Trip Report: Night Skies of the Southwest I – March 2021

Our first Night Skies of the Southwest workshop is in the books and this trip…well, this trip was something else. We did it all – we chased the Milky Way and we chased light, and what we ran into along the way was nothing short of amazing!

In life, you can only control so much, some things are just out of your hands. Photography isn’t any different. You can plan your shots extensively, but much of photography is about reacting. For this workshop, we did a lot of reacting. That’s what it’s all about though, and that’s often how the best shots come about.

This trip took place in the American Southwest, right on the border of Arizona, and Utah. This region is referred to as the Colorado Plateau and it features some of the most unique geology you can find anywhere on the planet. It is home to some of the darkest skies in the country as well, making it an ideal place for astrophotography.

Our main target was the Milky Way. We were able to capture some great Milky Way shots. We also dedicated some time to the creation of star trails – star trail shots are a blast to capture and put together too.

The Milky Way is really awe-inspiring, especially if you’ve never seen it with your own eyes. In a location with very low light pollution, you can see the Milky Way with the naked eye. I vividly remember my first time seeing it, it makes you stop in your tracks and ponder the massiveness that is the solar system. It is beyond comprehension, in terms of time and size.

The Milky Way is our solar system, it contains Earth, and much more. Here are some metrics for you to wrap your head around. The Milky Way contains 200-800 billion stars and planets…it is approximately 13.5 billion years old…and it has a radius of 52,850 light-years (one light-year is about 6 trillion miles, I’ll let you do the math!).

Oh, and did I mention it’s a blast to capture with a camera? Because cameras are able to take long exposures of 15-30 seconds, they are able to capture the Milky Way with vivid detail. It’s one thing to see the Milky Way with the naked eye, and another to capture it for the first time with a camera – I recommend doing both if you haven’t.

So, that was our main target during the week. Here’s the kicker though during the week, we ran into not one, but multiple snowstorms. That’s right, snow in the desert! This forced us to rearrange plans and react to the weather. It worked out great though, as we were able to capture the Milky Way during the beginning of the trip and then capture some really unique desert scenes with snow and clearing storms during the second half.

Overall, the end result was some of the most unique images that have ever come from a workshop that I’ve led.

We started the trip in Zion National Park, one of my favorites in the lower 48. Our first Milky Way shoot took place on the east side of the park. The east side is home to rock formations that look much different from the Zion Canyon, but I think they are equally impressive. We set up at one of my favorite spots, a location featuring a gnarly Juniper tree growing off the side of a rock. On our first night, we were able to capture the Milky Way for a short period of time before clouds crept in – something we’d have to get used to as the week went on.

We stayed in Zion one more night though and the second night offered us a clearing. Our goal for night #2 was star trails. We went to a spot along Highway 9 that overlooks the Zion Canyon. For star trails, you need to point your camera towards the north star (Polaris). Earth’s axis points directly towards the north star so the star reflects very little movement. But, all the other stars appear to rotate around it. So, we captured this movement by taking exposures at around 20-30s, f/2.8-4, ISO 1600-3200 for around an hour or two. The end result is 100-200 exposures that we can import into Photoshop and easily create a ‘star trail’ effect with a few layer changes. The hardest part is dealing with so many images. Take it a step further and you can use a Blue Hour exposure to blend as your base for the landscape.

The next day we went out for sunrise and spent some time shooting in the Zion Canyon. We stopped at some of the highlights in the park and photographed until the light grew harsh.

After breakfast, we began our travels to our new home for the rest of the week – Kanab, UT. Kanab is in the heart of some of the best desert locations in Utah and Arizona, and it offered us close proximity to great sites for the rest of the week.

We started off the first night by visiting nearby Coral Pink Sand Dunes. The dunes are close to Kanab and actually very impressive. We got really great conditions at the park, as the wind was howling and blowing sand all over, creating really unique atmosphere.

After shooting for a while, we headed back to Kanab for dinner and an early bedtime. The next morning would be a 3 am departure for the Milky Way.

