Has anybody from the distant past ever shown up to give you an unexpected gift? Well, this happened to me this past week. 25,000 light years ago, the center of our galaxy sent some beautiful light from the Milky Way toward earth and I received it today. I am so thankful to our universe for it is one of the most amazing gifts I have ever received. I must digress for a minute and just list a few scientific facts so the magnitude of this image can be fully appreciated. Light travels at 186,282 miles per second or you can think of it as 670,616,629 miles per hour. Perhaps, a more useful way of stating this is that light can travel around the earth 7.5 times in one second. Wow, that is amazing when you stop and think about it! Now, the distance from the earth to the core of the Milky Way is ~25,000 light years. That means, that the light I am photographing today left the Milky Way 25,000 light years ago. I am an engineer by trade, and we are supposed to be good with math right? Well, it’s not the math or the calculations that cause me difficulty but truly comprehending the size and scale of our galaxy is beyond my human capability.
“As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.” ~ Albert Einstein
I digress so lets get on to the photography of this image.
How do you go about photographing the Milky Way? The first thing you need to do is find a very dark sky location, where there is no adjacent light pollution. For the US, this typically means being in a western state in a very remote location. Secondly, you have to be out in this remote location at ~3am during springtime months to see the Milky Way in its arched formation. Lastly, even with a wide lens such as 16mm, you have to take several images (14 images in my case), and then stitch them together to make one composite image, if you want to see the whole arch in your photo. (By the way, in case you’re wondering, that is my silhouette you see under the arch). Now, it that is too late for you to stay out, you can always try capturing some start trails. The interesting thing about stars is that each star has a different heat signature and hence a different color. This is similar to different colors you see when looking at a fire. However, if you use one long exposure, your camera sensor will become saturated and your star trails will come out white. To retain the color, you need to take shorter exposures at a lower iso.
Astrophotography is a little tricky to learn, but with a little practice you can create some amazing images. Focusing in the dark is one of the biggest challenges but there are several methods you can use to accomplish this as well. Join me next year if you would like to come out and learn how to create images like this first hand. I assure you, it’s an experience that is out of this world. Check out my workshops at http://www.gbcimpressions.com/workshops.
PS. In the future, I am going to be writing some mini blogs providing technical tips on photography. I would like this to be an interactive process. If you have a specific question on one of my photos or a technique, please email or call me and I will dedicate a mini blog to your specific topic. I look forward to hearing from you.