Milky Way Canyon: The Night Sky in Utah

Capturing the Milky Way in the incredibly dark skies of Utah

Milky Way Canyon

Airglow and Milky Way in Canyonlands

The Milky Way rises over a fairly intimate canyon view in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. The green color in the sky is from airglow, a natural phenomenon that occurs in the upper atmosphere. Airglow is the result of various chemical reactions in the upper atmosphere that emit light, and on some nights it’s much more active than others in certain areas. It’s very difficult to see airglow with the naked eye, but the camera has no problem capturing the dim light in a long exposure. The bright glow on the left side of the horizon is light pollution from the town of Moab.

Technical Details

Nikon D810A with the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens @ 14mm. This is a blend of 10 images for the sky and 2 for the foreground. I took 10 shots focused for the stars at ISO 10,000 and 10 seconds each and then stacked them with Starry Landscape Stacker, available for Mac only (although you can do this technique in Photoshop but it’s a pain and doesn’t always work right). The result is pinpoint stars and low noise, as the 10 second exposure at 14mm is not enough to cause star trails, and the alignment and averaging of all 10 exposures averages out the noise, so you end up with a much cleaner result. I used one foreground shot at ISO 1600, f/2.8, for 15 minutes focused for the stars to get most of the landscape in focus (at f/2.8 at 14mm a lot is in focus), and I took another foreground shot at ISO 3200, f/5.6, for 30 minutes to get more of the close foreground on the left in focus. I then blended the resulting star stacked sky and the foreground exposures in Photoshop to create an image that has low noise and good focus from the foreground to the stars. Then creative effects were used to bring out detail and contrast in the Milky Way and foreground.

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Adam Woodworth is a landscape photographer, award-winning filmmaker and software engineer. He has had a love of photography for most of his life and one of his main focuses is landscape astrophotography. His earliest memory of gazing up in awe at the night sky was as a child in a canoe on a lake in Maine, fishing at night. The intensity of the star-filled sky in such a peaceful spot was a powerful experience, and now he enjoys sharing that experience through his photography. Follow him on Instagram as @awoodworthphoto.