Copyright Tim Lee

That Time I captured the Milky Way

On one of our camping trips between 2020 and 2021, I decided to bring my camera gear (as I always do) with the goal of getting some nightscape shots. Within the last 3-4 years I learned some of the tricks to shooting generic starscapes and I always found myself enamored with getting clusters of stars to show up in my shots. I found it so exciting to open a raw photo that showed pitch blackness and bring up the levels and just watch millions of stars suddenly come into view in my editor. I became hooked on capturing the sky at night. But I never realized that I had the capability to capture the milky way. I found it by accident one night, and the experience literally made me gasp.

I set up my gear outside our camper like I had done many times before, but this night was different and I knew it. Mainly because there was no moon. The atmospheric light was at the lowest it could be, and being in the middle of the mountains of Montana would mean that the cities around us would not spread their light into the sky to bounce off the atmospheric haze. Also, the wind was in the perfect direction holding off the fire from the surrounding mountains. The smoke was being blown away from us leaving a perfect clear chance to get some more intense skyscapes.

I pointed my camera into the sky as I had always done, generically pointing it upward, trying to frame out the trees surrounding us to the best of my ability. My ears tingle at every sound of brush moving in the blackness as those tiny fears of bears and wild cats buzz around in the back of my head.  Put them off… This is the best chance I will get of getting some stars, hopefully, more than I had ever captured before.  I could physically see millions of stars overlapping each other. Reminding me of an experience from many years before, sitting on a missionary ship in the Caribean Ocean, only the pilot light pointing the way into the pitch blackness of the ocean, and above, an expanse of stars that you would be incapable of imagining. These stars were seen by travelers and explorers of decades and centuries past, something very few “City folk” gets to see in this day. A verse in the Bible I recalled kept singing out in my mind. A promise God made directly to Abraham in Genesis 26:4 ” I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring, all the nations on earth will be blessed. These stars were the ones God made that promise on. Imagine the awe Abraham would have felt, what sort of promise God was making to him.

I stood there looking up pressing the shutter button on my remote control and the camera’s shutter flicked open, capturing what little light that was shining off those stars. The camera memorized every little dot, making it brighter and brighter by the second as the image burned into the sensor, the long exposure of several seconds felt like forever in the cold of that night. I found myself holding my breath so the heat of my breath didn’t create little steam clouds in front of my lens. Finally, the shutter clicked shut, and the screen lit up the “Now Processing” text I hated seeing as the camera began making its way through all the data I wouldn’t even be able to see. I would usually see a few stars here or there in the image but mainly blackness that would need to be processed in my computer before I would get to see the true expanse of the image in front of me. The processing took longer than the long exposure itself and often felt like a waste of time from getting more shots.

The image went dark, I reached down and hit the playback button that pops up the last image taken. My eyes became wide as I clasped my hands over my mouth in a small yell of excitement. My cheeks flushed as I felt blood rush to my head as I could physically SEE the milky way on my screen without any processing. I felt like I had just won the lottery, or found buried treasure.

The window of the trailer slid open as my wife yelled out, “Are you ok baby?!”.  I quickly told her I was fine and tried to express to her how exciting this was. “Good heavens Baby I thought you got eaten by a bear or something!” The window closed and I looked back down at the image.  I had done it, I couldn’t even begin to imagine what I would see once I processed it on my computer. But now wasn’t the time to rush in and try to do that. I needed to get back to shooting as many shots as I could!

As I continued my rampage of pictures I found myself inspired and started taking pictures with the sky in the background and the schilloette of black trees in the foreground.  I then wondered. Could I grab one of my lights and light those trees? I remembered next to the trailer was a little brook and one tree I had noticed would be a great foreground object, so I grabbed one of my lights out of my bag, what if I shined it at this tree over here. Would my camera see it?

YES! Every new shutter click showed me something new and exciting. I had control of the light, and something as small as a flashlight could suddenly bring foreground trees and our trailer into view while the night sky continued to show me its beautiful milky way. I was beyond inspired and for the next hour with my ears in pain, and my nose sore and dripping from the cold, I kept shooting.

 

I had discovered something new, that I only thought was possible with sky tracking gear, specialty zoom lenses or telescopes, or expensive cameras with full frame sensors and sky filters. But here it was out of my Sony A6300 with my camera lenses that I used every day. It was amazing! Once my body just couldnt handle being in the cold any longer I went into the camper and snuck in next to my wife with my laptop and began processing the images, the stars were so bright and vibrant, and the milky way became even more apparent. Like a rip in the sky that God has scraped out with his finger. I hope if you get a chance to shoot night scapes, you find the milky way, and I hope it inspires you as much as it did me that night. Thanks so much for reading!

About the author