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I am a lucky guy. Dirk is an incredibly patient and understanding companion on road trips. He is understanding of my astrophotography addiction, and was content with relaxing fireside while I fretted over settings, lens selection and composition each night we spent camping in California.
But thank God he is, because the glittering night sky expanding overhead was a picture that I could not help but try to capture.
First Photographs of the Milky Way
I am a lucky guy. It was on a motorcycle trip with Brian through Ohio and Kentucky that I first witnessed the Milky Way in person. I’d been learning about photographing the night skies for a little while, and practiced every time I had the chance… even shooting pictures from my back deck. I read up on how to best capture the moon, stars, and especially the Milky Way, itching for the chance to finally capture it for the first time.
While Brian and I were not technically lost on that fateful night, we were on a pretty hopeless mission of trying to find a suitable place to camp in some particularly inhospitable woods in southeast Ohio. We pulled over to consult the map and spitball potential options when Brian abruptly asked me to shut my bike’s lights off. Confused, I obliged and asked what was up.
What’s up, indeed. Once my eyes adjusted to the overwhelming darkness, the night sky exploded like a fireworks display. We were a bit confused, though: it’s a perfectly clear night… what’s the long thin stripe of cloud running across the middle of the sky? Curious, I got my camera out, took a 30 second exposure aiming straight up…. and forever cemented the desire to capture the Milky Way deeply into my soul.
Dark Sky, the Milky Way, and Camping in the Desert
I am a lucky guy. With much of our night sky at home washed out by light pollution, it was a month before I got another opportunity to capture the Milky Way. Amanda and I were staying in a friend’s cottage on the Delaware Bay, and the darkness of the coastal sky afforded an excellent chance to capture the outer edge of our galaxy… for about 15 minutes. Completely eaten alive by horse flies and mosquitoes, I retreated to the safety of the cottage and lamented the missed opportunity. I got some good shots, but the biggest thing I got was the desire to capture even more.
Which brings me back around to the recent week camping with Dirk. As I first discovered during 2016’s journey into the desert, the western skies put those back east to shame. With vast stretches of unpopulated land, light pollution is minimal, especially as you venture further and further from the major cities.
That year, I was completely unprepared to capture pictures of the night sky. Though I did have my old Minolta 35mm camera with me, it was stocked with ISO 400 film (…for the blistering brightness of the desert daylight?! What was I thinking??) and I was completely devoid of astrophotography skills – not to mention a tripod! I had to content myself with simply observing and absorbing the night sky into my soul.
For this trip, I came prepared! Armed with my new Nikon digital camera, several lenses (and a tripod!), a photography class and my own online research, plus the prior experiences described above were all collected under my belt… and, of course, I had Dirk’s aforementioned easy-going personality to keep me company.
It helped that we were remarkably lucky. It was a waning crescent moon, so the moon raised later and darker every night. The skies were completely clear each night except one, and those few clouds were wispy streaks across the desert sky that actually provided a pleasing contrast to the starry palate. Being there in mid-October, we encountered mild daytime temperatures, tolerably cold evenings, and zero threatening wildlife… and with a blazing campfire every cold night, we were able to keep plenty warm. We found utterly breath-taking campsites every single night, each one progressively better than last. The campsite we found on the final night… well… you’ll just have to see for yourself.
In preparing for this blog, I found that I have such a plethora of great pictures to share that I have to divide them up into multiple posts: One consisting of shots captured while we camped in the desert, one from the nights we camped amongst the hills, mountains, and ponderosa pine forests, and a third of shots taken from our final day.
I am a lucky guy, and these are my pictures.
Tuesday Night Constellations: Joshua Tree National Park
Wednesday Night Wilderness: Sawtooth Canyon
**As always, if you want to order prints of any of these pictures,
they are all available for sale**