A night of fun photos in Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua star trailsOn a quick trip to southern California, my friend John invited me to go out to Joshua Tree National Park and spend a day in the desert. I hadn’t been there before but I knew a good bit about it, I’m not sure if it was because of Jim Morrison’s legendary trips there, or U2’s famous album (that was really in Death Valley) or just reading about it from lots of other photographers.

The park is a unique area with Joshua trees, sand and big sandstone rock formations. Some feel mystical powers emanating from the rocks, it was a cool place, but I didn’t catch any special vibes.

We got there yesterday afternoon and went to the main areas that everyone seems to visit. Being the weekend before Thanksgiving, it was pretty crowded, more people than John had seen on his many trips there. People were climbing the rocks, most of the big formations had people on top of them. It made getting a clear show without humanity pretty hard, but it was still great to see.

Joshua MoonAs the sun was getting low, we went to a standing rock monolith that has a cool old juniper tree nearby to get shots after dark. I had found the spot while doing research before my trip and it looked like a great place to do light painting after sunset. I brought a couple of large flashlights with me, so I had John light up the background a bit while I illuminated the tree and rock.

The moon is going to be full in a couple of days, so it was pretty bright out in the clear air of the desert. We could walk around with using our headlamps and see perfectly well. We stopped at another rock formation and I did a few shots with the starts and moon. I love the look of moonlight shaping the rocks.

Since there were no clouds, I want to do a star trail shot, but I didn’t want to do an all-nighter in the desert, so I set up a camera on a tripod with a 15mm fisheye lens, hooked an old iPhone to it with TriggerTrap and started shooting. The moonset was around 2:30 a.m., so I wanted the camera to start firing then so there wouldn’t be any light in the sky. Earlier at the hotel I worked to get a delay going with TriggerTrap but I couldn’t make it work. So my only option was to let the camera fire all night and hope the batteries would last until well after the moon went down. I set TriggerTrap to fire a 30 second exposure, wait one minute, make another 30 second exposure, wait, fire, wait, fire for the next six hours.

I set the camera up about a hundred yards off the road, not too worried that someone would spot and steal it in the middle of the desert. We went back to the hotel and planned on getting camera after coming back out for sunrise. We got up at 4 a.m. and headed back into the park. It was still dark and we thought we knew exactly where the camera was but we drove right past it and got back to the place where where we did the light painting last night. Since the light was coming on fast, I decided to hike a little and shoot the sunrise there and we’d find the other camera later.

Sunrise in the desert is a lot different that what I’m accustomed to in the East. The light came very quickly and since there were no clouds, it didn’t take long for the sunlight to be very harsh. I tried lots of shots but wasn’t too thrilled with any of them.

It was time to go find the other camera and see what I got. We went back through the park and watched for a pulloff near a large mound of rocks. It was farther than we thought but I recognized it and could see my camera from the road. I don’t know which died first, the phone or the camera battery, but they both were dead and the last shot was taken at about 3:30 a.m. That gave me plenty of images to stitch together to make the shot I was hoping for. The moonlight shots gave me nice light on the Joshua tree and surrounding landscape and also good color in the sky.

I look forward to getting out there again and perfect some things that I learned.

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