Photographers Strive to Bring
Moab Area’s Night Sky to Life
By David L. Brown, May 5, 2019
The Moab region is blessed to be in one of the best remaining dark sky locations in America. It’s a sad fact that most people today live in areas where light pollution has erased the ability to enjoy the wonders of the night, whether the constellations, the glorious Milky Way, and even planets such as Mars, Venus and Jupiter.
The dark night sky of Southeastern Utah is a challenge to photographers who seek to capture the mystery of the night. Thanks to their high quality and ability to use high ISO speed settings, today’s digital camera sensors can capture the stars with clarity never before possible.
For best results a fast lens that catches pinpoint star images without distortion is required. For night sky photography I often use a Rokonon 14mm f/2.8 lens on my Canon 6D mk.ii camera. For the night sky, my usual exposures are in the range of 20 seconds at ISO settings as high as 3200 or even 6400. I have also worked with a Sony 6500 camera and 12mm f/2 Rokonon lens. Whichever camera you use should have settings to compensate for noise resulting from high ISO and long exposures and these features should be turned on before shooting night scenes.
There are several ways to make pictures of the night sky, and the most dramatic effects take the landscape into account. A picture that merely shows the sky itself is not as interesting as one that reveals details of the landscape. To achieve this requires some source of lighting.
In my first example made in Valley of the Gods, the light was provided by the Moon, Earth’s natural floodlight. I shot the picture with the Sony 6500 camera and 12mm Rokonon lens at f/2 and ISO 2000, with an exposure of about 15 seconds. It looks almost like a daytime picture because the moonlight, actually daylight from the Sun reflected from our satellite, turns the sky blue. Nevertheless, you can see the stars as well as the redrock formations of the Valley.
The second photo, also made with Moonlight, shows a section of the Sand Flats Road going toward the La Sal Mountains. It was made with the Canon 6D and 14mm Rokonon. This is looking Northeast and the distant glow of Grand Junction can be seen along the horizon.
Another option is to use the technique of light painting, in which the camera lens remains open while the photographer uses a flashlight to light up objects in the near foreground. The example of the Milky Way with green foliage was made in the La Sal Mountains. The exposure here was 20 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO of 6400. While the lens was open I lit up the foliage to provide a contrast to the glorious Milky Way.
Finally, the advent of dimmable LED light panels gives the possibility of using a technique called Low Level Lighting, or LLL, to illuminate far larger areas than are possible with a light painting flashlight. The picture of Skyline Arch was made using two light panels placed at far sides of the arch and turned down so that it is barely possible to even see the light on the rocks. However, using a high ISO and long exposure to capture the star fields also allows the camera to capture the faint light. LLL photography brings new possibilities to the challenge of capturing images of the night sky.
As a side note, be aware that the National Park Service has banned light painting in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. And now, in a recent email to guide permit holders from Greg Owen, who manages the permit program for the Moab office, LLL lighting will also be banned in the parks starting in 2020.
It is a shame that some of the most spectacular features of the area, subjects such as Delicate Arch, Balanced Rock, and many others will no longer be able to be photographed beneath the splendor of the night sky. But wait, this still leaves the possibility to make pictures lit by the Moon. Not even the Park Service can stop the Moon from shining,
Using the Moon As a Fill Light
By David L. Brown, May 28, 2018
A few days ago I had the marvelous experience of spending the night in Valley of the Gods, a part of the southern Utah landscape. The Moon was at 72% of full so it was a great opportunity to capture the rugged rock formations by moonlight while revealing the stars in the sky. The result is shown below.
Here are some technical details: The photo was made with a 24 MP Sony a6500 camera fitted with a Rokonon 12mm f/2 lens. The exposure was 25 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 2000. The view is looking due north, with Polaris in the upper center. The blue sky is the result of being lit by moonlight, which is nearly the same color as the sunlight which it reflects. Thus this image closely resembles a photo made during the day, but with stars in the sky. Minimal post processing was used for this image, mainly to digitally erase an airplane trail. At one point I counted six airliners in the field of view at one time. Enjoy.
