Learning Milky Way Photography – Take 2

One of my goals this year has been to begin learning Milky Way photography. Well, at least taking my first baby steps. I suspect I will spend the rest of my life on the process. I had my first opportunity to photograph the Milky Way last month, and I was relatively pleased with the process. By that I mean you could actually see the Milky Way and it was reasonably in focus! Those are low expectations, I know, but they were realistic.

I wanted to get back out as quickly as I could to try to build on that first experience. My wife and I headed to Hunting Island State Park in South Carolina for some dark skies on a moonless night last week. The forecast called for clear skies on Friday with clouds moving in Saturday morning. I hoped they would hold off until just before dawn so that I could capture the Milky Way followed up by a nice sunrise.

We got to the park early enough to set up our campsite and do some scouting during the day. This was our first visit and we loved it! The trees along the surf are mesmerizing. The more closely you look, the more fascinating they become. The storms of the last couple of years have certainly had their impact on the coast line, but what remains is beautiful and haunting. There are many images to be found here, and I hope to return one day, but my “focus” was on the Milky Way, so I was looking for possible compositions, using those trees, later in the night. We continue to walk along the beach until we reached the lighthouse. Unlike most lighthouses, this one is surrounded by trees, making it challenging to photograph. Again, I was thinking about that structure against the night sky, and my apps were telling me that the arch of the Milky Way would be almost directly over the lighthouse at 4:00 or 4:30 the following morning. I planned to be there, too!

The Milky was was set to rise at 1:30, so I found my way out of my sleeping bag at 2:00, wanting it to be high enough over the horizon to be interesting. The night was clear and I spent a fair amount of time in front of those trees, “painting” them with light during those long 20-25 second exposures.

I found myself fascinated with this lone tree, and wound up with several images of it under the stars and as the sun rose.

I even got brave enough to try to create some panoramas. Both of the images below are actually several photographs stitched together.

milky way photography
While the beach was absolutely dark, I used a small flashlight to “paint” light onto the trees in the foreground to create some interest and scale in the photo.
learning Milky Way photography on the South Carolina coast
The Milky Way over “Boneyard Beach” at Hunting Island, South Carolina

For the sake of the photographers in the crowd, and those who have been asking on Facebook, here are the details. I found my best settings at f2.8, ISO 3200 at 20 seconds. I shoot with a Nikon D7100 (that’s a cropped sensor) and used the Tokina AT-X Pro SD 11-16mm f/2.8 (IF) DX on these shots.

By the time I made it to the lighthouse, the clouds had begun to move in, killing my plans for that final image. So I waited until the sun began to rise and headed back over to that lonely tree. The clouds has already begun to dissipate by the time morning broke.

Sunrise at Hunting Island
Long exposure just before dawn of that lonely tree at Hunting Island, South Carolina

Before you ask, yes the photos are real. Yes, they have been processed with Photoshop (a skill that I am just beginning to learn), but you can plainly see the Milky Way and many of these details straight out of the camera. Nothing has been added or manipulated for an unnatural effect. A camera sensor, exposed to the light for such a long period of time, can simply “see” more than our eyes are able to detect under normal conditions.

Finally, for the curious, I should mention that the “bones” along this beach are trees that have been exposed to saltwater as the coast has eroded. The salt water seems to have the effect of preserving them, hardening the wood and making it less susceptible to decomposition. The salt also bleaches the trees giving them that unusual white color.

I’m not sure where I will find my next dark sky, or what will fill the foreground of those next pictures. But I am certain that I will be rolling out of bed at an early hour a few more times this summer while the Milky Way is still visible.

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