How Did She Do That?

I often get asked: "how did you take that Milky Way photo?" - The answer is that it is as complicated as one might expect.  Every night sky photo outing starts with a lot of pre-planning, made days or even weeks ahead.  The first step is to consult an astronomical ephemeris.  This is a chart that predicts the position of astronomical bodies through time.  As you might imagine, this takes a great deal of astronomy knowledge, and analog plotting and planning skills.  Fortunately, there are also apps that make for easier work in determining the best days and times for capturing the Milky Way. 

Once a window of time has been identified, the next step is find a suitable location where dark skies prevail, and interesting foreground makes for a relatable photograph. In anticipation of the start of the Milky Way season, when it edges above the horizon after dark, I begin scouting for locations using satellite imagery.  There are multiple criteria a location has to meet:

  • dark skies away from building and street lights,
  • accessible location open all night,
  • safety getting to and from the location; Hazard risks include: long drives or hikes to remote areas, changing tides or wild animals. 

Once locations have been identified and field verified, notes are made about the suitability of a location for a specific time of year. Next comes the waiting.  Not only do the planets and stars need to align, so to speak, the weather must be clear enough to capture the light from these distant stars.  Anyone who is familiar with Florida weather, knows what a big "if" this often proves to be!   I start consulting weather predictions days in advance.  If the predicted weather conditions look unfavorable for the area I intend to shoot, I look at anther location on my list where the weather might be clearer.  Typically, if weather conditions are good, I shoot multiple locations in a single night, sometimes all night! 

The image posted on the left above, illustrates the app I use to determine the perfect date and time to capture the Milky Way framed in the foreground context I've selected.  Note my location on the boardwalk, and line of alignment marking the date and time for a photo to be made.  The image on the right is the resulting image from all of the careful planning.  The window of opportunity for this frame is under 20 minutes.  Too soon or too late, and the galactic core is not centered in the opening between the two beach pavilions.

I've been photographing the Milky Way and night skies for over 3 years now, and each time the image pops up on the back of the camera, my jaw drops in awe. The example given above, can be found by clicking here: titled "Now Boarding - The Milky Way Rising over St. George Island".

I hope this helps you gain an understand of how Milky Way photo shoots are planned and executed.  Stay tuned for my next blog post where I discuss what personal gear and equipment I use, and a few stories on unexplained sky phenomena and late night wild beast encounters!