I’ve heard that a bad day fishing is still better than a good day at the office. That’s how I feel about chasing the Milky Way. It’s not only about capturing a beautiful image but is a way to unplug from the hyperconnected world. Before that happens, you typically have to walk up or down a dark trail on a moonless night while trying to talk some sense into the imaginary voice in your head that’s telling you every stray sound is a starving bear or mountain lion with a taste for human flesh.
One’s imagination tends to go into overdrive in total darkness. But when the voice calms down, as it eventually does once your eyes adjust to the dark, you can relax, connect with nature, and revel in awe at the mysterious, starry band of lights called the Milky Way. On this occasion, I didn’t manage to capture the Milky Way as planned. This is how a surprise storm actually made the shot even better than I’d imagined. Sometimes lightning strikes, and you just have to go with it.
Friday, April 14, 2023, was a beautiful clear day with high temperatures in the upper 70’s (around 25 Celsius). While having lunch, I wistfully peered out the 6th-story window of my office and checked the weather forecast, which called for mostly clear skies. I then checked the PhotoPills App on my phone, which informed me the Milky Way core would be visible at 12:49 a.m. giving me three and a half hours to shoot the Milky Way before moonrise at 4:16 a.m.
The PhotoPills App is my number one planning tool for shooting the Milky Way, Sunrises and Sunsets. It is a paid app that’s worth every penny. My favorite feature is the augmented reality screen which works without having a cellular connection. That’s important because rarely is cell service available in dark sky areas.
Using this feature allows me to stand at the location of my planned shoot, point my phone camera in the direction I plan to shoot and see an overlay of exactly where the Milky Way, Sun or Moon will be on any day, at any time.
As badly as I wanted to pull the fire alarm and start my weekend early, by 3 p.m. I was headed home to pack the car for an overnight camping trip. With no time to scout for a new location, I decided to visit a familiar but hidden gem in the Ozark National Forest in Arkansas, USA, called Sam’s Throne.
It’s primarily a rock climbing destination with towering bluffs that offers unobstructed Southeastern and Southwestern views of Big Creek Valley. In North America, the Milky Way rises in the Southeast and sets in the Southwestern sky.
After a 2.5-hour drive north from my home in central Arkansas, I arrived at my destination with just enough time to set up camp before dark. From there, it would be a short 15 – 20 minute hike down a rocky, uneven trail to where I planned to shoot. To help get there safely, I brought a headlamp with both a powerful white light and a red LED. The white light helps guide me in and out of my location, and the red LED allows my eyes to adapt to the dark while I shoot.
I made it to the overlook without being eaten by around 12:45 a.m. To my surprise, since I was camping under a canopy of trees, I emerged to find mostly cloudy skies. Having no cell service to update my weather forecast, I still hoped to capture the Milky Way through a break in the clouds.
Determined, I decided the best way to not miss the shot was to take a time-lapse, letting the camera continuously shoot for the duration of my stay. Before pulling the gear from my backpack, I confirmed the location of the Milky Way using the PhotoPills App and scanned the area one last time for bears and mountain lions.
High winds at this location are not unusual, so I was prepared to battle the occasional 30-mile-per-hour wind gusts. I decided to mount my camera on a Playpod Extreme instead of a traditional tripod. This is a stable, low-to-the-ground camera support system that I knew would keep my camera steady in high winds. To this, I mounted my Sony A7iii and paired it with an ultra-wide Sony 14mm, f/1.8 GM lens. I’ve found this to be a great combination for capturing landscapes in low light.
I set my aperture wide open to f/1.8, ISO 5000, with a shutter speed of 15 seconds. I then found a star and, using my camera’s focus magnifier feature, made sure it was pin sharp in my viewfinder. The focus magnifier on the A7iii will enlarge a selected area and is extremely helpful when manually focusing on an object. I set my camera to continuous shoot mode, pushed the shutter release and waited for a magical break in the clouds.
For an hour, I watched the Milky Way play hide and seek behind the clouds. I took advantage of my free time by using a Lume Cube to light paint the foreground. This compact light has at least a couple of dozen settings and can be bluetooth controlled. Its 1% setting creates subtle, natural-looking light on the foreground in low-light conditions.
As I moved behind the camera, trying out different power settings and angles to light the foreground, I was oblivious to the approaching storm that produced a huge flash of lightning near my location around 2 a.m. Even though I could see across the valley for miles, it was the first flash of lightning I’d seen that evening.
I didn’t have any rain gear, so I decided it was time to pack up. Within 10 minutes of the lightning strike, I started to feel sprinkles of rain. I grabbed my gear, camera still sitting on its base, and started my 20-minute hike back to camp. Shortly after arriving back at camp, the sprinkles turned into a steady rain.
While laying on my air mattress in the tent, happy to be mostly dry, I scrolled through the images displayed on the back of my camera. While the Milky Way had only barely peeked through the clouds that evening, it was the image of the bright purple echo of lightning illuminating the valley that I looked at in awe.
About the Author
Derrick Rose is a commercial, landscape and astrophotographer currently living in Little Rock, Arkansas. He grew up hunting and fishing around the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas and still finds joy and happiness documenting the beautiful scenery there and across the U.S. He began studying the art of photography in 1986 at the University of Arkansas where, in the process of earning his degree in journalism, fell in love with the art of telling stories with images. You can see more of Derrick’s work here or follow him on Instagram.