My winter boots slowly sank into the sand with every wave lapping against them. The sun was just about to break through the night sky and my small window of time with the Milky Way was closing fast. It was worth it all.
The first Milky Way of the season is a significant memory test, especially this season. The Milky Way is visible for around an hour just before sunrise starting in February, with October having a similar window an hour after sunset before it set below the horizon. The last time I shot the Milky Way was May of 2021. There were many attempts and plans to try last year but various factors got in the way. Having a full time job certainly limits the night adventures. Add in rain, clouds or the moon cycle and the opportunities keep shrinking.
Marching down a beach in 20 degree weather at night is an interesting experience. Fortunately, the sand was packed and any moisture was frozen so the walk wasn’t so bad. If I wasn’t bundled up like Nanook of the North I may have even been able to actually bend my limbs. Regardless of the bone chilling temps, the combination of gazing into the night sky with the gentle sounds of the ocean still brought a sense of peace. It’s moments like this that I cherish because they are far too uncommon in the world.
Let’s pull back in time to get the full story of preparation. This is section of my website is called ‘Behind the Lens’ for a reason. Winter photographs of the Milky Way require so much more preparation than those in warmer months. Typically I’d just walk out with the camera with a lens mounted on the tripod, grab the headlamp and walk out to the spot I want to shoot. Since I’ve been shooting the Milky Way in the winter for so long I’ve learned that layering up is key, especially when your potentially going to be exposed to wind chills in the teens for hours. How about we take a look at just the clothes I have to wear:
- 1 pair of thin socks
- 1 pair of thick mountaineering wool socks
- 800 gram insulated winter boots
- 2 layers of midweight base layer pants
- 1 windproof insulated pants
- 1 snowboarding pants to go over all of the pant layers
- 1 midweight base layer wool shirt
- 1 t-shirt
- 1 long sleeve waffle thermal shirt
- 1 heavy duty winter parka
- 1 set of Heat 3 special force winter gloves, with pockets for hand warmers (Originally developed for military units in Germany and Austria, seriously these things are awesome)
- 1 windproof balaclava
- 1 winter hat
It’s also a good idea to keep spare batteries, both for the camera and flashlight since the cold drains batteries so very fast. If you’re going to be out in the cold for a prolonged time, it even helps to put a battery in your pocket to warm it up. When you plug in your phone in the car for the ride home, and it complains it’s too cold to charge fast, you know it’s cold.
Speaking of flashlights, I usually have a headlamp and a handheld flashlight. The headlamp is super handy to free up your hands. It’s also great for ruining other photographers shots by accident, or blinding them in the face when you talk to them. My hand held flashlight was a little power house. It kept the Jersey Devil away from me in the Pinelands of New Jersey, spooked away the gang of ravenous bears stalking me in the woods of Western Pennsylvania and also light up my foregrounds (intentionally) at times. OK, well… at least it stopped my imagination creating things stalking me while alone.
Every once and a while you lose something, and on this trip I lost my flashlight on the way out. Instead of getting to angry over it, I chalk to up to what I call a sacrifice. You see, when you lose a photography related object to the photography gods it’s a blessing. The higher the value the better and longer the luck you will have.
Good news then!!! I’m in for a pretty good run of photos for a while!
Melissa Devakos says
Great story and fantastic picture!!
I do what I can thanks!
Jenn V. says
I chuckled out loud when I read “It’s also great for ruining other photographers shots by accident” part of the headlamp description! As always, well done on the photgraph. I love hearing the stories behind everyone’s photos.
For the most part I only use it while setting up or when I really need to get focus. But if you are out with more than two people it gets real messy fast 🙂
Benjamin Conrad Wilbur says
Jason: Are there any charts or tables you can reference listing when the Milky Way can be seen in NJ for a possible photo shoot?
Thanks in advance. Ben Wilbur
Hi Ben! Thanks for reaching out. There are a few good phone apps, as well as Youtube videos and online articles. Over the years, I’ve soaked up bits and pieces from all over. I’ll direct you to one reliable resource that is a great place to start!