Saturday, July 5, 2014

Finding My “Way” in the Dark

Ever since getting a bit of “dumb luck” in shooting this photo a few winters ago at Joshua Tree National Park, I’ve been fascinated by night photography, particularly night landscapes.

WinnieViews at JoshuaTree

Last year, I discovered the Into The Night group on Flickr (as well as its excellent companion blog by Royce Bair) which provided a never-ending source of inspiration and knowledge.  But it seemed every time I tried to plan a nighttime photo shoot, I was stymied by one thing or another—wrong camera, wrong lens, wrong exposure settings, wrong time of year, wrong moon phase, or wrong weather.  With each failed attempt, though, I learned a tiny bit more than I had known before, so “progress” none the less.

This year, I set a goal for myself to finally capture photos of the Milky Way.  It’s taken months of planning and waiting for just the right conditions, but finally (FINALLY!) two nights ago, I did it!

Seeing the Milky Way in-person today is much rarer than it used to be for our grandparents.  It’s usually only visible to the naked eye on clear, moon-less evenings from late Spring to early Fall.  Any kind of “light pollution” (from urban or industrial areas) will dim its visibility.  Looking at this map from (where colors represent the amount of light pollution present in the sky), you can quickly understand why most shots of the Milky Way are not taken in the Eastern half of the U.S.—there are hardly any dark skies left there!


But, in spite of all that (and being only 30 miles from one of the brightest skies of all, Chicago) I had to at least try and attempt it! 

After 2 weeks of cloudy to partly cloudy skies and high humidity, the weather forecast for the night of July 3rd was looking quite promising--- clear skies and low humidity!  The ClearSky website predicted the same for my intended location, the Green River State Wildlife Area in north central Illinois.  So, I packed up the Tracker with Millie and my camera gear and started our 80-mile journey out to the site.

We crossed the Green River just as the sun was beginning to set behind the trees.


Within another 5 minutes, we made our way down a gravel road to the completely deserted parking area known as “Lot 2.”  A mowed 2-track path lead to a large, open field of tall grass.


Millie wasted no time in running through the tall, cool grass like a little blonde maniac (albeit, stylishly dressed in her holiday “stars and stripes” bandana!).


Now that our viewing location had been scouted in daylight, we did a quick drive around the rest of the park.  Never saw another soul!  Apparently this park is most popular with hunters during hunting season.  Budding astronomers and naturalists are far and few between!


As light began to fade from the sky, we headed back to Lot 2 to sit and wait a few hours for the moon to set and skies to get dark.  I had heard this area was notorious for mosquitos (and this being a banner year for them), so I gave my new hooded bug jacket a try and it was a fabulous success!  I may have looked ridiculous, but I was able to sit out in my lawn chair enjoying the cool evening without fear of the couple of hundred buggers flying all around me!


As the moon set just before midnight, I could see a thick layer of ground fog over the field, but it did not appear to be interfering with the show above (which was spectacular!).  The skies were indeed dark and the Milky Way was out in all of its full glory!


It’s surprising how much differently the camera sees night skies versus your own eyes.  With my eyes, I did not see any of the yellow light pollution along the horizon—it all looked dark to me.  Yet, I also did not see as much definition of the Milky Way itself either—I could certainly tell where it was in the sky (and follow it all the way across the sky from south to north), but it seemed more faint than what was ultimately captured by my camera.   No complaints!


I must have spent an hour in one single spot shooting this scene over and over again!  But, I finally remembered to move my tripod closer to a few trees and pull out my flashlight for a little light painting before calling it a night.  Good thing I looked at my lens when I moved, because it was covered in ground fog dew and needed to be wiped clean! 

Light painting is a lot of “hit or miss.”  For this scene, my large spotlight was overkill and washed out the trees and grass way too much.  Thankfully, my little headlamp illuminated the grass just right!


I finally got back to the car around 2:00am where Millie had been sleeping peacefully in the back seat and fogging up all the windows!  We napped for a couple hours before driving back home and enjoyed watching the sun rise on this fine 4th of July.  Who needs fireworks after seeing all this!


I am greatly indebted to the terrific landscape photographer, David Kingham, for his inspiring and informative website.  The Rokinon 14mm lens and my Canon 6D full-frame camera performed flawlessly for these Milky Way shots  (just as he recommended they would).

David also recently released what I consider to be the definitive “how-to” e-book on night landscapes called “Nightscape.”  At only $12, it also includes zip files of his Adobe Lightroom presets (which made editing the above Milky Way photos ridiculously fast and easy!). 

A superb value and “must have” book for any of you fellow D-SLR photographers out there!



  1. What great commitment to a cause. Your pictures are wonderful. I like the light painting idea, never thought if doing something like that.

    1. Light painting is lots of fun! In the very first shot at Joshua Tree, I simply used my LP campfire to light up the rocks and RV! But, a simple LED headlamp or flashlight will also work just fine. If you can find some gelatin light filters, you can even paint with colored lights!

  2. Very nice indeed! That Millie is a character.

  3. Wonderful shots...this is something I want to do---I recently sold my DSLR now I'm kind of regretting that and beginning the search for another one

    1. Well, newer ones will do better for this sort of photography anyway! You'll want to look for those that can comfortably shoot at ISO 6400 (so look for cameras that can go well beyond that-- for instance, my 6D and 70D Canons can handle up to ISO 12800 comfortably, and even further than that if pushed). Also look for a lens that is at least f/2.8 or wider.

  4. Well done my friend. When you do something, you do it perfectly. Lovely.

    1. Ah, but all the many failed attempts were never published! :-)

  5. Gorgeous photos! I wish I had your skills. My only known use of a flashlight in night photography is to find the automatic setting on my camera. ;-) Maybe that's a new niche...teaching a mobile nighttime photography class. Sign me up!

    1. Well, you certainly have the skills...what you lack is just the "will". I know you will master that Nikon of yours one of these days!

  6. All I can say is WOW. WOW, WOW! You'll have to try the same thing up here at 6400 ft elevation when you are next in San Miguel. I feel as though I can touch the stars up here on the outskirts of the canyon! I'll have to think about your patience and determination to get these photos. They are magnificent.
    Maybe I"ll venture to the roof terrace one of these nights at 2AM and see what happens.
    Give Millie a hug from me - you one lucky lady to have such a great companion!

    1. The stars are fantastic in certain parts of Mexico! I didn't research well enough to figure out when the Milky Way is visible there, but my guess is it's likely seen a few more months than we can see it in the north here due to being closer to the equator. So, I guess that's a good next goal--- shoot the Milky Way from Mexico!

  7. Beautiful! I found the dark map interesting, and realized I live in a very dark place in the Pacific Northwest. I'm used to seeing the stars as I sit in the hot tub at night, but I know that the view is much more spectacular when we're camping in the wilderness.

  8. Wow, these are amazing shots. Great job! Very inspiring for me....someday! :)


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