Photographers usually have very specific “bucket lists”. A landscape photographer might have to shoot the Grand Canyon on that list. A street photographer might have photographing a festival in New York City on the list. In my case I have a lot left but I had four types of photos under the heading of night photography (and specifically astrophotography, the night sky). I had always wanted a full moon “doing” something interesting. Got to cross that off when I found the moon “balancing” on a wind turbine
Then I had wanted to do something with a lunar eclipse. Planned and planned for the one in January of 2018 and I must say myself I got exactly what I wanted.
Third, I wanted what are called “star trails” where the stars would encircle an interesting foreground subject. Checked that one off with a nice shot of star trails around a Buddhist shrine that I slightly lit up.
That left my fourth and final one from that category - the Milky Way - or at least that part of it that is sometimes called the core or Galactic Center and is the brightest part of the Milky Way that you can occasionally see on a dark night if you’re far away from city lights. So it was with great excitement that I signed up for a Milky Way photography workshop taught last weekend by Glenn Randall, an accomplished landscape photographer and astrophotographer. After a few hours of classroom prep in Estes park, Colorado, we were heading up to Rocky Mountain National Park to shoot sunset, wait a while, and then the Milky Way at night.
The Milky Way is only visible for approximately 30 days of the year. First off, it is only visible in the northern hemisphere for the six months from April through September. It dips under the horizon the other months where you can rush to the Southern Hemisphere to then see it. Then it’s only visible when the sky is moonless or near moonless. The “new moon” (which is no moon) is one day per month and there are about two days on either side of it where the moonlight is so low it doesn’t really affect seeing and photographing the Milky Way. So that’s about 5 days per month for the six months (and thus the superb math of 30 nights!). But then you figure clouds will obscure the sky several nights so realistically the number of nights winds up being closer to about 25 give or take. Oh, and of course, you have to be at least 100 miles away or so from bright city lights to keep the sky dark. This past Saturday night had all the right elements so all we needed was a cloudless sky to cooperate. It’s impossible to predict months in advance when you sign up for a workshop like this, of course, so you just make sure you say extra prayers that day.
Glenn took us up Trail Ridge Road to an elevation of 12,000 feet at about 6:00 PM to prepare for sunset pictures. Fortunately, everyone was from Colorado or New Mexico so no one experienced oxygen deprivation, a real potential problem at that elevation. Unfortunately, the weather decided not to cooperate. Got a few good ones in right away (example below) but it kept getting cloudier, colder and windier, and then the final straw was seeing lightning nearby. We had to scramble to our cars where we all broke out our picnic food and ate in cars getting pelted by rain and a bit of hail.
Sunset came and went (I assume so – we never saw it). Using an astronomy “app” we were able to know the Milky Way would be visible right after 10:00 PM. At 9:30 Glenn made the decision to leave our high elevation and move “down” to a spot at 8,000 feet in the hopes of skirting around some of the clouds. Typically, the higher the elevation the cloudier it gets although usually at night that is not an issue. Well, it sure was that night.
Fortunately, once we hit 8,000 feet we began to see patches of stars, meaning the clouds were breaking. But then unfortunately, the clouds never stayed away completely. The first few shots I got were lovely shots of night clouds but that wasn’t even remotely on my bucket list. We continued to wait until 11:00 PM. No change so we waited until midnight. And then, finally a few breaks of just enough unobstructed night sky to get a couple of true Milky Way shots. Satisfied, we all headed back to our hotel in Estes Park around 1:00 AM, cold, tired, but happy!
Glenn taught us great techniques on how to get the stars in without having them be streaks of light which happens with what is called a long exposure (long shutter speeds for any photography geeks) as well as how to get some light on the foreground and not just have a blob of black. And the next day we worked on these photos on our computers to bring out the best. Landscape photography requires patience and flexibility and a willingness to adapt. And despite the combative weather I was pleased to at least have a shot worthy of adding to my bucket list accomplishments.
So that ends my night photography bucket list. Oh wait, I just realized I want to get the beautiful lights of an Aurora Borealis (aka the “northern lights”). Alaska, here I come!