Sometimes in course of making a photograph, you tend to capture things that you didn't initially start out to capture. This is a story of one such occurrence...
Although it was a familiar spot, I'll be damned if I almost couldn't find it in the darkness. Even with the half-moon, the night was so thick you could feel it and any light seemed to just disappear into the black. I was lucky this time though because I didn't have the absolutely oppressive cold freezing everything around me. The last time I ventured out to Milikan's Overlook it was 17 degrees and the wind was trying to pitch me off the mountain.
I was fortunate enough to be kindly allowed back into the closed areas of Fall Creek Falls State Park to do my work so I left camp around 10 PM and made my way out to the overlook. I am here this time to try out a sexy new lens, my new(new to me) Canon 50mm F1/4 Prime...one king hell bastard of a lens that is capable of shooting in extraordinarily low light. This was the lens I should have had the last time I was here back in the winter. Now I have it and my chance.
As with most things, I was thrown a spit soaked curve ball. It turned out my prized 50mm was just a tad too tight to capture the entire scene the way I had saw it in my head. So, in the span of about an hour of shuffling around in the dark on a 120 foot scab of granite trying to frame my shot, I came to the painful realization that I needed a wider lens. So with tears in my eyes I stowed my precious 50mm back in my bag, and whipped out my Tamron 10-24mm. Though not as good in low light and not as tack sharp as the 50, it has been a work horse for over two years...and would prove itself again. This is the original image I had set out to capture that night. The famous "Buzzards Roost" with the Big Dipper looming over the tree. Success.
Fast forward about another hour and I have a set of images that I'm comfortable with so I decide to pack out. I am crouched on the very center of the cliff. I realize just how still the air is, eerie but calming yet down right spooky all the same. I can hear myself breath and the entire valley below me is a silent void. I get that old familiar feeling that I only have when I know I am completely alone. It's a hard thing to put into words unless you are fortunate enough and have the inclination to seek it out. As I gaze around with the moon over my left shoulder I begin to focus my eyes on the stars. The more you look the more stars you eventually are able to make out. Eventually I look straight overhead between the patch of pines I'm sitting under and can faintly make out an old friend...the swirling and glittery wash that is our galaxy. It's dim and hard to really see but it's there, and my heart begins to race.
The camera is pointing straight up and damn near flat on the ground with the tripod stretched horizontal. I can't even see the LCD screen let alone the viewfinder. So, in true "me" fashion I make guesses on the focal length and exposure. Since I can't see what I'm shooting I set the focus to infinity and fire away, gradually moving from 10mm to around 18mm to get the trees grabbing at the sky. I didn't want to leave the shutter open long enough to catch the Earth's rotation and I didn't want to jack the ISO up so high that I gathered a lot of noise...so you can unfortunately see the stars beginning to streak in the corners of the frame. I get a few images for processing and then make my way through the woods back to the truck and then motor back to camp and the promise of bacon with Yoo-Hoo(that's right) for supper and my hammock. The final photograph you see here was shot at 11mm for 63 seconds at F/4 and ISO 800.
I processed the image to make out the colors of the Milky Way as best I could. You have to understand that this is what making photographs is all about. I couldn't actually see this until I made the exposure and chipped away at the light to reveal the true spectacle. There will be more galaxy missions in the future, and the 50mm will be a game changer when I'm finally in the right spot at the right time on the right night.