August 10, 2020
Behind the image. Milky Way over the Badlands
One of my go-to places for some pretty epic shots is Font's Point. Fonts Point is a craggy outcropping overlooking the Badlands in the Northern part of Anza Borrego Desert State Park in San Diego County. Just look it up on Google and you'll see why it's called the Badlands. You'll also see why it is such a poplular destination for landscape photographers.
Badlands Panorama ©2014
A few years ago, I started to get into night photography. Capturing the Milky Way is rather magical from planning and setting up the shot, to sitting for hours in the middle of the desert, mountain or sea shore nights, to finally editing the shots on my computer and seeing the final etherial images. After a lot of trial and error, watching countless tutorial videos and endless fussing with Photoshop, I started getting pictures that were pretty respectable.
Moonrise over Borrego ©2017

Then two things came together - my love of the desert and my interest in night photography. I've gotten a number of decent night shots in Anza Borrego, and during one trip as I sat on a ledge at Fonts Point, I had an idea. What if I could get the Badlands and the Milky Way in the same shot? My idea was to capture the rugged otherworldly landscape of the Badlands in the foreground with the drama of the star filled sky in the background. How the hell could I do that?


Two words: planning and timing. Maybe a third word: patience.


Planning included going over star charts to find out when the Milky Way would be in the sky and where (there are some excellent apps for your smart phone for this). It had to be a new moon or still below the horizon at the time I would be shooting it - so the time I could get it was still a month or two off. June through August is the best "season" for shooting the Milky Way. And it had to be positioned correctly in relation to the Badlands and where I figured I'd be setting up my camera. The other part of prep was to make sure the camera gear was in top notch shape - all batteries charged, having the remote trigger working right, etc.


Finally, prep included scouting the area and spotting some good candidates for location including where exactly I would set up my tripod and taking a few test shots. I pulled out my handy dandy digital star map and changed the dates to see where the Milky Way would be to fit in the shot I wanted to get and finally settled on the exact spot I wanted, what date and what time of night. It also had to fit into a time I could actually get out there. July 14 at around 10:30 PM.


Then, the patience. I wouldn't be shooting it for a month and a half. That's a long time to wait...

Me. Waiting.

When I get an idea in my head for a certain shot, I'll tend to obsess over it, thinking and re-thinking all the little details - all the things I'll need to do, when the light will be best, how I can do things efficiently so I don't accidentally "miss the moment", what time I should show up. That may not be a healthy thing, but it's always been a part of the process for me, and it pays off more often than it flops.

Normally when I go to Fonts Point, if anyone is there at all, it's only a person or two. On July 14th, I drove up and this is what I saw.

A gaggle of tripods and their attendant owners. I was horrified to think they were all there to shoot the Milky Way! So much for solitude. So much for my unique idea. But shortly after the sun dropped below the horizon, there was a sudden mass exodus of photographers, tripods, backpacks and cameras toward the parking area about 100 yards down the hill. As the trail of tail lights dwindled off into the distance I realized I had walked in on a photo workshop that was there only for the sunset. I was alone again. Ahhh.


I then set everything up as I planned, tripod in place, camera cinched down, remote synched. And as the sky darkened, I got several shots of the foreground while there was still yet enough light to illuminate the Badlands. Then it was waiting time. Dusk until 10:30, approximately 2 more hours. Twiddle thumb time.


I used this time to grab some other shots of the Badlands. The clouds were dramatic and made for some beautiful shots. But that worried me because, you know, clouds obscure a view of the night sky and thus the Milky Way. Something else to obsess over.

Badlands Sunset ©2018

Earlier, I had taken the shots of the foreground during daylight. ISO 100, 1/13 sec at f/9. Now to get the Milky Way. I made sure the tripod, camera, orientation of the camera along with the zoom were all positioned exactly as it was when I took the daylight shots. One thing that helped was I did not touch the tripod at all during the time between. I even left the ball head in the exact position. All I did was take the camera off and then put it back on again when it came time to shoot the stars. Adjusting the settings to ISO 6400, 15 seconds at f/3.5, I took 15 consecutive shots and I was done. 4 minutes. Huh. I hung around for awhile. Not sure why. I guess I had been thinking about this for so long, I didn't want it to end. But the tedious part was ahead of me.

I took a few shots during the daylight so I'd capture the foreground detail. (ISO 100, 16mm, 1/13 @ f/9)
Night shots. Same spot, same angle. 15 shots ISO 6400, 16mm, 15 seconds @f/3.5.
Back at my computer, I blended all the night shots using an application called "Starry Landscape Stacker" to sharpen up the stars, remove noise and bring out the snap and pop of it all. Finally, blended that image with the foreground to get the final image.
To me, it was worth all the effort
Milky Way over the Badlands ©2018

Sometimes you go out into a promising landscape and see what nature brings you. Your preparation is in the form of knowing your equipment and being ready for "the moment" whatever that might be. Other times, you plan, wait and act, and in the end make it all fall into place.

Both methods are just fine with me.