new icn messageflickr-free-ic3d pan white
"Rockstar" - The Milky Way from Joshua Tree National Park | by Stephen Oachs (
Back to group

"Rockstar" - The Milky Way from Joshua Tree National Park

View Larger at


Here's the story about how it took me three days to capture this image and how Walmart helped!


...Of all my years of photography I've always had fun with night photography but never captured anything that excited me enough to publish, until recently.


Over the Thanksgiving weekend I found myself itching to get out and shoot, yet the majority of California was either under massive snow, or rain, and given I only had 5 days I couldnt venture too far, so I decided to head to Southern California which is an area of the state I've done the least amount of shooting.


I first went to Morro Bay thinking I'd worth the Southern California Coast but after arriving, scouting around and checking the weather, I quickly decided conditions were not optimal and headed inland. A went down to the Salton Sea, wasnt very inspired so made my way up to Joshua Tree National Park. Hard to believe but I'd never been there before and I liked what I saw, so I stayed the night.


I found this great little campsite which happened to be about 300 yards from a granite arch (the one pictured above). I shot it in the daylight, I shot it at sunset, but nothing inspired me so I went back out in the dark to do star trails. However, to my suprise, it was SO dark I could see the Milky Way very clearly with the naked eye, so I knew with a wide aperture and high ISO I could capture it with great detail given there was no light polution to supress the grandure!


I spent about two hours experimenting with different compositions, exposures, doing star trails, etc. I went back to the MoHo, downloaded the images and was less than thrilled with what I had captured. White balance was all wrong, I hadnt focused very well so it was soft in places...


It just plain sucked!


So the next night I went back out and tried again...experimenting with some new ideas and a better composition that I found in the daylight (it's very hard to compose in pitch black!)


But again, after reviewing the results I just wasnt happy. So, the next day, I drove to the nearest civilization and found a Walmart. I needed to change the color of my lantern...see, I bought one of those "green" lanterns that runs on batteries and uses florecent light bulbs. I typically use it for night shooting/hiking when I need to setup, etc, but had never really used it for light painting before. The color temperture is very cool so when I used it on the arch in pitch black it was WAY too bright to paint for the 2-3 seconds I neeeded and it was too direct...not to mention the cool colored light made the arch look terrible.


So back to Walmart...


I went to the Christmas section and found some colored plastic bags...I bought a red one, an orange and a yellow one then took them back to the MoHo where I proceeded to cut them up so I could wrap them around the latern, secured with rubberbands and I experimented with each one individually, as well as combinations of colors until I found what would work best.


I returned to the Arch in Joshua Tree just after sunset and setup, for the third time...but this time armed with all the right tools. It didnt take long and I was getting a great exposure of the Milky Way and light painting the arch with my Walmart color wrapped all I had to do was wait for the Milky Way to be where I wanted it compositionally...which took nearly three and a half hours!


There I sat, in the pitch dark of Joshua Tree, it was 24 degrees, a light wind so it felt much colder...I can hear coyotes yipping in the distance (no, I didnt have a crockpot with me)...time goes very, very slow when you're waiting for the planet to spin!


Here's how I took the shot:


- Canon 1Ds Mark III

- Canon 15mm Fisheye

- f/2.8, full frame sensor at ISO 1600

- White Balance (2500K)

- I didnt want the stars to blur so you have to expose at about 25 seconds...any longer and the stars will start to streak, thus look blurry.


But the trick was, I also needed to light paint without limiting the sky so I would expose for 22 seconds without the lantern light painting...using my iPhone I would start light painting at 22 seconds...then move the light from right to left to try and paint as evenly as possible. It took about 15 tries before I got what I was after, then I took another 5 or 6 just to be sure I had one to choose from later that might be slightly better than another.


So the result of the extremely cold white balance gave me the nice blue sky and the super warm light from the Walmart paper put the color in the granite arch that I was hoping for.


All in all, this image took more work and planning of any other image I've taken.


I hope you like it!

1,337 faves
Taken on November 29, 2010