Realistically, I have only one chance to pull this off.
And there’s so many factors working against me. So freakin’ many.
Clouds. Light pollution. Traffic. Location. The wrong lens. The wrong exposure. The wrong camera. The wrong photographer. Don’t laugh, that’s a pretty important factor, let me tell you.
But if I can pull this off, I may have a last-minute entry for Competition Season 2018 – or a definite one for Competition Season 2019.
Let me explain.
In the past, I’ve photographed the Rexleigh Bridge in Washington County. It’s one of the few remaining covered bridges in New York. And of late, I’ve photographed it as a possible avenue for a “world-beater” photo.
But all my photos at Rexleigh have been – shall we say – blah.
I mean … yeah, that one is nice, but it’s just … I don’t know … it doesn’t wow. I thought it did a few months ago, the cool morning shot with the dilapidated marble mill at the extreme right … but honestly, I was wrong. Toss.
And this one’s okay … but kinda over-saturated. And yeah, there’s a cool reflection from that mud puddle, but in all honesty … I’ve done these kinds of “reflected shot” photos before. And I’ve done them in much better ways. Plus, I think I seriously over-processed this picture. These colors are horrifically bright. Stevie Wonder could see these colors. Toss.
This one I suppose would be okay in a different perspective or something… if the train tracks were closer to the bridge, or something… or something… The railroad crossing sign is too close and too big, and the bridge is too far away and too small. This picture wouldn’t work, even if I found Nell Fenwick and tied her to the train tracks and twirled my mustache in anticipation of a jut-jawed RCMP officer to arrive at the rescue. Toss.
Right now all I have are some shots of an old covered bridge, without much in terms of emotion or context. This doesn’t work in Washington County any more than it didn’t work with all the other bridges in Madison County.
So what’s a dedicated photographer to do in such a situation?
Keep trying. Find that one angle that no one ever considered. Find a way to make that Rexleigh Bridge the subject of more than just a Battenkill-spanning covered bridge.
And I came up with an idea.
In the past, I’ve captured the brilliant Milky Way galaxy in my photos. This usually involves driving WAY into the Adirondack Mountains, driving until there’s barely any civilization, and hoping I can get the Milky Way in the right location. Last year, I snagged a picture of the Milky Way at the Corinth Reservoir, deep in the heart of Saratoga County.
See it? Right up there in the sky? Aces.
Now what if I could get the Milky Way over the Rexleigh Bridge?
Yeah, you know my brain gears are turning.
The Rexleigh Bridge is in a rural part of Washington County. I’m kinda betting that it’s not exactly a “bright sky” or “light polluted” area.
A quick check of the online Dark Sky Index websites rates the Rexleigh Bridge sight as Class 4 on the Bortle scale – “Rural/Suburban Transition.” This means that there will be light pollution in the distance, but the Milky Way should be visible above the horizon. Hey, that Corinth Reservoir location was also a Class 4 on the Bortle Scale. And I pulled a Milky Way shot from that.
I need to make sure that my shooting location captures both the Milky Way and the Rexleigh Bridge, AND I’m not setting up in the middle of the road where some schnook in a speeding Subaru can knock me into the Battenkill River.
Do I have a powerful enough lens to capture this image? And can I confirm that the Milky Way will line up properly with the Rexleigh Bridge?
I downloaded a phone app called PhotoPills to my BlackBerry. Supposedly you can punch in your GPS coordinates, the date and time of your desired photo experience, and your location shooting area. The program is then designed to give you an approximation of what the Milky Way will reveal in that location in the night sky.
Wow. High tech stuffies.
All these hypotheses and conjectures are great and all … but I still need to make this work.
Thus began a dry test run.
On Sunday, June 10, I drove to the Rexleigh Bridge. According to my Milky Way computer simulation program, I need to get a shot shows both the bridge AND a clear sky above it. And I need it in a specific direction, so that the Milky Way’s galactic core is visible. This picture won’t work any other way.
I took two lenses to the test site – my Irix 15mm f/2.4 super-ultra-wide lens, and my Nikon 55mm f/1.2 super-fast lens.
Let’s run the test.
Okay. I’ll get more of the sky with the Irix lens, and I can move closer to the bridge with the Irix while still getting plenty of sky. And thanks to a bend in the road, I can set my tripod up safely and keep that illusion of the camera being in the road itself. Trust me, you don’t know who’s going to haul ass down that roadway at 1:15 in the morning. That sign over the bridge clearly states that motorists are fined $25 for crossing the bridge “faster than a walk.” Right, like there’s a state trooper there with a JUGS gun aimed at the bridge entrance. Pfft.
