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How I got the Photo - Joshua Tree Bouldering under the Milky Way

I've always loved starting up at the stars and milky way on clear summer nights. There's only a handful of optimal viewing conditions. In Southern California, peak season is May-August, during the new moon. Sometimes a day or two before and after the new moon work too, as long as the moonrise is sufficiently late. Astrophotography is just an extension of stargazing, where we can craft the available star light with additional lights, models, and composition to create a more complete story.

I planned out this shoot about a month in advance, which included location scouting, assessing where the milky way would line up in relation to the climb, lighting options, ideal composition and back up plans, and models. Regardless, sometimes all that planning still doesn't line up the way you hoped and you're left to work with what you got.

Here's some insight into how I planned, what went wrong, how I worked with the conditions available, and what I would change for next time! If we can't learn from our mistakes, we won't get better. And if you can learn from my mistakes, send me the results!


- Picking the climbs: Relying on a mix of mountain project, google maps, and Photo Pills, I picked two climbs that would align with the Milky Way from 11pm-1am. I didn't location scout in person, I just had to match up the climb coordinates, which direction the climb was facing, and the direction of the milky way.

- The Womb, V1

- The Chube, V2

- Models: I also picked climbs that I knew my model, Chuy Lee, would be able to hold a pose and repeat the climb as needed. Chuy is an incredibly strong climber who also has an interest in astrophotography

- Lights: We took several small flood lights that could be set al multiple brightness levels and headlamps so we could create a variety of lighting options.

- Gear: I took my Canon r5 and trusty RF 24-70 f/2.8. It's not the best for wide shots, in fact, it can be incredibly limiting. But for now, it's what I have. In other conditions I will use an older Sigma EF 15-30mm f/4, but it requires a converter to use on an RF camera and is not sharp on the edges at anyways.

When we arrived:

We arrived at Joshua Tree at around 11pm, starting at The Womb, on the night of a new moon, hoping to get a clear view of the milky way. Instead, the sky was speckled with fluffy clouds, covering most of the stars. The park was still busier than expected, and cars were visible in the background. Then the light from cities further south illuminated the horizon, making the remaining sky too bright. I had allocated an hour at this climb. And all of a sudden it was 1am and I didn't get a single image I had envisioned.

We work with what's available: I didn't want a bright spotlight on the model and climb because it felt too flat with the bright sky. Instead, I played around with the lights and shadows. I observed how the light illuminates chalk, how the headlamps spotlighted the climb, and the ambient light provided just enough detail to highlight the edges of the climb and the trees in the far background. I took 3 images at different exposures to merge in post processing and created the following:

Finally the clouds clear up and it's off to the next climb! A short drive and a 15 min hike in, we arrived at The Chube. At this point, it's like 1:45. Almost 90 minutes past my initial plan. The milky way is no longer where I wanted it. The direction of the milky way didn't even line up with the climb anymore and moving further and further away.

I walked around the climb for about 15 minutes. Trying out other angles and possible compositions. Eventually I settled on climbing a small boulder about 30 feet away, that allowed me to see the climb, the model, and milky way in a wide composite image. As an added bonus: soft light spill illuminated the landscape and nearby Joshua Trees.

I already knew I couldn't capture everything I wanted in one shot, even with multiple exposures. I would have to create a large composite image, with multiple exposures, and stitch it together in photoshop. I could only hope that the photoshop tools could handle what I had in mind.

I took a total of 29 images, 3 across the top, 3 in the middle, and 3 along the bottom, each with 3 exposures. . And an extra 2 shots of Chuy climbing to make sure he was in focus and well exposed. Each image overlapped with the surrounding images to allow for some blending room in post-production. I also kept in mind that the edges would be cropped off in photoshop to adjust for the distortion when using the composition tools. The important parts of the image were centered in their own shots: The climber, the milky way, and the Joshua Tree off to the right. It looked a little something like this in my head:

Multiple exposures at 24mm:

1 second, f/2.8, ISO 6400

4 second, f/2.8, ISO 6400

8 second, f/2.8, ISO 6400

By the time we ended around 2:30 am, I felt satisfied that I could make something decent out of the shots.


This is where it really got tricky. The photoshop tools that I was relying on didn't work as smoothly as I had hoped.

attempt 1: I completed an HDR merge with the 10 individual stacks, creating 10 images. Then I created a panorama composite with the 10 images. However, each HDR stack resulted in drastically different exposures and did not blend well in an automated composite.

attempt 2: I reversed the composite order. First I created a panorama composite of the images of each exposure, resulting in 3 panorame images at the 3 different exposures. Then I did an HDR merge. But this time the images didn't line up well enough; the photoshop tools made slight adjustments and distortions that varied between each exposure. The photoshop HDR tool was unable to merge the 3 images,

attempt 3: I went back to the 9 HDR images from attempt 1. Instead of using the photoshop tools to create the composite for me, I did it by hand, making minor color and exposure edits to each of the 10 HDR photos, then using layer masks and distortion tools to line up the pixels and blend them together. 6 hours later, we get our prize photo:

What would I have done differently:

I was underprepared and made this whole process a lot tricker than it had to be. I should have just rented a wider lens in case the original plan didn't work out and I likely would have only had to HDR merge 3 exposures.


Understanding the tools at your disposal to you will keep you better prepared when things go wrong: your knowledge will broaden the solutions available. Know what is and isn't possible in your post editing programs, like lightroom and photoshop. Know how to use your camera, the technical settings and proper exposures. And don't stress about straying from the plan because chances are you can come up with something better.


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