This is part 4 of a 4 part guide to photography in Joshua Tree National Park. Part 1 discusses the fundamentals of photography in Joshua Tree. Part 2 discusses the technical aspects of photography within Joshua Tree. Part 3 is about the specific locations within Joshua Tree. Part 4 covers night photography specifically in Joshua Tree.

I decided to make this Joshua Tree night photography guide more of a stand-alone guide than the other Joshua Tree National Park photography guides I’ve posted. This is because night time landscape photography is so much different than other types of photography, especially at Joshua Tree. At night, the locations within the park have all new constraints and pose their own all new challenges. The places you’ll want to visit and avoid are completely different. How you pick the locations you’ll want to visit is different. The technical aspects are completely different, too. The tools you’ll use, the techniques you’ll employ, the dangers and risks, too, they’re all different.

Night time photography can be a complicated topic. It can range from taking handheld, high ISO shots during a full moon all the way to highly specialized astrophotography with lots of planning, gear, and software. What I want to avoid is turning this into an astrophotography guide; that’s not my specialty nor particularly an interest of mine. Every photograph you see in this guide is a single long exposure; there’s no exposure stacking. If astrophotography is something you’re interested in or looking for, PetaPixel has an excellent guide Here

This guide will provide you with just the essentials of night time photography in Joshua Tree National Park.

Planning Your Night Photography Trip

One of the most important aspects of night photography in Joshua Tree National Park is planning your visit ahead of time. Time of the year and time of the month matter, a lot. Depending on the time of year, you might not be able to capture the milky way core. Depending on the time of the month, you might not be able to capture many stars in the sky at all, as a result of the lunar cycle. For example, a full moon makes impossible to capture those stunning and dramatic star filled skies Joshua Tree is famous for. Planning your shots, too, is important. Planning can make the difference between a successful visit and an unsuccessful visit. 

When to Visit

The best time to visit the park depends on what you’re trying to capture. If you’re trying to capture the milky way core above Arch Rock, you’re going to have to visit the park during the summer. The milky way core is only visible in the night sky from March to September in Joshua Tree. Even then, the milky way core is only visible a handful of days each month, when the moon enters the new moon phase and isn’t present in the night sky. The apps mentioned below can help you track the milky way in the night sky.

While summer is ideal for milky way core viewing, winter night skies tend to be darker and clearer, and it’s dark for longer, so it’s trade off. 

You’ll most likely want to visit at the end of the lunar cycle, when the moon is entering the new moon phase. It’s the last few days before a new moon. There’s no moon visible and the sky is at its darkest. I like to do night photography when the illumination is between 7% and 0%. It’s very easy to find the lunar cycle and forecasts online, and there are a lot of apps to help track the lunar cycle, in addition to the apps listed below. 


There are a few popular apps that could potentially help you plan and execute your night photography visit to Joshua Tree. The most popular and useful are Planit ProPhotoPills, and The Photographer’s Ephemeris. This guide isn’t a smartphone photography app review; all three are great apps, but I will say that Planit Pro has a steeper learning curve than the other two. Explore which one, if any, works best for you. 

Weather, Light, and Astronomical Data and Forecasts

I currently live in the desert, in a dark sky area. Here’s what the night sky sometimes looks like from my driveway. This quick snapshot was taken at about 5% moon illumination, toward the end of a lunar cycle. 

The next day, when the illumination was even lower, the sky wasn’t nearly as brilliant and there weren’t nearly as many visible stars in the sky. Even at the end of the lunar cycle, at 0% illumination, it didn’t look nearly as brilliant as it did that night. 

There’s more to the night sky and night photography than just lunar illumination and cloud cover. There are a plethora of variables that can impact how a brilliant a night sky appears. There’s atmospheric transparency, related to water vapor. There’s ‘seeing’ which is related to turbulence and atmospheric temperature differentials. There’s smoke, dust, and sand in the air, etc. 

This is the website I use for my Joshua Tree night sky forecasts: Joshua Tree Astronomy Arts Theater Clear Sky Chart

Their forecasts look like this:

They update their forecasts several times a day and have a good write up that explains how to read and interpret the forecast, as well. 

Planning Your Shots Beforehand

When you’re in the park, on a moonless night especially, it’s very difficult to find your shots as you’re driving and hiking. On the darkest of nights, sometimes I don’t even know all the elements that are in my frame until I’ve taken the long exposure and looked at the resulting image. I often find myself recomposing a shot after I check the image preview because I can’t see what I am shooting as I’m shooting it. Often times, I will use a white light flashlight to briefly illuminate the foreground so I can compose my shot better, but that ruins the night vision that your eyes have developed throughout the night. 

You’ll get the most out of your night time photography trip if you plan what shots you want to take earlier in the day. Don’t just get a general idea, but really frame them out, getting as granular as you can with detail. Also, make a very strong mental note of how to get back to the location you want to photograph. Using GPS coordinates or dropping pins in a hiking/trail app can be a good idea, too. On very dark nights in the park, everything looks very different than it did in the day. Places are almost unrecognizable. 

