I've been interested and fascinated by the natural world and the night sky for as long as I can remember. My landscape photography often features sunsets and sunrises which means when I'm out on location at either end of a day, I see lots of wildlife. So just by getting out with my camera to capture the beauty that surrounds us, I'm often treated with a nice little surprise and a glimpse of nature, which many people don't get to see. My 7 year old son will often ask me "how come you get to see all the cool stuff, daddy??
The truth is to see all the "cool stuff" takes a lot of effort, planning and commitment. When my son is a bit older and has learned patience, I hope to show him all the beauty that surrounds us, including the less obvious and how through photography, we are able to capture it.
At 7 years old he is already showing an interest in the night sky and can point out Venus and Jupiter but at that age its difficult to comprehend the magnitude and I'm looking forward to asking him, if he has ever stopped and wondered how big the universe is or even how big our galaxy, the Milky Way is?
I would explain to him that a beam of light can travel around the circumference of the Earth 7.5 times in just 1 second....
.. Yet it would take that same beam of light, 100,000 years to travel from one side of our galaxy to the other. And that our galaxy is just one of more than 100 Billion other galaxies!
But thats still difficult to comprehend, even for adults. So maybe to help him put it into context I will ask him to look at a music CD, to hold it in his hand . Now imagine if he could place our entire solar system on that CD, with the sun in the middle and the 8 planets in orbit around it. And then at that scale, our Earth would represent the actual size of the Milky Way galaxy.!!
That's how big our own galaxy is!! It contains more than 100 Billion stars. How can anyone not feel humbled by the shear scale of what surrounds us?
I've always been fascinated with the night sky ever since my dad got me to look up on a very clear night when I was 7 years old. My dad pointed out a faint milky white strip of light arching overhead and he explained to me that we were looking at the Milky Way. I was fascinated but I didn't really understand or appreciate what I was looking at, at the time.
Now at almost 44 years old, I wanted to once again look up and see that faint milky white strip but this time I wanted to take a picture of it. But what exactly is that strip of light that arches over the sky? The ancient Romans named it Via Lactea, which translates to The Road of Milk. Now, with centuries of collective knowledge and modern technology we not only know what we are looking at, we can capture it in a way that the ancient Romans would never have even dreamed of. Essentially, we are looking into our own galaxy and the milky white strip is the collective light from the billions of distant stars that make up the center of the Milky Way- The Galactic Center.
In order to photograph it, I knew that I needed really dark skies, away from all the street lights, buildings and traffic but where could I get the dark skies? I discovered a very useful website called darksitefinder.com which shows a map of the world and how light or dark an area of the map is at night. The map showed me that the Adirondack mountain range in the State of New York would provide the dark skies I was looking for. So I packed my car and set off on the 5 hour drive in search of dark skies.
I needed to make sure I had the right camera gear with me . I use a Canon 6D for my camera body and I own a few different lenses but none that would give me the shot I was planning, so I rented a Canon 14 mm 2.8 prime lens from my local camera gear rental shop: lensprotogo.com.
I wasn't sure exactly where I was going but I knew that I needed to find somewhere before it got too dark in order to set up my camera. Setting up a camera in the dark isn't fun and its very easy to lose something in the process! I looked for somewhere that had big skies in a more open area of the landscape, away from all the tree cover. I also wanted a foreground element which would give some interest and scale to my night shot.
It was the end of June and the fireflies were dancing everywhere around me. It was impressive to see so many. In fact you can just make some out in the image below. I knew that I had to take two exposures to give me the finished photo. I would have to take one shot for the sky and the other for the tree in the foreground which I lit up with my torch or flash light. I then combined the two images to give me my first ever photo of the Milky Way Galactic Center:
Aside from man made light pollution, the biggest source of light in any night sky is more often, the Moon! As part of my research and planning I had to check out timeanddate.com which tells you the times of moon rise and moon set.
