Beyond the Milky Way: There’s More to Night Photography Than the Trendy

Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, Maine. 20 seconds, f/3.5, ISO 6400. Pano of six stitched frames, with clouds, Milky Way and light pollution.

A couple of years ago during a conversation about trends in night photography, a friend of mine (who shall remain nameless) said, “If I see one more Milky Way picture, I’m gonna puke.”

While I don’t exactly share the sentiment, I understand where he was coming from. Since the advent of digital cameras that perform well at high ISOs––the Nikon D700 and Canon 6D are the best early examples—night photographers have understandably been obsessed with photographing the core, or galactic center, of our galaxy.

Experiencing the Milky Way for the first time under a truly dark sky is an unforgettable experience. Seeing the core light up the LCD on the back of your camera screen for the first time is another “Holy Shit!” moment for many people. It’s easy to be smitten with the Milky Way, with its 100 billion to 400 billion stars. Every star we see in the sky from anywhere on Earth is part of the Milky Way galaxy, which is one of an estimated 100 billion galaxies in the universe.

Lady Boot Arch, Alabama Hills. 15 minutes, f/2.8, ISO 200 for the foreground, combined with 20 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400 for the sky, with tea lights and flashlight.

Lady Boot Arch. 15 minutes, f/2.8, ISO 200, with tea lights and flashlight.

Spend any time on social media or photo sharing websites like Flickr or 500px, and you’ll find hundreds of thousands of images of the Milky Way core. Many of them are heavily processed and rendered in an unrealistic way. They remind me of the images of early HDR enthusiasts––wild, colorful and dynamic, but full of post-processing artifacts, and far from believable. Nowadays, people use HDR imaging more responsibly, and the true power of the technique comes through in stunning examples.

With Milky Way photography, we are just starting to get to that point. Rather than simply photographing the core because it was suddenly possible, without much consideration for anything else, many night photographers are now including the Milky Way in their images in much more fulfilling ways.

Steve’s Rock, Olmsted Point, Yosemite National Park. 30 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 800. Clouds back-lit with moonlight high in the Sierra with light from a Coast HP5R filtered with two gels, a 1/2 CTO and a 1/8 minus green.

Instead of images of the core rising over a dark and empty foreground, I’m seeing much more interesting compositions where the Milky Way is just one component of a composition. People are developing more sophisticated ways of capturing and processing foreground detail combined with core exposures. Panoramas of the arch of the Milky Way have been popular for some time, but now photographers are using the arch to frame interesting foreground subjects. This trend is encouraging.

Where we’ve come from

Throughout the history of night photography, photographers were limited to long exposures in natural light situations due to the limited sensitivity of film or early digital sensors. Star trails, rather than star points, were the norm.

Reciprocity failure—which caused film to become less sensitive the longer it was exposed—also played a part in making star point or Milky Way photography next to impossible. Most films began to show signs of reciprocity failure in as little as 1 second! Fuji’s amazing Neopan Acros was a game-changer, as it maintained its sensitivity up to 2 minutes, and then only slowly lost it with longer exposures. Acros is only a 100 speed film however, which means star point exposures were not an option.

2 minutes, f/4, ISO 6400. Star points, clouds and light pollution over the Sound of Rassay on the Scotland’s Isle of Skye.

15 minutes, f/4, ISO 400.

In late 2002, students at my night photography class at the New England School of Photography began showing up with new digital cameras: first the Nikon D100, and then a few months later the Canon 10D. For the first time, non-professional photographers began to take digital photography seriously, and these cameras made reasonably good night images––at 100 ISO and if the exposures were kept to 30 seconds or less.

Later, when the D700 came out in 2007, and the 5D Mark II the following year, digital night photography took a huge leap forward. A few brave souls cranked up their ISOs to 1600, 3200 and beyond, and began making exposures under moonless skies. They discovered that not only was it possible to record stars as points of light, but it was also possible to show the incredible galactic core of the Milky Way. A new chapter in the history of night photography had begun.

Where we are now

These days, it’s not uncommon for National Parks at Night to encounter other night photographers, or even other workshops, when we are out in the field with our groups––if we happen to be holding a workshop during the new moon.

Joshua Tree National Park. 20 seconds, f/3.5, ISO 6400. Lingering twilight in the western sky combined with light painting on the foreground.

But when we hold workshops around the full moon, or first or last quarter, we rarely encounter anyone else. This is almost the opposite of when I first started teaching workshops, in that we went out to photograph only within a day or two of the full moon, because that was the only time the light was strong enough to be particularly useful for film work.

It’s great to have amazing locations at Joshua Tree National Park or Yosemite to ourselves, but I feel like we are keeping a secret. For all of those photographers who never shot at night with film, or with those first-generation DSLRs, don’t limit yourselves to photographing just during the high Milky Way season at 20 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400 around the new moon! There are amazing photographs to be had all year long, during all phases of the moon, at all ISOs.

Where do we go next?

One of the things we try to emphasize in our workshops is just that point: There’s never a bad time for night photography!

Maine. 20 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400. Clouds and the light from Marshall Point Lighthouse on the distant shore and foreground, combined with lingering twilight.

Make your images about more than just that great big galactic cloud in the sky. By all means, photograph the Milky Way and show it in all its glory. But try to push outside of the boundaries of your comfort zone. How about a Milky Way trail image, or a moon trail? Combine star points and the Milky Way with partly cloudy skies, rather than cursing the clouds. Shoot under a quarter or crescent moon. Combine a light-painted foreground with the Milky Way. See if you can photograph star trails in the city.

Most importantly, challenge yourself to learn new techniques and to make images that are different from what you have done before.

*Please read Michael Frye's excellent related blog post for a tangential view on this topic. I encourage you to subscribe to Michael's blog, as he always has interesting, relevant content, outstanding images, and frequently photographs at night and writes about night photography.

Lance Keimig is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. He has been photographing at night for 30 years, and is the author of Night Photography and Light Painting: Finding Your Way in the Dark (Focal Press, 2015). Learn more about his images and workshops at www.thenightskye.com.

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