As a boy in South Florida, I nearly forgot the time my dad pointed out the Milky Way while camping far from city lights. And in my young adulthood, I can only remember seeing this celestial wonder when camping out west, so it's no wonder it didn't occur to me that I might be able to photograph it here until recently when I started seeing occasional Florida Milky Way shots online. Even then, I assumed it required special equipment, technique, and timing. Last month, I finally got around to investigating these challenges.
With the improved sensors in modern digital cameras, shooting at night has become much easier. As you know, I've been playing with light painting and nightscapes for some years. Equipment? Check. A little online research -- lots of info out there -- suggested the technique is fairly straightforward. That left timing. Sure enough, timing is critical. It so happened that I was in the midst of the right season, and even the right time of month to see the Milky Way in North Florida.
With that revelation, I grabbed my camera and went looking for a nearby view of a big southern sky to make a test shot. The conditions at the Wakulla River were far from ideal - cars whizzing by, light pollution from the town of St. Marks to the south - but, there it was. I could faintly see the Milky Way. And to my astonishment, my camera's sensor could see it far better than I could.
River of Glory
Whoa. Really?! I was pretty blown away. There were only a few MW-potential nights remaining in the moon cycle, and most of them were to be foiled by rain and overcast skies. But I determined to take every opportunity to make more trials.
I wouldn't normally present my "learning curve" work in this blog, nor do I like so much redundancy in photos presented in one post. But, I confess, I was thrilled with the results of my clumsy first efforts (and even more excited to learn that dramatic Milky Way shots are within my purview) so I'm throwing those rules out the window and showing you my first four successful attempts. Hopefully one day I'll have a more masterful piece to show you, and look back on this post and smile. But this is part of the journey, maybe even my favorite part.
Beacon in the Cosmos
This night's forecast and radar called for clouds and scattered storms, but I was out shooting and scouting at St Marks, and watched the southern sky gradually clear. Hermit crabs kept pinching my toes through my Crocs in the shallows where I had waded out to set up my tripod for the first St. Marks Lighthouse composition. My calculation was that, from where I stood, the MW would be just over the lighthouse and the softly lit Gulf waters would nicely frame my composition in about an hour. Then I waited for darkness. It came much later than I expected. Sometime after 10 PM, the sky finally darkened enough to see the core of our galaxy, but by then, it had moved too far south (right) for my composition. And the tide had fallen so my soft Gulf waters turned partly to dark muddy flats. Oops. I had to move and re-compose. Composing in the dark is not so easy.
Heaven and Earth
Since I had a clear night, I decided to try a second shot. From the viewing tower beside the lighthouse, I could frame both the MW and lighthouse but the platform roof kept slicing part of the sky from the frame. The viewfinder is essentially black after dark, so each move required a lot of trial and error. Mostly error. I didn't have the right tools to secure my tripod and nearly lost the whole rig over the side. Ultimately, I had to compromise my composition in order to be safe, but I did succeed in getting rid of that pesky ceiling in the shot.
On another iffy night, I headed to Mashes Sands with a beautiful dead tree in mind. When I arrived, an active thunderstorm raged out in the Gulf, distracting me for a half hour, but I just couldn't catch the lightning in my frame. When I finally got to my snag after sunset, I expected the low tide to be lower. Trying to set up in two feet of flowing water, I came to realize my composition was not going to work. Mike Riffle had driven down to meet me there. He had thought I meant a different dead tree and wondered where I was. So, once again, by the time we both arrived at the stilted pine snag he had chosen, it was nearly dark (except for distant flashes of lightning). We were making some test shots and playing with light painting the tree as a huge unanticipated storm hurled at us from the northeast. Nearly every long exposure was spoiled by a blast or two of lightning, and the storm quickly forced us to scramble out of there just before the deluge. I was amazed that I got one frame where enough elements came together for a presentable photo.
That's a lot more writing than I usually throw at you, but I wanted you to be able to get a taste of how it goes. I didn't mention the mosquitoes, or stubbing toes on roots and rocks, or nearly dropping my lens into the sand.... but you get the drift. We live in a glorious natural world, by day and night. Nature is the medicine we all need to help balance and lend perspective to the stress and grind and fear that seem to come at us each day. I encourage you to get out in it for plenty of first hand healing.
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Addendum: Just got back some test prints and they look good, so prints can be made!