Landscape astrophotography in Joshua Tree National Park, California

About this time last year in June 2017, I flew down from Ottawa to California to take in Sean Parker’s Joshua Tree Astrophotography Workshop.  Silly me, I arrived in Los Angeles and rented a car for the anticipated 2 1/2 hours drive to Joshua Tree National Park but I could have saved time and money had I flown into Palm Springs instead (a 1 hour drive to the park).  Nonetheless, it was a nice drive into the desert to Twentynine Palms, a city of 26,000 people, and close to the northern entrance to the park.

I arrived just before the meet and greet at the Holiday In Express Hotel business centre at 7pm on Friday, a bit later than planned due to my rental car replacement just outside of Los Angeles  (that’s a whole other story!).  It was nice to meet the fellow photographers, about 10 of us in total, and I was the sole foreigner outside of the United States.  We got to know each other over snacks and beverages provided by Sean as he discussed the weekend and gave a presentation on the basics of night sky photography.  We also reviewed and checked out our gear from the list of recommended equipment sent us earlier by Sean:

  • Tripod (I used my Gitzo 1325 mk2 and Arca Swiss ballhead)
  • Camera (I used my Nikon D800 with RRS camera plate)
  • Camera bag (I used my Thinktank Retrospective 5)
  • Intervalometer (I used my Vello ShutterBoss)
  • Wide Angle lens (the widest you have available) (I used my Rokinon 14mm f/2.8)
  • Spare batteries
  • Battery charger
  • Cleaning cloths
  • Camera manual in case you need to find settings listed in Workshop Notes
  • Headlamp with red light
  • Laptop with Lightroom, Photoshop, and Startrax for following along with the post processing session
  • Optional outdoor chair, a little more comfortable sitting down at times
  • Water

We met later on that night at 9pm and carpooled into Joshua Tree National Park and set up at one of Sean’s scouted locations where he introduced the basics, Milkyway panoramics, light painting, etc.  We then set up our cameras and began shooting.  At about midnight we began shooting star trails (series of single photos that we would later merge with software (Startrax)).  Sean did a great job assisting photographers throughout the night and coordinating our shooting sequences to avoid us from getting in each others way and to avoid stray light from among our headlights and camera back panel displays.

Sean was well equipped to guide us in the starlit desert.  Who knew that his trusty ultraviolet light would uncover scorpions for us to avoid.  We only saw a few glowers in the dark and good to know that in rare circumstances that one should be stung, it would likely be painful but rarely life-threatening.

Scorpion - Joshua Tree NP June 2017

The night cooled down a bit, from the earlier 100 degrees experienced at the valley floor in Twentynine Palms to the 80 degree low by the time we packed up our gear from within the park around 2 am.  It was not a problem hitting the pillow when we arrived back at the workshop hotel.

After a good night’s sleep we met on Saturday, day 2 of the workshop, from 2 to 4pm in the hotel’s business centre to go over the post processing of the past night’s photos.  Some keeners had already processed their amazing images before the class started, so it was encouraging for most of us what was about to unfold before our eyes during post processing.   Sean did an excellent job walking us step by step through the post processing activities with our own images on our respective laptops.  Through the use of Lightroom, Photoshop, and Startrax (for star trails) we able to make our photos come to life.  This was definitely a key secret sauce of the workshop, and as an upcoming member of Sean Parker’s Workshop Alumnus, we would be granted access to private online tutorials of these post processing steps.  Such tutorials proved very beneficial to me weeks later when my workshop notes were becoming ilegible, ha ha!

On Saturday night we met for a delicious group dinner at a Twentynine Palms restaurant and we again carpooled to some new sites in Joshua Tree with interesting foregrounds.  We shot startrails and Milkyway photos (including panoramics) from about 10pm to 3 am.  As our tripod mounted cameras were clicking away on their own during the star trail sessions, we would gather together close to our vehicles (and to avoid light polluting our photos) to chat and snack away.  Some would experiment with their star-tracking platforms or other camera gear they had brought along as a fun concurrent activity.  It was definitely a learning and fun opportunity to share experiences among us like-minded photographers.  It was another successful night of shooting, we were all pumped up on our drive back to our hotel although somewhat sad that it was our last night in the park.

On day 3, Sunday noon, we met for our last session in the hotel’s business centre and went over our photos and Sean answered any post processing questions before the workshop concluded at 2pm.  The workshop was a big success and thanks to Sean we walked away with fun memories, technical skills, and amazing photographs.

Would I attend another one of Sean’s workshops?  A definite YES !!!

My best photos from this workshop (including the Milkyway panoramic feature photo above) …


Joshua Tree 26 June 2017-17

2 thoughts on “Landscape astrophotography in Joshua Tree National Park, California

  1. Robbie,

    Thank you so much for this blog post and a summary of our unforgettable workshop! It was a pleasure sharing my knowledge and passion for the night sky with you and the rest of the group. We had so much fun! Stay in touch…I hope to shoot with you again soon!


    • Robbie

      Thanks, Sean! Hope to get out to another one of your workshops someday 🙂

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