Death Valley: Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes Sunset

Death Valley National Park is a phenomenal study of erosion, weather, geology, sand dunes, salt formations, and huge spring wildflower blooms on rare occasions.

This post covers Death Valley Sand Dunes, specifically the Mesquite Flat dunes.

The dunes are easily accessible, just minutes from Stovepipe Wells. They are a very popular spot. It is nearly impossible to find undisturbed ripples anywhere near the parking lot where the tallest dunes are.

The dunes area is vast. I parked a mile away to get this image. The only time the tallest dunes will be without footprints are at sunrise following a very windy evening. Even then you better be the first one up and far away from the lot, or people will be walking in from of you, messing up the shot.

Feature Image Details

Those interested in my equipment and recommendations can find it here: Mish’s Equipment List.

If you missed them, please check out my previous articles.

  1. Death Valley: Zabriskie Point Sunrise, Manly Beacon
  2. Death Valley: Dante’s View Sunrise
  3. Death Valley: Artist’s Palette


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Mike “Mish” Shedlock

Monument Valley: Yei Bi Chei Milky Way and Sand dunes

Monument Valley is a Navajo Indian tribal park on the border of northeastern Arizona and southeastern Utah.

It’s a beautiful place but access is difficult without a guide and guides are costly. The restaurants do not serve or sell alcohol but you can bring it and have it in your room.

There is only one trail that does not require a guide. Even then, the main trail is sunrise to sunset. This makes life difficult for anyone seeking night-time images.

If this sounds problematic, remember, this is their land, private land.

Feature Image Details

The Rokinon is actually a pretty crappy lens in numerous ways. It is manual focus only. The corners are not sharp, wide open. It is not usable, in my opinion, at F1.4 or F1.8. F2.0 is questionable. Others disagree.

Importantly, I have seen many stories where the focus is off entirely but only on one side of the lens. Mechanically, the lens is sloppy. One photographer exchanged his lens three times before he found a good one.

Why would anyone put up with this?

Interestingly, if one can find a good model, it is arguably the best lens ever made for night photography. The reason: coma.

Coma is an image aberration that makes points of light look like bat wings. A Canon 24mm lens that costs four times as much has terrible coma. The Rokinon way outperforms Nikon as well.

Lenses that make stars that look light bat wings instead of points of light are not suited for night photography. The Rokinon is the best coma-corrected lens around.

Exposure Rule

The maximum length of time one can expose night images without stars streaking can be calculated by using this rule: e = 400 / Fl.

E is the exposure time in seconds, 400 is a constant derived from experience, and Fl is the focal length of the lens in millimeters. In this case, we get e= 400/24 = 16.67 seconds. I round to the nearest 5 seconds, thus 15 seconds.

For this shot, I took a series of six images at 15 seconds and stacked them in Photoshop. Stacking reduces noise.

For more on stacking, please see Joshua Tree National Park – Arch Rock – Geminid Meteor Shower.


The Milky Way image is a blend of an image taken at night with a second one taken right at sunrise the next morning.

The sunrise shot is an eight-frame vertical panorama merged together in Lightroom. One of the frames was used in the Milky Way image above.

I hired a guide for the night image. The next day, I hired a guide for the sunrise image.

More on Rokinon

Focusing the Rokinon 24mm lens is a real pain. Night images are best at infinity, but finding infinity on the Rokinon is a process. If you turn the lens to the infinity mark you are 100% guaranteed to get lenses that are not in focus. They will not be usable at all.

Rokinon Focusing Procedure

Focus on the moon, wide open, F1.4. A crescent moon is best. Adjust the exposure so the moon highlights are not blown out.

Minute focusing variations make a difference. When you are sure you have it correct, tape the focusing ring so it can never turn. This is trickier than it sounds. It is very easy to move the focusing ring while taping it. It took me three times.

Also, make use you do not tape over the aperture ring. That’s manual too, and I did tape over it once. After you have lightly taped it over, go back out and take another image of the moon. It should look as good as the best you have. Then tape the whole thing so it can never move, again making sure you do not tape over the aperture ring.

As modified, the lens is only usable for night photography. But that’s all it was ever good for in the first place.

Rokinon 14mm F2.8

If the above is too much of a hassle, and it probably should be, forget the whole thing.

Buy a Rokinon 14MM f2.8 Lens.

The 14mm Rokinon lens is still manual focus, but it is not entirely manual. The aperture is electronic. It is coma corrected, again way better than Canon or Nikon. And it is way cheaper than the Canon and even the Rokinon 24mm lens described above.

The lens also has a hard stop, right at infinity (focus ring turned until it cannot turn anymore), and that hard stop is accurate. It has other issues, primarily with straight lines that affect day photography, but it is another go-to lens that pros use at night.

Those interested in my equipment and recommendations can find it here: Mish’s Equipment List.

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Mike “Mish” Shedlock