When I first began taking an interest in Milky Way photography in 2014, my planning and shooting process simply consisted of looking for a dark location and driving there when time and weather allowed. Once I became comfortable with the technical process of capturing the photos, I quickly realized that the appearance of the Milky Way—with the exception of when it is affected by differences in atmospheric conditions such as airglow, clouds, or light pollution—is basically the same in each photo.
After making this realization, I began thinking more about the overall interest and composition of my night sky photos instead of simply capturing an image of the Milky Way. As a result, I started to spend time thinking about locations for night photos that were more interesting than a simple sandy beach or dark lake, and I considered how the Milky Way would complement the overall scene. I compiled a list of possible locations around New England—scenic viewpoints, lighthouses, rugged coastlines, iconic spots, and mountaintops—and began to determine what time of year I would need to travel to these locations to capture the photos that I envisioned.
I first set my sights on Franconia Ridge in fall of 2015. Situated on the eastern side of Franconia Notch in New Hampshire, the loop trail that takes hikers along the ridge is one of the most popular in New England, and the views that accompany the hike are among the region’s most iconic. The hike travels passed several waterfalls and cascades on the ascent and, once above treeline, the trail summits three peaks—Little Haystack Mountain, Mount Lincoln, and Mount Lafayette—before ultimately beginning the descent back towards the trail head. The hike along the mile-long ridge not only provides unrivaled views of Franconia Notch to the west and the Pemigewasset Wilderness to the east, but also of the ridge itself. In particular, the view looking south from the summit of Mount Lafayette is one of the most recognizable in New Hampshire. Knowing that at some point during the year this view would have the core of the Milky Way directly over it, I began my planning.
The thing about planning a specific Milky Way photo is that a variety of conditions need to come together all at the same time in order for the shot to work. Between my work and personal schedules, cloud cover, moon phases, Milky Way positioning, and wind speeds (trying to take a series of long exposures in the dark in 40 mile-per-hour winds is less than ideal or enjoyable), this can sometimes amount to months or years of delay for me. In the case of this photo, the wait time for all the right conditions to finally come together and for me to process the final image you see above was almost four years.
I had almost attempted to hike Franconia Ridge on two different occasions with the intention of capturing the Milky Way over it. In both cases, I scrapped plans after my bag was packed when the summit forecasts looked like they were either too unfavorable or too uncertain for me to warrant making the trip. I made the right decision in scrapping the first trip as heavy clouds ended up settling in over the mountaintops. Had I not cancelled my second planned attempt, however, I would have found myself standing on top of Mount Lafayette with the core of the Milky Way rising to the south of me, and Northern Lights glowing and dancing to the north. That one was admittedly tough to swallow.
Finally, during the summer of 2018, my schedule, the moon phases, and the forecasts all came together. And after one last early afternoon check of conditions, I left my planned itinerary with my girlfriend, loaded up my gear, and drove north towards Franconia Notch.
In my time as a night sky photographer, I’ve found that even some of the most iconic locations and viewpoints are often deserted at night. The main trail head for the Franconia Ridge Loop is overflowing by early to mid-morning on any weekend during reasonably good weather. When you show up in the afternoon, however, many of the early hikers have already left, and even the late-morning stragglers are getting close to finishing up their hike and clearing out. As a result, I hiked up the trail mostly in solitude, passing only a few late-day hikers on my way up to the ridge.
My goal was to reach Mount Lafayette by sunset so I could scout out my composition in the waning daylight. However, the humid, 85-degree weather had other ideas, and a series of muscle cramps slowed me to the point that I was sitting on the summit of Mount Lincoln as the sun dipped below the mountains to the northwest of the ridge. I slowly hiked the last half-mile to the summit of Lafayette as darkness fell, making notes of possible compositions along the way, hoping I would be able to find them again in a few hours.
