Imagine how it must have been for our native American ancestors to look to the skies and see the Milky Way as it appeared to move above them. They had no idea that it was the earth that was actually moving and not the stars that they saw.
Living near Boone, North Carolina but far enough away from the city lights I can walk out my back door and view the night sky with all of its mystery before me. I decided that it was time for me to capture an image of the Milky Way. I knew that I couldn’t compete with all the amateur astronomers who have equipment capable of photographing the skies. With the Hubble telescope and all the images that it sends to us, the only answer was for me to capture the Milky Way and anchor it to a landmark that people could identify with. I decided to use Grandfather Mountain, one of the most photographed scenes in our area.
More that twenty years ago I studied Ansel Adams’ style of photography and one thing that has stuck in my mind all these years was his concept of “previsualization”. He would be able to visualize what an image should look like and then take the necessary steps to accomplish that. He was using film in those days and his only advantage was to use a larger format camera with the best possible lenses available to him at that time. With the current technology and the digital capability of cameras, I was able to push the envelope.
After several months of scouting I came up with a location for my image. Even though I new that I would be several miles away from the top of Grandfather, I felt that it was the perfect choice. The best time to get the image would obviously be while the moon was “New” with no light in the sky. Next, I needed to find the best exposure to capture the mountain ridge during a dark night and the final and most complicated task was to photograph the stars and make them appear as if they were standing still.
I decided to use a crude tracking system called a “barn door tracker” consisting of two boards hinged on one side and a threaded rod so that you can simulate the rotation of the earth. After several months of trial and error I came up with a more sofisticated version. I added a motor to drive the threaded rod, a potentiometer to control the speed of the motor and a volt meter to monitor the speed. I also added a laser and a leveling system to help me align it with the North Star. Within a week I was able to take exposures of up to 5 minutes long and keep the stars from trailing.
The next step was to find out when the Milky Way would be visible above Grandfather during a New moon. Using the software “Stellarium” I could track the Milky Way and determined that the best time would be October 20th, at 2:30AM.
All I needed was to hope that the weather would cooperate and be clear to give me a perfect view of the stars. It all came together that night and I was able to capture the image that you see here.