I traveled up to northern Vermont with a few friends last month, armed with my camera gear and a weather report perfect for photography: cloudy during the day for shooting some of the many waterfalls around the area, and clear at night for photographing the Milky Way. Not being familiar with Vermont, I spent more hours than I’m willing to admit scouring Google Earth and online waterfall databases for places to shoot within an hour or two from where I’d be staying. So, by the time the weekend rolled around, I had a pretty ambitious list of places I was hoping to check out during the Saturday and Saturday night I had free.
Wanting to get a timely start on the day to check off as many locations from my list as possible, I woke up early to what I had expected to be a dreary sky and rain showers. However, instead of the overcast conditions and soft light that I was hoping would lead to some great waterfall photos, I was met with a perfectly clear blue sky and a harsh bright sun that was just starting to force its way through the window of our cabin.
Despite the unexpected bright sun, I made my way to a few waterfalls in the area, most of which were flooded with a combination of harsh sunlight and dark shadows—less than ideal light for landscape photography. As a result, I decided to spend the rest of the day scouting locations for that night. Up until my trip to Vermont, I had conducted all of my night shots by showing up on location sometime between midnight and 3 a.m. without ever having seen the area in daylight, so the thought of being able to familiarize myself with a location during the day instead of just fumbling around in the darkness was pretty enticing.
After meeting up with my friend Charlie later in the afternoon, we drove out to northeastern Vermont and hiked to some possible locations I flagged on Google Earth. Each one we stopped at looked promising for that night, so we packed up, drove to Montpelier for dinner, and spent the next few hours relaxing in preparation. Once about 10 p.m. rolled around, however, we noticed a layer of clouds pop up on the satellite radar, contradicting the promise of the cloudless night sky I had seen in the forecast earlier.
Not wanting to drive for an hour and hike in the dark for nothing, we decided after painful deliberation to forgo all of the places we scouted earlier in the day, instead playing it safe by driving to the A.M. Foster Covered Bridge in Cabot, Vermont, where I had already seen a number of great landscape photos taken. I knew from aerial maps that the bridge was situated right off of a dirt road, so if the clouds rolled into Cabot as well, at least we hadn’t hiked through darkness only to come back empty-handed.
I had found out about the covered bridge a year or two ago after seeing a fantastic night photo taken there by Adam Woodworth, who more or less sets the standard for astrophotography in New England. Going into my trip to Vermont, I was hoping to avoid photographing a location that I had seen night sky shots from before, but as much as I like the challenge of finding a new place to shoot the Milky Way, it’s still just as much of a challenge to try to put my own spin on an already popular spot.
After driving for over an hour to get to Cabot, my friend Charlie and I found ourselves caught within a blanket of fog, at which point my GPS told me we were only five minutes away from the bridge. Thinking the night was going to be a bust photography-wise, I kept driving with a dejected “well…since we’ve come this far already…” attitude. As our good luck would have it, however, the field in which the A.M Foster Bridge sits is situated up on the top of a hill, elevated slightly from much of the surrounding area. And as a result, we found ourselves above the low layer of fog, with a clear sky, and in a field full of the most fireflies I’ve ever seen.
In addition to the bridge providing beautiful scenery, there were also plenty sounds around us to take note of. While Charlie and I were at the bridge, crickets chirped constantly and bullfrogs loudly echoed their sentiments. While I was taking photos and my remote timer softly beeped every second, the bullfrogs synched up with the timer and started croaking every second as well. I’d like to think the frogs and my camera were singing a little song together, but seeing as I don’t speak bullfrog and can’t say for sure, it’s also entirely possible they were trying to mate with my camera, or angrily telling it to go screw. However, the threat of the bullfrog paled in comparison to the pack of what I’m hoping were cuddly domesticated dogs all beginning to loudly bark nearby all at once for no apparent reason, and then proceeding to stop just as abruptly.
In the end, luckily, Charlie and I were not eaten by a pack of dogs, and my camera gear has not received any love letters or death threats from any Vermont bullfrogs we may have encountered that night.
This image ended up being a bit more complicated than I would have liked. I’ve been working with a Rokinon 14mm lens for night sky photography for most of 2015 that has largely been a disappointment. Although very cheap for an ultra wide angle lens, the Rokinon 14mm is plagued with poor construction and bad quality control, and even after sending the original lens in to be replaced, it still doesn’t focus properly and something within the lens is definitely off-center. From what I’ve heard, buying the Rokinon 14mm is a bit like playing the lottery—when you win, it’s a great value and you win big. Unfortunately, I’m only willing to waste so much time playing before I invest in something more reliable. As a result, I ended up keeping the 14mm in my bag while in Vermont and tried using the lens I normally reserve for daytime: the Canon 24-105mm f/4, which has a narrower field of view, and isn’t able to gather as much light as the Rokinon 14mm. Given that the Milky Way is so faint and gathering light is the priority, this was a bit of a disadvantage for doing astrophotography. So, to combat the smaller aperture (the width of the beam of light entering the lens), I had to greatly increase the ISO while taking the shots. Unfortunately, increasing ISO also increases the amount of grainy noise that appears in the image. Had I been able to use a 14mm f/2.8 lens which has a wider aperture, I could have gathered the same amount of light with a lower ISO and, as a result, much less noise.
This shot of A.M Foster Bridge was ultimately a result of five different exposures. To combat the noise caused by shooting at a high ISO, I ended up stacking four sky exposures taken at f/4 and ISO 20,000 for 18 seconds, which gave me a cleaner looking Milky Way. The foreground shot was a result of a 5 ½ minute exposure during which I covered my headlamp with an old shirt sleeve and used it to softly light the side of the bridge and the grass beneath it. I then blended the sky and foreground together in Photoshop to get the image you see above.
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