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Milky Way over Rollins Pond

Photograph by Mark Bowie

Title: Milky Way and the International Space Station over Kayaks at Rollins Pond State Campground

Exposure Data:
90 seconds, f/4, ISO 2000
Nikon D300, Nikkor 12-24mm lens set at 12mm

At about 10 p.m. on a still summer night, I walked to the shore of Rollins Pond and found our home galaxy and other stars reflected in the water. A bright light steadily traversed the sky: the International Space Station. I could hear the hushed conversations of campers.  Unseen loons called across the black water. An owl hooted from a treetop.  It’s magical out there at night.

For maximum impact, I wanted to photograph this scene with details in both the foreground and sky. The wide contrast range, from the dark shoreline to the glowing galaxy and the movement of the space station, made determining exposure tricky.  It had to be short enough to retain structure in the Milky Way, including its clouds of interstellar gases and Great Rift, yet long enough to record the streaking satellite; from experience, I figured 90 seconds. I made several test shots while “painting” the boats with a one-million-candlepower flashlight, trying to light them without overexposing them, eventually settling on painting for only a few seconds during the minute-and-a-half exposure. I painted quickly and evenly to prevent hotspots. I took care not to spill much light onto the beach, so that the boats might appear to be floating. I boosted the camera’s ISO from its lowest setting—200—to 2000. Using a high ISO allows the sensor to gather light more quickly, but also increases digital noise, which looks like film grain. To combat that, I used the camera’s Long Exposure Noise Reduction feature (a menu setting) and further reduced noise in post-processing, using Adobe Lightroom. The resulting image captures the grandeur of the ties between the heavens and Earth, with the Milky Way, stars and even the space station reflected in the pond. Incidentally, the glow of lights on the horizon is from the village of Tupper Lake.

The International Space Station orbits the earth about once every 90 minutes.  It is most visible early in the night and before sunrise, when skies are dark but the space station reflects the sun’s light. Numerous websites track its progress; you can view schedules based on your location.

Mark Bowie recently released his second e-book on night photography: NIGHT EXAMPLES, which supplements the first, The Light of Midnight: Photographing the Landscape at Night. They are available as digital downloads from his website. He will be leading a night photography workshop through the Adirondack Photography Institute, August 4-8, and a one-day night photography seminar through the Adirondack Museum on August 2.

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