Oh yeah, and while I was in the neighborhood…
Sorry, I couldn’t resist. And I had a frame or three of infrared film left in my Rolleiflex, so…
Now to check the computer simulator.
New moon around the middle of June. No, by the time the Milky Way gets over the Rexleigh Bridge, the sun will rise. That won’t work.
Let’s try the middle of July.
Ooh, perfect. Now if I can just get the Milky Way to line up with the program …
And if all goes well, according to the simulator, I should be able to snag the perfect shot of the Rexleigh Bridge and the Milky Way galaxy behind if … if I photograph at 1:15 a.m. on July 14, 2018.
So sayeth the simulator.
According to the simulation … look at that shot. Straight up. Straight through the Rexleigh Bridge and up into the skies.
This is exciting. And look – there’s not a tree, not a lamp post, not anything between the roof of the covered bridge and the blue skies above it. There’s some telephone lines, but they’ll be virtually invisible at night.
I’ve done my part. All I need now is for Mother Nature to do hers. If I can get a clear sky – clouds or rain would postpone my shot.
And even if I have a 24-hour postponement, I’m still in good shape. But one more day after that, and then I’m battling moonlight as well as all the other variables. And I’d have to wait until mid-August for the next new moon.
You have to plan for every possible contingency.
Another thing I have to calculate is the “Rule of 500.” On a full-frame camera like my Nikon Df, I take the number 500 and divide it by the focal length of my chosen lens. The result will be how many seconds I can keep my shutter open to maximize a picture with sharp, pointed stars and a beautiful Milky Way.
So if I did my calculations correctly, I should be able to get a sharp picture by using my Irix lens with a shutter speed of 33 seconds at ISO 3200 for maximum benefits.
If these exposures get any wider or longer, then I’ll end up with star trails in the picture. Normally, I would love a star trails picture. Not tonight, though… Maybe I’ll shoot star trails on another day.
Test number two. This will be my dress rehearsal.
The evening of June 16, 2018. There’s a tiny sliver of a crescent moon in the sky. Forecast calls for clear, cloudless heavens.
Tossed my camera gear in the car. Late night road trip to Washington County.
Thanks to the mapping software in my cell phone, I arrive at the Rexleigh Bridge without getting lost. I’m in luck. There’s no street lights or motion-activated floodlights near the bridge, just some high-powered reflecting signs.
Let’s get the gear set up.
Tripod positioned on the side of the road. Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens attached to the Nikon Df. My intervalometer shutter release is set for 33 seconds. Any longer than that, and those stars won’t be tack-point sharp.
And … shutter activated.
I got the skies, but not the bridge – just a shadowy silhouette of where the bridge existed. The darkness in the skies also means that the bridge itself isn’t visible. Not even at a 33-second exposure.
I need a controlled light source. And since necessity is the mother of invention, I used the flashlight feature on my BlackBerry KEYone cell phone to illuminate the bridge for one second of the camera’s 33-second exposure.
This came out.
Camera’s working. Great. Although I did notice a tiny image smear on this photo; apparently I’m going to need to wipe down my lens as often as possible to prevent floating dandelion spores and other airborne debris sticking to my lens at the most inopportune times.
But it worked. I got the test picture.
This is the best part of preparation. You can make your adjustments now, and not during the main shooting time. Trust me, the stars won’t wait for you.
Oh man, this is so exciting, I want to tell everybody what I’m doing, and –
Ixnay on the otophay, Miller. You can show them the picture from the test, but not why you’re doing it. You do this, and next month you’ll arrive at the shooting site and six other photographers will be there with better equipment, they’ll stand in your shooting spot, they’ll tell you to move out of THEIR way, they’ll get the award winning photo, and you’ll be sitting there with nothing to show for it – except the knowledge that you basically pissed away your award-winning photo.
In other words, post the one picture on Facebook and Instagram, and let people go ooh and ahh over it. That’s it. They don’t need to know what you’re planning.
Just to be sure … I searched “covered bridge Milky Way” on the photo site flickr. There were several shots with a covered bridge and the Milky Way together; those were mostly composite shots, where several photos are stitched together into one final image.
Hmm. Some of these photos were taken in the Green Mountains of Vermont, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, heck, here’s a couple from California. But the Milky Way is either at an angle to the bridge, or the bridge is in a wide profile shot.