As much as I love night sky photography, there are factors that make it challenging and, at times, downright miserable. Sitting on the summit of Mount Lafayette, eating dinner in the windy darkness, and waiting for a few of my leg muscles to stop seizing was one of those times. I spent at least a few minutes asking myself aloud why I thought something like this was fun. Admittedly, I was not looking forward to the few hours of solitary hiking back to my car that I would be doing well after midnight.
Once my legs felt up to the task of functioning again, I made my way back to the possible compositions I had noted a few hours before, capturing test shots while the Milky Way rose into position. After a few misses, I found the composition shown in the photo above and begin taking foreground exposures to use up the time left before the Milky Way was in position over the ridge. As each shot popped up on the back of my camera’s LCD screen, revealing the details along the ridge and the mountains beyond, I quickly shook my sour mood and was reminded of why I wanted to be standing alone on a mountain ridge in the first place. The process of photography is how I challenge myself and how I recharge my batteries, and the satisfaction I get from the resulting photo above and all that goes into making it is what it’s all about.
The process for creating this image from Franconia Ridge is a complicated one, partly because of the limitations of a digital camera and partly because I’m a stubborn perfectionist. (And partly because I was doing it with leg cramps on a dark mountaintop far passed my usual bedtime.)
Unlike the human eye, a digital camera—in this case a Nikon D750—can pick up detail and colors in the Milky Way that our eyes cannot. This is largely because, unlike our eye, the longer the shutter of the camera stays open, the longer the camera can gather the faint light coming from the stars and nebulae in space. Essentially, ours eyes transmit images to our brain instantaneously to show us what we are seeing, while the camera has the advantage of delaying that process in order to first gather more information; in this case, that information is light.
The downside of this process, however, is that the longer the camera’s shutter stays open, the more time the that the stars have to drift across the sky, meaning that the pinpoints of light that we see with our eyes turn into streaks in long exposures. So, in order to keep those stars as pinpoints like we see them in person, I capture a series of exposures that are short enough to minimize apparent movement of the stars by cranking up my other camera settings to compensate for a faster shutter speed (specifically, a wide aperture on my trusty Tamron 15-30mm lens and a high ISO on my camera). This process gives me exposures with a sky full of pinpoint stars, but also grainy noise caused by the higher ISO.
In those high ISO sky exposures, however, the ridge in the foreground was completely black. And since I didn’t drive and hike all that way to not be able to see the spectacular mountain scene in front of me, I needed separate exposures to capture the foreground scene. To do this, I captured several longer exposures at a lower ISO, which resulted in images where the foreground was visible, but the stars were blurry streaks.
And then there was the light pollution... Good old light pollution. In this case, it was the lights of the Lincoln, New Hampshire area and the nearby highway on the right side of the image. In the foreground exposure, these lights were bright to the point that they were a blown-out distraction to the rest of the image, so I took two darker foreground exposures that kept the lights at more reasonable levels. These exposures were used to make sure that those lights were not so bright and distracting that the viewer’s eye is drawn away from the mountain ridge and the Milky Way, which were meant to be the focal points of the shot.
As I implied above, these steps that I took capturing so many separate exposures aren’t completely necessary. There are plenty of ways to capture the sky and foreground in the same shot, whether it be by brightening the foreground with artificial lights when taking the photo or by simply allowing for some streaking in the stars when capturing the shot. However—and this is where the stubborn perfectionist comes in—I’ve never loved the look of artificial lighting on the foreground, the appearance of slightly streaky stars in the sky, or a lot of grainy noise in an image. So, I make my life difficult.
This image is actually made up of 17 total exposures: 10 exposures for the sky taken at f/2.8 and 12,800 ISO for 10 seconds each, 5 exposures for the foreground taken at f/4 and 3,200 ISO for 5.5 minutes, and 2 exposures at the same settings of the foreground exposures, but for a shorter amount of time to control the light pollution. I stacked the sky exposures together and the foreground exposures together to reduce the grainy noise caused by the high ISO settings to get cleaner images, and then blended them together in Photoshop to get an image where both the sky and foreground were visible, giving me the shot I had been imagining for the past four years.
Prints of this image are available here.
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