Regardless of how much planning can be involved in taking a photo of the Milky Way, sometimes you just get lucky.
Over 4th of July weekend I took advantage of the good forecasts and drove north out of Boston towards New Hampshire to spend a few days exploring White Mountain National Forest. On Saturday night, my friend and I made a vague itinerary of a few spots we wanted to stop at to capture photos of the Milky Way, the first of which being from an overlook on the Kancamagus Highway. From this overlook, we knew the core of the Milky Way would be rising over the mountains flanking the Mad River Notch area as soon as it got dark.
Once we set up at the overlook, it became clear that the headlights from passing cars would make anything other than short and/or very well-time photos pretty difficult. After a few instances of having cars drive around a nearby corner while our camera shutters were open, I decided to switch camera lenses—from a Tamron 15-30mm to the Nikon 50mm—so that I could get a more close-up view of the Milky Way. Since the 50mm lens lets in twice as much light as the 15-30mm lens, it would mean I could use an exposure time of 8 seconds instead of 25 seconds and improve my chances of getting a shot unaffected by headlights.
As soon as I attached the 50mm lens, I began taking test shots and reviewing them on the back of my camera so that I could get the right composition. After a few tries, I was pretty sure I had gotten my camera pointed at just the right spot in the sky, and fired off one more test shot just to be sure. In the 8 seconds between when I clicked the shutter and when my camera finished capturing the photo, a bright meteor streaked across the sky in front of us. I knew there was a chance it showed up in the photo, but since I’ve gone out multiple times in the past to photograph meteor showers and never caught a streak of light in my image, I didn’t have high hopes. As you can tell from the photo above, I got lucky.
Also known as “shooting stars,” meteors are the visible light that we see when a meteoroid—a small piece of an asteroid ranging from the size of a grain of sand up to about 1 meter in diameter—hits the Earth’s atmosphere and burns up in a blaze of glory. Depending on the size of the meteoroid, its speed hitting the atmosphere, and its chemical composition, the meteors we see as a result can vary in brightness and color.
Although it’s tough to tell from memory, the meteor that showed up in the photo above was probably bright enough that it could be considered a “fireball,” which is a meteor that has an apparent magnitude (visible brightness) brighter than -4. The lower the apparent magnitude, the brighter the object is. For reference, the Full Moon has a magnitude of -12.6 and the sun has a magnitude of -26.7. Polaris, the North Star, has a magnitude of +2.1. As for the composition, the fact that the meteoroid burned green means it was mostly made of nickel.
Although I only managed to get about half of the meteor in the frame, I was still pretty excited that I finally caught one on camera after many different attempts. I have to admit, however, that there was small part of me (the obsessive, over-planning, Type A personality part of me) that basically threw my hands up in disbelief that, after hours of scouring star charts and topographic maps trying to plan out compositions, my best shot of the night was going to be something that was impossible to plan. Well played, Universe. Well played indeed…
This shot was a single exposure taken on a Nikon D750 with a 50mm f/1.8 lens. I took the shot at f/1.8 and ISO 6400 for 8 seconds. I didn’t do much to the photo in post-processing aside from adding some contrast and vibrance in Adobe Lightroom.