Milky Way Photography in The Florida Keys

Capturing the Milky Way and Light Painting in the Florida Keys

As I’m writing this it’s been about 20 hours since I’ve slept. My day/night, however you want to look at it, started at 9pm on April 18, 2018. I made the decision to head back down to The Florida Keys in the middle of the night for some more astrophotography and light painting. I was just there a day ago trying out light painting for the very first time. It was so much fun and cool to experiment with. The only problem was that the lighting setup I finally liked happened too close to sunrise, so the Milky Way was barely visible in my photos. I didn’t have the option to stay another night because I had a project back home that needed to be finished.

As I’ve finished my project shortly upon return, I couldn’t stop thinking about my Milky Way photo. I wanted to go back and get my shot. I thought to myself, “Is it crazy to drive back 2 ½ hours in the middle of the night just to get a photo?” To me it wasn’t. I saw it as passion for my art and my love for landscape photography.

By now my batteries had finished charging and I packed my gear into the car. I left my house at 11:30pm and with a quick stop for gas I was on my way. I had a few scenarios in my head of how this could play out. One scenario was arriving at the location around 2am and maybe taking a quick nap to recharge myself, and then start. The second scenario was to arrive and get to work immediately so I could nail down my lighting and composition, and then just wait for the galactic core to come into position. I ended up going with scenario number two but the next question I asked myself was if I would stick around for sunrise. Of course the answer was yes, since I hardly ever get to photograph at this spot in the Keys. Of course this meant I that would be shooting for about 6-7hrs straight. I’m by no means a night person so I was worried if I’d be able to stay awake. (Quick side note about me, I don’t drink coffee or use anything with caffeine). Somehow I made it and didn’t yawn once. It’s funny how we can push ourselves when it comes to the things we love doing.

After setting up my secondary camera to shoot a time-lapse sequence of the Milky Way going across the sky, I began to work on my composition and lighting. Unfortunately, clouds started to roll in. The Milky Way became shrouded, but there were moments when the sky cleared for a few minutes. During those moments I exposed and focused for the Milky Way, and when the clouds filled the sky I worked on the lone mangrove in the foreground. The plan was to combine these two shots later in Photoshop. Although this was only my third time ever photographing the Milky Way, I was pretty happy with the results I was seeing on the LCD. I don’t own an ultra wide-angle lens with a low f-stop so I used my Sigma 35mm F1.4 ART DG HSM Lens. It would have been nice to have a wide-angle lens but you have to work with what you have. As far as the light painting tools, I used an old Canon 430EX II with remote triggers along with a Lume Cube, but the majority of the time I just used the flash as a backlight since I liked the dramatic look it gave the skeletal mangrove.

My journey to the stars was coming to an end, as the Milky Way became more and more faint in the sky and sunrise approached. The whole experience turned out to be very challenging, but in the end, I had a blast and learned so much for next time. It was now 5:45am and the only thing on my mind became food and water. My last meal was maybe 12 hours ago and I had been pretty active all night. I picked up some gear I no longer needed for sunrise and walked back to the car. After some quick bites of a power bar and a few chugs of water, I decided to push myself a little further and walked back down to setup for sunrise.

The sky was partly cloudy with a few hints of color. The best part of sunrise for me is the peace and quiet as a new day begins. All I could hear were birds and the ocean so I sat in the wet sand and took it all in for about 10mins before I got back to working the scene. When the light became too harsh I packed up and rested in the car before making the 2 ½ hour drive back home. In the end, although the Milky Way wasn’t visible for most of the night, the trip was still totally worth it. After all, sometimes it’s more about the journey and experiences than about getting the shot.

I’m not sure when my next attempt at astrophotography and light painting will be but I’ve got some electrifying plans in the works as storm season approaches South Florida. Thanks again for coming along with me on this journey. Feel free to leave comments or questions down below.

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