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Milky Way Panorama and Longs Peak

Milky Way Panorama and Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Milky Way Panorama and Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

To truly appreciate the immensity of the universe, contemplate the Milky Way, the diffuse band of light in the night sky caused by the billions of distant stars of our own Milky Way Galaxy. Get as far as possible from the city, with its noise, bustle, and light pollution. Go when it's truly dark ‒ on a moonless night, at least an hour and half before sunrise or after sunset. And go in spring or summer, when the brightest part of the Milky Way, which lies in the constellation Sagittarius, is above the horizon during the hours of total darkness. You'll see that the Milky Way appears to make a gigantic arch in the sky.

In April 2013 a powerful spring snowstorm dropped nearly a foot of snow on Rocky Mountain National Park. I got up at 1:30 a.m., drove to Bear Lake from my home in Boulder, and snowshoed under clearing, moonless skies to this vantage point above Nymph Lake. The silence was profound. No lens has a wide enough angle of view to capture the full width and height of a Milky Way panorama, so I set up a specialized tripod head that allowed me to shoot two overlapping rows of images with an ultra-wide-angle 16mm lens. The latest digital cameras, such as my Canon 5D Mark III, are so astonishingly sensitive that they can capture scenes lit only by starlight and the sky glow emanating from the distant cities out on the plains.

An hour and a half before sunrise, at the beginning of astronomical twilight, the stars began to pale and the clouds began to gather once more. By great good fortune, the brief window of clear skies had occurred precisely when I needed it. Once I returned home, I assembled this panorama in PTGUI, a specialized panorama-stitching software package. The completed panorama spans 145 degrees left to right and 85 degrees from top to bottom.

I have spent many hours over the last 20 years hiking, snowshoeing, and climbing at night in order to reach some photogenic vantage point in time for sunrise. Often I would pause briefly, turn off my headlamp, and soak in the beauty of the night sky. Now, for the first time, I have started to capture some of that beauty and, I hope, that sense of wonder in my images.

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