Things That Go Bump in the Night

I wasn't worried about scorpions, rattlesnakes, or tarantulas. Why not, you ask? Mainly because I didn't even consider them. Teddy Bear cactus and jumping cholla, sure, those are painful. Critters, not so much. You get the idea. Actually, what I wanted to see, and record, was the Milky Way. I had loaded up some fast primes, three tripods, and a star tracker, jumped in the car with my faithful Blue Heeler, Stella, and headed out to the Western Superstition Mountains to capture the Milky Way, that glorious and amazing band of stars that rises like Venus on the half shell out of the Eastern sky in the summertime if you happen to live in the Northern Hemisphere. 

 In order to get a good shot of the Milky Way, you need several things: A sturdy tripod, a good camera, a fast lens, a rudimentary knowledge of astronomy, some spit, baling wire, and duct tape. Actually, anybody can take a bad picture of the milky way. Trust me, I have hundreds. Star trails are a no-no, so depending upon the focal length of your lens, your exposure will be limited to about ten seconds or less. If you set your ISO too high, you'll get so much noise that your image will probably be unusable. Again, trust me. You need a dark environment because light from the moon or the lights of cities will probably give you disappointing results. Some people use a star tracker, which mimics the earth's rotation, so you can take longer exposures at lower ISO's without star trails. They have to be aligned with Polaris, the North star. Also, you can take bunches of images and stack them in software to reduce the noise in your final image. 

Some folks really love pictures of galaxies in space, nebulae, star clouds, and the like, but that's not what I'm after. I want a horizon line of some sort in my images, which means that if the image is going to be compelling, then you have to have something in the foreground that is compelling. Oh, and clouds and dust, high winds, etc. are probably a no-no, especially if you are going to stack your images. Plus, you probably want to do a delayed exposure, because you can't have any camera shake during the exposure, so your tripod has to be rock-solid still, which means you probably want to remove your camera strap so it doesn't flop around in the wind and jog your tripod, ruining the shot. Finally, with all of the above critical conditions met, it helps if you have a bit of luck and patience. Shooting the milky way is pretty much a solitary affair, and sometimes you don't really know what you got until you get home. 

On my last trip to the Superstitions, I had everything going for me. Clear skies, a new moon, a good idea of where the Milky Way was going to be, a great camera, fast lenses, tripods galore, and canine company. However, my plan was missing one critical component: it was all going to happen way past my bedtime. Yeah, I did it right, pretty much. Yes, I was set up and ready to record some compelling images with a great foreground. I took about a hundred shots and realized that I was too early, the galactic core wouldn't be above the Praying Hands for at least an hour. So, I went back to the car, turned the heater on, got comfy, and fell asleep. By the time I awoke, sadly, the perfect moment had passed. The Milky Way had shifted around to the South and was so high in the sky that I couldn't use my 24mm 1.4 lens to include both the foreground in the Milky Way. 

Being stubborn, I took quite a few more shots, hoping I might be able to pull something out in post, but it wasn't what I had hoped for. As my fishing buddies say, "You should have seen the one that got away." Next time, Red Bull, or a nap.

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