How Technology Has Revolutionized Photography
I am excited about the possibilities of the latest technological tools available to photographers today. I spent many years making stock images with film cameras, using large-format 4×5 and 5×7 inch view cameras; panoramic systems to produce 6×17 cm. images; as well as various medium format and 35mm cameras. I worked in 30 countries and at one time had a network of 15 stock photo agents that represented my work. Need I mention that my specialty was landscape and travel imagery. Thousands of my pictures have been published around the world, appearing in advertisements, books, magazines and every medium you can imagine.
Now the digital age has changed photography in very significant ways. Not only can I now capture excellent quality images with the digital sensors in my cameras, but new software allows those images to be post-processed to bring them to a new level of visual quality. Here is a recent example: A photo I made at Dead Horse Point State Park near Moab, UT. The sun was setting behind me as I looked out over the canyons of the Colorado River, and veils of virga (rain that evaporates without reaching the ground) were streaming from the clouds, lit by the golden rays. A partial rainbow appeared and I made this picture using a 14mm Rokinon lens on my Canon 6D camera. Post-processing in Photoshop and Aurora HDR produced the final image.
By David L. Brown, May 15, 2017
Heck, a whole year has gone by without a single blog entry. I have been busy on other things and kind of forgot I had a responsibility to hold up my hand from time to time to let people know that, yes, I still breathe and walk and talk. And make pictures,
I have had a number of photo tours so far this year, working with photographers from rank beginners to accomplished shooters. Whether offering a workshop experience or leading clients to places they would not ordinarily visit, I always try to leave my guests with new ideas for how to get the most from their photography.
An interesting example was when I recently spent a half-day with Carlos Felfoldi, a talented amateur photographer who works in the IT industry. We were at Dead Horse Point State Park early one morning when I suggested to Carlos that he might try to capture a sun star. This is when a small portion of the sun is peeking from around or through some object, creating a multi-pointed “star” image. I suggested that the thick foliage of a nearby juniper tree might provide a chance to place a star in the image beside a view of the rugged canyons of the Colorado River. Carlos took my idea to the max, resulting in a picture that I wish I had taken myself. Here is what he created.
For myself, I have just purchased the new Canon T7i camera with the 18-135mm kit lens and added a B+W circular polarizer. I liked my older T3i and used it often instead of my heavier Canon 6D. One of my first chances to use the T7i last Friday resulted in the image below, showing Fisher Towers and the La Sal Mountains. The picture was made just before sunset from a spot along the Colorado River upstream from Moab. That’s all for now. I will try to do a better job of keeping up with my blog. Thanks for reading.
By David L. Brown – May 22, 2016
Well, I’ve been a poor blogger so it’s time to catch up with what’s been going on. I spent the winter in semi-hibernation, then things started to get busy really fast.
I just finished putting together and leading a two-day tour for 20 members of the Photographic Society of America. I recruited Tom Till, a noted landscape photographer who has a gallery here in Moab, to help pull it off. Tom and I each took ten of the 20 out for the first day, then switched and did the same basic tour the second day. The chance to spend a full day with two different photo tour leaders seemed to work very well. We got started at 5:15 and returned about dark, but with a lengthy free period in the middle of the day.
The PSA folk were a lot of fun to be with. This is an organization of about 6000 amateur and advanced amateur photographers. They have been around since the 1930s and publish a journal. This was their first attempt at promoting a photo tour event, and I was pleased to work with PSA’s immediate past president John Davis to put it together. Here’s a photo of one of the groups. That’s me on the left.
Planning for the New Year
By David L. Brown – January 5, 2016
Here it is a brand new year and I’ve been thinking about some new ideas for the coming season. Some of the ideas are to expand the number of places I take clients. And, I’m considering adding multi-day trips to my list of offerings.
These might be a two-day trip to more distant parts of Utah with an overnight stay in a motel. For example, I have National Park Service permits that allow me to guide in Natural Bridges and Hovenweep National Monuments, so that could make a nice tour package.
I may also invest in some equipment in order to set up overnight camps, with tents, stoves, cookware and the like. This would allow me to take clients on overnight trips such as a dramatic and remote location to shoot the Milky Way in the dark of the Moon. This is just an idea for now.
I’m also adding sightseeing tours for those who are not avid photographers. I learned that many of the spouses or partners who accompanied my photographer clients had just as much fun as the photographers themselves, so I will be offering generic sightseeing this season. I’ve put up some ideas here.
