Night Light of the North Coast: This Way to the Galactic Core…

The moonlit Kneeland Road Meets the magnificent Milky Way. July 18, 2018.

The moonlit Kneeland Road leads straight to the Galactic Core. [Photo by David Wilson.]

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 less frequently.

The moonlit Kneeland Road Meets the magnificent Milky Way. plus astronomy

 Important points in the night sky shown by the photo.



  • Amazing…as usual. Everybody should take this guys class at College of the Redwoods.

  • You have some amazing talent man. Very impressive. I have one of your pics as a screen saver. Thank you for sharing.

  • The photos are stunning and the commentary is rich! This is a great weekly feature! And I agree with KIDDZZ! Treat yourself and sign up for the class at CR!

  • Makes me wax nostalgic for the 80’s , and my time up there. Awesome night skies from the airstrip. Beautiful photo!

  • Pulitzer on line one, Dave.

  • Tired of liberals

    All of his pictures are alsome

  • Great work David, keep
    Up the incredible work.

  • beautiful!

  • It’s photo shop if it was original one it would be a really awesome pic

  • These digitally altered picture look cheesy/fake. I hate how they take segments from different times of day/night and mash them together.

    • Did you read how he described making this? I’d guess not.

      • “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.”

        Are you saying these exposures were not “matched” with software? Interesting if so, but I still do not like the look.

  • Art never has to look a certain way. Why do mine look this way? (Click on the images to see them large and to be able to zoom in.)

    People may wonder why a photograph looks the way it does. If it was made by a professional or other skillful and artistic person, you can be fairly certain that the photographer has added his or her artistic touch. Must a painter paint the world representationally, or is expressionist or abstract or any other type of painting ok? Of course other forms are ok. One doesn’t put the art of painting with pigments into a rigid box and say it has to look a certain way. Neither can one say photographic art — art made with light — must look a certain way, for nothing is absolute; that would merely be one person’s opinion. This is particularly true of a photograph taken at night, when to our eye it’s dark, but to the camera it is NOT dark. It is NOT going to look the way your eye saw it. The camera sees differently.

    A purist, or literalist, or other linear thinker may wish the painter had painted representationally, or that a photograph looked the way they imagine it should look. But no. There are no “shoulds” in art. I make art. Look at Ansel Adams for an instance: should he have photographed in boring color because we see in color? No, horrors, thank goodness, no. Instead he made photographs that were imaginative and creative portrayal of the scene. Yosemite isn’t black and white, is it? It’s not as contrasty as he showed us, either. He brought those aspects out with a system he called the Zone System, which divided a scene into many zones of brightness, which he rigidly controlled from the moment he chose a type of film, to opening the shutter, to later developing each piece of film individually to maximize the tones he envisioned, and then to how he printed and processed his prints to bring his vision to life. They did not look the way his eye saw Yosemite. They didn’t look the way WE see Yosemite. He controlled every aspect of his exposures and made what HE wanted to make, what he wanted us to see: an idealized image of Yosemite.

    I’m not in Ansel’s league. But I AM doing my own thing. I’m planning and executing images from concept to shooting to processing. I control lots of aspects of the image, and when I have it whipped into the shape that I feel most closely represents my vision, that’s when other people see it. That’s what this image represents.

    Here are the two exposures that made this image, taken moments apart. The brighter one on top was for the road. The second one where the road is too dark was for the sky. Top image: I didn’t like the sky in the brighter image. For one thing, look at the stars: they are elongated an awkward degree due to the 2:00-minute exposure. But the road is good. Bottom image: Road too dark. But sky is good. When I say “too” this or that, that’s relative to my vision. I used the road from the top one, and the sky from the bottom one. Vision achieved.

    • I couldn’t paste the image in above, but here it is. This relates to my comment above. Click or tap to see it larger:

    • I apologize if this is a duplicate… This relates to my comment “Art never has to look a certain way…” I couldn’t paste the image in above. Tap on any of the images in the article and comments to see them larger.

  • Thanks for your comments, everybody. I appreciate them all.

    If ever you have a question about the image or the process or anything related, I’m usually happy to discuss in the comments, at least until the post slips off of the front page here at RHBB.

    I’m not sure what to do next… I’m waiting for the moon to start coming up a little later to go take more night photos. By the way, there’ll be a lunar eclipse on Friday 8/27, the full moon, but it won’t be total for us here in Humboldt (it has to be a full moon for a lunar eclipse).

    But I did go out to Moonstone Beach crazy early one morning back in Feb to take some photographs of the Blue Blood Moon Total Eclipse that you’ll recall occurred then… so maybe it’s a good time to share that, given Friday’s lunar eclipse. I can show one that’s a composite, and one that’s not, and everyone can be happy, or not. They aren’t photos *of* the moon, so much as photos that have the moon in them.

  • You are an incredible artist, really enjoy looking at your photo art. Reading your explanations is a free lesson & such a welcome diversion with the fire tragedies & other sad headlines of the day. Much thanks.

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