to my composition. Naturally, this meant that I could only photograph one location every night, since I would have to shoot my foreground during dusk and then leave the camera on the tripod, until I could shoot the Milky Way at night from the same location. I would then bring in both the foreground and background shots into software like Photoshop and blend the two exposures together, to get the final image.


Foreground and Background Images
Foreground & Background Images
(See the Composite Image Below)

Every evening, around an hour and a half before sunset, I would leave Kanab and head towards the hoodoos to photograph the Milky Way. It took me around 45 minutes to drive to the parking lot of the trailhead, and another 15 minutes to hike to the actual location of the hoodoos. On my first day, I arrived at the hoodoos around 7 pm and walked around the area, to scout prospective locations to use as a foreground. I settled on 4 locations that I felt would allow compelling images - two of these locations were at the main hoodoo itself. I would then setup my camera at my location for that night, take the foreground shot at dusk, and then wait until around 2 am or so to get my background shot of the Milky Way. I honestly was a little concerned being all alone at night, but my doubts quickly dispelled once the stars came out on the first night - it was magical!

Milky Way over Hoodoos
Composite Image - Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm
(Click on Image to Open)

I used the PhotoPills app to determine the time that the Milky Way would be at the optimal angle for my composition. I would then take my foreground shot at dusk, underexposing by a stop or two so that it blended well with the darker, Milky Way image. For the Milky Way image, I used the 500 rule to determine the slowest, usable shutter speed - essentially divide the number 500, by the focal length of the lens, and keep the shutter speed faster than the computed value. This is to avoid getting star trails and to have pinpoint sharp stars in the background frame. I however found that 500 was too large a number to use with modern sensors - I thus used 300 as my number to compute the slowest, usable shutter speed. Most of my Milky Way photographs were taken using an ISO of 4000 or 5000, an aperture of f/2.8 and a shutter speed of 15 seconds. I found these settings gave me a very sharp image of the Milky Way.

Milky Way over Hoodoos
Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm
(Click on Image to Open)

On the 5th day, I passed through Zion National Park, while heading to Hurricane, Utah. Since I was already in the park, I decided to stop at the famous bridge and take a Milky Way photograph at night. As I set up my tripod on the bridge, a ranger came by and told me that stopping at the bridge, was now considered illegal activity. I thus had to find another location for my photo at Zion. I decided to head down to the river and settled upon a location with a clear view of the Watchman. In retrospect, I was happy to have been compelled to find another location (rather than the cliched one on the bridge), as it gave me a photo with a slightly fresh perspective of the Watchman.

Milky Way over the Watchman
Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm
(Click on Image to Open)

A few days later, I thought about heading to the West Rim Trail in Zion to shoot the Milky Way. I have hiked the 15.5 mile West Rim Trail that commences at Lava Point in Zion National Park, and ends at The Grotto. It is a fantastic hike in the Zion Wilderness and you see landscapes most folks visiting Zion will never see. While hiking that trail, I came across this one vantage point that is incredible. I have always wanted to go back and photograph it - the trouble is, that it's around a 7 mile hike one-way to get to. So I would need to hike 7 miles in, 3 hours before sunset, photograph the foreground and the Milky Way, and then hike back the 7 miles in complete darkness, through the forests and meadows.Since none of my friends wanted to do this, I decided to go anyway. The hike in the evening was incredible with gorgeous lighting - but I have to say that the hike back at 2 AM at night, through that forest, in pitch darkness, with nothing but my headlamp illuminating the trail, was more than a little nerve-wracking. I kept imagining either a mountain lion or an axe murderer, hot on my heels, ready to get rid of the "stupid photographer". What an experience!

Milky Way at West Rim
Nikon D850, Nikon 70-200mm
(Click on Image to Open)

This was my first time photographing the Milky Way and needless to say, I am hooked. Southern Utah has some amazing landscapes, that make for compelling foregrounds to use in night photography, and I can't wait to head out soon on another adventure to capture the Milky Way.

Milky Way at GSENM
Nikon D850, Nikon 70-200mm
(Click on Image to Open)

Below is a video outlining my thought process, with respect to determining optimal locations for well structured compositions and technique to capture great images of the Milky Way. Please feel free to ask any questions in the comment section below.