If some of these ideas appeal to you, give me a call to discuss what you’d like to do. If I have enough lead time I can obtain the necessary permits to go to other locations, such as Capitol Reef National Park. You can email me, too: email@example.com.
Starting in November, 2015 I have been writing a monthly column about photography for Moab Happenings, a monthly tabloid that reports on events in and around Moab, UT. Each column features a discussion of some phase of landscape photography, accompanied by photos to illustrate the points being made. Moab is an international magnet for photography enthusiasts, and its amazing variety of landscape subjects provides a never ending feast for the eye. For my website readers, I’m reproducing the columns here under the heading Photo Columns.
Into the Back Country
By David L. Brown, September 26, 2015
I’ve just returned from a two-day trip into the back country of the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park with my friends Steve and Laurence Hughes, who were kind enough to let me join them in their tricked-out Jeep Wrangler. Its large tires and raised suspension were critical to allowing us to travel through areas which back country rangers couldn’t assure us were even passable. In fact, there were places where we weren’t so sure, either, but we made it.
Our journey took us over Elephant Hill, then down Devil’s Lane to Horsehoof campground which we had reserved for the night.
I had driven over Elephant Hill with a Jeep Grand Wagoneer in about 1988, and from my recollection the trails are even more rugged than before, perhaps due to years of 4WD traffic and erosion of disturbed earth. We climbed over many rocky ledges that showed the marks of scraped metal, and in one early section there was a trail of what must have been either oil or transmission fluid. A breakdown in this rugged terrain can cost up to $4000 for a tow.
Horsehoof is a primitive one-site camp with some of the most spectacular scenery in Canyonlands. As the sun touched the horizon I made this picture of rock formations and distant ranks of “needles” by stepping just a few yards from the camp’s rustic picnic table.
That night I slept under the stars on a thin foam pad. Before retiring I took a moonlit walk among the stunning rock formations. The moon was about three days from full so it shone most of the night. Sometime after it set I woke to see Orion in the East and brilliant Venus just rising in a sky about as dark as you can find anywhere in the United States. I turned over and the next thing I knew it was daylight and time to prepare for the next phase of our trip.
Our goal was to travel south out of the park to an area called Beef Basin, known for Anasazi ruins and petroglyphs. A section of the rugged jeep trail had been badly washed out earlier in the year, and we had been told it was likely impassable, but we were determined to try. In the end, we did succeed, making it through a section with ruts up to two or three feet deep. The secret is to keep the Jeep running along the edge of the ruts without falling in, a kind of balancing act that Steve performed with his experienced hand.
Once over a rough stretch known as Bobby’s Hole we were home free to explore Beef Basin with its traces of ancient farmers who lived there about 1200 years ago. Here’s a picture of one of the sites, known as Farmhouse Ruin. There are two round structures nearby that may have been granaries where corn, beans and other crops were stored.
Another ancient homestead, Tower Ruin is a couple of miles away on the south side of Beef Basin. This structure shows signs of construction such as is found at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, with indications of floor-supporting latillas and sockets suggesting it may have originally been three stories high.
Leaving Beef Basin we headed East on a well-graded road that carried us back to civilization. In our entire two-day trip, from the time we ascended Elephant Hill through Beef Basin, we encountered only two other vehicles. Because of the difficulty of its rugged Jeep trails, this is truly country few ever enjoy.
Photographing a Spiritual Place
By David L. Brown, September 13, 2015
The Moon is in its dark phase and the skies opened up on the night of September 11, so I was off to attempt to capture the Milky Way and a petroglyph site near Moab known as the Birthing Rock. This large freestanding rock is covered on all four sides with ancient “Indian writings,” or petroglyphs made by chipping images into the stone. These ancient images are hundreds or even thousands of years old. The place takes its name from a portrayal of a woman giving birth, an image surrounded by a pattern of baby footprints. I wanted to capture the spiritual nature of this sacred place along with the magnificence of the galaxy.
With my friends Mike Baca and Maria Domecq I arrived at the site at dusk and located some shooting spots. I was using my Canon 6D with Rokonon 14mm f/2.8 lens. I have a remote control unit on the camera that lets me fire it from up to 100 yards away. In this case, I only moved 15 or 20 feet to the side to enable me to “light paint” the rock with my EagleTac high intensity flashlight. As I was shooting 20 second exposures at ISO 6400, it took very little use of the flashlight to illuminate the subject.
