On the evening of December 8th this year, a wonderful series of phenomenon occurred. The sun went down, the aurora remained muted, brilliant stars of the Milky Way dappled the darkness, and a new moon sealed the deal for a night of very dark-skies. I left the orange glow of Fairbanks behind and set off on a quest into the inky darkness of interior Alaska to photograph the Milky Way Galaxy.
When photographing the galaxy you are capturing the “galactic plane” which is the stars which spin out from the “galactic center“. Our sun and solar system reside on the edge of the galaxy, and give us the opportunity to look into it. However, depending on the season and the photographer’s location on the planet, the true center of the galaxy may not be available. In Fairbanks the galactic center would be visible in the summer when it is always light. During the winter the galactic plane of the Milky Way is visible, but we do not get an opportunity to see the center because we are blocked from it by the planet.
Fairbanks has not felt wind for over two months and snow which would ordinary not persist with wind clung to the spruces encasing them . I angled my camera at the bases of those trees and slowly moved at up into the sky after each exposure with the goal of creating panoramic ‘stitches’ of the Milky Way. The method compounds the star density of the galaxy, and brings out distant features like a nebula seen in the upper left of several of the images. I hope you take to opportunity to view dark skies when you can!
During my trip home to Minnesota I have taken what I have learned about aurora watching in Alaska, and transferred it to conditions in the midwest. In doing so, I traded watching the aurora over snow drifts to squinting my eyes over bean fields with moderate success! A big push of energy from the sun has elevated geomagnetic energy to KP 6 or a G2-“Geomagnetic storm level 2”, which boosts the aurora to Minnesota, and even beyond. The two nights I chased the aurora brought success in both capturing the aurora in central Minnesota, and for playing with some new techniques which I will be honing in the upcoming year and are featured below. I would love to hear your feedback!
This timelapse below is fairly short and does not have a brilliant aurora, but does give a great idea of where to look for the aurora in Central Minnesota. During this G2 storm. In Alaska the aurora during a G2 storm would be far overhead and taking up the whole sky. In Minnesota it rose slightly above the horizon. Viewing would have been better if the smoke haze and moonlight could have been removed.
One of the techniques I am very interested in growing is the ability to capture full panoramas of the milky way. The progression of images below shows a little bit on how that works. I learned a lot in this first attempt. A few key findings : 1) find the darkest skies possible! The light pollution shows here. 2) need to have more overlap in the shots 3 ) I tried to capture the whole galaxy in one sweep of the camera. I now know I can stitch multiple rows of shots to capture a larger area 4) keep the ISO of the camera low-ish to reduce noise. For those reading this with experience in capturing the Milky Way, please contact me, it would be great to pick your brain!
I have done a lot to curate my aurora gallery on Fine Art America. I would love if you checked it out!