Night Lights of the North Coast: This Way to the Galactic Core…
Post by David Wilson
I found myself on a ridgeline along the Kneeland Road the night of July 18, 2018, on an impulsive late night mission to the Galactic Core. It was out there, all I needed was a stretch of road that would take me up to meet it at the horizon.
The Galactic Core is the brightest part of the Milky Way, which is the milky path of lightness that stretches from horizon to horizon some parts of the year. It is lighter than the rest of the night sky because when we look at it, we are looking through our spiral or pinwheel-shaped galaxy edge-on, right through the greatest number of stars, nebulae, etc. They appear so dense from this angle, and many are so far away, that they blend together into indistinct milkiness. The Galactic Core is the center of all that, the densest part, and at this time of year, it’s low on the southern horizon after dark. Looking to either side of the Milky Way is to look above and below the edge-on view of our flattened spiral galaxy, out where the stars are fewer and less closely packed. If your mind is boggled, don’t worry, it’s probably a good thing. That keeps it from being blown. You’re extremely tiny in all this, helplessly adrift in O u t e r S p a c e.
The Kneeland Road travels the hills to the east of Eureka, California out past Freshwater. It offers a tour through some of the beautiful “golden rolling hills of California” that Kate Wolf sang about. I wanted to find a place where the road and Milky Way would meet, for I thought the lines would form a compelling angle. I found what I was looking for along a ridge top where the road met the far horizon right at the Milky Way. A waxing crescent moon sinking in the west bathed the landscape with a faint, yet crisp, light angling in from the side, making textures stand out. The landscape in this image is solely illuminated by moonlight and starlight.
If you’ve ever spent time outside on a moonlit night, you know that after a while your eyes become accustomed to the dimness and you begin to see things fairly well, though with less detail and with less color than in daylight. As your eyes get used to the darkness, you can see more and more stars, and the Milky Way becomes more easily distinguished. Even after we’ve gotten used to it, though, there is not really much light to our naked eyes at night.
To the camera, such a dark scene can appear much different. In these low-light situations, a camera is capable of gathering a lot more light and color than our eyes can. In order to capture enough light in this scene to look as bright as we see it in this image, I had to set the light sensitivity very high (called ISO, same as with film), open the lens aperture pretty wide, and leave the shutter open for almost half a minute. The same scene that appeared dimly lit to my eyes, which can only gather light moment-by-moment, became much brighter to the camera, which can both stay open gathering light over an extended period as well as increase its sensitivity to light with a higher ISO setting.
This image was shot in two parts. The Milky Way was enough lighter than the landscape that to make it look its best, I left the landscape a little darker than I wanted; conversely, if I exposed for the land the Milky Way became brighter than I like. So to make it all just right I made one exposure that was balanced for the sky, and another exposure a couple seconds later that was balanced for the landscape, and then matched the good sky photo with the good landscape photo to make one even exposure of the scene.
A fun fact I learned this week from a College of the Redwoods colleague in Astronomy is that on the 27th of this month Mars will be at its closest approach to Earth since 2003 when it was closer than it had been in 60,000 years. I find that amazing. In this image Mars is the brightest star, out to the left of the Milky Way just above the horizon. I’m not an astronomer myself, but I find the subject fascinating.
If you’d like to always keep abreast of my most current photography or peer into its past, you can follow me on Instagram at @david_wilson_mfx . I update my website mindscapefx.com less frequently.