My first composition was from further away from the rock, showing it in its surroundings with the Milky Way at the side. Here is the result:
I next moved in closer to show the rock in greater detail, and aligned the Milky Way to lead directly down to the rock. I also composed this image as a portrait (vertical) composition. In this case I had my Gitzo tripod fully extended to place the camera about seven feet above the ground. I used my light to paint the rock from further away. The result was even more dramatic, as shown here:
I’m having fun making these night shots, and have several other sites on my list to shoot when the Moon and clear skies permit. The amazing ability of today’s digital cameras to deliver good images at high ISO settings makes this type of photography possible. In a technical note, I used Photoshop to enhance contrast and applied the “despeckle” filter twice to smooth the images.
Incidentally, nearby Canyonlands National Park was just named an International Dark Sky Park. The entire region around Moab has some of the best conditions for sky viewing in America.
More Night Sky Photography
By David L. Brown, July 17, 2015
Milky Way photography had been on hold due to the presence of the Moon in the night sky, and then for several days due to clouds. Finally, last night the wonderful Moab night sky appeared and I spent the evening beneath the canopy of the universe.
I have obtained a special flashlight that emits daylight balanced light and is quite bright for its small size. I intend to use this to “light paint” foreground objects and my objective last night was to test this in practice. I did not attempt to find a dramatic arch or other subject to light paint, but merely a foreground with desert shrubs. Here is the result:
This image was made with my Canon 6D and 14mm Rokonon lens at f/2.8 and 20 seconds. The ISO was set at 6400. Foreground lighting was achieved by briefly “painting” with the flashlight during the exposure. Incidentally, the flashlight has three brightness settings and I found the brightest caused the foreground to burn out; this shot was made using the lowest brightness setting. When light painting more distant objects, I will have the option of boosting the light output accordingly.
As before, I am amazed at the performance of the Rokonon lens, which produces pinpoint stars even in the corners of the wide frame and shooting wide open. I’m looking forward to more starry nights in which to practice my new skills.
By David L. Brown, July 3, 2015
I’ve been doing some informal market research on the contents of my fine art photo gallery, where about 20 framed prints are on display. The subjects are from a wide range of Western scenes with emphasis on the red rock canyon country.
It’s been interesting that nearly every single picture has been picked by at least one person as their favorite. As the photographer, that is encouraging, for you see, I like them all and would be hard pressed to pick one single favorite.
I guess I’d have to say that the picture that has done the best (with two prints sold to date) is this shot from Yosemite National Park, showing the flowing Merced River and the imposing form of El Capitan. This picture was made in the mid-90s with a Linhof 4×5 view camera and Velvia cut film.
I used a fairly long exposure to get the water to appear to be flowing, probably stopping down to f/32 or even f/45 and shooting at one second. If you shoot moving water with a fast shutter speed, it makes it appear “frozen,” which is unnatural since our eyes see it as moving, and the slow shutter speed captures that feeling about a scene.
Another image many people like is this panoramic shot of Navajo Lake in Colorado, at the headwaters of the west fork of the Delores River (one print sale to date). This is a high glacial moraine lake that requires a difficult and fairly long round trip hike. The image was captured on 120 Fuji Velvia roll film using a panoramic camera. My old knees no longer permit me to make such long-distant hikes, but fortunately there are a wealth of other options in this lovely region of the world. My Jeep can get me close to a myriad of lovely sites to photograph within a mile or so on foot.
Canyons, Deserts and Mountain Meadows
By David L. Brown, June 21, 2015
The Moab area is almost unique for the wide variety of landscapes if offers. Yesterday provided an excellent example as I guided a photographer client on an all-day tour that included Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, a drive down the scenic Shafer Trail to the Colorado River, then up to the nearby La Sal Mountains. There we discovered a field of wild iris where I made this photograph before continuing on to scenic Warner Lake.
This picture illustrates a couple of the points I make in my landscape photo workshops: the Rule of Thirds, and the use of foreground and background elements to make a comprehensive composition. In this case, the foreground field of flowers takes up about two-thirds of the image area, and leads the eye to the mountains in the distance.
