Galactic 50: A photography project

by Tony Curado

truevisionphotos.com

z.jpg

I still remember the first time I saw the Milky Way and the feeling of awe that I got from seeing all those stars. It was a beautiful summer night at Lake George, NY and my brother and I decided to head down to the docks a little while after dinner. As our eyes adjusted, the night sky just kept getting better and better. Even though all we saw that night was a small band of the Milky Way, it was a night that stuck with me for many years to come. Since I was born and raised in New Jersey, it would be almost 3 years before I saw a sky that dark again.

When I began photographing the Milky Way, I was living in Durango, Colorado. It’s an amazing small town in the San Juan Mountain Range, - with minimal light pollution and clean mountain air. The night sky is so dark in Durango that I could see the Milky Way from my apartment. If I drove an hour north or south of Durango, -the skies exploded with stars, planets, and the occasional meteor.

My first summer in Durango, some friends and I walked less than a mile from our apartment to view the Perseid Meteor Shower, I remember being in such awe of where I was living that I could barely take any photos. That night would begin a long, passionate journey of learning all about Milky Way photography. That journey has changed my life. I’ve seen beautiful dark sky locations in Moab, Utah; Sedona, Arizona; San Francisco, California and Silverton, Colorado, a small town north of Durango, all in order to capture the stars. Silverton was where I took my first true Milky Way Nightscape, on a camping trip to Animas Forks, one of the largest remaining ghost towns in Colorado.

In preparing for the new moon, I rented a wide angle lens, Sigma 15mm f/2.8 EX DG Diagonal Fisheye Lens for Canon, and set out with no idea about Milky Way positioning, except to look to the south. I had my Canon 6D, my $25 intervalometer, and a really cool place to shoot. I photographed all night, exploring every different angle of the old mill among the ruins. Call it beginners luck, but my first picture of the core came when we finally found it sinking behind one of the mountains.

It was perfectly aligned with the old mill below. I set everything up and started shooting my stacks, and as my friend and I sat there a huge green fireball appeared in the sky! I couldn’t believe it, I had never seen anything like that and as a bonus I was able to photograph it! It was an amazing feeling!!

When it came time for me to leave Durango and return to NJ, I was bummed at the idea of not being able to shoot the Milky Way anymore. Afterall, the east coast was known for its high population density, which resulted in large amounts of light pollution. Thankfully, with a little research I realized it would take some effort, but I was only a few hours away from plenty of places to shoot. I was inspired by the idea that leaving Colorado didn’t mean I had to leave behind my new passion for shooting nightscapes. I think that is one of the things that surprised me the most about the east coast skies.. Yes, when you look at a light pollution map, you can see that the bad reputation is well deserved. But there are plenty of places you can see the Milky Way along the eastern coast, and the chances are it's closer than you think.

That realization got me thinking and my project to photograph the Milky Way in every state of the United States was born.

G50, officially launched in the summer of 2016. I’d wanted to take a cross country road trip for a while, and when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped at the chance. What better way could there be to kick off my project? I knew that I needed to photograph the Milky Way in every state of the United States of America. I knew this was not going to be an easy task, and I knew it would take years. My trip across the country would be a great way to get it started and cross off a bunch of states.

I visited 23 states during my cross country trips. Iowa, Nevada, Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, Minnesota, just to name a few,and traveled over 15,876 miles! The highlights of the trip were a crystal clear night in Michigan, where I was able to photograph the Milky Way over Lake Michigan, an amazing view at Crater Lake in Oregon, and an overnight hike to a glacier lake in Idaho. In the end, I crossed off 12 states for the G50 project and I visited some of the greatest national parks America has to offer. If you would like to read more or see all the photos from this trip you can visit truevisionphotos.com for photos from the trip.

50d.jpg

As much as this project was about discovering dark skies and seeing my beautiful country, it was also about growing my skills as a photographer. I like the quote “a minute to learn, a lifetime to master” when it comes to photography. That is extremely true for photographing the Milky Way. The more you learn about photographing the stars, the more you realize how much you didn’t know. Adapt and overcome became my motto for this project and it would never prove more true than in 2017. At the beginning of 2017 I was struggling with my health, constantly being tired with aching joints, and sore muscles. Doctor after doctor told me there was nothing wrong, but thankfully I found someone who was able to crack the code. I was bitten by a tick on my cross country adventure the summer before and I had been infected with Anaplasma. It was a tick borne disease that mimics Lyme Disease. Thankfully, Anaplasma does not carry the same long term effects that Lyme does, so with some treatment I was soon back on my feet. However, during my recovery, I found long nights out in nature, hiking, camping, and photographing to be very draining. But I was determined to keep the project alive, so I planned short trips that were relatively close to home.

