Orbiting one of the, as Carl Sagan famously put it, “billions and billions” of stars in the outer reaches of one of the spiral arms of the Milky Way galaxy, the Earth faces the center of the galaxy at night from mid-winter to mid-summer. From my viewpoint here in northern Vermont, the central disc of the galaxy where the density of stars is the greatest, known as the core, appears as a glowing bulge first above the eastern horizon in February and then gradually moves south during the spring eventually setting below the southwest horizon around the end of July. Unless you’re at a very high elevation, say, above 8000′ and far removed from any light pollution, the core isn’t visible to the naked eye. That’s because our eyes see light in real time. A camera’s sensor, however, accumulates photons allowing a photographer to build up an image that truly captures the beauty of the cosmos.
Last week, during the peak of the Lyrid meteor shower, I got out of bed at 3:00 am, filled my travel mug with java, stowed my camera gear in the back of my Ranger, and headed up the road to where I had a clear view of the southern horizon. The peepers and American toads were chorusing in a nearby wetland as I mounted my camera on my tripod by the side of the dirt road and aimed my Canon 70-200mm at the constellation Sagittarius. I used live view to focus on the stars as a meteor streaked across the heavens in my peripheral vision. Then I made several exposures at ISO 3200, f4, at 5, 10, 15, and 20 seconds.
The general rule for photographing the night sky and capturing the stars as pinpoints of light as against stretching and distorting them as a result of their relative motion owing to Earth’s rotation is to use a shutter speed around 600/focal length of the lens. I was photographing at 70mm so that’s 600/70mm = 8.5″. However, I found the exposure at 10″ too dark to reveal the clouds and tendrils of cosmic dust so, after fine-tuning my composition, I opted to make several more exposures at 20 seconds which, in my opinion, was an acceptable compromise between a slight degree of streaking and minimal digital noise from the high ISO.
Some light pollution from Morrisville 30 miles to the south added color and contrast along the top of the ridge line which provided an appealing border at the bottom of the photo. During one of the 20″ exposures, three Lyrid meteors streaked across the field of view lending yet another element of interest though some peers to whom I’ve showed the photo feel the streaks are too distracting. Perhaps, but this was my first attempt at photographically hitchhiking to the center of the Milky Way and as soon as the last quarter moon wanes, I’ll be out there again at 3:30 am riding those cosmic photons into the universe. And since, by then, the Earth will have moved through the Lyrid debris, I don’t expect we’ll be picking up any more meteors.
May the starlight be with you.