Shelburne Farms at Night: Photographing the Milky Way


One of my favorite pastimes is being alone in beautiful places, yet our most inspiring landscapes are often rather crowded in the daytime this time of year. So last night I went to Shelburne Farms after hours to enjoy the rolling hills and architecture all to myself, and experiment on a new photographic subject-- the Milky Way. Of course, the night sky doesn't look quite this dramatic to the naked eye (unless you're in a remote area with zero light pollution). Yet thanks to ever-improving digital camera technology and old-fashioned long exposures, our cameras can capture and store data that our eyes simply can't.

Astrophotography is a real joy for those of us who started out shooting and developing our own black-and-white negatives. In most cases today, the LCD screen removes all the anticipation (not to mention much of the skill) from our craft by showing the photographer a real time preview of each image--No more bated breaths hunched over a bath of developing fluid. With night photography, the artist becomes an alchemist once again. Our LCD and histograms help confirm exposure, but no boilerplate Jpeg processor or camera preview knows how to render all the detail stored within each pixel.

Burning and dodging in Adobe Lightroom, the cosmic haze of 100 billion stars appears from blackness. I've been spending a lot of time at Shelburne Farms these days to scout locations for a "Photography for Naturalists" workshop i'll be leading in October (find out more about that here, by the way). In this workshop, I teach strategies for using photographic techniques to develop a deeper, keener connection with our natural world. My afternoon in front of the computer screen, plumbing the depths of the galaxy with brushes and sliders, has been as existential a journey through the cosmos as some of the finest nights spent on a blanket, staring up at the stars.