We got lucky and the early AM of day four offered us crystal clear skies in the south. We visited The Rimrocks area just outside Kanab, a spot home to some very unique toadstools and hoodoos. In March, the Milky Way is in the perfect spot over a set of hoodoos and we shot, and shot, and shot!

Ben and I also set up a low-level lighting system. This involved using a super dimmable light to illuminate the hoodoos. The light is similar to soft moonlight. We even used a hotel towel to dampen the light even more.

Milky Way photography involves shooting in pitch black conditions. So, using a light to illuminate the landscape a little can add a lot. And, it’s fun to experiment with. We used the light on the hoodoos, but then also switched it off during Blue Hour for the chance at some Blue Hour Blends.

Two popular ways to capture Milky Way images are – using a low-level lighting setup or blending exposures (Blue Hour + Milky Way).

This early morning was by far our best Milky Way shoot. The sky was so dark and we were able to shoot for hours until the sunrise greeted us.

The afternoon of day four is when things started to get crazy. Our plan for the night was to shoot star trails. We traveled east towards Glen Canyon and had some buttes picked out to photograph. The weather didn’t look promising for star trails, but it did look good for sunset. We headed out early for sunset. Although clouds never came together over the buttes, there was a massive lenticular cloud behind us that caught the light.

By the time we arrived back in Kanab, snow was already falling and it would continue through the night. Night skies were clouded over so we focused on capturing this unique phenomenon at sunrise.

On day five, we went to a location just outside Kanab near the Paria River. It’s a location that features incredible color and geology – buttes, canyons, and painted hills. We stepped out of the cars and entered a winter wonderland. I had been to the spot many times, but never like this. The entire landscape was coated in white! It was really awesome. We shot through sunrise and stayed a few hours after, as the light was consistently changing.

The rest of the day there were some breaks, but after every break, snow began to fall once again. We tried for sunset but ran into blizzard-like conditions. It was crazy, it was snowing so heavy along with some areas of Highway 89. We eventually were clouded out and returned to Kanab. 

On our final morning, we tried once more for desert snow! The landscape was blanketed once again and we headed to a location near Paria once again. The snow was there, but the light never happened, but it was still awesome to see all the red rock covered in snow. Such unique weather!

After breakfast, we headed back to Springdale for an afternoon post-processing session. We discussed processing Milky Way and night shots, putting together star trails, and did some 1:1 instruction. The crazy weather continued and snow had fallen in Zion as well. Around sunset, the snow began to melt and fog was all around the canyon. We took advantage of the unique conditions and went out for sunset on the nearby Pa’Rus Trail.

After, we grabbed dinner right outside the park, and then it was time for the saddest part of the trip, the goodbyes. It might seem cliché, but it’s true. As a group, we had just spent six days chasing light, photographing everything we could, and spending almost every waking moment together. For me personally, the friendships and connections from these trips are some of my favorite things. It’s a blast to spend time with a group of like-minded people with one goal in mind – capturing the best possible images.

I thought this was a great trip, and one of the more unique ones that I have been a part of due to the crazy weather. We had a fantastic group of people for this one too, which made it that more enjoyable.

Hope you enjoyed the report and some of these images from one of my favorite places in the country!

Matt Meisenheimer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matt Meisenheimer is a photographer based in Wisconsin. His artistry revolves around finding unique compositions and exploring locations that few have seen. He strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather, which make our grand landscapes so special.  Matt loves the process of photography – from planning trips and scouting locations, taking the shot in-field, to post-processing the final image. Matt is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast as well. He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and worked in Denali National Park and Mount Rainier National Park as a biologist. He also spent 6 months working in the deserts of Namibia before finding his path in photography. Matt’s passion for the wilderness has taken him to many beautiful places around the world. As a former university teaching assistant, Matt is passionate about instruction. It is his goal to give his students the technical and creative knowledge they need to achieve their own photographic vision. He truly enjoys working with photographers on a personal level and helping them reach their goals. You can see Matt’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.meisphotography.com

 

 

 

 

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