The Story Behind the Photo
In the back corner of my photographic brain there's a room called the Idea Factory. It's right beside the CEO's office, where ideas are accepted or rejected, and down the hall from Shipping and Receiving, where ideas wait to be executed (that's executed as in 'carried out', not 'shot in front of a firing squad'). The idea for this photograph was born three years ago and just sat on the shelf. The Logistics and Design division needed to fully develop the idea, but the real delay came from the brain cells in the Motivation Department. They sat around working on easier concepts. Lazy bums!
About a year before this idea was created I became interested in astrophotography, something that I had no previous experience with. It didn't take long before I developed a real love and comfort level with it. Most people spend very little time looking at the night sky or, because of the urban environment in which they live, can't see much of it anyway. Living in a dark sky region of the country, I have always been fascinated by the night sky. I wanted to create a concept photograph that showed my comfort level, and how much our modern society is oblivious to the natural beauty of the night sky.
Logistics and Design
My favourite time for astrophotography is during the months of March, April and May. After a long winter's hiatus, the core of the Milky Way has returned and I'm eager to capture it once again. With night after night of clear skies during the new moon phase, this past May was a particularly fruitful time and I'd had some great nights of shooting. This meant that I'd gotten the easier shots out of my system and it was time to pull this idea off the shelf.
In my brain, new ideas float around in the ether created by synaptic sparks and require a great deal of processing before the fog clears and the real vision presents itself. Although this concept had a lot of time to mature, it wasn't until the night before this shot that the pieces came together. I knew that I wanted the image to have a person sitting in a chair, reading something, with an artificial light illuminating the foreground and the Milky Way off in the background.
The person would obviously be me, since it can be a bit of a challenge to drag anyone else out of their beds at 1:00 in the morning. The lamp came from my wife's office and the chair from mine. I thought that both had an appealing modern design, but my main reason for choosing these specific furnishings was that they were both light enough and small enough to fit in the back of my SUV. (I have an idea that involves a full-sized couch, but I don't think that one's ever gonna happen.)
The next issue was, how to create the light. I have a portable battery with an inverter so I could plug the lamp in directly on location, but without a dimmer it would be far too bright. Instead I opted for a small LED lamp that I use in my tent when I'm camping. It has three settings for intensity and is small enough that I could hang it inside the lamp shade. As for reading material, I grabbed a photography book from my office shelf and the most recent issue of our community newspaper.
Choosing the proper location would be critical. I needed a spot where I could face south to capture the Milky Way, preferably a flat area, and one where I could get the car close enough so that I didn't have to carry the furniture too far. Luckily there is a place about a 45-minute drive north of my home that fit these requirements perfectly.
I packed everything in the car in the early evening, hopped into bed for a two-hour nap and set the alarm for midnight.
Even when you're anticipating it, an alarm can really rattle you! I slipped out of bed, hoping that I hadn't disturbed my wife too much (thank goodness that she is so supportive), and drove off to my chosen location, a place called Sunshine Alley where local fisherman will often launch their boats because of the natural dolostone pavement. This allowed me to drive right to the water's edge.
I pulled the chair, lamp and camera gear out of the vehicle and set it up. In order to check exposure of the night sky, I took a couple of test shots without me in the chair and with the lamp off. The exposure seemed good, but I wasn't happy with the composition. I wanted more water in the shot in order to get better reflections.
After moving the chair and lamp around slightly, I attached the LED inside the lampshade, flicked it to its lowest setting and reshot. The result was less than impressive. Well actually, it sucked! The light was way too bright, and I'd even dropped the shutter speed down to just two seconds. Plus the composition still wasn't what I wanted.
Feeling disappointed, I thought, "Okay, so I'll create a composite of two shots. One exposing for the LED light and the second for the Milky Way."
"Hold it a second, Peter. You're not a quitter.", said another voice in my head (Insert the cartoon devil and angel on opposite shoulders). "There's got to be a way of diffusing the light."
After a quick search of my vehicle all I could come up with was the newspaper that I had brought along. I pulled two sheets of newsprint out from the centre of the paper, crumpled them up a bit and stuffed them into the lamp shade. It worked! The amount of light was so dim now that, to the unadjusted eye, it would have been difficult to see, yet bright enough for a long exposure.
With the major hurdle overcome, it was time to get down to some serious shooting.
An Idea Realized
Still not quite happy with the composition I switched the chair and light around and tried the composition below. In order to get myself in the image, I used a 12-second delay. I could have triggered the camera with the Olympus O.I.Share app while sitting in the chair, but I didn't want to fumble around with my phone or have any additional light in the image. The tricky part for any type of astro shot involving people is staying perfectly still for the entire exposure. Being seated in a comfortable chair certainly made that task easier.
After looking at this attempt, I thought that I was definitely approaching my initial vision. I decided, however that the current placement of the lamp was still causing too much artificial light to enter the frame. I also found that splitting the viewer's attention between the foreground scene on the left and the core of the Milky Way on the right was breaking some compositional rule. I opted to switch the furniture around again and settled on its final placement.
A Bit of Luck
I'm not really fond of the phrase "a lucky shot". They are more a matter of being prepared and knowing what to do when an unusual opportunity presents itself. That being said, I did receive a bit of lucky lighting during the 'keeper' shot. Right after the 12-second delay and the start of the 20-second exposure, a car drove past and created just a bit of illumination on the back of the paper, on my pants and the lamp stem. Since the road was about 60 meters away, it's not likely that the driver saw me, but had they, I can only imagine what he or she was thinking at seeing some weirdo sitting at the water's edge reading a newspaper in the middle of the night.
One of my biggest fears as a photographer is that the Idea Factory will eventually shut down. I know that the workers have gone on vacation from time to time, but up until now, they have always returned. Let's hope that continues.
From start to finish I spent just over an hour on location in order to get the image that I liked. That meant that I still had enough darkness left to create a couple more "creative selfies". I certainly wasn't going to waste the opportunity.
Peter Baumgarten is a professional photographer and educator. He is also an Olympus Visionary and NiSi Official Photographer.