First Milky Way Shots
By David L. Brown, June 19, 2015
As promised, here is a follow-up on my first deep sky shoot using the Rokonon 14mm lens. For several days the Moon was in a dark phase and I was eager to go out, but each night the sky filled with clouds. Finally, last night the clouds had gone away and I was able to go out beneath the wonderful dark sky that we enjoy here in Moab. For me, being under the dome of the Milky Way is like going to church.
Leaving a little after sunset I drove up Sand Flats Road toward the LaSal Mountains, gaining at least 1000 feet of altitude, and set up at a place that provided a good view of the southern and eastern horizons. I set up a Gitzo tripod and mounted my Canon 6D, then sat back to wait for the sky to become dark.
There was a thin sliver of Moon in the West, along with the planets Venus and Jupiter, so while waiting I tried a few shots of the waning sunset with a campfire and campers in the middle distance. Not a great picture, but a wonderful visual treat that I’ll share with you. Shot with the 6D and Canon 24-105mm lens at f/11 and 1 second.
At last the sky turned dark and the amazing details of our home galaxy emerged. I made a few exposures of the Milky Way near the horizon, where it passes through the constellation of Sagittarius, and some more of the area where Cygnus the Swan (also called the Northern Cross) flies along the glowing band of the galactic lens.
Using the Rokonon wide open at f/2.8 I set the ISO at 3200. This provided effective exposures in the range of 20 seconds. I bracketed between 10 and 30 seconds. Shooting in RAW, I was able to brighten the exposure in post processing. Here’s a sample of the results, a shot looking toward Sagittarius where the center of the galaxy appears, the brightest part of the Milky Way.
And here is the photo looking east as the Milky Way rises over the horizon with the Summer Triangle of Vega, Deneb and Altair.
As time permits, I will be doing more sky photography around Moab, featuring various locations within Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, as well as other locations in the area. I plan eventually to begin offering night shooting workshops for small groups of 6-10. Let me know if you want to be kept informed. You can call me on my cell phone at 435-210-8158, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gearing Up for Night Sky Photography
By David L. Brown – June 11, 2015
I’ve been busy on some writing projects and haven’t gotten in much photography the last month or so. I recently purchased an ultra-wide lens that I want to use for some Milky Way photos. Moab has one of the darkest skies left in the continental U.S., and the ability of the latest digital cameras such as my Canon 6D to shoot at very high ISOs without creating a lot of noise makes it possible to shoot the night sky as never before.
The lens is a 14mm f/2.8 Rokonon and by setting the ISO of the camera at 3200 exposures of the night sky can be made in just 20 seconds or so. At that length of exposure the stars do not move enough to leave a noticeable trail in such a wide angle view. I’ve been waiting for the new moon to give me truly black skies to try out this new lens and will post a report here with examples of my results. I will probably be offering workshops on night sky photography in the near future.
Incidentally, I’ve been a long-time amateur astronomer and have owned several telescopes over the years, including 10- and 12-inch reflectors. In university I took all the astronomy courses that were offered.
The Rokonon is a very basic lens that must be stopped down manually before making an exposure (unless as with night sky shoots I’ll be using the full f/2.8 aperture). It reminds me of the many years I worked with view cameras and their manual lenses, focusing wide open on the ground glass with my head under a hood, then stopping down to get the desired depth of field.
Things are coming together now and my tri-fold brochures will appear in display racks all over town starting today. The timing is good, as the summer vacation period is just starting to take off. So far, with minimal exposure, I’ve done one workshop and one half-day tour, and have booked a half-day and full-day tour for later in the summer. I intend all of my events to be exclusive, private affairs, rather than dealing with groups. That means I can devote all my attention to my clients. In order to accommodate couples when one partner is not a photographer, the second non-participating person rides along free.
If you want to chat, call me on my personal cell phone at 435-210-8158.
