By Allen Bluedorn
As landscape astrophotography has become increasingly popular in recent years, spurred by the development and increasing improvement of digital cameras, the iconic subject has become our own galaxy, the Milky Way. My quest to capture this spectacular sight would eventually bring me to Arrow Rock State Park.
When I discovered this form of photography, I was pleased to learn that it does not require traditional astronomical equipment such as a telescope. The only equipment you’ll need is a modern digital camera that accepts interchangeable lenses and a tripod; this type of photography requires much longer exposure times compared to daylight photography. Even some digital cameras with fixed lenses can produce quality images of the Milky Way. These images were produced with an Olympus OM-D E-M5 II camera and Rokinon 12mm f/2.0 lens.
You’ll need two more things to capture the Milky Way: a dark sky, free of light pollution, and clear conditions. May through September is the prime season in the Northern Hemisphere. As the summer progresses, the Milky Way and its galactic core rises earlier and earlier in the night.
One of the worst sources of light pollution is the moon, especially a full moon. Plan your photo shoot around the phases of the moon.
I shot these images near Arrow Rock State Park at the park’s fishing lake at the beginning of August. The site possessed the other two key attributes of a good landscape astrophotography site: It was easy to get to, just a few miles of paved road north of Interstate 70, and it proved to be a place where one feels safe after dark. I checked this in person and by visiting with Central Missouri Astronomical Association.
The photos are from two evenings, and the results of those two nights saved me several thousands of dollars in travel expenses for trips to the national parks in Utah, Texas, and Maine. Although Missouri is not noted for its clear evening summer skies, they do occur, and in combination with a good, dark sky site like that at Arrow Rock State Park, it is possible to capture stunning images of the Milky Way.
What to Look for in the Summer Night Sky:
August 2 brings us a new moon, so this would be the ideal night for capturing the Milky Way and looking for other, fainter objects with a telescope.
Perseids Meteor Shower
At its peak, the Perseids meteor shower produces up to sixty meteors per hour. The shower is known for producing a large number of bright meteors. It occurs annually from July 17 to August 24. This year’s peak will be the night of August 11. The moon will set shortly after midnight and leave darker skies for late-night stargazing. Meteors will radiate from the constellation Perseus but can appear anywhere in the sky.
Mercury at Greatest Eastern Elongation
On August 16, Mercury will reach its greatest eastern elongation from the Sun. This is the best time to view Mercury because it will be at its highest point above the horizon in the evening sky. Look for the planet low in the western sky just after sunset.
The Sturgeon Moon
The full moon on August 18 was known by some Native American tribes as the Full Sturgeon Moon because the large sturgeon fish of the Great Lakes and other major lakes were more easily caught at this time of year. This moon has also been known as the Green Corn Moon and the Grain Moon.
Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter
On August 27, the spectacular conjunction of Venus and Jupiter will be visible in the evening sky. The two bright planets will be only a fraction of a degree apart. Look for this impressive pairing in the western sky just after sunset.
Another New Moon
September 1 will bring another new moon, which marks the best date in September to observe faint objects such as galaxies and star clusters. There will be no moonlight will interfere.
Neptune at Opposition
On September 3, this giant, blue planet will be at its closest approach to Earth and will be fully illuminated by the Sun. It will be brighter than any other time of the year and visible all night long. This is the best time to view and photograph Neptune.
On September 16, the moon will be located on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun, and its face will be fully illuminated. This full moon was known by some early Native American cultures as the Full Corn Moon because corn was harvested around this time of year. For the very same reason, this moon is also known as the Harvest Moon. The Harvest Moon is the full moon that occurs closest to the September equinox each year.
- Learn as much as you can about this type of photography before you try it. A great place to learn about it is LonelySpeck.com.
- Practice at home before going into the field with it.
- Locate and scout your site during the day. Just as working with your equipment is much more difficult after dark, so is finding a good site and getting to it.