Nights in the Utah Desert (Astrophotography, Milky Way, Trucks & Cars)

Photography in peace and solitude under the eternal desert sky

By Tyson Chappell – follow Tyson on Instagram @chappell_shots

I was lucky to grow up in Utah which means that desert photography under night skies and dramatic landscapes are local to me.

Although I also shoot in the daytime, I am very attracted to the peace of the night desert and the cosmos.

To me, astrophotography is about capturing a small part of the beautiful and exquisite natural world under the night sky. I find nature, science, physics, chemistry, and biology all immensely poetic and mystical.

Out here in the desert landscapes, I’m far away from the lights of towns or cities which means I can control my lighting and exposures. It’s calm, quiet work which is good for my soul.

Utah desert star trails over old abandoned truck
A little snow in the Utah desert is like icing on the cake

A 90-Minute Single Exposure in the Swell of Emery County

I shoot nearly all of my star trail photography as single exposures like this one of the truck. This is a single 90-minute exposure.

The fact that I am in a very dark environment, away from lights allows me to do this. All of the foreground lighting in this image is from star light alone.

Most photographers who shoot star trails will take a series of 30-second shots over the course of an hour or more, and then blend them in Photoshop.

In all of my star trail photography I try to keep things as “pure” as possible and that’s why I primarily shoot single exposures. Clearly what is pure to one person is not to another. I do use Photoshop in my post processing, but I like being able to work on just one image.

A huge benefit of long single exposures is that I can use a lower ISO and reduce any noise.

As for darkness, this image is Class 2 on the Bortle Scale. Most areas that I shoot in are rated between 1 and 3.

Night photo of the Hickman Bridge in Capitol Reef National Park

It took me two years to get this shot of the Hickman Bridge

Finally, I Photographed the Hickman Bridge Under Dark Skies

This lovely arch is a mere mile or so from the parking lot in Capitol Reef National Park. You may have seen shots of it, but very few night time photos.

I had been planning to shoot this for two years. Finally, the stars and lack of moon and clouds aligned for me and I was able to make my dream come true.

I use Maglites with a Xenon lightbulb for my manual light painting. I like the white balance they produce when I process my images.

When I took this, I was standing on a small ledge. With all the bats that were buzzing me, I am happy that I didn’t fall off the cliff. This was a Class 1 Bortle insanely gorgeous sky.

Night photo of Newspaper Rock south of Moab, near the Needles district of Canyonlands

Newspaper Rock south of Moab, near the Needles district of Canyonlands

Photographing 2,000-Year-Old Petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock

Archeologists say that the first carvings at Newspaper Rock, south of Moab, were made around 2,000 years ago, by people from the Archaic, Anasazi, Fremont, Navajo, Anglo, and Pueblo cultures.

There are over 650 drawings of animals, human figures, and symbols. The carvings include pictures of deer, buffalo, pronghorn antelope and riders on horses.

The rock wall is very tall and I was worried about getting everything in frame.

This is a 60-minute single exposure. I had originally planned it for 90 minutes, but I miscalculated how soon dawn would approach and ended the exposure before the sky started to light up. I think it turned out well.

Night photo panorama of an old truck in the Utah desert

A panorama of 60 images of the same truck as above, each exposure 13 seconds

60-Image Panorama Photograph for Incredible Detail

I shot this 60-image panorama using my Canon 35 mm f/1.4 version II lens. Shooting at 35 mm gave me great detail from a small part of the sky.

This image has me thinking about the cosmos. Who knows, that could be our future. It is certainly our ancient past.

Stitching the 60 images together was a real workout for my computer. I thought I’d have to call the fire department.

Night photo panorama of an old school bus in the Utah desert

Panorama of the Milky Way with moon rising in February

Photographing the Milky Way Over Utah Desert at Moonrise

This was my very first Milky Way shot taken on February 19 at 4:54 a.m.

In the northern hemisphere, photographers usually take Milky Way shots a month or more later so that they don’t have to stay up all night in order to capture that amazing scene in the sky.

The moon was just starting to rise. It’s the bright section of cloud you see above the bus.

By the way, the bus has a bed and a kitchen with a refrigerator, if anyone is in the mood for a restoration.

A 30-image panorama image using light painting and a 1960 Plymouth Savoy

A 30-image panorama, light painting and an old Plymouth Savoy near Elmo, Utah

Light Painting for the Foreground, the Milky Way Does the Rest

For this photograph I used light painting to bring out foreground details, being careful not to over expose them. This 30-image panorama was taken in the desert near the tiny town of Elmo in central east Utah.

For fans of American classic cars, that’s a Plymouth Savoy from around 1960. It’s still in remarkable condition after 60 years with all its original windows intact. Very impressive for a car to weather the elements so well. Could be an interesting project for someone.

Night photo panorama of The Wedge Overlook in the Utah desert

80-image panorama with two different exposures at The Wedge Overlook

Panorama of The Wedge Overlook AKA The Little Grand Canyon

For this 80-image panorama, I had to exposure blend the foreground with an extremely dark sky. The foreground images were 30-second exposures, while the sky images were 20 seconds.

This area is called The Wedge Overlook, also sometimes referred to as The Little Grand Canyon. 

Blue hour photo at Monument Valley taken near the visitor center

Blue hour at Monument Valley taken near the visitor center

Those Precious Minutes Between Sunset and Blue Hour in Monument Valley

On this 10-minute exposure, the sun had just set and stars were coming out over Monument Valley. It’s a magic time to be shooting. Light trails are from cars making their way out of the valley.

This image is also a good example of accessible shooting locations that are sometimes available if you look for them. I was standing right by the visitor center (easy parking) for this shot. The lights from the center illuminate the foreground for me.

Tyson Chappell

Utah native Tyson Chappell has been shooting for about 17 years, learning by trial and error and study.

After finishing grad school in Memphis, he returned to Utah and started photographing the desert night skies. It didn’t take long for Tyson to realize that this would be the area of focus for his photography and he learned everything he could about bringing out the wonder of our cosmos over the desert.

Tyson currently has a line of postcards, marketed under the Dark Sky name which are available in numerous retail locations throughout Utah.

Postcards and very reasonably priced prints are available on Tyson’s website. Visit his site for an incredible selection of iconic images.

Tyson Chappell

Utah native Tyson Chappell has been shooting for about 17 years, learning by trial and error and study.

After finishing grad school in Memphis, he returned to Utah and started photographing the desert night skies. It didn’t take long for Tyson to realize that this would be the area of focus for his photography and he learned everything he could about bringing out the wonder of our cosmos over the desert.

Tyson currently has a line of postcards, marketed under the Dark Sky name which are available in numerous retail locations throughout Utah.

Postcards and very reasonably priced prints are available on Tyson’s website. Visit his site for an incredible selection of iconic images.

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