I’ve been fascinated by astronomy since I was young. Stars, planets, galaxies, and the rest of the universe have been something I’ve gawked at with wide-eyed wonder for years. When I got my first DSLR camera—a Canon Rebel XS—the reason I ultimately took the plunge into the world of interchangeable lens cameras was because it would give me the control to be able to take photos of the night sky. Unfortunately, living in the Boston area never afforded me too many opportunities to step outside and capture more than a handful of stars at a time. Because of this, the first time I got to photograph the Milky Way wasn’t until this past October during a trip to Yosemite National Park. Since then, photographing the Milky Way has become a main goal of mine for the coming year.
“Guiding Light” was taken on a sub-zero February morning a few hours before sunrise. After a pretty broken three hours of sleep, I woke up at 1:30 a.m., put on any flannel or wool-based clothing layer I could find while stumbling around in the darkness, and—probably against my better judgment—drove 90 minutes north of Boston to Nubble Light off of Cape Neddick, Maine. Nubble Light has become a fairly popular spot for Milky Way photos over the past couple of years. So, based off some spectacular photos I had see from other photographers in the area and a few light pollution maps, I knew the trip would be worth my while.
Photographing the night sky—and the Milky Way in particular—is something that takes patience, a good deal of planning, and a little bit of luck. In the Northern Hemisphere, the galactic core of the Milky Way (seen in the right portion of “Guiding Light”) is typically only visible from February through October, and even during those months moon phases, weather reports, and light pollution need to be favorable for viewing. On February mornings in -17°F temperatures like the one I chose, capturing the Milky Way probably also requires just a little bit of crazy.
Stocked with hand warmers, Yaktrax, a headlamp, and an energy drink that probably took a few days off of my life, I made it to Cape Neddick at about 3 a.m. The Milky Way was still low in the sky, so I had plenty of time to scout around for a good location. I had been to Nubble Light plenty of times before, so I had a fairly good idea where I wanted to set up. Being there alone after the brutal month of winter New England had just experienced, however, I resolved not to get too adventurous with my composition, deciding that it was better to get a shot that may be a little more basic that I’d like, but wouldn’t potentially involve my camera or myself slipping off an icy rock and being washed out to sea. A few more photographers arrived at Nubble Light a half hour or so after I arrived, the chatter from whom made the stars slightly less peaceful, but made the cold a hell of a lot more bearable.
“Guiding Light” was ultimately created from 6 different RAW exposures using a Canon 6D and 14mm f/2.8 prime lens. One exposure for the sky was taken at f/2.8 and 3200 ISO for 25 seconds, one exposure for the lighthouse was taken at f/2.8 and 1600 ISO for 25 seconds, and 4 more exposures taken at f/2.8, 3200 ISO, and 25 seconds were captured for the foreground. The foreground exposures were stacked to increase the signal-to-noise ration and reduce grain on the rocks, snow, and ocean.
I had a fairly good feeling while capturing the photos that I was getting what I was hoping for. After I felt satisfied with the shots and the Milky Way started to fade into the twilight, I went back to the car to blast the heat and leisurely read articles on my phone about frostbite, all while hoping I would regain feeling in my toes. In the end, I learned that photographing the Milky Way this year is going to take a good deal of planning and dedication, but the results will, hopefully, be well worth effort.
Also, none of my toes fell off. So that's good too.
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