Joshua Tree 2010 - Perseid Meteors and Star Trails, Friday the 13th of August


I was amped about the Perseid meteor shower.  At the spur of the moment, I decided that what I really wanted to do was see it in beautiful Joshua Tree National Park, enveloped in the peacefulness of the high desert.

I threw everything I needed into the car. Camera and tripod, sandwiches, Mexican blanket, the Creative Night: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques book by Harold Davis, several gallons of water, and an anti-gravity chair for gazing at the stars for hours comfortably.  Yes...I was ready.


I got to Joshua Tree about 5:30 or 6pm.  Yeah.  Perfect.  Plenty of time to set up.  The light was already lookin' good, but by the time I determined my site and set up, it was gorgeous. 

I set up between Quail Springs and the Boy Scout Trail in the park.  The sun began melting into the horizon, its buttery glow warming everything.  Just gorgeous.  Yeah, this was gonna be a magical night.

Beautiful moonscape in Joshua Tree, above the otherworldly rocks.

The sliver of a crescent moon rapidly sank.  The moon was not that bright, perfect for viewing the Perseid meteors. 

1/13 shutter speed, ISO 200, F/5.

Painting with light
There's a lot of different lights going on here!  How'd that happen?

One of the photographic techniques I've always wanted to do is painting with light.  What is that exactly?  "Light painting" is a photographic technique, typically done at night or in dark rooms, where interesting exposures are created by moving a light source (or the camera).  Some of the results can be quite wild.

Just for fun, I used two light sources.  I fired my flash, which lit the Joshua Tree and branch in the foreground, then kept the shutter open for about two minutes while I "painted" the rocky boulders in the back with a flashlight.  I held a warm gel over the flashlight to color the rocks differently from the foreground.  Really fun!  I hope to explore this more in the future.

Even with only a two-minute exposure, you can see the movement of the stars, causing curved streaks.  These are called star trails.  And I would explore star trails later in the evening!

There may be a vertical meteor streak that I captured as well, although I didn't see it because I was too busy painting with light.  You can see the streak just above the horizon, just to the right of the silhouetted Joshua Tree.

118.3 second exposure, ISO 200, F/6.3.

After it became much darker,  I took several photos that were relatively short in duration (at least, by night photography standards!), just to get a feel for the proper exposure, and as well, to capture the stars as we see them, not as star trails, as would happen with longer exposures.

51.8 second exposure at ISO 500, f/3.5. 

Perseid Meteor
There was a slight breeze, and the night was warm.  Nothing but the sound of crickets.  I sat back, looking at the milky way and meteors.  Some meteors would blaze gloriously, leaving a streak of white in the sky, while others, such as the one pictured here (low in the horizon and left of the Joshua Tree), were not as flashy.  Mother Nature's light show, beautiful and psychedelic.  And because I was away from the city's light, it was utterly vivid as well.

Because there weren't a lot of meteors visible, I settled on a method.  I found that I could get a great exposure of the stars with a four minute exposure at ISO 200 and F5/6, but not have much star trails, which I felt might look confusing should I capture any meteors.  I kept at it for a couple of hours, but this was the only meteor streak that I captured.  But no matter, I was so much at peace, lying back on my anti-gravity chair, just looking at the stars and listening to the crickets.

Also, an LA Times photographer shot the meteor shower at Mt. Pinos with two cameras with 14mm wide-angle lens, which cover much more sky than my 27mm-equivalent lens and only got four shots of the meteors in 130 shots. I got this one shot of the meteors with only one camera with a lens covering much less sky, so I should consider myself fortunate!

5 minute exposure, ISO 200, f/5.6.

Star Trails
After a couple of hours of trying to capture the Perseid meteor shower, I decided that I would try and capture some star trails.  I was already set up facing north, perfect for best accentuating the curvature of the movement of the stars around Polaris, the North Star, which appears to be stationary.

From the viewpoint of a night photographer with a camera fixed in one position, the earth's rotation creates  amazing curved star trails if one holds the shutter open long enough due to the earth's rotation!  Kewl!

I held the shutter open for about thirty-four minutes here, definitely long enough to show the curvature of the star trails around Polaris.

I began taking this photo just before 1am.  I ate the last of my sandwiches and packed my other belongings in the car, eventually coming back to close the shutter.  I used the long-exposure noise reduction system in my camera.  This works quite well, but it's takes the camera just as long to process the noise reduction as it does to shoot the shot.  Since I had left the shutter open for 34 minutes, the camera still needed 34 minutes to finish the shot!  It was late, about 1:30am, so I simply picked up my camera and tripod, put it in the car, and began driving home, allowing the camera to continue processing the shot. 

When I filled up at a gas station later on, I looked at my camera and saw that it was finished processing the shot.  I gasped when I saw how beautiful the shot was.  This was my first attempt at long-exposure night photography, and to say I was happy with the result would be an understatement! 

An absolutely magical night, underneath the star canopy, among the Joshua Trees.  Utterly peaceful.  Dang, I need to do this more often.

34 minute exposure, ISO 200, f/8.

Other information:
Nikon D90 DSLR, Nikkor 18-200mm VR lens (and the last three photos were all shot at 18mm), my Dad's old Sears tripod from the 1970s, Nikon SB-600 speedlight, HonL gel, Nikon shutter release.  No special lens filters were used. I shot mostly at ISO 200 to minimize some of the noise inherent with night photography, although I was pleased that the photo of the stars at ISO 500 was so clean.

Since I told some of my friends that I was coming out to Joshua Tree, some have already asked what I would use and how I would do it, which is why I've listed the camera settings and gear. This is totally geeky and may stop some from reading this photo blog, but that's okay...not everyone's interested. And most people don't read the text accompanying my photos anyway.

Tags:  Joshua Tree, night photography, star trails, Perseid Meteor, meteor shower, falling stars, shooting stars, light painting, painting with light.

Ken's photos of Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as photos of Peru, Burma, India, Morocco, China, Thailand, Ghana, Ecuador, and elsewhere, have appeared in many books, magazines, websites, and galleries.  Visit the Ken Lee Photography Website. Some of Ken's select photos may be purchased through his Imagekind Store.

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