Challenges and Dangers


You’ll most likely want to visit on the darkest nights of the month. It’s by far the most difficult and dangerous time to navigate the park, especially if you are venturing any distance at all from parking lots and main roads. Even with a headlamp, it is extraordinarily dark in Joshua Tree on a moonless night. It’s so dark that it’s difficult to even see your hand when you hold it in front of your face. I have rarely been in a place as dark as Joshua Tree on a moonless night. Hiking through the park when it’s that dark is treacherous; it’s very easy to trip on a rock or miss a step while climbing, especially when you’re carrying your camera, tripod, and extra gear. 

I recommend using a red light, to keep your eyes adjusted to the darkness, but it isn’t the end of the world if you use a regular white light; it will just take your eyes some extra time to re-adjust. 

The next danger is wildlife. There are coyotes and mountain lions in the park, with the former being much more common. I have had some hair raising encounters with coyotes at night at Joshua Tree National Park. Usually, in the desert, when I encounter coyotes, they are skittish and easily scared. The only times I have been followed/stalked by coyotes is when doing late night and very early morning photography in Joshua Tree National Park. 

It’s deeply unsettling and makes it very difficult to do photography. To focus on the camera and exposure while you can’t see around you can be stressful; every noise can be hair raising, and you can’t use your flashlight to see around you, because it could ruin your long exposure. 


The biggest challenge you’ll face doing night photography at Joshua Tree is other people, especially the closer to the main road you photograph. On the darkest nights, there’s often quite a bit of traffic and also people with lights congregating in popular areas. Unless you are far from the road, each time a car passes, their headlights will impact your long exposure. 

Sometimes, the challenges can turn into opportunities. Take this example, when I was doing long exposures off of Barker Dam road and a car with their headlights on passed me.

The photographs above would have been impossible to capture without the headlights of a passing car. Keeping the stars and detail in the sky and properly exposing the foreground is nearly impossible on a moonless night without stacking multiple exposures together. You can lift the shadows and black levels in post-processing, but the resulting scene can lack contrast and will sometimes look ‘off’. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In the photographs above, I was able to capture the landscape in a way that would have been technically impossible without the passing headlights.

Types of Night Photography

Astrophotography and Stacked Exposures 

You’ve probably seen those landscape photographs where the landscape/foreground is well exposed and the sky looks like you’re in outer space. They’re dramatic and striking images, but they look quite ‘unreal’.. Astrophotography doesn’t have to include landscapes; sometimes, it consists of details in the night sky or even distant galaxies. There are several different types of astrophotography, ranging from astrophotography landscape to deep space astrophotography.

These images are made by stacking multiple photographs. These composite images are made from as many as 20-40 photographs, but in some extreme circumstances, there can be over 100 photographs stacked for a single image.

This isn’t a guide to astrophotography. I’m not an astrophotographer and there are already many great astrophotography guides written by more qualified and relevantly experienced photographers. Petapixel has a great astrophotography guide here.

Long Single Exposure

When I do night time photography at Joshua Tree, I do long, single exposures exclusively. It’s the simplest form of night time photography. Depending on conditions and settings, shutter speed can range anywhere from a few seconds to a minute. Anything longer and star trails become very pronounced. Your resulting photograph will likely need some post processing because it’s nearly impossible to properly expose for both the starry night sky and foreground when the ground is so dark and the night sky so illuminated with stars. 

Time Lapse and Star Trails

When doing long exposures, once you get past shutter speeds of approximately 45 seconds, you’ll begin to notice that the stars become blurry. Going past a minute, you begin to notice that the stars are turning into streaks or trails in the sky. In the 2-3 minute shutter speed range, the streaks are very pronounced and the effect is very ‘painterly’, even impressionistic. Below is an example of a photograph taken at Arch Rock, a 216 second (3.6 minute) exposure.

This presents a challenge when very long shutter speeds are needed to properly expose an image. This is where exposure stacking comes into play. You can take a very long exposure to capture the foreground, and then a shorter exposure to capture the night sky, then you superimpose one onto the other. It’s how you end up with those dramatic astrophotography shots where the ground is exposed and the sky looks like you’re in outer space. 

The challenge of the very dynamic night sky also opens the door to a different kind of photography: intentionally capturing star trails. It’s a specific type of night / astrophotography. You may have seen photographs of landscapes with completely circular star trails in the sky. These are generally captured with something called an intervalometer, which enables the camera to take pictures at pre-determined intervals. Of course, you could do it manually, as well. This is generally done over the course of several hours. It’s quite an ordeal because you have to leave your camera stationary in one place for long periods of time. It’s a lot of work for one photograph; it’s definitely a labor of love and intention, but the results can be very compelling. 

Many modern cameras these days feature built in intervalometers. This eliminates the need for an extra piece of gear to carry around. Taking time lapse, star trail photographs is now an easy, in-camera setting.

