Alien Throne and Milky Way, Valley of Dreams, New Mexico

Photographing Alien Throne in the Valley of Dreams, near Bisti Badlands, De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area and Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Area was on my to-do list, and obviously, I made that trip happen.

You've heard it said that a photo should tell a story. I agree that telling a story is a good aspect of a photo, but storytelling is not always important, and oftentimes, the capture of an image creates a story. This image falls into that latter category.

Some images are complicated to capture, some images are complicated to edit, and some images are both. Again, this one landed solidly in the latter category.

Even beyond any travel required to get to New Mexico, getting to Valley of Dreams requires a long drive (for everyone) that ends on high-clearance two-track "roads" (and a popular mapping app does not currently provide the correct directions). Once driving capabilities are exhausted, the hike to Alien Throne is nearly two miles with, at least for the newcomers, GPS guidance over the trailless desert.

The Valley of Dreams is a dark sky location, optimal for photographing the Milky Way. Add darkness to the hike, and even most Valley of Dreams-experienced hikers need constant GPS navigation assistance as your vehicle becomes a needle in a haystack on the return hike.

Choosing to photograph the Milky Way in April means a middle-of-the-night shooting time (with, likely, no other photographers competing for your location). After photographing a sunrise, napping, scouting, and photographing sunset at Alien Throne, and resting back in the SUV for a couple of hours, we started the second hike to Alien Throne in the darkness at 1:00 AM.

Once in position, establishing the composition was the first goal, and darkness greatly increases this challenge. I brought low-level lighting for this scene, but we opted to go with natural lighting due to the myriad of hard shadows present here.

With the composition established, the Milky Way became the focus. The lens was manually focused on the stars, and the mental note for a quick return to optimal infinity focus was that this setting was immediately after the camera's distance meter changed from a number to the ∞ symbol.

I was uncertain where the Milky Way would be compositionally ideal as it rotated through the image, and there were clouds that could shut down visibility later. Thus, images were continuously captured until the Milky Way was clearly rotated beyond the optimal position.

Next, without moving the camera, the foreground was focused on. The 24mm focal length at f/1.4 does not provide adequate depth of field for this entire scene, making focus bracketing important for that goal.

The ground subjects would not be obscured by clouds, and they were not moving in relation to the camera. Thus, they could be photographed at leisure, and longer exposures created a brighter image without concern for star trails. For this image's foreground, three 30-second images were captured at three focus distances, with the duplicate images enabling some of the noise to be averaged out.

After the blending, the three foreground images were focus-stacked into a single image. Focus stacking is easy in Photoshop (& Lightroom). Open as layers in Photoshop, select all layers, select Edit > Auto-Align Layers [select Auto], choose Edit > Auto-Blend Layers [select Stack Images]. Then, the Milky Way sky image was focus-stacked into the final image.

Further processing primarily consisted of adding contrast, cooling the color tone, and darkening the foreground significantly.

It was after 4:00 AM when we packed up to start the GPS-guided route back to the car, and the sun was up by the time we arrived at the hotel. Hotel breakfast was the end of the story behind this image.

Was the reward worth the effort? Definitely. With photography, it usually is.

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