These days, most people have never seen the Milky Way, and only ever see the brightest stars in the sky. Thanks to the growth of civilization, and the dawn of the electric lights in homes and on streets over 140 years ago, the light of the stars has been drowned out over the past century. The International Dark Sky Association has a great little writeup about light pollution and how it affects our view of the night sky. Thankfully, there are plenty of areas across the country that don't suffer from light pollution to the same degree as many cities and suburbs.
Modern digital cameras have come so far, they are able to see stars even the naked eye can't. It's opened up a whole new avenue of creativity for landscape photographers, capturing stunning images of the landscape under star-filled skies that wow the viewer and make for incredible fine art prints.
The Milky Way is visible from the northern hemisphere from late February to early October every year. It rises in the southern sky, so it helps to have a view to the south with no large towns or cities in the way nearby, between you and the night sky. For this reason, the coast of Maine is ideal. Looking south from the coast, out over the ocean, almost guarantees no light pollution in your path. The image above was taken at the mouth of the Sheepscot River at Reid State Park in Georgetown, Maine.
Early in the year, the Milky Way doesn't rise until the early morning. When it first becomes visible it's around 4am, and gets earlier as the year goes on. The image above was taken at 4:34am. That makes for a lot of sleep-deprived photographers!
Even without the Milky Way, night sky images can be captivating. At the end of January, I was in Death Valley National Park in California. It was still a few weeks away from the Milky Way being visible, but after photographing sunset on the salt flats at Badwater Basin, we decided to wait for dark to photograph the night sky. We got incredibly lucky. In Celestial Basin, above, see that pyramid of light? That's called Zodiacal Light. Zodiacal light happens when sunlight reflects off of dust grains that orbit the inner solar system. It's most often visible at the equinoxes, but can be visible at other times, and as with the Milky Way, you'd need a dark sky location to see it best. City lights can render it invisible.
When photographing the night sky, some planning is required to know where celestial objects will be in relation to where you're standing on the ground. There are several apps that you can use, such as The Photographer's Ephemeris, to plan for photographs such as Milky Way Over Marshall Point. Once I knew the date and time the Milky Way would line up with the lighthouse, I simply marked it on my calendar and made my way to the lighthouse at the right time.
Of course, exposures like this can be tricky, due to the bright light of the lighthouse relative to the night sky, but a competent photographer will know how to make it all work.
In addition to capturing the stars as points of light, photographing their movement across the sky in the form of star trails creates unique and stunning images. Magic Bus, above, is one of my most popular prints due to the oddity of an old city bus buried in the Nevada desert on its end, and the circular star trails in the sky above.
Star trails take a lot of patience. Due to the earth's rotation, the stars continually appear to move. The total exposure time for Magic Bus was about two hours. While the camera is making the exposure, you just stand around! In this case, I was photographing with a friend, and it was cold, so we set up our cameras, let them start exposing, and then sat in the car while we waited.
I personally have a love/hate relationship with photographing the night sky. I love the images I'm able to capture, and I love the feeling of sitting under the stars, and being able to see so many it's like I could touch them. But I hate the tired feeling the next day, or missing out on a sunrise the next morning because I was up so late the night before. All part of suffering my art though! I'm looking forward to warmer weather when it's a bit easier to stand under the stars and capture the night sky!