Every year, there is another season that is not as common as the normal four, the Milky Way Core. The Milky Way season is when the core of the Milky Way galaxy is visible in the northern hemisphere night skies, and it occurs from March through October. Many photographers wait all winter for this season to arrive, scout locations for possible compositions to photograph, and plan a time near a new moon with the hopes of clear weather
Months in advance, I laid plans to shoot the Milky Way with the Royal Gorge and Royal Gorge Bridge from the northern side near a spot that is known as Point Alta Vista. There is a private property at the location I wanted to shoot from, so I secured access rights with the owner and set a date in early March 2020 for when I wanted to try it.
Early in the season, the Milky Way galaxy and its spiral arms are more parallel to the horizon, and later in the season, it is more vertical. I wanted the Milky Way to appear closer and flatter to the bridge and gorge, so I chose an early date. The downside to the early season is that the core is only visible for a short time in the early morning hours (around 4:00 to 5:00 AM).
I shot Milky Way core images successfully at other locations in the past. With each shoot, I refined my technique. You need a lens with a wide field of view and the widest maximum aperture to capture as much light as possible. I planned to use my Sigma 35mm f/1.4 lens that I knew would cover this requirement, and also from past experiences that it provides a sharp image with little coma aberrations from corner to corner.
My lens choice – although, it has a high image quality – is a bit short on the field of view I wanted for the Milky Way and gorge. I knew that I would have to create a multi-row panoramic image to capture my desired outcome. For this task, I needed to use my Really Right Stuff multi-row panoramic tripod head. I also decided to use my Nodal Ninja RD16-II rotator that has notched indexing for the focal length that I am using. The RD16-II is a key tool to use for panoramic image capture at night because the indexing tells you where to stop during rotation without having to determine the degrees to turn to for the position of the next frame.
Arriving early in the evening when there was still light, I drove in the property as far as I could. The rest of the way to the location I had to hike in (~1 mile), so I needed the remaining daylight to more easily navigate to my desired shooting spot. I have an F-stop Tilopa 50L camera backpack that I loaded my camera, lenses, tripod, supporting accessories, drink, food, folding chair, and sleeping bag; all weighed about 30lbs. Fortunately, there was a mostly flat trail on the property that took me to the edge of the gorge. However, the last quarter mile I had to bushwhack through thick junipers, cactus, and yucca to climb down into the gorge to reach my shooting location. Once I arrived, I set-up my camera rig, sat in a portable chair, ate some granola bars, drank some warm tea from a thermos, and proceeded to wait for the moment I could shoot.
Learnings from previous experiences, one problem with shooting night photographs of features like the gorge is that there are many dark shadows. Without directional lighting on the gorge to cast form from the shadows, the gorge wall features tend to blend into each other. By shooting at nautical dusk, about an hour after sunset, I hoped that the last dim glow at the western horizon would provide just enough light to reveal the gorge’s beautiful shapes.
I proceeded to shoot the frames needed to capture the foreground, which was the gorge and the bridge. I set my camera in manual mode and took test shots to get the desired exposure (f/8, ISO 1600, and 25 seconds). To get the highest quality and detail possible, at each notch and elevation of the rotator, I shot 3-4 frames to do focus stacking later during post-processing. I panned right to left for 6 indexes, changed the angle elevation on the panoramic head, shot 6 indexes left to right, elevated again, and then 6 more indexes from right to left. Overall, about 115 frames were captured in a 3×6 matrix just for the foreground.
The Milky Way core would not be visible for several hours later. I pulled out and unfolded my chair, and also detached the pad and sleeping bag I packed in with my camera gear. I sat in my chair, poured some hot tea, ate a snack, and enjoyed the beauty and solitude at my location. Around 10:00 PM, I laid down to rest since the core of the Milky Way would not begin to become visible until about 3:00 AM. I set the alarm on my smartphone and slept until it was time to get up again.
