In July 2018 I was back on familiar ground in Minnesota. My home town is set in a classic Midwestern setting. Sprawling farm fields with rows of potatoes, corns, and beans. Wheat and barley fields with sprawling prairie oaks from remnants of prairies that were. As my passion for photography has grown I have found new ways to appreciate and observe its beauty. As with most of the places I go, I had an itch to go into the night and see the familiar landscape in a new light (or lack of it). The clear, moonless skies and warm nights brought me into the darkness like a moth attracted to the light.
My dad and I drove north under ink dark skies. With the Milky Way core rising at midnight, I wanted to make sure that we were in place by 11:30. We had scouted an old, abandoned farmstead the day before and sought it out along the country roads. The night was calm and a heavy dew lay on the grass. Crickets chirped and my camera clicked. A peaceful start to a peaceful evening.
Moving on from the farm we continued north to our land. We opened the orange metal gate at its entrance and drove through. In the familiar, 50 acre pasture an old Paper Birch and Burr Oak stood juxtaposed against the short grasses below. We worked together to light paint the trees and surrounding pasture. As I made the images the night hit its dew point and fog rolled over the pasture and fogged my lens. This inconvenience ultimately dampened my shooting and we packed up my gear and headed home.
The images below are the result of my journeys into the night over a few days. They are a new way of looking at and remembering the countryside I grew up in. They fuse together elements of my home with elements in the sky and for me lock in memories of those nights out.
Growing up in Minnesota one of my favorite constellations was Orion. The appearance of his belt at earth’s horizon was a sure sign that autumn was approaching, and as I fell asleep each night I would watch him out my southern facing window. Many people, cultures, and seasons are tied to the position of the stars. In Alaska and as a night-photographer, I have grown to appreciate the rise of the Milky Way Galaxy to the north as spring approaches. Although at least a part of the Milky Way is visible through the winter, its growing prominence and brightness in February and March really documents the changing season. The Milky Way rises through the summer, but by the time we are able to see into the center of the Galaxy the sun will never set! Of course, the sun blots out any opportunity to see the center of the Milky Way from Fairbanks, Alaska.
I have been researching and “perfecting” techniques (lots of room for growth and creativity!) to stitch together large panoramas. The images here were created from stitched 25 – 32 images. The results are certainly interesting and beautiful! My goal when creating these images is to capture as much of the Milky Way as possible. On moonless nights like March 2nd in Fairbanks, Alaska the Milky Way shows up as a bright band in the sky. With some luck, the aurora accents its celestial beauty. As part of the Panoramic technique the resolution of the image grows to extreme proportions. These panoramas here are approximately 21,480 x 10,850 pixels! That’s nearly 233 megapixel resolution! The power of the technique the possibility of wall-sized panoramic prints. Hint, hint – I would love to see one of these printed to 50″ or bigger! If you are are interested, you should contact me!
From a bit purer side of photography, I was also able to capture the galaxy and aurora in single images. However, there is an interesting distinction in them over many of my other aurora shots – they are no longer “real”. I am a stickler for not over-processing aurora shots to give the viewer the truest colors and most accurate representation as possible. However, to emphasize the galaxy it necessary to compromise on the color of the aurora. The aurora in these single shots and the panoramas is more vibrant than it was to the naked on this night. Because of the color changes these are truly “works of art”, not just documentation of the aurora. Its not a bad thing, but I feel should be made clear, as there is a growing opinion that aurora photography does not represent how it truly looks. In this particular case, that is true.
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!