Milky Way & Hoodoos

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Monday, August 26, 2019

The Subway at Zion National Park (The Left Fork of North Creek)


The Subway, Zion National Park
Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm
(Click on Image to Open)

The Subway in Zion National Park has been on my bucket list for quite a few years. Ever so often, I would come across some beautiful photos of this surreal landscape, tucked away in the inner depths of Zion. It seemed like a distant wonderland, something that was really hard to get to. Well, earlier this year, I finally got a chance to visit 'The Subway', and man, oh man, it really lived up to the hype.


Archangel Falls, Zion National Park
Archangel Falls - Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm
(Click on Image to Open)

In March of 2019, I decided to go on an extended road trip across Arizona and Utah. In the process, I spent a good deal of time in Zion National Park. During one of the cold winter evenings, I got chatting with a ranger who asked me if I had been to The Subway yet? I told him that I hadn't thought about it as I 'assumed' that a permit would be unavailable due to the heavy demand. He told me that several permits were available for multiple days as it was winter and there just weren't many people that wanted to do the hike, especially given the increase in water levels due to the excessive snowmelt. I looked online and sure enough, there were plenty of permits available for multiple days.

Alcove Fall, Zion National Park
Alcove Falls - Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm
(Click on Image to Open)

I reserved a permit online and the day before my hike, headed to the Zion National Park Visitor Center in Springdale, to collect it. Unfortunately, I wasn't aware that the Wilderness Desk at the visitor center in Springdale, was only open until noon and since I arrived a few minutes after noon, I was told that the permit couldn't be issued at that location.

Archangel Falls, Zion National Park
Archangel Falls - Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm
(Click on Image to Open)

My choices were to either collect it the following morning from the Springdale location or to drive 40 miles to the Kolob Canyon Visitor Center, which could issue the permit that day. Since I wanted an early start for this hike, I chose to drive to Kolob Canyon to collect it. It is worth mentioning that the $5 one pays to reserve the permit online, is for just that - reserving the permit. You have to make an additional payment for the actual permit, once you go to collect it. The cost varies, depending on how many people are in your group.

The Subway, Zion National Park
Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm
(Click on Image to Open)

The day of my hike, I woke up well before dawn, and headed to the Left Fork Trailhead. The trailhead is around 8.3 miles from the town of Virgin, on the Kolob Terrace Road. I desired to commence my hike at the start of civil twilight, as I wanted to arrive at 'Archangel Falls' near The Subway, before the sun's rays hit the water and washed out all the color. I figured that it would take me around 2.5 to 3 hours to get to that location, given the weight of my backpack (25 lbs) and the high water levels due to the spring snowmelt.

The Crack at The Subway, Zion National Park
Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm
(Click on Image to Open)

Well, it ended up taking me exactly 2 hours and 45 minutes to get to 'Archangel Falls' from the Left Fork Trailhead parking lot. The hike itself was strenuous due to the backpack weight and the high water levels - involving lots of scrambling over rocks and wading in waist deep water. I had rented a dry pants package from Zion Adventure Company in Springdale, and was nice and cozy during the hike. BTW, I subsequently did this hike in summer (August 2019), and the much lower water levels, made the hike a lot easier (as one could just walk in the water instead of scrambling over boulders).

The Subway, Zion National Park
Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm
(Click on Image to Open)

By the time I arrived at Archangel Falls, the cliffs in the background were lit up with this beautiful reflected light, making them glow. I wasted no time and started shooting some photos with my camera on a tripod. The water was flowing fast and I had to be very careful when placing my tripod on the slickrock. I used my Nikon D850 coupled with a Nikon 14-24 lens, on an RRS TVC-33 tripod.

The Subway, Zion National Park
Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm
(Click on Image to Open)

After spending an hour or so at 'Archangel Falls' and the beautiful 'Alcove Falls', I headed up to the main event - The Subway. Due to the strong water flow, the creekbed wasn't slippery and I had no problem with traction on the slickrock. High water levels meant that some of the famous potholes were covered with water - I thus had to get a little creative to capture the essence of The Subway. I should add that I did not see more than 5 to 6 hikers throughout my time there. I guess the high water levels and the cold weather, were a deterrent for many.

The Subway, Zion National Park
Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm
(Click on Image to Open)

In conclusion, I would highly recommend this hike, especially in late winter/ early spring, to capture a different perspective of this oft photographed subject. Due to the high water levels, there are countless opportunities to get some great shots of the waterfalls and The Subway. I would also recommend going in the summer to contrast your experience with that in the spring. The Left Fork of North Creek is a strenuous, albeit gorgeous hike, that offers the landscape photographer, great opportunities to get some lasting memories.

