Dark of Night

I’m not a real photographer, but I sometimes play one while I’m on vacation.  Or at least I did last week.

The whole thing started a few months back as I was staring at one of those night-sky photographs.  You know the kind.  A billion stars twinkling as the Milky Way clusters together like a ritzy jewel.  The image practically pops off the page.  So, I’m looking at one of those, and I suddenly think to myself:  Somebody took that picture.  Why can’t I take one just like it?

Thus started one of those weird, manic obsessions that sometimes grip me, and there was no going back.  I read articles about night-sky photography.  I studied camera settings and specs.  I set a date (right during our family reunion trip to my in-laws’ Missouri farm).  And I agonized over location.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  I couldn’t stop talking about.

I loaded up a tripod, a flashlight, and our trusty old Olympus camera.  I rented the lens I needed from a local camera shop.

Our first night in Missouri, I set up in my in-laws’ blueberry field around midnight.  Even down there in the relative isolation, nearby Monett gives off a glow in the east, which didn’t help my cause, but I had to try.  I pointed my camera to the southeast and went to work.

At first, it seemed pretty hopeless, and then I noticed the camera was picking up a glimmer of something I wasn’t catching with the naked eye.  Could it be?

I kept shooting.  I refined my angle and my camera settings.  City lights be danged.  I had it, all right.  The pictures weren’t pristine, but it’s hard to overstate the thrill I felt as the Milky Way came into focus.

Eventually, my eyes adjusted enough to make out the milky glow on their own.  That’s when I knew exactly where to go with the camera.  I stayed out there for a couple hours.  Then I packed up my things and headed back.  I stopped to take another shot over the top of an old pickup truck.

I stopped again for another right over the top of my in-laws’ house.

Finally, I took one last shot from the end of the road.

I got back to the house where we were staying sometime around 2:30 a.m., rousing the farm dogs in the process.  My brother-in-law had locked me out, so I called Sara and woke her up.  She saved me from having to spend the rest of the night on the front porch.

Two nights later, I was at it again.  Sara and I left the kids with family, and we trekked two hours south on winding roads to Steel Creek Campground at Buffalo National River in Arkansas.  Darksitefinder.com said Buffalo National River was going to give me the black sky I craved.

When we pulled up, however, I was concerned.  High bluffs on one end.  Tall trees on the other.  Snapping that perfect photograph was going to be more complicated than I’d hoped.  Sara and I claimed our camping spot, set up our tent, and then hiked down to the river.

The river.  I was saved.  The riverbank provided a clearing toward the south.  It would be just the place to set up my tripod when the time was right.

We went back to our campsite, got the fire going, roasted some hotdogs, threw the football, and read until sunset.  Then Sara went to bed early in anticipation of a long night.

Meanwhile, I sat out in a camp chair and watched the show unfold.  Darksitefinder.com didn’t lie.  Buffalo National River treated me to one of the darkest night skies I’ve ever experienced.  I waited there in wonder and awe, developing a serious crick in my neck from tilting my head back.  It was an absolute spiritual experience to be under that sky.  The wonder of creation was in full bloom.

I woke Sara just before midnight, and the two of us stumbled out through the trees in the pitch black.  We somehow found the riverbank.  This time, I had no trouble whatsoever spotting the Milky Way with the naked eye.  I set up the camera, pointed it toward the south, and got started.  The first shot gave me hope for great things to come, but partway through the session I noticed brown streaks in the photographs.  Cloud cover or some sort of river mist was marring the images.

We moved about that rocky bank multiple times as I sought to compose the perfect shot, but I never quite got it.  All the while, Sara and I heard an unseen creature splashing about in the water nearby.  (I later joked it was Gollum.  Nothing ever attacked or ate us, but I do think Gollum threw off my groove just a bit.)

Around 2:45 a.m., Sara had had enough, and I decided I’d done the best I could.  I packed up the camera, and the two of us tromped back up to our campsite.  As Sara drifted off to sleep in our tent, I flipped through the images I’d captured and quickly realized I wasn’t satisfied with any of them.  Frustrated, I put the camera away and headed off to find the restroom.

As I stepped out of the tent, I looked up, and there it was in all its glory – hanging above the tree line.  That glow stretched all the way across the sky like nothing I’d ever seen before.  As I made a hasty trip to the restroom and back, I knew what I needed to do.  This was my chance.

I set the camera up again – this time near our tent – aimed it high, and proceeded to capture the best images of the entire trip.  By 3:30 a.m., I was a happy man.  I got the pictures I wanted. For those of you keeping score at home, I used a twenty-five-second shutter speed, f/2.8 aperture, and 2500 ISO.

What an adventure.  I’m looking forward to the next one.  There’s so much more for me to learn and so many more pictures to take.  Western Nebraska’s dark skies are calling.  I guess I’ll see you … out there.


Chris lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with his wife, Sara, and their six children.  He enjoys stories by Ray Bradbury, starry night skies, and cherry limeade.  Chris is also the author of Red: A Football Novel as well as other books and poetry.

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