When it was time, I got out of my bag and off the ground. My tripod and camera had not moved, so it was ready to begin the night images. The core of the Milky Way was just beginning to appear, so I took the time to focus on the lens and to take test shots to find the exposure I needed. With the 35mm lens, I knew that I did not need a very long exposure. I used the Photopills app for the Spot Stars feature, plugged the lens details into the app, and chose the NPF rule (the 500 rule is the classic, but NPF takes in the megapixels of the camera and is more accurate). The app calculated that my max exposure time would be 6 seconds. While still in manual mode on the camera, I dialed in 6 seconds and did a test shot. After a few shots, I determined my best exposure to get detail of the Milky Way without getting star trails was f/2.0, ISO 4000, and 6 seconds.
Similar to the way I captured images for the foreground, I planned to shoot frames for the night sky in a matrix to get the view I desired that the lens field of view could not capture. I determined that a 2×6 matrix would cover the area needed.
I like to do stacking when I capture night sky images. The stacking process is where you take several frames in the same spot, and then stack these together into one image using software on a computer. The result is a reduction of noise in the image that provides greater detail. An alternative to stacking is to use a tracker, but I did not have one with me because it would have been too much weight to pack in. At each determined frame for the matrix, I took 10 shots each. For the sky alone after I completed the matrix, I took 240 frames that would be processed into one image later.
When I finished capturing the images I needed (about 4:30 AM), I began putting things away. I packed my bag up and proceeded to climb out of the gorge.
Walking in the wilderness in the wee hours of the morning does come with some risk. Not only is it still dark, which makes navigating through rough terrain with a pack using a headlamp more challenging, but there is also the risk of predators. The gorge is known to have mountain lions, and they do like to hunt in the early morning. I was prepared for this risk, though. I carried bear spray, which I had in my hand, and made sure I made lots of noise. Predators are less likely to attack if you are noisy and waving your arms a lot, and the bear spray was in case the animal got more curious.
As I was climbing out of the gorge, my biggest fears came to fruition! I was panning my head from left to right with my headlamp on as I walked, not only to find my path but to also scan for any wildlife in the bush. Sure enough, I saw what looked like eyes reflecting from within junipers! At first, I thought it might have been a reflection from the rocks, trees, or something shiny, but then I saw this reflection blink! My adrenaline rose quickly, as you can probably imagine! I began yelling and waving my arms while I had the bear spray in my hands in hopes that my noise and actions would ward this creature off. I continued climbing out while watching these eyes. The eyes were following up the slope, too. I thought that if I kept doing what I was doing and walking up the slope that eventually the creature would go away, but it kept following!
At one point, I accidentally discharged the bear spray which blew back in my face. At this point, I exclaimed loudly every expletive I knew while I was trying to clear my eyes! I thought for a moment that this would be a time the creature would get me because I had to stop in my tracks.
Eventually, my eyes cleared. I panned my headlamp in the direction I last saw the eyes. There was nothing. “Great! Now it could be approaching from anywhere around me!” I thought. I looked all around, but there was no sign. I started climbing out again but would pause more frequently to look all around me. The creature behind the eyes no longer appeared so I determined that it must have decided to move on and away from me. However, I was still at full alert and taking every step with much caution; scanning the trees for anything that may show before I proceeded.
Eventually, I made it back to my car. The eyes never appeared again. I thanked God for allowing me to live one more day and not become a meal to nature! I was exhausted but at the same time fully awake. I loaded the car and drove home.
All told, I shot 355 frames that I hoped would contain not only great detail of the gorge and bridge but of the night sky, too, with the Milky Way. After I returned home, I spent a full day sifting through the frames and began processing them. I first combined all the foreground images – stacked each segment of the matrix for a focus stack – and then used PTGUI to stitch the images. I then processed the night sky images, but used Sequator for the stacking (similar to Deep Sky Stacker), and then stitched the images together once again in PTGUI. The final step before beginning the fine-tuning steps in PhotoShop to get my desired outcome was to blend the night sky image with the foreground. After days in the digital darkroom, Royal Gorge Point Alta Vista Night was finally complete.
I hope what I shared for this image was not only entertaining, but possibly useful to you, too!