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Milky Way over Mesa Arch

Milky Way over Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Milky Way over Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

You can see the Milky Way any clear, dark night of the year, but to see it in all its glory, you must travel far from any city lights. Pick a moonless night in the spring, and prepare to lose some sleep. Go outside in the wee hours of the morning, when most of the world is asleep, and let your eyes adjust. Look east, and you’ll see that the Milky Way makes a gigantic arch in the sky. The brightest part of the Milky Way, the glowing heart of our galaxy, will be near the right end of the arch, in the constellation Sagittarius.

I had tried twice before to photograph the Milky Way over Mesa Arch, in Canyonlands National Park, but had been defeated by persistent clouds. In April, 2016, I traveled to Moab to try again. The forecast once again called for cloudy skies, so my expectations were low. When I awoke at midnight, however, the sky was unexpectedly clear. I drove hard for 45 minutes to the Mesa Arch parking lot, turned off the headlights, leapt out of the truck – and saw that the clouds had returned. Disheartened, I hiked the short trail to the arch anyway and waited. Half an hour before astronomical dawn, when the sky would start to lighten and the Milky Way would no longer shine brightly, the clouds finally cleared. It was time to set aside my sense of wonder at the magnificence of our universe and focus on the highly technical details of photographing the Milky Way.

The Milky Way arch is much too large to be captured in a single frame, so I set up my Really Right Stuff multi-row panorama gear and mounted a 16mm lens on my Canon 5D Mark III. I made two exposures at each camera position, one for the sky, which is relatively bright (30 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400), and one for the land, which is much darker (2 minutes, f/2.8, ISO 6400). I rotated the camera 50 degrees between camera positions. I needed four camera positions to include the entire arch. When I was confident I had captured all the components I would need to assemble the complete image in Photoshop, I packed up, soaked in the beauty of the stars one last time, then turned on my bright white headlamp, a necessary evil that ruined my night vision but let me see the trail clearly. With the Milky Way now just a memory, I hiked back to my truck and headed for Dead Horse Point to shoot sunrise.

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