Watchman Milky Way

Zion National Park, Utah
Behind the Shot: Watchman Milky Way by Tom Elenbaas—Zion National Park, Utah
Photo By Tom Elenbaas

I felt a little guilty when [OP Managing Editor] Kristan Ashworth asked me if I was interested in writing this piece about my Watchman Milky Way image, but not so guilty that I said “no.” Credit for the original concept belongs to my brother, Bob Elenbaas, who like me is also an avid amateur photographer (www.relenbaasphoto.com). Using PhotoPills, Bob had done all the legwork and calculations to determine when the Milky Way would be positioned so that it would appear to rise up from the Virgin River over the Watchman in Zion National Park. When he invited me to come along for the shot (which by all rights is his shot) I jumped at the chance.

This image (a blend of two exposures, one for the foreground and one for the night sky) was made in June 2016. We planned to be in Zion for several nights to hedge our bets on the weather. Although that time of year is normally clear and dry, as luck would have it there were intermittent storms throughout the trip. One clear night was all we got, but fortunately one clear night was all we needed.

Anyone who’s been to Zion knows that the Canyon Junction Bridge is packed with photographers standing shoulder to shoulder at sunset. But at midnight we had the bridge to ourselves. It was a moonless night, which was great for the Milky Way, but not the foreground. There was so little available light that even a very long exposure failed to capture sufficient detail in the banks of the Virgin River. In hindsight, the preferable thing would have been to shoot the foreground during the blue hour, leave the camera and tripod in place, and shoot the Milky Way later the same night. Instead, we ended up going back at dusk the following day to get the foreground exposure.

Both the Milky Way and foreground were shot with my Sony A7Rii body and Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens. The Milky Way was shot at ISO 3200, f/2.8 for 25 seconds. The foreground exposure was shot at ISO 200, f/8 for 10 seconds. The sky and foreground were first separately processed in Lightroom and then opened as layers in Photoshop CC. The difficult part came when it was time to align the two exposures for blending. With the foreground image as the top layer, I masked away the sky. Although they were shot with the same camera and lens, the angle at which the camera was tilted differed, which meant the horizon lines didn’t accurately line up. By using Photoshop’s puppet warp tool, I was able to slowly tweak the mountaintops in the foreground layer to precisely align with the sky layer. After that, it was a matter of refining the edge to create a smooth transition and fine-tuning the exposures on both layers to make the Milky Way pop and create the illusion of night on the banks of the river.

Since I live in light-polluted metropolitan Los Angeles, I don’t have too many opportunities to shoot the night sky. When I do have a chance to shoot the Milky Way, I strive to capture an image that looks “real,” which is, of course, impossible since the night sky images our digital cameras capture look nothing like what we’re able to see unaided. But if we shot the night sky as it appears to the naked eye, nobody would give it a second look. Fortunately, great camera sensors coupled with Photoshop and a bit of artistic license let us creatively capture the “real” night sky.

I"m an attorney by vocation and a photographer by avocation. I maintain a website for my landscape and nature photography at www.tomelenbaas.com.

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