A truly dark night sky - one similar to what our ancestors saw - is an incredible sight. An amazing number of stars can be seen all across the sky. At certain times of the year, the Milky Way can be seen as a beautiful, silvery arch stretching from horizon to horizon. I hope that everyone takes the opportunity to experience this at least once in his or her lives.
In May of 2012, a friend of mine and I went to southern Utah and northern Arizona area to see the beautiful scenery there and to chase an annular solar eclipse. (See my previous blog post for more on this trip.) The night skies there are among the darkest in the world. I wanted to photograph the stars above an interesting foreground in the area.
I needed to decide: what would I choose for a foreground object? I wanted to make that decision prior to departing on the trip so that I could spend my time there enjoying and photographing the scenery instead of looking for objects. The foreground object needed to be something that was less than 50 feet away from my camera so that I could use my camera flash to illuminate it. Unfortunately, this meant that I could not use any of the well-known canyons or rock formations that are in the area as they would be too far away. Isolated trees make good foreground subjects for night sky photos, and I could possibly get close enough to one, but I was not sure if one existed in the areas where my friend and I were headed.
I really enjoy photographing ghost towns, so I thought that an old building would make for a suitable subject with the stars in the background. I researched which ghost towns are in the area, and I found several. Some were in areas where the night sky wouldn't be especially dark. Others had fully restored buildings. I preferred to use something that had been allowed to age, as it would provide an artistic contrast to the beautiful starscape. Using an online maps program, I found a ghost town that matched my needs: Widtsoe, Utah. It is in a very dark area, and the recent photographs of the buildings showed that they had not been restored. I had finally found my foreground object, and could start making my plans to visit there.
Widtsoe is located north of Bryce Canyon National Park, so we planned to head there after visiting the park. After photographing the sunset at Bryce Canyon, we drove on a two-lane highway for about 20 miles, and then took a county road to arrive at the town. I turned my headlights off, stepped outside, and looked up. The sky was clear, and full of stars. But this was not the right time to take my photo. Why? At that time of year, in the evening, the band of the Milky Way is below the horizon for the northern hemisphere and not visible yet. I actually planned to come back in the predawn hours, when the Milky Way would be above the horizon. We were scouting the location for the next morning. I wanted to make sure that there were no lights in the immediate area and found none. I also was planning to face south when I took the photograph, because that is where the brightest section of the Milky Way would be. I looked at the buildings in the area to pick which one would provide the most interesting view as I faced that direction. After a while, I found the building that would be perfect.
After that, my friend and I drove about 30 miles to our campground and slept for a few hours. The alarm clock woke us up at 3 a.m. and we drove back to Widtsoe. I stepped out the car, and looked up. Thankfully, the weather had remained clear. The sky was beautiful. There were thousands of stars visible all across the sky. The Milky Way had risen, and it stretched as a glowing cloud of stars from the southern horizon to the northeastern horizon. I could easily see dark bands of gas and dust tracing lines between the glowing star clouds. I wondered how the people who lived there about 100 years ago would have felt to be able to look up and see a sky like that every clear, moonless night.
I found the building that I had scouted earlier, and set up my camera with a wide-angle lens on a tripod and faced the building. I took 2 separate photos: one to expose for the stars, and another to expose for the building (which I illuminated with my camera flash). (I took several test photos to see how bright I needed to make my camera flash.) When I loaded them on my computer, I edited the sharpness, color balance, and contrast for each photo. I also took out some of the noise (seen as digital "grain") in each photo. I then merged both photos together. Though it is technically a composite photo, this is how the Milky Way was oriented over this house. I wanted to stay as true as possible to the actual scene.
A little more about what you are seeing here: All of the stars that you see are part of the Milky Way. The Milky Way is a spiral galaxy, so it has arms like a pinwheel. The Earth is located in a spiral arm of the galaxy that is about 2/3 of the way from the center. The glowing clouds in the center of the photo are the next spiral arm in towards the center. You can also see the dark lanes that block starlight from greater distances. The orange glow in the lower right is actually the glow from the small town of Tropic, Utah, which is about 15 miles away from Widtsoe. I could not see the colors that are shown here in the sky, and I could not see as many stars. It took a long exposure from my camera to show these features. But it was still an amazing experience to be in a wide-open space away from cities and towns, and to look up at our home galaxy.
By the way, how can you experience this for yourself? Go to the following websites: http://djlorenz.github.io/astronomy/lp2006/overlay/dark.html and http://www.blue-marble.de/nightlights/2012 . On the first map, you should try to go to an area that is in the gray or black zones. On the second link, just try to avoid the blobs of light (these are the glows from cities, towns, and things like oil fields and electrical powerplants). You can also go to www.sunrisesunset.com to figure out when the moon will be out of the way (the days close to New Moon is best). I hope you take the chance to do this, and if you do (or have) leave your comments below! Thanks for looking!
(Thanks to Mike Mallory (my friend) for being patient with me while I drove on our late-night adventures! Also thanks go to www.ghosttowns.com and www.ghosttowngallery.com for information on Widtsoe.)