Mojave Desert Night Photography Flashback Trip Part I

During the April full moon, I went on a night photography trip to the Mojave and Joshua Tree (Part I, II, and III). Last month, I went back. The weather was unseasonably hot for late September -- around 100º in the daytime, and often still over 80º at midnight. Here's what happened.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

10:00 a.m. - Depart Berkeley

1:00 p.m. - we eat sandwiches by the side of the road, and then take a detour off Interstate 5 to drive 33 through Coalinga.


I miss the turn to continue on 33 South, and we drive by the impressive Pleasant Valley State Prison and Coalinga State Hospital facilities.

3:30 p.m. - We continue south on I-5 and exit at Lebec to have a look at Fort Tejon State Historic Park.

4:00 p.m. - We take the twisty side road through Gorman over to Route 138, the Pearblossom Highway. Onwards into the desert.

4:30 p.m. - We scout a nice looking location along the way, but it looks like someone is living in a trailer on-site.

Free beer at the Oxford Inn. Waiting for the Mojave to cool down & the moon to rise #theta360 - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

5:30 p.m. - We check in to the Oxford Inn and Suites in Lancaster. The Oktoberfest special includes dinner, 2 free drinks, and breakfast the next morning. It's hot out, so we take them up on the drink offer.

We skip the Chicken Florentine at the hotel, and opt to eat at Taqueria Pepe del Toro instead.

8:00 p.m. - We take a look at a short dirt road down to a plane, and decide the sandy road requires 4wd. It's still over 90º, so we decide not to hike it. Leaving the car in this area would also not be smart.

8:30 p.m. - We stop to shoot an abandoned gas station. Above is how how it looked back in 2008 on Street View.

Some further research shows that the gas station was operating as a marijuana dispensary in 2014. The sodium vapor lights seem strong near the street, but after some test shots we decide to shoot anyways. I find an angle that I like, and set up a shot.

I stopped down to f/11 to get the nice pointed stars on the two light sources. I also spent some time adjusting the foreground/background tonalities using luminosity masks in Photoshop.

Above you can see how my second setup looked straight out of the camera. I knew that the perspective would need to be corrected in post processing so I shot slightly wide. I was able to correct the distortion during the RAW conversion in Lightroom. Then I brought the image into Photoshop to work on the tone and local contrast, again using luminosity masks.

I'm happy with the composition, but a 10-minute exposure doesn't fill the sky with enough star trails. This shot really needs more like 30 minutes for the trails to circle around Polaris. I do like the the complementary colors, and have created a look that is close to how slide film would have rendered the scene. While taking the photo, the couple that live in the trailer on the other side of the fence argue loudly about who has to do the dishes. We decide to move on to the next location.

10:30 p.m. - I hadn't visited the old Alta Vista neighorhood signs since 2007, so we headed that way for a couple of shots.

Midnight - We rolled past the movie set and Kill Bull church in Hi Vista. The church has a strong light on it, and I've shot the movie set under better conditions, so we moved on.

12:30 a.m. - The next location was an old stone church with a nice view of Antelope Valley.

My car was parked just down the road where you see the light streaks on the left. We saw a police car pull up and two officers got out to inspect my car with a flashlight, but they left after a quick look. We finished our shots, and then drove back to the hotel to get some sleep.