Milky Way Season

Milky Way Over the Nubble

One of the many things digital photography has made easier is the ability to capture the night sky. Back when shooting film, photographers needed to know how much compensation to add to avoid reciprocity failure, which adversely affected image quality, resulting in color shifts. On color films, this means adding more exposure time, and using colored filtration to avoid shifts. The whole process was cumbersome and made night photography much more difficult.

Enter the digital age. Reciprocity failure is nonexistent in digital photography, and many more photographers are venturing out at night to capture the wonders of the night sky.  I'm one of them. I'm not fanatical about it. I still much prefer early morning light to a starlit sky, but it's fun to do something different once in a while, and there have been a few shots on my photography bucket list I've wanted to get under the night sky.

Montauk Point Lighthouse and the Milky Way

While I did say night photography was easier in the digital age, that's not to say it's easy. Getting just the right shot involves a little planning, a little know-how, and some luck.  When planning to do a starry sky shot, you need to know where the stars are. If you want to include the Milky Way, you need to know where that is going to be in relation to where you plan to stand. The Milky Way is only visible in the Northern Hemisphere from March through October, and moves through the sky during that time. For instance, for my image "Milky Way Over the Nubble" shown above, I knew I wanted the Milky Way arching over the Nubble. That only happens at specific times during the year, and you need to know when that happens to get that. Last year, I hadn't realized I missed it in the early season, and when I went to shoot it in June, the core of the Milky Way was too far to the right of the lighthouse. Later in the season, when the core of the Milky Way is fully risen, it is completely vertical as well, so you won't see it arching over the lighthouse like this.  In addition, to get that shot I had to be awake at 3am. I really would have preferred to be snuggled in my bed instead of out in temperatures in the mid-20's, but if you want the shot, you have to be there. I wanted the shot.

The second part of the equation is know-how. How do you capture the stars at night? If I leave my shutter open too long, the stars move and leave trails. So I need to know what the right shutter speed is, and that varies depending on the lens I'm using. For these images, I used a 20mm lens. Once I know my shutter speed (usually around 10-15 seconds), I have to know my ISO. This will vary, and also depend on what technique I'm using to create my final exposure. If I'm using a single exposure, it will likely be around ISO 1000. For the Nubble shot, I used a new technique that allows me to take multiple images and stacks them, helping reduce noise. This allows me to use a higher ISO, a smaller aperture to create more depth of field, and that same 10-second shutter speed. In this case, I combined 47 images to get my starry sky.

I also need to know how to handle difficult exposure situations. You'll notice in my images of Montauk lighthouse and Pemaquid Point lighthouse, both towers are lit up by spotlights at night. This makes it difficult to balance a darker area of the image- the starry sky- with a brighter area of an image. For the Nubble, I was able to take one image that properly exposed the lighthouse and beacon, and then mask off that area from the starry sky images that I stacked. So yes, this image is created as a composite. Similar techniques were used in the darkroom as well, where two negatives would be combined to form one image, using actual masks- cut pieces of film used to darken or lighten areas of the image. A similar technique was used for Montauk Point. However, for that image, I only used two exposures. One for the sky, and one for the lighthouse. I then combined them in Photoshop to use the properly exposed lighthouse against the properly exposed sky. For Pemaquid Point, I used a Benro 5-stop soft edge graduated ND filter, which darkens the brighter side of the frame and helps balance it with the darker sky.

Finally, you need a little bit of luck. The Milky Way only lines up in the right spot for a given foreground for a small week to two week stretch once a year. So for instance, for these shots with the Milky Way behind or over a lighthouse, I only have a small window to get it. This means my schedule needs to line up, and more importantly and less flexibly, the weather needs to be right. You want clear skies. And along the water, you need to watch for fog coming off the water. There have been several times I've gone out to catch the night sky, only to be stymied because a mist rolled in off the water, obscuring the view. Nothing you can do about that except try to make lemonade, but it's not always successful and is frustrating when you went there for a specific image.

Thankfully, I've had more good luck than bad when I go for these shots, but it's taken some time to get good at predicting the conditions, and then knowing how to handle what is still a difficult exposure. I love getting these Milky Way shots. They are always dramatic and elicit some kind of response. I hope you enjoy them.

Milky Way Over Pemaquid Point