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Milky Way from False Kiva

Milky Way from False Kiva, Island in the Sky District, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Milky Way from False Kiva, Island in the Sky District, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

False Kiva is an Ancestral Puebloan ruin tucked away beneath an immense alcove in Canyonlands National Park. The stunning view from the ruin includes Candlestick Tower, the tall cliffs that form the edge of the high mesa called the Island in the Sky, and the eroded badlands of Holeman Spring Basin. The ruin is a special place at any time of day, but it becomes truly magical at astronomical dusk in the fall, when the glowing heart of the Milky Way appears in the darkening sky just to the right of Candlestick Tower.

I tried to photograph the Milky Way from False Kiva for the first time in the fall of 2016 but was thwarted by gathering clouds. When I returned a year later, I was determined to capitalize fully on the opportunity. In addition to my tripod and camera bag, I brought an iOptron SkyTracker Pro, a star-tracking device that would enable me to produce richly detailed, low-noise photographs of the Milky Way. Normally, star-trackers must be aligned with Polaris. My view of Polaris was blocked by the walls of the alcove, so I set the tracker’s altitude to the kiva’s latitude. (In the northern hemisphere, the altitude of Polaris above a level horizon is always equal to your latitude). I set the tracker’s azimuth (compass bearing) with a compass. Prior testing showed that this approximation would be adequate when using an ultra-wide-angle lens.

At astronomical dusk I began photographing the Milky Way. Using the tracker, I made four exposures. Then I lit the alcove with two flat-panel LED lights fitted with orange filters to mimic the feeling of firelight. I made two series of four exposures, one set focused at infinity, one set focused a bit closer so I could achieve full depth of field using a technique called focus-stacking. Finally, I turned off the lights and made four exposures for the background land. Planning and executing such a complex shoot took all the concentration I could muster. After I was satisfied that I had shot all the component images I would need, I packed up my gear, shut off my headlamp, and tried to imagine what it must have been like to live in such a place hundreds of years ago. 

When I returned home I used a Photoshop utility called Stack Mode>Median to reduce noise in all the land sequences. Then I used RegiStar software to align and reduce noise in the Milky Way images. Finally I used Photoshop to combine the foreground, background, and sky images into the image you see here. It is an image that required the latest in photographic technology to create, yet I hope it evokes the feeling of one stage in the immense journey our species has made from the plains of Africa to the present day.

Please note: as of August 2018, False Kiva is closed to all park visitors due to repeated acts of vandalism. I made this photograph in October 2017, while the site was still open. I did not touch any of the rock walls nor harm the site in any way during my visit. It is imperative that all visitors treat fragile and irreplaceable archaeological sites such as this one with the respect and care they deserve.

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