Few experiences in nature surpass a dark sky brimming with an impossible number of stars. The darker the sky the better, and the sky doesn’t get much darker, or more impossible, than a moonless night at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I schedule my annual Grand Canyon raft trip for the week of the new moon to ensure the darkest skies and the most stars; I prefer May because canyon temperatures are comfortably warm but not yet hot, and the Colorado River runs clear, unmuddied by sediment stirred by the summer monsoon.
As darkness seeps into the mile-deep gorge, the first pinpoints overhead are the planets, some combination of Venus, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, and Saturn. Soon the darkness is as complete as we ever see it at home, and the planets are joined by the brightest stars in recognizable constellations. But unlike home, the darkening continues, and with every passing minute comes more stars, until it seems the sky can’t possibly hold any more.
Pausing to take it all in, the first thing to catch your eye in the unprecedented dark might be the Big Dipper—in May it’s high overhead as darkness falls, a comforting sight to disoriented observers still not convinced that this sky is real. Perhaps you’ll be temporarily distracted by the blinking lights of a distant jetliner, a silent reminder of the world left behind. A keen eye may discern a faint “star” moving among its neighbors—a satellite, possibly monitoring the weather, or sending GPS coordinates, or maybe even a foreign country secretly observing (smile!). And if you’re patient you might see a streaking meteor (or two, or three…), as if a hidden star has sprinted across the darkness and into a new hiding place.
But this visual feast is only the appetizer, because the main course, the Milky Way’s glowing band, isn’t served until close to midnight (or later, depending on the part of the sky that’s visible from the chosen vantage point). The Milky Way rises in the east, a band of light running north and south, ascending until it eventually spans the sky. Fainter in the north, the Milky Way brightens as your eyes follow it south, toward the glowing galactic core. The photogenic galactic core rises highest in the southern sky, so we hope for campsites with an open view in that direction. Since the Grand Canyon sky is crowded by tight, towering walls, the best views of the sky are usually up- or down-canyon.
Our best south-sky opportunities come on the trip’s first two nights, when we’re in Marble Canyon, the north/south trending section of the Grand Canyon that ends at the Little Colorado River confluence. At the confluence the canyon walls open to offer the trip’s best view of the sky, but just downriver the Colorado turns westward and the walls rise and squeeze closer. Fortunately, rather than beeline to Lake Mead, the Colorado River meanders a bit, bending north here and south there, providing an occasional view of the southern sky throughout the Grand Canyon.
Pulling into camp after a long day on the river, the first thing I do is find a spot for my cot that will ensure the best possible view of the night sky as I fall asleep. With my claim staked, I survey the surroundings for potential night photography scenes. Campsites on the Colorado River are first-come, first-served, and we have to hope we find one that’s oriented properly and has photogenic vantage points. Usually that means down by the river, but sometimes it’s an elevated location with the river in the distance. But if the campsite doesn’t have a photogenic vantage point, I’m not disappointed because nothing can take away my bedtime canopy.
If I find a scene I like, I compose, dial in my night exposure settings, and focus my camera well before dark. Sometimes I’ll compose and leave the camera poised on the tripod, ready for my return in the wee hours of the morning. If I’m afraid someone might stumble on my tripod in the dark, I leave it beside my cot, camera loaded and ready for action when I wake later.
On the trip’s third evening we pulled into camp exhausted but exhilarated after the trip’s most intense day of rapids. I found a view I liked near camp—getting there required a little rock scrambling that was no big deal with the sun out, but would require a bit more care. The Milky Way in May reaches its zenith in the south at around 3 a.m., but since we didn’t have a good view of the southern sky from this site, I decided the best views of the Milky Way would come earlier, when I could photograph it downstream, in the eastern sky. I woke at 1 a.m., grabbed my camera, and stumbled by the screen of my iPhone (the less artificial light my eyes are exposed to, the better they function when I try to photograph in the dark) to the spot I’d chosen. I could tell by a handful of glowing LCDs scattered downstream that I wasn’t the only one shooting. (On the first night I’d given the group instruction and guidance on photographing the Milky Way, but after that everyone was free to pick their spot and time, or stay in bed.)
I shot exclusively with my Sony a7SII and Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens. Once I’d perfected the composition and verified the sharpness, sticking with a 20 second shutter speed, I varied my ISO and aperture for more processing options later: ISO 3200, 6400, and 12,800; f1.4 and f2. At these settings I capture more light than my eyes take in—not only does this reveal more of the canyon than I can see, it also reveals even more stars.
I only photographed for about 20 minutes, but was so wired when I returned to my cot that I lay awake for another hour, mesmerized by my glittering ceiling.
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