Handheld, Wide Aperture, High ISO

It’s possible, on very bright nights–like a full moon–to take handheld landscape photographs. It helps to have a ‘fast’ (wide aperture) lens, a camera or lens with stabilization that can also handle high ISO well. Here’s two examples of handheld shots taken on a full moon.



I highly recommend a mirrorless camera, or a DSLR at the very least. The electric viewfinders of mirrorless cameras are a godsend for night photography. The optical viewfinder of a DSLR would be of virtually no use on a moonless night in Joshua Tree.

It doesn’t matter terribly what you use, as long as it has bulb mode. I also highly recommend a camera you can use with your smartphone, instead of relying on a remote shutter. Most new mirrorless cameras can be controlled remotely by a smartphone. Bulb mode is unusable without some sort of remote trigger, due to the vibration caused by pressing the shutter. Some new mirrorless cameras even have intervalometers built in, allowing timelapse photographs. Check your cameras features. 


You’re going to need a reasonably ‘fast’ lens for night photography at Joshua Tree. In theory, you can use a narrower aperture, like f/5.6-f/8, and use a longer shutter speed to compensate for the narrower aperture. The problem, as mentioned in the time lapse/star trail section, is that the stars in the sky move, and they move surprisingly quickly. At narrower apertures, you’d need to really push the ISO high to keep the stars from streaking in your photograph. 

It’s difficult, because sometimes you want a narrower aperture to maximize your depth of field. It helps to understand the concept of hyperfocal distance when you’re composing landscape photographs at f/4 and lower. B&H Photo has a good article on hyperfocal distance Here.

I recommend at least a lens with an f/4 aperture, at the absolute minimum, with f/2.8 or wider being preferable. I shoot night landscapes, generally, between f/1.6-f/2.8. The wider aperture your lens, the more compositional and technical options you have. 


A tripod is absolutely required for night photography. It doesn’t matter if its single or stacked exposures. Handheld night photography is most successful when there’s a full moon and you have a wide aperture, stabilized lens (or camera body) and a camera with exceptional high ISO performance, and even then, the outcome is often sub-optimal, technically.

This isn’t a tripod guide, but above all, it needs to be a tripod you trust with your camera. In Joshua Tree, when you’re doing night photography, you’re often setting up your tripod on rough, rocky, or uneven surfaces. It’s important you trust its stability and that you know how to use it well. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is worse than your tripod falling over and damaging your camera and/or lens. 

Flashlight / Headlamp

You’ll need a flashlight or a headlamp, preferably one that is capable of both white and red light. Red light helps you, and those around you, maintain night vision. This is one of those things that’s nice to have, and highly recommended, but not absolutely necessary. 


This is a relatively obscure and specialized device. It’s used in time lapse photography. The device enables the camera to take a photograph at set intervals (e.g. every 10 minutes). This enables you to capture those dramatic star trail pictures you see, where the star trails are pronounced and often completely circular. The downside is that you have to stay in one place for a long time and leave your camera completely stationary on a tripod for long durations, potentially several hours. It’s an investment.


Finding the Darkest Areas

The darkest area of the park is the eastern portion and the darkest photographs are taken of the eastern sky. If you try and shoot the western night sky, you will get light pollution from Palm Springs, San Bernardino, and even LA in the distance. In the eastern sky, however, there are no nearby cities. 

Additionally, headlights from cars traveling on the main road, Park Boulevard, will often ruin long exposures if you’re not far enough away. Barker Dam road is much less trafficked at night and offers good opportunities to take long exposures without being interrupted by headlights.

Hidden Valley

Hidden Valley is probably my favorite location for night time photography in Joshua Tree. You don’t have to walk far from the parking lot to get great shots. There are tons of compositional elements to work with. It’s also a designated stargazing area. On the downside, I have experienced crowds in the area during moonless nights. Often, people will use white lights and it can impact your long exposures.

Arch Rock

Arch Rock is one of the quintessential night time photography locations in Joshua Tree National Park. The most iconic night photographic composition in Joshua Tree is Arch Rock framed at a wide angle with the milky way core in the background. This can only be captured in summer, when the milky way core is in the night sky. 

It can be a bit of a hike on a moonless night. It’s less than a mile, but it’s very difficult to see anything at all. Make sure you bring a red light flashlight or headlamp. It can be treacherous to try and navigate without one.

Hall of Horrors

Hall of Horrors is another good area for night time photography. You don’t need to walk far from the parking lot for good photographic opportunities. There are also good, unobstructed views of the eastern sky. There are also large rock formations.


Night photography in Joshua Tree National Park is nothing short of magical. The night skies are some of the most amazing I have ever seen in the world, and I have been to many places. The landscapes, too, are otherworldly. It is a must-do for every photographer out there. 

But, it can be challenging. It’s one of the darkest places I’ve even been on a moonless night. Navigating and even walking around can be difficult. Night time photography is also very unique, technically, presenting its own numerous challenges. Hopefully, this guide serves as a primer and planning aid for your night time adventure at the park.