The Subway, Zion National Park
Archangel Falls - Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm
(Click on Image to Open)

Below is a video shot with my GoPro Hero7 Black of my hike to The Subway. Please feel free to ask any questions in the comment section below.

The Subway, Zion National Park, Utah

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Monday, December 3, 2018

Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico


Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Nikon D850, Sigma 150-600 Sports lens

I first heard about the Sandhill Cranes at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge last year. I came across some amazing images of these cranes, bathed in gorgeous New Mexico light, and thought that I definitely need to head there in the near future. Well, last week I finally got a chance to go to Bosque, and let me tell you, it really lives up to the hype - a photographer's paradise!


Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Nikon D850, Sigma 150-600 Sports lens

The 57,000 acre refuge is situated between the Chupadera Mountains to the west and the San Pascual Mountains to the east. During the fall and winter months, the refuge is home to tens of thousands of migratory Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese, besides the other birds that reside at the refuge. The refuge hosts an annual 'Festival of the Cranes' event around the middle of November, which marks the beginning of the migration season.

Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Nikon D850, Sigma 150-600 Sports lens

The peak time to visit Bosque for photography is from the last week of November through the second or third week of December. Do note that a lot of pro photographers lead workshops during the month of December, so expect the locations to be crowded. From my perspective, there is enough room to accommodate everyone, unless you have a specific spot that you like - in which case you might want to arrive early to claim that location.

Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Panning shot, Nikon D850, Sigma 150-600 Sports lens

I would begin my day by leaving my hotel in Socorro, around an hour and a half before sunrise. The drive from Socorro to the refuge takes around 30 minutes. This way I arrived at the refuge well before sunrise to allow me to get a good spot and setup my gear. Be advised that it can get very cold at the refuge early morning (it was around 18F or -8C last week), so definitely bundle up in layers and carry some hot coffee or other beverage. I love sipping on some hot coffee as dawn breaks in a gorgeous setting such as Bosque.

Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Panning shot, Nikon D850, Sigma 150-600 Sports lens

Location(s) for Dawn/ Sunrise photography: Enter the refuge and take the first left at the 4-way just inside the refuge. Drive on until you reach the 'Flight Deck' parking lot to the right. This is a pretty well known location for early morning photography.

Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Dawn by the 'Flight Deck', Nikon D850, Sigma 150-600 Sports lens

I personally prefer to drive past the 'Flight Deck' for approximately a hundred feet, and park just before the road becomes one-way (in the opposite direction - so one can't enter it anyway). Choose a spot in that vicinity and then take the dawn and maybe sunrise photos. If you don't have enough birds there close to you, you will definitely get the early morning color over the pond and some flying birds.

Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Dawn by the 'Flight Deck', Nikon D850, Sigma 150-600 Sports lens

Location(s) for Sunrise until an hour after Sunrise: Once you have shot the birds by the 'Flight Deck', head straight to the crane pools. This is the water body that you will pass on your way to the refuge - I believe it's around 3.5 miles north of the main paid entrance to the refuge. So head out of the main entrance, make a right and get back on the road that you came in on from San Antonio. Drive around 3.5 miles until you see a big parking lot to your left alongside a water body.

Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Nikon D850, Sigma 150-600 Sports lens

The cranes and snow geese roost here during the night and you will be able to get spectacular photos of them taking off a little after sunrise (when they head to the corn fields in the refuge). The lighting at this time is incredible. Try different photographic techniques like panning (use a shutter speed of around 1/100 of a second when you first start experimenting and then drop it to around 1/30s when you get good at panning).

Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Nikon D850, Sigma 150-600 Sports lens

After you have shot for an hour there, definitely head back into the refuge (so drive the 3.5 miles back to the entrance), enter the refuge and then drive straight to do the North Loop tour. Here you will find plenty of spots where these cranes will be feeding (some are very close and some a little distant).

Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Nikon D850, Sigma 150-600 Sports lens

For me personally, the light turned too harsh two to three hours after sunrise and I would return to my hotel in Socorro. I would then head back to the Crane Pools (the ones outside the refuge) around an hour and a half before sunset. The birds would start to come back from the corn fields to roost, around 45 minutes to an hour before sunset. The evening light is gorgeous and you will get great shots of the cranes landing on the water.

Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Nikon D850, Sigma 150-600 Sports lens

Finally, be aware that wind direction is really important when photographing birds. The birds will fly into the wind while taking off and landing. So position yourself such that you get the best angle. You definitely don't want to get their rear ends in the frame if the wind is from the front, blowing onto your face. Having said that, even if the wind is from the front, the birds tend to circle before landing - that's when you can get a good shot if the wind is not cooperating.

Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Nikon D850, Sigma 150-600 Sports lens

Bosque del Apache is an amazing place and one that I highly recommend you visit, especially if you like bird photography. The lighting there is gorgeous and one has a lot of opportunities to get some great shots. I personally used a Sigma 150-600mm Sports lens for my photographs and found it to be more than adequate to capture some great photos. Most importantly - Have Fun!

Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Nikon D850, Sigma 150-600 Sports lens

Feel free to comment below if you have specific questions about the place, or if you would like any more tips on photographing birds at Bosque.

Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Panning shot, Nikon D850, Sigma 150-600 Sports lens

Below is a quick iPhone video taken during an evening at the Crane pool.

Crane Pool, Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Horsetail Fall, Yosemite National Park, CA


Horsetail Fall, February 2016, Yosemite National Park, CA
Horsetail Fall, February 2016, Yosemite National Park, CA

For the past three years, I have desired to visit Yosemite National Park to photograph the natural fire-fall. No these aren't lava spewing, heat dispensing falls of fire like the ones in the LOTR movies. Rather for a few days in February, the sun's angle is such, that it lights up 'Horsetail Fall' in Yosemite National Park as if it were on fire. It really is a spectacular sight and one that I have been fortunate to photograph last year as well as this year.

Horsetail Fall, February 2011, Yosemite National Park, CA
Wide View of Horsetail Fall from the Valley floor, February 2011

This fall was made famous by Galen Rowell through his photograph 'Last light on Horsetail Fall'. Since then throngs of photographers descend upon Yosemite during the month of February, to capture this natural wonder. This event happens twice a year - in October and in February. During October, the fall is dry and hence one cannot see the event. Even in February, a few conditions have to be met before one can see this beautiful phenomenon - there should be sufficient snow melt for the fall to flow and the sun should not be obstructed by clouds around sunset (when this phenomenon takes place). During this window in February, as the evening sets in and the sun goes down, the light falling on El Capitan assumes a rich golden color. As the sun nears the horizon, the light falling on either side of the fall, gets narrower and narrower, until the light is focused just on the fall, giving the impression that the fall is on fire. It was thus with the intent of photographing this elusive event, that my friend Mike and I drove from Los Angeles to Yosemite on a cold Saturday morning.

Horsetail Fall, Yosemite National Park, CA
Horsetail Fall, February 2016, Yosemite National Park, CA

We arrived at Yosemite National Park around 1 pm and found a great spot with a clear view of the fall. We set our chairs down, mounted our cameras on tripods and high-fived each other, excited that we had got a prime spot to photograph this event. While gorging on sandwiches and washing them down with coke, we waited for sunset and watched as the initially empty landscape, began to fill up with photographers. By 4 pm, all the good spots had gone and panic was setting in among the late arrivals. Some took to the trees and some waded into the river water to try and get that perfect composition. As the excitement mounted and the friendly chatter of all present drowned the babbling of the Merced river, 'Ra' decided to play dirty and hid behind some clouds.

Horsetail Fall, Yosemite National Park, CA
Horsetail Fall, February 2011, Yosemite National Park, CA

Some of us started to get nervous, thinking that we might not see the fire-fall, while others started to pray for the clouds to part. It was really interesting to watch the reaction of people around us - people from different walks of life and interests, all hoping and praying for the clouds to part and let the sunlight through. Fifteen minutes before sunset, the clouds were completely obscuring the sun and most of us had lost hope of seeing the event. And then... Magic! The bottom of the fall started to light up as the sun's rays broke through the clouds. "It's happening", I shouted out to the other photographers, who then looked up and ran towards their gear. Slowly, but surely, 'Horsetail Fall' transformed into the 'Fire-Fall' right before our eyes. Noisy chatter was replaced by shutter clicks as awe-struck spectators marveled at the sight before their eyes. And then, ten minutes later, it was all gone. The 'Fire-fall' reverted back to 'Horsetail Fall', as everyone let out a collective sigh of disappointment.

Horsetail Fall, February 2016, Yosemite National Park, CA
Horsetail Fall, February 2016, Yosemite National Park, CA

One thing is for sure - Mike and I will be back next year to capture this event. I for one, just want to be in the presence of this indescribable beauty.