By David L. Brown – April 24, 2015
I just got my promotional trifold brochures back from the printer and they look great. I’ve placed some with the Moab Visitor’s Center, and will soon have them in card racks in places around town. I’ve also received my new business cards, and here’s a look. I’ve made my signature my logo, which makes sense for an artist. You might like to know the story behind the photo of Delicate Arch in winter. Best I can recall it was made in early January, 1988. I arrived in Moab the night before and it snowed while I slept in the motel. After sunrise I hiked up to Delicate Arch with my Linhof 4×5 inch view camera, lenses and tripod and had the entire place to myself with no footprints in the snow. The storm had cleared and the distant La Sal Mountains were covered with a fresh coat of pure white.
I’ve sold my first fine art print from the gallery here at the ACT Learning Center, and it was a panoramic view of San Francisco at night seen across the Bay from Treasure
Island with the Bay Bridge prominently featured. Thought I’d share it with you, so here it is. The image was made on Fuji Velvia film using a V-Pan panoramic view camera and Nikkor lens.
In the mid-90s I worked with the late Chet Hanchett who developed the V-Pan camera, field testing a beta model, helping assemble the first ten cameras, and writing and designing the owner’s manual. I also wrote a field report for the newsletter of the International Association of Panoramic Photographers. I eventually owned two of the cameras, and had a V-Pan rear standard adapted for my Wisner 5×7 inch view camera. By switching rails and bellows, the modular V-Pan allowed me to work with lenses ranging from 47mm to 720mm. Chet manufactured and sold about 130 of the cameras. Today I make panoramics using my digital cameras and stitching several exposures in Photoshop. Instead of having to schlep around about 40 pounds of camera gear, I can get excellent results just by making a few quick exposures.
By David L. Brown – April 15, 2015
I’m gearing up to launch Image Quest in the next few days. It’s been a long process and I thought I would take a moment to share my vision with you, the readers of my new website which, as you can see, is also a work in progress.
The preparation to launch Image Quest involved getting approval to lead tours on National Park, State Park and Bureau of Land Management areas around Moab. I was required to take courses in CPR and First Aid and get certification for that. I also needed to get high-coverage liability insurance. It also required the purchase of the URL, and registration of the name Image Quest with the state of Utah, as well as the creation of this web site, a promotional folder, business cards and opening a new bank account. Whew! Glad all that’s over.
Part of Image Quest is the display of my limited edition fine art prints at my base in the Learning Center of the ACT campground. I made all the prints and mounted, matted and framed them for display. Besides being offered for sale, the prints will serve as show-and-tell subjects for my photo workshops. I also have written and designed an 8-page folder titled “7 Key Secrets to Better Landscape Photos” which will be given to participants in my half-day personal photo workshops.
Of course, the really big task was the years I spent learning and practicing the art of landscape photography. For many years I traveled most parts of North America and more than 25 countries in Europe, Asia and the South Pacific. I worked with a variety of film cameras, including large format 4×5 and 5×7 inch view cameras and a variety of 35mm and medium format models. I also used a number of specialized panoramic cameras, including 6×17 cm. cameras and rotating cameras. Thousands of my pictures have been used in publications, advertisements, calendars and for every purpose you can imagine.
I switched to digital photography about 12 years ago, owning the first pro-level canon 1Ds model and subsequently a 5D, 5DII, and presently the 6D full-frame camera with 20.2 MP. My most-used lens is the Canon 24-105mm f/4 L, and I also have a few other lenses, including a 75-300mm zoom and a 14mm f/2.8 ultra wide angle lens which is ideal for Milky Way photos. I often use a tripod for my landscape work, although with the ability of the latest cameras to shoot at high ISO numbers without significant noise, hand holding is often practical by using a fast shutter speed. The image at left was made last fall with a hand-held exposure at ISO 800. There is no sign of noise in the digital file, which was processed in RAW.
In my new enterprise I look forward to sharing the fruits of my many years of practice with new friends among the red rock canyons, mountains and rivers of the Moab region. Look for more improvements to this website, including the construction of an online gallery where many of my photographs will be displayed and offered for sale as fine art prints. In future blog posts I’ll discuss photo techniques and share my experiences.
As someone who feels a close connection with nature, I’ve discovered in photography and writing the means to express my awe at being part of this amazing universe we all share. If you’re planning a trip to Moab, stop by to say hello and take a look at my work. Unless I’m out in the field with other clients, you can usually find me in the Learning Center at ACT Campground, U.S. 191 and Mill Creek Drive, Moab, UT, just 2.5 miles south of the city center.