After I got my first shot, I kept driving north and I came to a highway which was quiet and dark. I looked out of the car window and I could still make out the Milky Way with my naked eye. I could also see a faint yellowish moon rising over the mountains in the distance. I knew I didn't have long before the moon overpowered the sky with its reflective light so I had to move fast. I stopped the car and framed up the composition I wanted, which was to capture the moon rise and the Milky Way overhead in the same shot. It was very tricky to get the right exposure because the moon is so bright compared to the faint Milky Way. I was pleased the way the final image turned out though.
I had planned to really rough it on this short trip to the mountains so I didn't stay in any fancy hotels in comfortable beds with room service. I slept on a foam mattress in my car. And of course in mid summer, the days are long and the nights are short so I only had a few hours between this last photo of the night sky before I would have to get up to capture a sunrise.
After a very uncomfortable few hours "sleep" I got up about 20 minutes before the sun rose, feeling exhausted but just in time to set my camera up. I've learned that taking pictures of sun rise is really difficult and it takes a lot of effort! Not only does it mean an early start but getting the exposure right is tough. To shoot into the sun often creates unwanted flaring in the lens and the difference between the light of the sun and the areas in shadow is vast. Time is against you too. The sun rises pretty fast so you don't have the luxury of trying lots of different shots but I end up with this panoramic:
To capture the sunrise was great but to get this image meant walking over some train tracks and as I was taking the photos, I could hear a train in the distance. I was literally a few feet away from the track and then the train showed up. I was stuck between a drop into the lake below me and the train tracks. I braced myself as the train thundered passed me. It was quite a scary moment...
After a cheeky McDonald breakfast (well, I was only holiday), I found a waterfall. I'd not taken pictures of waterfalls before but I knew that wanted to show the movement of the water falling over the rocks. By now though, the sun was up and it was pretty light. To show movement of water requires a slower shutter speed, which in turn lets more light into the camera which over expose your shot so I had to use an ND Filter on the front of the lens to let a lot less light into the camera, which allowed me to slow the shutter speed enough to give the effect of silky soft flowing water:
I drove up into the Keene valley area of the Adirondacks and I was taken back with its beauty. Its such a lovely area and I recommend to anyone that they check it out. White Face Mountain is one of the, if not the only mountain you can drive your car close to the summit.. Its not that I'm a lazy, unfit person but time was against me on this trip and I didn't have the time to hike a full mountain.
I really wanted to get another shot of the Milky Way from the top of the mountain but sadly, they close the summit even before sunset so I was only able to take a few daytime shots along with all the other tourists. Of course, I had to get a mountain summit selfie with my dog, Daisy looking over East Lake.
I did manage to find a nice panoramic composition from near to the summit with the mountain road, snaking up the mountain below me:
I noticed that the clouds had really started to build up and I wondered how I would get a other night sky photo with so much cloud around. So I checked my phone for weather and worked out that if I headed back towards home but staying in the mountains in southern Vermont, I would get clearer skies.
Before I headed out though, I wanted to get another waterfall so I drove to an area nearby where I knew there was a waterfall. But as I walked through the woods towards the falls, I noticed something on the path up ahead of me. You remember earlier, I said that my son always asks me how come I got to see all the cool stuff:
Now its at this point, I remembered telling my wife that I had planned to go and get lost in the mountains with the camera fro the weekend and she jokingly said "well don't get and get yourself mauled by a bear or anything will you". laughing it off, I said "yeah right". But even though I knew there were bears in the area, I had never thought I would actually come face to face with one and her two cubs!
When I saw the cubs I really had to be careful because I knew she would be extra sensitive and protective. I just wish I had a longer lens with me so that I could have got closer in but it was still a special moment.
I set out on this trip to photograph the Milky Way but to see a wild bear with her two cubs in the woods was the icing on the cake for me.
I reached my last destination just as the sun had set behind the mountains. It was getting dark and I spotted this old, weather beaten barn, which I thought would make for a good foreground for my final Milky Way shot on this trip.
I liked the way this last image ended up because the red faded color of the barn matches the glow from the galactic center.
My road trip to the Adirondacks was so memorable for me and I'm looking forward to going back with my son one day and to show him how to capture it for others to see and to show him what is possible with some planning, a lot of commitment and a passion for photographing the World around us.