Here is a video that I created of the event.



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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Death Valley National Park, CA


Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley
Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley

I had been wanting to visit Death Valley National Park for the last couple of years and finally got the chance to do so this past winter. Visiting the park in the winter held a couple of incentives for me; first, the climate was pleasant during the day, and second, the temperatures were sufficiently low (in the 30s) during the night, to allow me to photograph star trails with little image noise during the long exposures. I hoped to leave Los Angeles around 4 AM- the keyword being 'hoped'! Sleeping late and getting up early don't really mix well together, and after hitting the 'snooze' button on my alarm clock a few times, I finally managed to leave my apartment around 5 AM. A quick stop at the local gas station for a cup of joe, and I was cruising along CA-134.

Moonrise over Ubehebe Crater
Moonrise over Ubehebe Crater

I decided to take CA-134 to the I-15 N, before finally taking CA-127 at Barstow. The journey time from LA to Death Valley is approximately 5 hours. I arrived at Death Valley around 10 AM and after checking in at the visitor center, I headed to my campsite located in the Furnace Creek campground. The campground is well laid out with RV campsites in the middle and the tent sites circling the RV ones. If camping in a tent, it's advisable to book tent specific sites, as they have a softer ground (for the stakes). I made the mistake of booking one night in the RV site and could not for the life of me, hammer half of my stakes into the hard ground. I then decided to just hammer the stakes in at a 45 degree angle and set some stones on top of the stakes. As luck would have it, it was horribly windy that night and I was just hoping that the stakes/ stones combo, would keep the tent in place (which they did).

Sunset at Badwater
Sunset at Badwater

I basically wanted to photograph a few specific places in Death Valley. I knew that I definitely had to shoot the sunrise from Badwater as well as Dante's View, and the sunset at Ubehebe Crater (which is a few miles from Scotty's Castle and quite a distance from Furnace Creek). The drive to the crater is very scenic (with some great views). I recommend going to see the crater if you visit Scotty's Castle. The crater is also en-route to the Racetrack (which I have never been to, as one requires a 4WD high-clearance vehicle to get there). Besides these photos, I wanted a couple of panoramas and star trails (specifically from Zabriskie Point and Dante's View). I tend to shoot star trails around 2 AM or so, and was thus apprehensive about heading off to these remote areas alone at that time. I especially remember the trip to Dante's View (for those of you that have never been to Death Valley, Dante's View is a very scenic point at around 5000 feet above the valley below and is a good distance from civilization)- images of myself being stalked by an Axe-murderer kept flashing as I was driving up the solitary road towards my destination.

Sunrise at Dante's View
Sunrise, Panamint Range, Dante's View

If you do decide to go to Dante's View for night photography (I highly recommend it), then try and go with a friend (and don't forget to load your thermos up with some hot coffee the previous night). One of the great things about Death Valley is that they have a couple of restaurants and a grocery store very close to the visitor center. One of the most photographed locations in Death Valley is 'Zabriskie Point' which happens to be close to the visitor center. The view from this point is great and the light early morning and late evening is spectacular. This point has a lot of tourists for the sunset, but not too many show up for the sunrise (they tend to show up after the sun has risen). I shot an hour long star trail at this point (around 2AM or so) and it turned out well. I had planned my two visits to Death Valley so that I got the chance to photograph the valley, both during the new moon as well as the full moon.

Star Trails at Zabriskie Point
Star Trails at Zabriskie Point

A few weeks ago, I decided to go to Death Valley once again as I wanted to capture shots for a panorama at Badwater. At 282 feet below sea-level, Badwater is the lowest point in Death Valley (and also the USA). One of the cool things at the parking lot is a sign up on the mountain by the parking lot, that says 'Sea Level'. The location is very scenic and can provide some great photo opportunities. The panorama below is composed of around 13 shots stitched together (representing approximately 270 degrees of view). I got lucky that day as there were clouds and the panorama turned out quite dramatic. If you can go to Death Valley during a rainstorm, I think you will be well rewarded with some great photo opportunities.

To see the panorama below in all its glory, click on the photo and once it opens, use the scrollbar at the bottom to scroll to the right to see the full picture.

Badwater Panorama- Click on this photo to open large version
Badwater Panorama, Death Valley


Death Valley should definitely be on your list of must-see attractions. It's a great place to relax, shoot photos and just have a good time.
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