It is 1:30 a.m, and the alarm goes off on my phone. I told my wife I might want to take a drive to see if I could see any of whats left of the Camelopardalid meteor shower. I said, “I’ll set my alarm, and I’ll either wake up and say “Oh – hell no” or I’ll actually get up and do it.” The problem is, there aren’t any good viewing spots close to home. It requires a bit more of a commitment then just rolling out of bed and looking outside. We are thoroughly contaminated with the light pollution of the Metro-Detroit area. It is at least an hour and a half drive with zero traffic to get far enough away. I did get up, although after a few rehits of the snooze button. I left my house at 2:00 a.m.
I have read a little lately on night photography, and only attempted it once unsuccessfully in the past. Conditions were looking much more favorable this time around. With Michigan being pretty flat, the best places I know for the best view sky to horizon are on the Great Lakes. The closest, accessible dark sky spot I know of is on Lake Huron. I arrived there at 3:30 am. Astronomical Twilight starts at 4:53 am, Nautical at 5:33, leaving me a good hour and a half or two hours to bumble my way around trying to make any photographs.
Some helpful articles on night photography:
The sky was beautiful, only hindered by a set of powerful flood lights that were on at this park. So much for complete darkness. But later I would find those flood lights would help in some ways. I could make out the Milky Way as it created an arch over me running from the Northeast to Southwest. I just watched for meteors for awhile, and only saw one.
My first photos were pretty dark. I knew from the material I read that I should try to keep my shutter speed to around 20 seconds to prevent streaking from star movement with my combination of camera and lens (Nikon D800 / Nikon 14-24 f/2.8). Some articles mentioned up to 30 seconds should be OK. Since this was with my lens wide open at f/2.8, and my photos were still dark, I started cranking up the ISO. I was seeing better results when I was overexposing according to my meter reading by about 2 stops. It became clearer with practice in the field, just as the articles mentioned, that the more light sensitive you make your camera setup, the more stars you are going to pull in. Much more than you can see with your own eyes it seems.
I had already imagined this composition since I was familiar with this location and these dock pilings. I just didn’t know how the sky would be aligned, or how I could get enough depth of field to get both the pilings and the sky sharp, and let in enough light. It took a bit of trial and error to reach a compromise on where I set the focus. The resulting image when I started processing it was pretty decent, but it lacked definition in the Milky Way that I had hoped for. I found I was able to get better definition by creating 3 separate virtual copies in Lightroom, each varied by +/- 1.5 on exposure, and then merge those together. The green color of the pilings is caused by that flood light I mentioned. The camera was much more sensitive than my eyes for the red color at the horizon, because I never saw any of it.
I played with this section of the sky a bit, and then the moon began to rise, right on the horizon aligned with the dock. While this may seem like a cool thing, given the moon was just a sliver of a crescent, all it did was create a bright distraction, and corresponding distracting reflection across the water.
I moved to another section of the sky, facing more along the southern view of the shoreline. Here it was difficult not to get some lights from houses in the frame, as well as city light pollution to the south. But the more detailed part of the Milky Way was in this area. One thing I found in the various frames I looked at after being home was that the camera captured a lot more of the meteor shower than I actually saw. In this instance, you can see one of them in the top third of the frame, pointing toward the 5 o’clock position.
I was pleased with a few of the shots from this quick trip in the middle of the night. It allowed me to get some experience in creating and processing night sky images. One of the more fascinating parts was in looking at the photographs fully zoomed in.
The Cosmos has always held a great sense of wonder for me, and to explore part of it within my own photographs let my imagination roam far, far away. In the more literal sense, one can appreciate what Dorothea Lange stated so profoundly:
“While there is perhaps a province in which the photograph can tell us … there is another in which it proves to us how little our eyes permit us to see.”