And none of these shots are from New York. Then again, there really aren’t that many covered bridges LEFT in New York. There actually may be as few as two dozen historic covered bridges left in the entire state. In fact, Washington County only has four historic covered bridges remaining in existence – and one of them, the Shushan Covered Bridge, is now a walk-through heritage museum. That leaves just the Eagleville Covered Bridge, the Buskirk’s Covered Bridge and the Rexleigh Covered Bridge.
And it’s the Rexleigh Covered Bridge that I need my Milky Way shot to remain straight and erect.
As the photography weekend approached, I kept my eye on the weather.com website. Every time I looked the site, the weather report for the desired evenings changed. Mostly clear one evening, scattered thundershowers when I checked it a few hours later. Yep, I live in upstate New York, if you don’t like the weather, wait 20 minutes and it will change.
I’ve got a very narrow window of availability. Friday night or Saturday night will be optimal; Thursday or Sunday night in a pinch.
But the weather report is still iffy. I’m getting reports of “partly cloudy” and “mostly clear” on all but one day.
Wednesday night, Thursday morning. Clear skies all night.
Okay, let’s do this.
10:30 p.m. Wednesday night. I load my camera bag with all my necessary equipment, and drive an hour to the Vermont-New York border, where the Rexleigh Bridge is located.
I got there. All the plans are in place.
I set up my gear.
Now it’s a matter of waiting. Two and a half hours to kill. This is not easy.
You can’t stare at your phone and watch a video or check your Facebook. There’s no cell phone or wifi service around here.
I set up along the side of the road. I used the flashlight on my cell phone to light up the bridge, while my Nikon Df took a 33-second exposure at f/2.4 at 3200 ISO.
Here’s one of the first test shots.
Sweet tap-dancing Lord and Savior … that’s the Milky Way! Right up there! Look, look!!
I took a few more test shots. My software said that I needed to stay at this location until at least 2:30 p.m., so as to get the Milky Way perpendicular with the point of the bridge’s roof.
And then … this happened.
No, that’s not a supernova. Some guy in a quad chopper barreled through at 50 miles an hour through the bridge. Barely missed me. Doesn’t this clown know that you get fined $25 for crossing this bridge faster than a walk? It freakin’ says so on the bridge itself, look whydon’tcha!
All right, Chuck. Never mind. Get back to shooting.
This was at around 1:45 a.m.. I’ve got the Milky Way pointing right on the tippy top of the bridge roof.
Great. I can go now.
I ain’t going.
Because I want that Milky Way absolutely vertical, and I want it pointed right on the bridge roof. I didn’t drive all the way out to Washington County – on a school night – to leave now.
There’s only one way to pull this off.
I gotta stand in the middle of the road.
Moved my tripod to the center of the road. My ears are hyper-sensitive to any noises. Birds. Bears. Skunks. Chryslers. Anything comes out right now, I’ve got seconds to grab my equipment and run for the side of the road.
Oh yeah, and did I happen to mention that it’s 55 degrees out tonight? Aren’t we supposed to be in some sort of heat wave?
Guess I missed that memo.
Okay. I’m in position. The Milky Way is slowly … slowly … moving into the correct spot.
All I need to do right now is be patient. Patient and vigilant.
And at 2:30 a.m. on July 12, 2018…
33-second blasts on the Nikon Df. Light painting using the flashlight on my BlackBerry KEYone camera phone. The only sound I want to hear right now is the camera shutter capturing each image.
And on frame 2860…
Let’s flip this into black and white.
Holy Mary, Mother of God…
There it is.
There’s the picture.
There’s the photo I’ve dreamed about.
I got it.
I got it, got it, got it.
All that planning, all that scouting, all the work ahead of time…
And this is my result.
Okay, now to get home, develop these pictures, write a short little blog post on how this all turned out…
Yeah. This is good. Really, really good.
And I think to myself … why is it so important to capture the Milky Way in my camera?
Why have I chased this astrophotographic white whale for the past decade?
I’ve come close, for sure … star trails in cemeteries, meteor showers in llama farms, galactic clusters in the Adirondacks.
I’ve captured shooting stars – once over the Sacandaga River, once at the Corinth Reservoir.
My star trails photos have claimed competitive silks.
I’ve snagged breathtaking sunrises over Canadian beaches.
And I’ve captured the morning mist over a New Jersey coastline.
But a true Milky Way photo … juxtaposed against a covered bridge …
That would be a million levels of awesome.
If it all comes true.
And if I don’t mess it up.
And it looks like last night … it came true.
And I didn’t mess it up. 😀