Gearing Up for Joshua Tree… and 3 quick tips for making star trails

The silhouette of a Joshua tree after sundown. Shot at 1.3 seconds, f18, ISO 200 and with a 14-24 Nikon f2.8 lens.

This year, next month really, we are returning to Joshua Tree National Park for another workshop.  Yes, I am known mostly as an ocean dude, but if the truth be known, I do all sorts of photography and have been venturing inland more and more over the last several years to explore California's well-photographed landscapes.  I was compelled to write this post in part to mention my upcoming workshop with Camera West at Joshua Tree (shameless I know), but also to show some of the images I've gathered from this spectacular landscape over that past few years.

Each time I visit Joshua Tree I am newly inspired by the endless photographic opportunities.  The natural tapestry of this 800,000 acre National Park consists of three distinct ecoregions, elevations from 900 to over 5,000 feet, unique biological communities found nowhere else in the world, and gardens of yellow and orange granitic monoliths that pepper the landscape--not to mention the Joshua trees that look like they are right out of either a Dr. Suess book or the time of the dinosaurs.  Joshua Tree is the quintessential California desert experience and, best of all, I've spent a fair amount of my time shooting there at night.

Arch rock at the White Tank campground is a very popular spot for the visiting photographer. This image was with a sliver of moonlight for the fill at 40 minutes (or 2388 seconds), at f6.3, ISO 1250 and with a 14-24mm Nikon f2.8 lens.

Although the cities Palm Springs, Indio, and 29 Palms are close, you're far enough away from civilization when shooting in the park to see and photograph the milky way.  And when the moon isn't out, you can create some stunning stars and star trails.  We, of course, will be playing into the night next month, but whether you are able to join us, go on your own, or with another group, here are my top 3 tips for shooting at night and creating images with star trails.

  1. Shoot less than 30 seconds or more than 30 minutes: There are generally two looks for star photography.  You can either have stars trailing through your composition, or appear as individual dots in the sky.  To get the individual dot look, I'll typically keep my shutter speed between 20 and 30 seconds.  My other settings vary a bit, but I'm usually somewhere between f4 and f8 (rarely f8, though) and between an ISO setting of 1200 and 2000.  Either way, the 30 second limit is key.  In my experience, anything more than that tends to show noticeable movement in the stars, killing the individual dot in the sky look.  On the other hand, and assuming you are shooting with a wide lens, if you want nice long trailing stars, anything less than 30 minutes reveals short-in-length star trails that feel like more time would've been better.  In fact, I like 40 minutes to an hour to get those long sweeping stars to fill the negative space.
  2. Shoot far and wide: To get the big impressive stars or star trail backdrops, I use wide-angle lenses almost exclusively.  Because we are shooting in the dark, and tend to use f-stops uncharacteristic for landscape photography like f4 or f5.6, the wide lens also helps with depth of field, which is limited with the wider aperture.
  3. Painting with a flash vs. a flash light: When shooting in dark, using a subtle fill light on the foreground can create impact in a photo.  I switch between a regular old flashlight from any old hardware store and an actual off-camera flash.  Using a flashlight is my preference because the light that we can paint onto a subject over a long exposure can be added from many directions making it easy to create a soft-light look.  But, when doing long exposures, foreground subjects aren't always sitting still.  If tree leaves or branches are blowing in the wind for example, then stopping that motion with a flash makes more sense.  It all depends on what your subject is.
A 9-foot-tall ocotillo illuminated with an off-camera flash triggered manually. Shot at 25 seconds, f4, with ISO 2000, and a 14-24mm Nikon f2.8.

Joshua Tree is of course not all stars and their trails.  The granite monoliths that are pushed out of the ground from tectonic activity appear almost randomly throughout the landscape.  They make great subjects that play with light and shadow that changes from minute to minute throughout the day.  In the spring there is a surprising diversity in flowers and colorful desert plants, and there are rock climbers everywhere making for interesting human subjects.

Join us for a chance to see this dynamic landscape for yourself and get professional photographic guidance along the way.  We will be in Joshua Tree National Park April 17th to 20th.  Please contact me if you are interested in attending this or any Bradley Photographic workshop.

Here's a link to more information on the upcoming workshop: Joshua Tree Workshop

Happy Trails!

The soccer ball size flower of a Joshua tree. Shot with a Nikon 60mm lens and a Wescott reflector.
These granite structures are the remains of 100 million year old cooled subsurface magma. Groundwater filtered through the structures leaving rough corners and large rounded boulders.
This image was taken right after sunrise. The young Joshua tree in the foreground was lit with a Nikon SB-26 flash.
Joshua tree with a 20 second exposure, shot at f4 and ISO 2500 with a Nikon 14-24 f2.8 lens. The fill light was painted on the tree with a small mag-light
Joshua tree with a 20-second exposure, shot at f4 and ISO 2500 with a Nikon 14-24 f2.8 lens. The fill light was painted on the tree with a small Maglite.
This image was taken with a 20 second exposure with a Nikon 14-24mm f2.8 lens. The glowing clouds are reflecting the cities just South of Joshua Tree National Park
Branches of a Joshua tree. Shot with a 300mm Nikon f2.8.
An ocotillo cactus illuminated with two manually triggered Nikon SB-26 flashes.
This photo is a stack of 30 images taken over about 45 minutes and then blended to make one photo. The silhouette of the photographer was taken separate from all of the star images, and was created by the subject waving a flashlight behind him with one hand.

Jason Bradley has a unique set of skills. He specializes in nature and wildlife photography both underwater and above; he’s the owner and operator of Bradley Photographic Print Services, a fine art print lab; he leads photographic expeditions around the world, and is the author of the book Creative Workflow in Lightroom, published by Focal Press. Visit to see more of his work and find info on his upcoming workshops and expeditions, and to learn about his fine art printing services.


    Wow… this post was so helpful! I am from Indiana and will be going to the Joshua Tree National Forest in less than 4 weeks. I have been there 2 different times, and have wanted to do star trails, but have never had the confidence and courage to do so. Your insightful tips on shooting at night with the star trails make so much more sense than what I had read into about star trails in the past… you are making me want to step out and try it this time! Thanks so much for taking the time to do this post!

    Wow… these pictures are absolutely breathtaking and this blog entry is very educationally informative! I am from Indiana and therefore do not get to shoot this kind of thing often… However, I will be visiting the Joshua Tree National Forest in less than 4 weeks, and am anxious to try shooting star trails this time. Thank you so much, Jason, for taking the time to write this post. It is hugely beneficial for my amateur photography skills:)

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