Arches at Arches – A night-sky panoramic journey of an iconic national park, part 1

I’m going to give it to you straight: Over the past year and a half I’ve fallen in love with panoramas, which now make up the bulk of the landscape photos that I publish. Following the “if a little bit is good, more is better” rule, creating landscape panoramas seemed like a natural step after spending years capturing an ultra-wide, 14-mm field of view. I suppose the next step is full 180-degree x 360-degree virtual panoramic tours, although I haven’t made that leap quite yet.

In my experience, after a certain period of familiarity with a particular lens or focal length, you start to more easily “see” your composition in that focal length. For me, I had become very used to “seeing” and understanding the ultra-wide 14-16mm range. One thing that I never liked about that range, however, was the distortion (particularly at 14mm, and particularly at night).

One advantage of taking panoramas, however, is that I can have an incredibly wide field of view but don’t have to deal with the ultra-wide-angle distortion resulting from using lenses like my trusty Rokinon 14mm f/2.8. The resulting panoramas are highly detailed and printable in large sizes at great resolution, which is really great, since I like making really big prints. And I can fit so much stuff in my composition. The disadvantages? Well, first of all, there’s so much stuff in my compositions. If you think uncluttering your foreground at 14mm is challenging, try it with a sweeping 180-degree field of view. And of course, sometimes putting panos together can vary anywhere from “Wow, Lightroom makes this easy now!” to “I’ve spent 6 hours on this and I’m still masking out stitching errors.” And the final disadvantage is that it took me a long time to really be able to “see” my panorama compositions in-field, particularly at night. In fact, that’s something I still struggle with, although this particular trip helped me quite a bit.

With that said, the advantages seem to outweigh the disadvantages for me, at least now. And I’m always looking for new challenges—it’s one of the things that I really enjoy about night-sky photography, and for a long time now creating panoramas of the Milky Way has been a huge challenge for me.

Because the Milky Way lies relatively low on the horizon in the spring (in the northern hemisphere, where I live), because it has a nice arch to it, and because the landscape at Arches National Park is so, well, in-your-face grandiose, I thought my 6-day trip to Arches would be a great time to focus on documenting the dark skies over the park with huge panoramas. And so I did.

After a no-holds-barred, I’m-only-stopping-for-restroom-breaks-when-my-car’s-nearly-out-of-gas, 15-hour drive from Oregon, I arrived at Arches to find spectacularly clear skies, and so I immediately got to work in the Windows area, despite my fatigue. It quickly became clear that North Window offered very little opportunity for imaging the Milky Way, so I moved on to South Window. I started off by climbing into the window. My compositions were extremely limited here, though, so I climbed down and found another angle to capture South Window (below). For this shot, I clambered up a little slickrock and tucked myself into a dark corner. Had I waited another half an hour or so, I’m sure the Milky Way would’ve climbed over South Window. But I wanted to move on.

The Milky Way appears over Arches National Park's South Window.

The Milky Way appears over Arches National Park’s South Window. Comet 252P/LINEAR can be seen as a green dot in the sky in the upper-right of the panorama. The Rho Ophiuchi region can be seen at the rocky edge along the panorama’s right side. Also note the mix of green and red airglow in the sky (as well as the unfortunate light pollution from Moab, nearby).

I then moved on to Turret Arch and quickly scouted out a composition.  Although I had hoped to be able to shoot the Milky Way through the arch, based on some online scouting prior to my visit I had a suspicion that it wouldn’t line up. My suspicion was quickly confirmed. Instead I decided to move in really close. Taking the “turret” metaphor too far, in my mind, I had imagined the arching Milky Way as the trail of some fiery object hurled by trebuchet from a more-northern war-like arch. Luckily the charge fell just short of Turret Arch’s ramparts.

 

The Milky Way appears over Arches National Park's Turret Arch.

The Milky Way appears over Arches National Park’s Turret Arch. Comet 252P/Linear can seen as a green dot in the sky in the middle-upper-right of the panorama. Prints available.

 

Dramatic post-script bonus story!

As I was standing in the dark, taking the final row of the Turret Arch panorama, I noticed a faint bobbing of light getting closer from the parking lot. Eventually, the bobbing light walked stopped about 25 feet away from me. Of course, I couldn’t see who I was addressing, but I made leap in logic and assumed they were human, called “hello,” and mentioned that I only had two frames left and then I would be done. The voice in the dark replied that was fine and that he’d wait where he was standing. About 20 seconds later, after my penultimate frame, I heard the unmistakable thud and clatter of both a body and some metallic photography equipment colliding with rock. I turned on my head lamp and rushed over to help the man, who had tripped and ostensibly fallen on his face. His glasses were badly bent several feet away from him, and the man was bleeding considerably from a cut (most likely caused by his glasses) on the bridge of his nose.

“Am I bleeding?” he asked, still on his hands and knees and dripping blood, unable to see at night without his glasses. A couple dozen blobs of blood on the ground confirmed that yes, he was bleeding. (Here’s an illustrative tweet, for those of you who must see.) Luckily the man had a handkerchief in his pocket, and the bleeding stopped pretty quickly as soon as he applied pressure. After he got up he insisted he was okay and that he was heading back to his car in the parking lot, where he had another pair of glasses. Selfishly, I told him if he’d wait 20 seconds I’d take my final frame and assist him to the parking lot, but he started off without me. I quickly finished my panorama and tried to catch up with him, just to make sure he didn’t wipe out again, but he was quite a bit ahead of me.

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