Milky Way Season 2018 Begins

It has begun! Milky Way season 2018 that is.

Panorama of Milky Way rising at Bow Lake

Panorama of the Milky Way rising above the horizon before dawn at Bow Lake.

On February 19th, 2018 I took my first Milky Way shots of the year. This is the earliest I have ever shot the galaxy in a season. My previous seasons started at the beginning of March. People are often surprised when I tell them how early in the year I start shooting the Milky Way. At this time of year there is just a low arch visible above the horizon for a short while before dawn. So the window to actually shoot the galactic core is small. I am excited to start shooting as soon as I can. The low arch gives different compositions than you would get later in the year. And yes, it’s kind of addicting.

I decided to head out last Monday even though the temperatures looked very uncomfortable to stand around in. The forecast for Bow Lake was -30C with the windchill. But the skies were supposed to be perfectly clear and I was itching to go shooting. I haven’t gone out to shoot the night sky very much this year and last season ended disappointingly when smoke from forest fires made it very difficult to get clear enough skies for stars from the summer to fall.

When I arrived at Bow Lake my car said the temperature outside was -35C. You know its cold when Celsius and Fahrenheit start converging. The temperature reading was without wind-chill taken into account, so we can probably assume it felt a bit colder than the reading.

I prepared as much as I could for the situation. I had many layers of clothing, gloves, socks, etc. and I had hand-warmers for me and for my gear. But clothing for extreme cold wasn’t the only thing I thought about. I’ve had some car troubles and been stuck on the highway before during shooting adventures and luckily was always prepared. In my vehicle I had some items like sleeping bags in case I broke down and needed to wait, extra hand-warmers (these are great in your sleeping bag too), a jet boil, extra water and snacks, candles and matches. Every so often I hear of a photographer or someone getting into a bit of trouble that probably could have been avoided if they tried to prepare or think a situation through a bit better. I try to not end up being that person…but it’s also true that there is something I’ll forgot, or not think about ahead of time. My dad was actually the person who gave me candles and matches to keep in the car – in case I broke down and had to wait a long time in very cold conditions – and this was after I’d been going out night shooting alone a few times.

On Monday I started shooting at 5:15am and the cold chased me back to my vehicle just before 6am. The sky was going to start to lighten around that time anyway. There were a couple compositions that I had in mind already and I started to work with those. I knew I wanted a panorama and also to take some shots with the bridge. Self portraits were difficult that night due to the cold and shivering but I was able to get one. It makes me slightly angry that I messed up the focus on one other composition I wanted. I think after I set the focus I might have nudged something. Movement precision was not great in -35C.

Girl standing on bridge under Milky Way at Bow Lake, Banff Alberta

Self portrait at Bow Lake

Overall it was a great night. Extremely cold, but I listened to my body and didn’t push to the point of frostbite or any other issues. It’s wonderful to see the Milky Way core again and to start off the season with some new images and compositions. It can only get warmer from here…right?

A few quick tips for planning your Milky Way shoots:

  1. Check moon phases – new moon is great but also be aware of moon rise and moon set times between the 50% illumination points.
  2. In the spring look approximately SE for the core, in the summer S and in the fall SW.
  3. Be aware of the hours of darkness in which you can see the Milky Way core above the horizon. Before dawn in the spring, in July we actually have a point where the sky never gets truly dark at 51 degrees N, and in the fall as soon as it gets dark.
Girl sitting on bridge under Milky Way at Bow Lake, Banff Alberta in fall.

Here’s the Milky Way at Bow Lake in September shot around 10pm. The galaxy is on the west side of Crowfoot Mountain and at this time was slightly washed out due to aurora activity behind the camera.