Night at South Coyote Butte

Under the Stars

South Coyote Buttes is less famous and less popular than its counterpart at north. But it is no less intriguing and far less overwhelmed by photographers. I had fortune to secure some permits and camped right outside of the area last spring.

I determined to shoot Milky Way at South Coyote Buttes. But the problem is that Milky Way was only in the position I wanted after midnight, while the moon rose before midnight and stayed up until morning. It was my understanding that one cannot photograph Milky Way under the moon because the moon light will simply overwhelm the Milky Way. But that did not stop a diehard landscape photographer. I scouted out the location during the day, got up at 2:00am and hiked about one mile in the sand to the destination. Unfortunately, the theory was right. The moon was too bright that Milky Way became too faint. I did again the second night. The moon was less bright and Milky Way was more visible. That offered me some encouragement. The third night was the last night of waning crescent. I hiked in there again at 2:00am. After the first test shot, I realized that I have achieved the right light balance between foreground and Milky Way that I could photograph both in one exposure. The moon was far away from the Milky Way and dim enough not to overpower it. In the meantime, there was still enough light to illuminate the foreground.

One of difficulties of photographing in the darkness is to determine the composition when foreground elements were not visible through view finder. I used a powerful flashlight to illuminate the foreground while I looked through view finder, then took a couple of test shots with 10sec exposure at ISO 6400, and made fine adjustment after each shot. When the final composition was determined, I set the manual focus at infinity and made the first exposure with f2.8, 30sec, ISO3200. 30 second exposure time was chosen to minimize the movement of stars. By coincidence, the foreground brightness came out to be just as I liked.

With f2.8 and focusing at infinity, I was concerned about the depth of field. To ensure the sharpness of foreground element, I decided to make a second exposure to improve image quality. I doubled aperture to f5.6 to increase depth of field, reduced ISO to 1600 to reduce noise, and reduced focus distance to about 5 meters to make sure the foreground was in focus. I did the math and figured out that I would need 8 times more exposure time to achieve the same brightness as my first exposure. Therefore, 240 second of exposure time was determined. In the meantime, I tilted the camera down slightly to include more foreground.

The picture was blended with two exposures. I loaded both images into two separate layers in Photoshop. First exposure was loaded on top and the second exposure at bottom. The brightness of two layers was identical. After aligning the layers, the next step was simply erasing the foreground of top layer to reveal the foreground from the layer below.

South Coyote Buttes is like a place on another planet. A picture of the night scene can capture my imagination. The Milky Way, the foreground rock formation, as well as shooting stars (maybe) helped to enhance the surreal feeling.

So, to make a fine image, persistence is the virtue. Always go out to try again if the first attempt failed. Do not give up even if you have to defy conventional wisdom.

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