Mono Lake, a large, desert saline lake in California, has one of the most surreal and alien looking landscapes ever seen anywhere. One of it’s defining features is it’s tufa rock formations, resembling stalactites, and are in fact, deposits of calcium-carbonite towers caused by the interaction between freshwater springs fed by the tributaries which flow through Lundy Canyon, and alkaline lake water, caused by lack of an outlet causing high levels of salt to accumulate in the lake.
Several months ago, I got the urge to photograph the Milky Way over this other-worldly landscape. Knowing that the Milky Way is visible in the northern hemisphere from April through October, I picked a weekend of the new moon in mid-April and forecast meteor showers to book a room at nearby dog- and budget-friendly Murphy’s Motel in Lee Vining, and keep my fingers crossed for clear skies. Never having successfully photographed the Milky Way before, I thought I would share some of settings and helpful resources I used to plan the shot.
After arriving in the eastern Sierras, and a couple of hours of fitful sleep, the Milky Way was already making a dramatic appearance under clear skies and 20 degree weather. Fortunately, I learned my lesson after standing in the cold photographing the lunar eclipse and was much better prepared by dressing warm!
I also knew that the galactic center of the Milky Way would be visible in the east/southeast skies around 1am using the iPhone and iPad app, Photopills. There is a lot of great information out there, but if you really want a well written, technical and thorough book about night sky photography, check out Royce Bair’s e-book “Milky Way Nightscapes”. The e-book explains everything from settings, to lighting props, to post-processing techniques.
The “recipe” below is partially derived from that book, with the exception of the focus. I had tried focusing on a fixed point, 10’ away, which is the hyper-focal distance of my camera and lens combination as suggested by the book, but I wanted to move around too much and get different compositions, so I simply focused to infinity instead, and the shots turned out really sharp.
It was also fun to play around with a little light painting on the tufas. I came very over-prepared with a powerful LED flashlight and colored gels with the intent to get different effects. Those proved to be too powerful and over-exposed at such long exposures. What I ultimately used was my little red headlamp, mostly covered with my hand to diffuse the light, and a battery powered string of purple Christmas lights set up hundreds of feet away to get a pleasing color composition that was barely detectable by the naked eye during the exposure.
Gear & Settings Used:
Camera: Canon 6D
Lens: Tokina 16-28mm f/2.8
Tripod: Manfrotto 190XPRO
Focal Length: 16mm
Exposure: 25 seconds
File format RAW
White Balance: 3500K
Manual focus to infinity
Image stabilization, long exposure noise reduction, and mirror lockup ironically are turned OFF.
Edited in Adobe Lightroom primarily with the powerful Tone Curve tool.
As the long night wandering amongst the Mono Lake tufas photographing the Milky Way started to wind down, the hours before sunrise when the millions of stars started to fade in the skies over Battleship Rock conjured a beautiful blue glow. I’m REALLY grateful that the clear night skies cooperated for this trip, as I spent so much time researching night photography in preparation.
What I love about landscape photography is that it has helped me be more mindful of natural events. Whether it’s when a certain flower is in bloom, the aspen leaves are changing color, or a meteor shower or eclipse occurrence, I’ve been planning my shots more and more around these natural events to tell a story with my photos. Next time, I’m planning on doing a panorama!