Utah, West Desert

Duncan and I traveled out to the West Desert on the Northern edge of the Bonneville Salt Flats a couple weeks ago to do some night photography and spend some time visiting.  The image above is one of the images out of a time-lapse video, linked below.  You can click on the image above to get a 4896 x 3264 pixel image that more accurately reflects what the evening looked like.  Duncan’s take was just a bit earlier in the evening and can be seen here.

Its easy to forget how amazing the night sky can be when you live in an urban environment with lights all around.  The bright light in the distance underneath the Milky Way is Wendover, Utah/Nevada.  Most of the time when I travel out here, it is to see the land speed racing on the salt flats, but this visit, or any visit to a dark part of the planet serves as a tacit reminder of how small we are in the universe.  Its humbling and centering at the same time to realize just how big the universe is, how fragile the thin slice of life is that we occupy and how important family and friends are.


Duncan and I got out to the camp site in late afternoon, set up and indulged in some ballistics with the HK MR556a1 followed by an evening of astrophotography.  Duncan was pretty handy with the rifle, especially given his thumb which had been caught in an aircraft hangar door a few days prior.  Hey man, hope that thumb is recovered.


As the sun set, the Milky Way started to emerge from the deep blue of the sky followed by its full reveal as blue turned to black and passing satellites revealed themselves.  It is absolutely stunning how many stars come out, each one a supermassive glowing ball of plasma.  Though the Drake equation postulates that 50% of stars have planets, modern surveys reveal at least 30% of stars with planets, boggling the mind at what is possible.

I made a time-lapse movie of the Earth rotating underneath the Milky Way at this link Bonneville salt flats (Quicktime movie).  If you’d rather see it on Youtube, you can see it here, though the quality is not nearly as nice as the Quicktime.  We knew that sitting for 3 to 4 hours would end up being 5 or 6 seconds of video, but in retrospect, we should have simply left the cameras out all night while we slept, but I did not think about it at the time.  After enjoying a Chimay in the perfect temperature evening, some time around Midnight, we just decided to crawl into our tents and call it an evening and that was that.  Next time I’ll just let the camera run and I’ll do it with a tighter aperture and slightly longer exposures to bring out the Milky Way more as I did in this image.



The other thing that *totally* surprised me was that star clusters, nebulae and galaxies were visible with an SLR lens (a 70-200 f/2.8 zoom at 200mm in this case).  The cluster to the right of the image above is, I think, the M24 cluster.


The orange lights in the background of the above picture are the lights of Salt Lake City 120 miles to the East of us which should give you some idea of the concept of light pollution.  One of these days, I’d like to see how far away from the lights one could get.  Perhaps some remote islands in the Pacific or the middle of the Saharan desert

All in all, it was a good time, fun photography and great to catch up with Duncan.



15 Replies to “Utah, West Desert”

    1. Thanks Ara. Hopefully next time I’ll plan ahead a bit more for the timelapse and bring out additional gear that lets us record longer and more interesting things.

  1. The thumb is getting better. The big split to the meat on the pad is healed up and looks like it’ll be almost perfect with almost no trace of scaring. That attention I was giving it, including in the tent as you show above where I’m dinking with my med kit, paid off.

    The top side, well, that’s still pretty messy looking right now. We’ll see about that.

    Thanks for the trip out!

  2. I saw something close to a true night sky in rural Maine. There isn’t much by way of settlement out there except on the coast and there’s no light pollution to speak of until you get close to Portland–not a major burg by any measure. I watched the Leonids on a granite boulder in the middle of some blueberry barrens. Pretty amazing.

    1. Yeah, I’ve only been up to Maine once and would love to return. I even entertained looking into a job at Jackson labs up in Bar Harbor once. Its beautiful country.

  3. Looks like you guys had a blast out there! Absolutely love the time lapse!! What did you use to trigger the camera? Pretty amazing that you can see clusters using an SLR with a 70-200! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks Dino!

      Duncan had an internal intervalometer in his Nikon and I simply had my index finger on the 2 sec delay. Had I thought ahead, I would have brought out a dedicated remote timer, but alas…

      As far as the clusters, I suppose it makes sense, but it was completely surprising to me that we could see them. That was pretty darned exciting.

  4. Love that top photo for its tones and minimal structure. Interesting how that can be so visually engaging. Very cool.

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