Night Light of the North Coast: Milky Way over South Fork Eel River

Nighttime scene with Milky Way, as seen from the banks of the Eel River at the California Federation of Women’s Clubs Grove in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California. June 2017. Photo by David Wilson.

Though some of my images are made from multiple exposures, this one is a single exposure, painted with light. The word “photography” literally means “light painting,” and there is something about taking that idea and actually adding my own light strokes that appeals to me. Nighttime gives me the opportunity to make images that are illuminated in ways we don’t usually see, whether from moonlight, artificial ambient light sources, or light that I may apply to an area myself. Let me share with you one such light-painted image from a dark summer’s midnight in Southern Humboldt.

Coursing among giant Redwoods, the South Fork Eel River slipped quietly by the California Federation of Women’s Clubs Grove, while the Milky Way made its silent passage across the sky. Not a human soul was about that night after midnight, though during the day this Humboldt Redwoods State Park spot on the Avenue of the Giants is very popular. I had seen many people enjoying the river and day use area of the Grove when I scouted here that afternoon to see how the Milky Way would lie at night.

I am drawn to photographing the night because of the chance it gives me to add my own touch in the form of painted light to create something unique. Because it is dark, I have to leave the camera shutter open for extended periods, and that gives me a chance to apply light selectively to areas of a scene, often using a flashlight. Such was the case with this image.

To make this photograph I left the shutter open for 30 seconds, which was a long enough exposure to catch lots of stars, bring out the detail in the Milky Way, and to give me time to use my light to illuminate the foreground and the trees across the river. It can take some time to paint a scene in, particularly when some of it is large and distant like those Redwoods. While the shutter was open I had 30 seconds to run up the river bank a little way and use my flashlight to illuminate both the foreground and the distant Redwoods* across the river. I chose not to shine my light from directly behind the camera’s position because to light the scene from the side would give more interesting shadows, particularly on the small rocks in the foreground.

* Yes, I capitalize Redwoods. I have spoken.

[Editor’s Note: Redheaded Blackbelt publishes images from photographer David Wilson as part of a weekly photo series, Night Lights of the North Coast. Please keep in mind that Wilson’s photos are not always strict photo representations but can be images edited for artistic purposes. You can view more of Wilson’s work at]



  • unbridled philistine

    Beautiful picture… And we are not at the center of the Universe?lol. Read the other day if you were travelling at the speed of light it would take 100 thousand years just to cross the milky Way! Space is mind boggling.

  • Back up the boat

    Wow. Gorgeous picture.

  • Thank you! I’m glad you guys enjoy it.

    I added some circles and labels to a few of the prominent and recognizable things in the image:

    The Galactic Core is the center of our spiral galaxy. The Milky Way is not a sphere or blob, it’s a flattened spiral, like a pinwheel, and we are somewhere on an outer arm of the pinwheel. When we get a view of the Core, we are looking through the densest part of the galaxy, so filled with stars that it looks to us like a “milky way” or road or trail. We don’t always have a view of it from the northern hemisphere, but this time of year it becomes visible as soon as it’s dark enough. It extends a little way out of view beneath the horizon in this image.

    The planet Saturn from our solar system.
    The stars Antares and Altair.

    I use an app called SkyGuide to identify the stars. Lots more are identifiable, plus constellations and satellites, but these are the ones I’m most familiar with. I’m not an astronomer.

    Star Trek fans will recognize Antares and Altair as having come up in episodes. Why, it was on Beta Antares IV that Kirk said he learned the game “Fizzbin”*. He didn’t really, of course. He was making it up.

    * Fizzbin explained on Memory Alpha:

  • David you are an unbelievable Artist. So much joy comes from just viewing your creations. I bow to you with an open mind and heart. You bring so much beauty to this world when it is truly needed. Thank you for being you.

  • Stunning!

  • Wow! One of my favorite places in daylight. Wow!

  • Thanks to everyone above for your friendly comments, and to those who may do so below as well. I appreciate them very much.

    Criticisms are ok too! (Just mutter them to yourself 😉 ).
    Seriously, they are ok. This is a visual language, and if it doesn’t work for someone, it’s interesting for me to know.

    Questions are fine, too, I don’t mind answering a good question.

  • Cool picture

  • Wonderful photograph and I love your explanations! It does enhance the viewing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *