Milky Way over Colorado

I was recently asked to give a talk at one of the local state parks about photographing the night sky and Milky Way. While I don’t particularly enjoy speaking in front of a bunch of folks (I much prefer small groups), I agreed to share how I approach this endeavor.

First, I fully admit I still get a little creeped out when shooting at night. The forest always seems to sound a bit different in the dark. Noises are enhanced and morphed into something a little eerie. Eye glow – probably from deer – seems to change into the eyes of a mountain lion, bear, or even a bigfoot. And while I have seen some strange things in the sky at night, to my knowledge I haven’t yet been abducted by aliens, so I guess its “so far so good.”

To start, I never head out to shoot at night without some scouting of the location and research for how the sky will appear. I always use the program called Stellarium. This is a free download (at least now it is). This interactive format allows you to view the night sky from anywhere in the world – any direction and time of night. You can adjust latitude, longitude, brightness of stars, and even label galaxies, planets, and constellations. I never head out at night without knowing exactly what I’ll be shooting. Did I mention it is free?

I also use the Photographer's Ephemeris. This program allows me to know exactly where the sun and moon will be at all times. While Stellarium provides this same service, the Photographers Ephemeris is available as an app, which allows me to double check everything while on location.

For many years, when shooting the Milky Way, I learned I had to crank up the ISO to 2000+ in order to allow in enough light to the camera’s sensor to have the stars show up. At the same time, I had to limit the exposure time. While this generally worked, I was limited in how large I could print my images. The “noise” generated by high ISO and “trailing” of stars with long exposures at night put a damper on what I expect with my photography – less than perfect. With clients asking for large prints, and after much research, I made a small investment in a star tracker. While there are many of these devices on the market, I opted for the IOptron version. I didn’t need anything fancy; I just needed something to secure my camera and allow it to track the stars. This little gadget runs about $300 (pretty cheap compared to more advanced models). Suddenly, I could move my ISO down to 800 and my exposure times could exceed three minutes. The results using this star tracker coupled with my Canon 5DSr were stunning  - large prints (40”x60”) showing details of the stars that made it feel like you were there.

As my photography and my business have progressed over the years, I’ve come to appreciate specific aspects in images. One of the most important for me is a good and interesting foreground – and this is no different for night photography. One of the issues you run into, though, is that the foreground will usually be black when photographing the stars. You can get around this by doing some “light painting” – using flashlights to illuminate the object or nearby foreground. I don’t use light painting very often. Instead, I’ve found that I prefer to shoot a landscape foreground about 30 minutes before sunrise or after sunset where there is just enough light to give definition whatever is in front of me – a trail, forest, river, lake, wildflowers, or anything else interesting. Using photoshop, I’ll go back and blend together the foreground and the long-exposed night sky.  I try not to move my tripod in the “in-between” time of shooting the stars and waiting for first light – I want everything to be exactly as it is. I also want you to be able to reproduce exactly what I saw, as well. I just use our advancing technology to bring the scene to the viewer as best I can.

I could go on for pages about more details – focusing on the stars, exposure times, blending of images, stacking of images, etc, but I’ll save that for a later time.

I will add that some of my favorite places to shoot include Rocky Mountain National Park atop Trail Ridge Road as well as the Maroon Bells near Aspen in June and July. 

Milky Way over the Maroon Bells in Summer 1

On a cool summer night, the Maroon Bells drifts across Maroon Lake, North Maroon and South Maroon Peaks. These two 14,000' summits are arguably Colorado's most grand and most photographed mountains, and its easy to see why. Nestled in the Maroon Bells Wilderness area near Aspen, Colorado, and as part of the Elks Range, this area offers miles of hiking, passes and mountains to explore, wildflowers in summer, and amazing summer nights away from the lights of town.

I’m always amazed at the beauty of the night sky.

Be safe out there!

~ Rob

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