A Stargazers Refuge

It is officially Milky Way season. It’s a time when the most beautiful part (in my humble opinion), the galactic center of the Milky Way, rises above the horizon starting in February and ending in October. Now don’t get me wrong, the Milky Way is visible all year round, but the most beautiful part is starting to emerge right now. The galactic center is what you see in the photo below; gas made up of stars and planets that are swirling around millions of light years away which some estimate to contain over 400 billion stars. WOW. Think about that, 400 billion stars just in the Milky Way galaxy alone. I can’t even wrap my brain around how many stars that is. To blow your mind even more, our Milky Way galaxy is just a small fraction of the entire universe. Makes you feel insignificant, huh? Yeah, me too. This is why I have a love of shooting the night sky. Its space, time, and distance are almost unimaginable.

To see this beauty first hand drove me out of my warm bed for a chilly 2am date with the night sky this past weekend. We started our journey driving down to Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge in the Outer Banks of NC and arrived at the Coast Guard Station located just past the Bonner Bridge. The wind and cold were so furious we second guessed ourselves and wondered if we could stand the high winds, cold temps, and blowing sand. I decided to give it a go and put my head lamp on along with many layers of warm clothing, grabbed my backpack full of gear, and trusty tripod. Walking around looking for a shot in the dark with sand blowing in your headlamp like rain was almost discouraging, but once my body adjusted to the cold and my eyes became adjusted to the darkness I could see the Milky Way just above the horizon and it was now ON to find some interesting foreground. I chose to shoot the Coast Guard Station with the Milky Way behind it, but I wasn’t completely satisfied with the composition so I continued to search for the perfect angle. By this time, my eyes were itchy and scratchy from the sand creeping its way in and ending up in places that are almost embarrassing. I mean, how does sand get into your pants just walking around? Beats me. Nonetheless, I was determined to find a shot given what it took to be in the right spot, at the right time, with clear skies that doesn’t happen all that often.

I always make a shot list of things I find inspiring on my journeys that I want to revisit. Since I wasn’t finding the shot I envisioned, I checked out my shot list and realized the entrance sign to Pea Island was on my list and was close by. (I originally put this on the list because I thought it would be a good way to show visitors just how dark our skies are in the OBX. Next time visitors take family photos under the sign as proof they were here, they can be reminded of just how beautiful it is at night as well as the day.)  With different compositions churning in my head of the visitors sign, I decided to pack up and abandon ship for hopefully a more promising shot. I’m always on the lookout for things that face south in an attempt to line it up with the Milky Way if the situation presents itself. When I arrived at the sign, the Milky Way Gods definitely presented themselves and I knew I had a shot I was happy with. Taking a risk to jump ship and try another location is risky. Sometimes it pays off and many times it doesn’t. I know all too well about the many times it doesn’t pay off, but getting that shot that is special to you gives you hope that it can and will happen again if you do decide to take a risk. All you can do is hope; hope that it’s clear and the weather cooporates, hope that you timed the Milky Way right, hope that you like your foreground choices, and hope that you get the most important things right like sharp focusing in the dark.

A Stargazers Refuge


The Night Watchman

This photo is, by far, my most favorite to date. Then again, I seem to say that about every new photo.  This one is unique because it was not something I had planned on doing; it kind of just presented itself. I was out shooting on Pea Island with a completely different composition in mind but when I wasn’t really feeling that, I started to wander around looking for something to take advantage of this amazing Milky Way. I settled on a couple of sand dunes which I thought would make decent foreground. After taking a few shots and adjusting my composition, I noticed this relatively faint glow of light pollution on the lower right of the frame just behind the sand dune. I was like, “Hmmm, I bet I would stand out pretty well against that in silhouette.” I hadn’t been using my remote shutter release so I dug that out of my bag, connected it up and tried turning it on. Low and behold…dead battery in the wireless receiver. Luckily, I had my wired remote in my bag. So, how does one take a selfie without a working wireless remote? I took a chance, set up my shot, picked out about where I should be standing during the exposure, and set the remote on continuous 30 second exposures. After that, I walked up to the spot I had picked out and just stood there.

It’s not often that I take the time to stop and just soak up my surroundings when I’m out shooting but I’m glad I did. It gave me an opportunity to really see and appreciate where I was and everything that was around me. Outside of the cold temperatures and Northerly wind throwing sand everywhere, it was peaceful. For just a few moments, I wasn’t out chasing the next shot. It wasn’t concerned about the right composition, camera settings, light, angle, foreground and the hundred other things that go into each shot. It was just me and my place in the world. On every outing in the future, I think I’ll try to take time to stop and appreciate the beauty and serenity no matter where I am.