As I mentioned in a previous post, photographing the Milky Way in springtime sometimes requires a mixture of dedication, luck, and mild insanity. Given that the galactic core of the Milky Way is only visible in springtime during the wee hours of the morning, and that I live in a light-polluted urban area, capturing a photo which includes the most photogenic part of our galaxy almost certainly means hours of driving and a sleepless night. For me, it also means putting my trust in New England weather reports, which is a concept that makes me uneasy at best.
I had been targeting Chatham, Massachusetts as a possible location to take Milky Way shots for a few months. Chatham is situated at the “elbow” of Cape Cod, on the southeasternmost tip of Massachusetts. Because of its location along the Atlantic Ocean, the sky to the southeast of Chatham is free of light pollution, which I was hoping would mean a good, clear view of the Milky Way. What I learned after the fact, however, was that what Chatham lacks in light pollution, it makes up for by being one of the foggiest places on the East Coast of the United States, which is only actually good for viewing what the inside of a cloud looks like.
My research told me that on the night I planned to drive to Chatham, the moon would set at around 1:30 a.m., just as the Milky Way was rising in the southeastern sky. Since I had never been to Chatham, I decided to leave the Boston area at 11:30 p.m. so that I would have some time to scout out shooting locations while the Milky Way was still low in the sky. If all went as I had planned, I would have a two hour window from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. to capture the shots I wanted before astronomical twilight started to brighten the sky.
When I arrived in Chatham the sky was completely overcast. I looked at the satellite radar on my phone and found that the clear skies the weather forecasts had promised me had been delivered for literally everywhere in Massachusetts except for the area of Cape Cod where Chatham is located. Somewhat dejected, but still hopeful that the clouds would clear, I sat in my car with my face pressed against the window like a bored child on a family road trip, staring into the darkness and waiting to catch sight of even a single star.
Finally, at about 2:15 a.m. I saw a break in the clouds. Cautiously optimistic, I walked the beach near where I parked and realized that with only a few feet of powdery sand visible between the dunes and the waves, and there wasn’t much to put in the foreground of a photo aside from a dead horseshoe crab, which seemed a bit too morbid for the mood I was going for. Then again, many of the stars we see in the sky are already dead and we're simply waiting for the light from their final blaze of glory to reach our eyes, so now that I think about it more, maybe a petrified horseshoe crab posed in front of the night sky would have been more appropriate than I had originally thought...
Once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, it was pretty apparent that if I got a big enough break in the clouds, it wasn’t going to be the whole sky, and it wasn’t going to be for long. So, instead of taking a wide angle shot and defiling the memory of a defenseless horseshoe crab, I decided to use my 50mm lens to try to get a detailed view of the center of the Milky Way. Using my 50mm lens, I set my camera to f/1.8 and ISO 12,800 for 8 seconds, and fired off 15 exposures in rapid succession, only 10 of which avoided having any clouds in the frame. When I finally caught up on sleep 24 hours later, I stacked the 10 cloudless exposures in Photoshop to reduce the noise caused by the high ISO setting, and adjusted the contrast for the image to get the final product.
For many reasons, this is one of my favorite photos that I’ve ever taken. Aside from just loving the way it looks, this close-up, detailed view of the Milky Way was one that I really didn't think I could capture without some sort of device to track the stars and compensate for the Earth's rotation. The amount of deep space packed into this 50mm view is mind boggling, and I’m not afraid to go full nerd right now to prove it. The annotated version of the photo below points out some of the deep sky objects visible in the photo. The list below the photo shows links to each of these deep sky objects, just to prove that those glowing specs of light are actually as awesome as I’m gushing about. The dot marked "Galactic Center" in the lower central portion of the image indicates the location of the rotational center of the Milky Way, at which a supermassive black hole is believed to exist.
M4 – Globular Cluster
M8 – Lagoon Nebula
M16 – Eagle Nebula
M17 – Omega Nebula
M20 – Trifid Nebula
M22 – Globular Cluster
NGC6334 – Cat’s Paw Nebula
Overall, I've probably made sufficiently clear that the process of capturing this photo was a tiring one. However, being able to come away with such a satisfying image is what makes the process so worthwhile for me. It’s my hope that this shot can spark an interest in the night sky for others as well. While lot of great landscape images can instill in us a sense of wanderlust and urge us to travel to far off places, “Center of the Milky Way” is a shot that, hopefully, can remind us to take a trip outside the city for a weekend, or even just take a step into the back yard and look up.