Earlier in the week, Friday night looked like it would provide a great opportunity to try my hand at nightscape photography. The long-range weather forecast predicted clear skies, and the moon would not rise until long after the galactic center of the Milky Way would reach its highest point in the night sky. As luck would have it, the D.H. Day Campground at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore had one campsite left for Friday night. So I reserved it and started planning.
I used an app called Photopills to identify possible locations to shoot. The app allowed me to locate a spot on the map and see where the Milky Way would be in relation to it in the night sky. I checked out several locations, finally deciding on three sites that would be close enough that I could cover each of them in one evening.
On Friday morning, I made the three hour drive to Glen Arbor, Michigan, and visited my intended locations during the afternoon. I used the augmented reality feature of Photopills at each site to confirm the position of the Milky Way at the times I intended to shoot. Now all I needed was clear skies.
I had been using three different sources to predict the weather for Friday evening. Two forecast clear skies and one predicted thunderstorms. Turns out, all three were partially right and partially wrong. As evening approached, so did some foreboding clouds.
Undaunted and certain that “this too shall pass,” I set up at my first location (the old cannery in Glen Haven) around 11 p.m. I could see some breaks in the fast moving clouds, but soon the rain began to fall. I jumped into my car and headed to my next location, hoping that the sky there would be clear. Within a few miles I was in the midst of a thunderstorm, so I pulled over to the side of the road to wait it out. It didn’t take long for the storm to pass. Within 10 minutes I was on my way again.
My second location was the bridge over the Crystal River on Country Road 675. People who have kayaked the Crystal know this bridge as the location where you “shoot the tubes,” the culverts that allow the river to pass under the road. Getting out of the car, I was pleased to see that the sky had cleared. I quickly donned my reflective vest and set some reflective triangles along the road to warn approaching cars that I was standing on the bridge with my camera and tripod.
The biggest challenge of photographing stars is getting them in focus. There are a couple of methods of doing so. The first one failed me completely. That method involves placing the brightest star in the middle of the camera’s LCD screen and magnifying it to allow you to focus. Sounds great, but on my LCD screen all I saw was darkness. On to method two – relying on the “hyperfocal distance.” The hyperfocal distance is a spot at which everything halfway from the camera to infinity will be acceptably in focus. I knew that for the focal length and aperture I was using the hyperfocal distance was 16 feet 6 inches. But how do you focus in the dark? I set my camera 16 feet 6 inches feet from the back of my car, shined my flashlight on my bumper and focused on it. And then I was in business.
There it was, just as Photopills had predicted, the Milky Way!
Having found success on the Crystal River, I moved on to my third location, the Carsten and Elizabeth Burfiend farm in the Port Oneida Rural Historic District. Carsten Burstein bought 275 acres in what became known as Port Oneida in 1852, when the government opened the land up to settlement. I was interested in photographing the farm’s granary, corn crib and shop.
Having met with success at my second and third locations, I headed back to the cannery in Glen Haven, unsure of whether the Milky Way would be positioned well to get the picture I wanted. After all, it had been nearly three hours since I originally had planned to shot there. While it is not the shot I had planned, it still worked out pretty well.
I was pleased with the evening’s success. Several years ago, I had tried my hand at photographing the Milky Way, but my equipment wasn’t up to the task. I recently purchased a “fast” lens that has a much wider aperture. That made a significant difference. The night provided everything I hoped for. . . and more.
Shortly before calling it a night, at 2 a.m., I checked in with a woman I had met earlier in the evening in the parking lot at Glen Haven. She had come north from Saint Joseph, Michigan, when she learned there was a chance to see northern lights. “Any success,” I asked. She said that indeed she had seen them. “In fact,” she said, “they are out there right now.” I looked off to the northwest and all I saw was a faint glow along the horizon. “That’s them,” she said, and she showed me some photos she had taken earlier in the night with her cell phone. So I set up my tripod and aimed it at the horizon, taking a twenty second photo. Sure enough, there was the faint glow of the northern lights.
The color wasn’t visible to my naked eye, but there on the back of my camera was the telltale green glow I have seen before. I switched from a wide angle lens to by telephoto.
I crawled into my tent about 2:15 and was up and out again at 5:30 a.m. to catch a different glow as the sun rose on Sleeping Bear Bay.