Among those short trips was 3 different stops in Connecticut, a trip down south to photograph the eclipse, and an amazing night on the coast of Rhode Island. Although the stars were beautiful, it was the great people I met and the friends that joined me on so many of my trips that I am most grateful for.

I’ve learned that they enrich the journey for me. For example, a local Connecticut photographer friend of mine coaxed me out of bed after we gave up shooting that night thanks to a rainstorm. On her way home she noticed a clearing in the clouds and convinced me go back out. It was that same friend that joined me for one of the best nights of 2017 at a lighthouse on the coast of Rhode Island. That trip still holds up as one of my best nights photographing the Milky Way. Strangely, my favorite Milky Way adventure of 2017 had nothing to do with the Milky Way. That summer, most of America got to see at least a partial solar eclipse, with a narrow band across the country being able to see a total solar eclipse. Determined to see the eclipse in totality, I met-up with a friend in South Carolina. Of course while there we were able to find some dark skies and get a great Milky Way photo. By the end of the year I added 4 states to my G50 count. While it didn’t touch my 12 states from the year before, it was progress. With how I started the year, it was progress I was happy about.

50e.jpg

2018 would begin with a bang. A vacation out to Hawaii in February was going to help me get the year started off right. We were going during the new moon, but we were also going during the end of the rainy season and as our trip drew closer, the weather looked like it wasn’t going to cooperate. I might only get one shot at it the whole week I was there and of course, that was our first night there. I’m not sure if the jet lag helped or hurt in this situation, but I was able to drive from Honolulu to the other side of the island for some great shots of the Milky Way. Despite some clouds, I was happy with my results that night and 2018 was off to a great start! Or so I thought. In reality, 2018 would be the most difficult year I’d dealt with so far in regards to weather. It seemed like it would only rain during a new moon and that clouds were now a permanent fixture on the eastern U.S. coast. With my project being mostly self funded, and a lot of the states close to home completed, my trips were getting farther and farther away and it was becoming harder to take a chance on weather. Unfortunately, 2018 ended with me only adding Hawaii and Vermont to the completed list, bringing my total to 18.

With 2018 being so much of a disappointment, I made a promise to myself that 2019 would be different. There were a few times in 2018 when I didn’t go on a trip during the new moon because of the weather forecast and ended up regretting it after seeing or hearing from some friends that the weather cleared up. So in 2019, regardless of the weather forecast, I am planning to go out during every new moon or the weeks surrounding it. I intend to make the best of whatever I encounter, as sometimes, clouds are a welcome addition to nightscapes. As in Connecticut, on my first visit to a western, bortle class 5 region, I wasn’t expecting much but I was able to get an interesting shot with the moving clouds. I returned 3 times to this location and due to light pollution and bad weather I never got anything better than the original image with the clouds in it. However, for this project where I plan on showcasing 50 different photos of the Milky Way a little something different is not bad.

With my new mindset and determination to not let the weather beat me, 2019 started off with a two week road trip down the coast of the eastern seaboard. On the potential hit list were Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. The trip started off great and was highlighted by an amazing two night stay on Jekyll Island, Georgia. As my first trip out in 2019, I was a little rusty and rain in North Carolina and Florida put a little damper on the trip. But my spirits were lifted by a great night out in Georgia. Even though the wind kept me from really getting any usable images, seeing the great big core back in the sky revitalized my desire to get out and shoot the night sky as much as possible in 2019.

With only Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire left in the Northeast, my goal is to finish shooting New England this year. After my road trip down south, I once again met up with some New England photographers in York, Maine. I’ve had a shot from that location on my bucket list ever since I visited the state during the second year of my project. In York, Maine there is a lighthouse that, during the beginning of the Milky Way season, the core arches right over. Although I had previously visited this location 2 times, I never walked away with the photo I envisioned and was seriously hoping the 3rd time would be a charm. Unfortunately, when we showed up at the lighthouse around 2 a.m., we faced two challenges. First, the sky starting to get very cloudy. Second, the lighthouse was lit up a very bright blue for autism awareness month. We quickly called an audible and headed up to a mountain about 20 minutes away in the hopes that we would get a better view from there. Thankfully, that night worked out great and I was able to get a shot I had been longing for.

