Finding a Monastery in the Middle of the Sonoran Desert
TLDR: I'm happy with the results- a beautiful shot, nobody shooting at me, and didn't get stuck in an irrigation ditch or assaulted by a donkey. If you want to learn the backstory, keep reading!
This is the photo printed on 24x30" metal. The print quality from Miller's Professional Lab is amazing, and this is what people get when they order directly through my site. I am also a resident artist at Iron Key Studio in Peoria, and will be hosting a booth at Peoria Second Saturdays in front of Iron Key. If you're in the area, please stop by!
Most of the time when I pick a place to shoot the Milky Way, I use tools on my phone and the computer to plan. Critical elements of a nightscape are absence of light pollution, absence of light pollution, galaxy position (it moves like the sun), and interesting foreground subjects. Oh, and dark skies (aka absence of light pollution). Usually this means traveling to some place far from any population center, because even a small town creates enough light pollution to wash out the faint glow of the Milky Way.
There are maps which show how dark an area is, what the weather will be like, and even the phase and position of the moon (moonlight is death to a Milky Way photo).
With these tools in hand, I often go to Google Earth to try to find something "cool" to frame the shot against. I recently did a series in and around Tonopah, Arizona (near Buckeye on the map above) because it's largely agricultural and it's far enough from the city to offer decently dark skies. It's also within 90 minutes of my house- something super important when the shoot you want to do requires you to be up from 230 to 530am!!
One thing Arizona seems to be in short supply of is large, ornate structures. There are a handful of historical buildings within the Phoenix metro area, but the majority of what I've found has been rather simple and/or small, owing to the sparse population before the advent of AC. So, when I saw a beautiful monastery in Tonopah just inside the dark sky zone, I was excited. Not just because it was a cool subject, but because it had a street address and I'd be able to drive right up to it in the middle of the night.
Usually, I have to depend heavily on my preplanning and the halo of off-road lights on my Jeep to find the spot I want.
I should have known better than to think it would be easy to find a place with a published address. What I plugged into the GPS brought me to within 3 miles of the monastery... And then sent me right between 2 very deep irrigation canals in the middle of a farm. Clearly, this wasn't the right spot, so using my superior map reading skills I pulled up the map on my truck and found a road that should bring me up behind it. Well, it did and it didn't. It did bring me smack into the middle of a dairy, which definitely wasn't a monastery and definitely wasn't easy on the olfactory sense. It was also a little sketchy driving by some of the ranch houses past the dairy and behind (what should have been behind) the monastery at this hour because people were up for work and probably wondering who the hell I was. After wandering around for 30 minutes or so and fearing I would lose the opportunity to capture the Milky Way before the sun came up, I found a spot with a cell signal and luckily through a Yelp post found written directions to the monastery.
Backtracking a few miles, I got on track, followed the route past the donkey pen (literally),
and found myself next to the beautiful monastery 15 minutes later...
...The beautiful monastery which was surrounded by a giant fence. Ugh.
I tried to drive around behind it, but the view is completely obscured by another property and 10 acres of desert brush.
So, back I went to the front where I parked my Jeep, hoisted Mochi onto my hip (he's tiny coyote food and I worry about him at night), and picked my way through the dark to a spot that offered the best vantage point I could find. The results are in the print. It's available on metal, canvas, and acrylic. If you aren't sure which one to get, please click the subscribe link below to download your free guide to print media!
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