Astrophotography Workshop Recap: Trona Pinnacles, California

Sid taking his first Milky Way photos.

Sid, workshop participant, taking his first Milky Way photos.

A recap of the June 2013 astrophotography workshop at Trona Pinnacles National Monument, California

A week before, I watched the full moon rise over this strange landscape. Even though I couldn’t see the Milky Way during the full moon, I knew it would be an awesome place for my Trona Pinnacles Astrophotography workshop, a full week later. I could still pinpoint the constellations Scorpius and Sagittarius during the night of the full moon, and so, I knew exactly where the galactic center would rise. It was going to be an awesome place to bring my workshop students.Canon 6D, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, 30s @ f/1.4, ISO 6400

All of the photographs here are ones that I managed to snap during idle time at the workshop, so I didn’t make as many photographs as I normally would. I tried to make sure that everyone was comfortable with their settings and was well underway composing their own shots before I took any time to snap these photos.

Midday on Saturday, we held an initial lesson at Red Rock Canyon where I gave a short lecture about the why the Milky Way galactic center is only visible for half the year from April thru September, and I talked about the positions of the summer constellations: Sagittarius and Scorpius. You can learn more about the basics of how to find the Milky Way on my blog post or by subscribing to my newsletter to grab the (ever improving) Lonely Speck Guide to Astrophotography.

It was a hot trip out to Trona Pinnacles. It seemed significantly hotter than the week before; we saw temperatures of about 105°F during the day. Luckily, most of our adventuring would during a much cool night. Once the sun was fully down, we had some time before the Milky Way would be visible to re-organize our gear, prepare for the evening shoot and cook some dinner.

As the stars started to dot the sky, I became a little bit worried about our viewing conditions. There were much more clouds than the last week I was at the Pinnacles and much of the southern sky was obscured by a thick orange cloud lit by the light pollution from the town of Barstow, California. The extra moisture in the air was also accompanied by a light haze of smoke from a wildfire toward the south in Antelope Valley. The conditions accentuated the light pollution from the mining town of Trona to the north.

Sid framing up a shot.

Sid, workshop student, framing up a shot. The town of Trona is the bright light source to the north.

Canon 6D, Rokinon 24mm/1.4, 30s @ f/2.0, ISO 3200

 But as Josh, Rowan and Sid started to make their first exposures, my worries were lifted as we started to see the galactic center rising behind the orange clouds. Higher in the sky towards the east, we could see the thick band of stars near the constellation Cygnus and the North American Nebula. The light pollution proved to be a welcome addition to a sky that glowed blue with stars and even slightly green closer to the horizon due to airglow. Airglow is an optical phenomenon caused by excited oxygen molecules in the upper atmosphere.

Josh and Rowan at the Trona Pinnacles

Josh and Rowan, workshop students, with the North American Nebula.

Canon 6D, Rokinon 24mm/1.4, 30s @ f/2.0, ISO 3200

One of the challenges we faced was differing types of equipment between each student. Rowan shot with a Nikon D90, Sid with a Canon 60D and Josh with a Canon 5D Mark II. All of the cameras performed differently that night with a few snafus that we worked around in the night. The 60D heat noise levels were particularly higher than expected and Rowan’s D90 made images appear underexposed when reviewing images with the LCD brightness setting turned to the lowest to try and preserve our night vision. His exposures were great, but the camera LCD was deceiving. I’ve experienced the same issue with my Fujifilm X-E1. The real solution is to make sure to review the image luminosity histogram when shooting and make sure that exposures are acceptable. Overall, we made small tweaks to each of the cameras to get the most out of the conditions.

The Trona Pinnacles Workshop

The Trona Pinnacles Workshop camping location

Fujifilm X-E1, Rokinon 8mm f/2.8 Fisheye, 50s @ f/3.5, ISO 5000

We explored most of the northwest section of the Trona Pinnacles that night, with periodic breaks to return to camp. I left my cameras at camp after the first break to capture time lapses of the workshop as we walked around light painting the night with our headlamps. One frame from the timelapse is shown below. The Pinnacles are painted fully with light from car that entered the area late that night; it was a single chance capture in a sequence of over 700 photographs.

Light Painted Pinnacles and the Milky Way

Light Painted Pinnacles and the Milky Way

Canon 6D, Rokinon 24mm f/1.4, 13s @ f/1.4, ISO 3200

As we roamed around, we worked closer and closer to the time when the moon would rise. A midnight moonrise is a great opportunity for more unique shots with the moon acting as a second light source. This particular night would be great because the moon was a waning crescent with only 33% illumination, just enough to make it interesting without losing sight of the Milky Way. See below for a video of the workshop and shots from each of the students.

Milky Way and the Trona Pinnacles by Rowan Forster, workshop student.

Milky Way and the Trona Pinnacles by Rowan Forster, workshop student.

Nikon D90, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8

Milky Way and the Trona Pinnacles by Sid Nangia, workshop student.

Milky Way and the Trona Pinnacles by Sid Nangia, workshop student.

Canon 60D, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8

Josh, Sid and Rowan all left the workshop with some amazing photographs. You can check them out on the showcase page as they post them. The Trona Pinnacles workshop was a great start to the summer season. If you’re interested in learning about the night sky, taking some awesome photographs, and exploring a beautiful place, check out the workshops that I offer on the workshops page.

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