Now with Maine off the list, I am down to only 2 states left in the Northeast and only a few states away from hitting the halfway mark of this epic project. However, the northeast is not the only target on my list for 2019. I will be taking another 2 week road trip out to Colorado to visit some friends and we plan to go to New Mexico, Arizona, the Animas Forks ghost town where it all began, and even a few nights in Moab. On my way back I will be tracking weather and hoping to hit a few more states. All in all, for 2019 the goal is to reach that halfway point and start planning for next season where I will attack the southern United States.

I started this project for a few different reasons. Aside from my new obsession with night photography, it was a way to keep me out in nature and exploring my country. Being out west, I fell in love with nature. In returning to NJ, I didn’t want to forget about that. But as this project moves along it has taken on so much more. The experience’s, the places, the people and even some struggles have been far greater than I could have ever imagined.

50g.jpg

There have been many frustrations along the way, but if it were easy it really wouldn’t be worth doing, in my eyes. Weather has been one of the biggest issues I have faced along this journey, but light pollution has also been a big part of this. Out west, in a true dark sky portion of the country, seeing the Milky Way is a lot easier and can happen for a longer period of time. On the east coast, due to light pollution, that period shrinks. Couple that with the unpredictable east coast weather patterns and the challenge of this project gets kicked up a notch, from what I originally thought. This project has tested my patience, determination, and will, at different times and sometimes all at once. But, I move forward because every night I have a successful clear night under the sky I’m once again reminded why I started it in the first place. Awe is truly the only word that keeps coming to my mind, because no matter how many times I see a sky lit up with stars it takes my breath away.

In 2018, I was washed out almost every trip out and I really started to think the Northeast could be the end of this project. So with a big storm on the way I could have easily cancelled my trip in August to Vermont for the Perseid Meteor Storm.

Instead, I went and was once again reminded that perseverance in life and in photography does payoff. My first night out I just remember sitting there under the clear sky and feeling the entire weight of the project just slip away. At that moment whatever state I was in simply didn’t matter, at that moment all I felt was pure joy. Once again in awe of where I was and the sheer beauty of the universe laid out before me.

To sum up, I never thought it was going to be easy, maybe I didn’t think it was going to be as hard. There were moments I contemplating deleting all traces of the project and just forget about it. However, there is no way after everything I have gone through that I could stop now. I will “adapt and overcome” because the feeling of a clear dark sky is one I never hope to forget. On a final note, I hope you have enjoyed reading about my adventure and that you enjoy the pictures. It should be mentioned, that the majority of my pictures are composites. I do this for a few reasons, but the main reason being is creating a nice clean artistic image that can be printed. Single captures of the Milky Way Core definitely have there place and is where I started in my journey learning to photograph the Milky Way. But as I progressed in this project a few things became clear to me. The first was that in order to get a clear printable foreground, that is up to printable standards, compositing the image with blue hour foregrounds was the best way for me to achieve that. Also, as you probably already know, using a star tracker leaves you with having to composite in a foreground anyway.

Lastly, I wanted my images to be the best possible artistic representation of the state I was in as well as the universe we live in and for me, again, compositing was the best way I could see to do that. So, I set up some guidelines for my project to ensure it would remain legitimate. They are simple and to the point, every night sky must be taken in the state that it is claimed to have been taken from, and my foreground and night sky must match the time I was there. I have a deep respect for the scientific end of photographing our night sky and I completely understand the importance of accuracy in that world. But, I also believe that just saying I’m creating art and not scientific photos is a crutch that some photographers use. So using apps like Photopills, I am able to pinpoint where the Milky Way will be and line up my foreground before it appears. So while I am creating artistic nightscape imagery, I still try and show a true representation of the scene for the time that I am there. In the end I have one purpose, and that is to try and deliver the sense of awe I had the first time I saw the Milky Way.

Cabot Covered Bridge (Composite)  A beautiful night at the peak of the Perseids Meteor Shower didn’t result in any meteors but I did get a beautiful clear night my first night there.  Exif Sky: 180 sec @F/2.8 ISO 800  Foreground: 1 min @F/11 ISO 100  Both shots with Canon 6d and 50mm 1.8

Cabot Covered Bridge (Composite)

A beautiful night at the peak of the Perseids Meteor Shower didn’t result in any meteors but I did get a beautiful clear night my first night there.

Exif Sky: 180 sec @F/2.8 ISO 800

Foreground: 1 min @F/11 ISO 100

Both shots with Canon 6d and 50mm 1.8