Inside the Grand Canyon: Beneath the dynamic sky

Sky in Motion, Colorado River and the Grand Canyon, Arizona

Sky in Motion, Colorado River and the Grand Canyon, Arizona
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
28 mm
39 minutes
ISO 100

Imagine Earth before electricity, vehicles, and pollution, when merely stepping outside on a moonless light was a humbling reminder of our tiny place in the Universe. Today there are people who have never seen the Milky Way, Little Dipper, or a meteor (shooting star), and as our cities expand and our atmosphere absorbs more sludge, the opportunities to witness these things shrink each day.

I’ve been a camper and backpacker my entire life, so the Grand Canyon sky was less of a revelation to me than it might have been for others. Nevertheless, each night I made a point of lying on my back and observing the show as if it was my first time. To the casual observer, the person who merely steps outside and may (or may not) make a cursory glance skyward that registers only a handful of the brightest stars (and maybe the moon and a planet or two), the night sky is a static ceiling. But spend a few focused minutes on your back beneath a remote, black sky and it’s impossible to appreciate how static it isn’t.

The first thing that stands out against the clear, dark backdrop of a Grand Canyon night is the impossible volume of stars. In that much darkness even the faintest shooting star will catch your eye, sparking suddenly and flashing across your view faster than you can make a wish. Occasionally a large meteor will flash and lumber more slowly, leaving a faint glowing trail in its wake. You’re hooked. As you wait for the next meteor, your eye might detect a hint of motion on the fringe of your peripheral vision—turning your focus in that direction reveals nothing at first, then you realize that a small star you thought was stationary is actually drifting slowly across the starry background. You’ve found a satellite, one of thousands of orbiting chunks of metal and electronics that monitor the Earth’s surface, relay communications, and position our GPS devices (among many other things).

Lie still a little longer and you start to realize that the brilliant star just above the horizon a little while ago has shifted right and a little higher, and that the Big Dipper has started to tip slightly and will soon risk emptying its contents. While it appears that the stars are rotating overhead, it’s actually the Earth’s motion that you’re detecting—the actors are stationary and your stage is rotating around them. But return to the same place at the same time the next night—at first glance it appears that you’re in for a duplicate performance, until you realize that the bright “star” you’d seen hovering above Orion last night has shifted its position against the stellar matrix—a planet!

When I can keep my eyes open no longer, my final thoughts before sleep are of my insignificance in the Universal scheme: To paraphrase A. Whitney Brown, on Earth, even if I’m a one in a million kind of guy, there are still 7,000 people exactly like me. And as if that weren’t humbling enough, the Sun, that ordinary little star that’s at the center of the show we see each night, is just one of 500 billion or so suns in our Milky Way galaxy. Feeling small yet? Then it probably won’t help to know that there may be as many as 500 billion galaxies in our universe. Sigh.

About this image

Photographing this celestial choreography is both rewarding and challenging. Because composing and finding focus in extremely low light is always an exercise in frustration, I had the raft trip group set up before sunset on a south-facing beach adjacent to our campsite (if you look extremely closely, you can just make out the Desert View Watchtower atop the South Rim, slightly right of center). As the sky darkened we all took practice shots to test composition and focus, then graduated to pinpoint star images when the darkness became complete. Rendering stars as pinpoints requires freezing the Earth’s rotation that’s responsible for the nightly carousel of stars—to achieve this while allowing enough light for a usable image we used extremely high ISOs and the widest possible apertures.

While I enjoy these pinpoint star images, particularly when they include the always breathtaking view to Milky Way’s core, my prime objective this night was an extremely long exposure that allowed enough light to reveal foreground detail at a low ISO that doesn’t introduce noise. A long exposure like this displays the stars as parallel arcs—not anything like the human experience, but a great way to convey the sky’s dynamic nature. To further reduce my image’s noise I turned on my camera’s “Long Exposure Noise Reduction”—this doubles the time until my image pops up on my LCD (a thirty minute exposure becomes 60 minutes), but I’d done enough of the high ISO fast exposure images to be comfortable enough with my composition and focus that I didn’t expect the need for any do-overs. Satisfied that always ready, with my camera in bulb mode I clicked my shutter, locked it open on my remote release, and set my timer (in this case for 30 minutes, though I ended up keeping the exposure going for nearly ten minutes after the timer finished).

One additional benefit of these long exposures is the opportunity to lounge, chat, and laugh beneath a dazzling sky with a great group of people, serenaded by the music of the Colorado River. These group star trail shoots always become a highlight of my trips, and this night was no exception. As a bonus, on this night a meteor bright enough to register on my sensor streaked across my frame in the midst of my exposure. I just love happy endings.

I’m doing it all over again in 2015 (May 11-18)—contact me if you’d like to join me. 


13 Comments on “Inside the Grand Canyon: Beneath the dynamic sky

  1. Gary–is the blue color a natural reaction or did you do that in processing. If natural, what causes this color.
    Also very nice commentary and great shot.

    • Thanks, Charlie. Given enough light, the night sky should be blue, not black. I didn’t do anything to the color in processing here except drop the color temperature to give the entire scene a more night-like quality.

  2. I absolutely love this shot Gary! Best star trail photo I’ve seen in a long time. And the whole writeup is great. You realize how small we really are. I went on a camping trip last October and got to experience my first completely star-filled sky. It is truly unbelievable to witness something like that in person.

    • Thanks, Michael. For my entire life watching a dark night sky has been one of my favorite things. It amazes (and saddens) me that so many people have never seen the staggering beauty of a truly dark sky.

  3. Gary … I’ve got a question, and if you wouldn’t mind sending a quick response my way, I’d appreciate it. Once you’re on the B setting, how in the world do you estimate exposure? The color saturation of long exposures really appeals to me and I’ve been using more and more of them, especially with ND filters. I’m wondering, however, once I’m beyond 30 seconds and have to switch to B mode … how in the world do I estimate exposure? I’m guessing you’re going to say that you’ve got to take several shots and ‘zero’ in (but at 90 minutes a pop that seems crazy) … and that the ability to guess comes with lots of experience? D. Smith (

    • I do 30-second, high-ISO test exposures until I get the exposure right. Then I figure out how many stops the extra time for my star trails adds (whatever duration I decide to go with) and subtract that number of stops from my ISO (first) and f-stop (if necessary) settings. I write about it in more detail in the Starlight article in my Photo Tips section:

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