BLOG: Adventures in Astrophotography

It's 12 o'clock on a calm night with black skies in Door County and the familiar sound of a cell phone text tone can be heard from the kitchen. A woman, already nestled in her pajamas and cozy bed arises from her slumber to answer the call. Is it a friend? A family member? She looks at her phone and smiles. Swiftly, she gets dressed and grabs her bag of equipment and heads out the door. Who is this crazy woman? What force on earth would cause her to interrupt a restful slumber to venture out at the midnight hour? Doesn't she understand she has a busy day ahead of her? There is nothing in boring, rural Door County worth photographing at this hour.... or is there?

Well, that crazy woman is none other than yours truly.  Yes, I am one of the growing breed of photographer that looks for composition in the darkness of night. This type of photography, astrophotography, has been a passion of mine since the very first time, a few years back, my friend Ken took a group of us out to learn the ropes. Of course, Door County in the daylight hours is spectacular but when night falls, it enters another realm of allure I never could have imagined. Also, because of it's northerly location, limited light pollution and abundant shoreline access it is perfect for this kind of photography fun. So put on the coffee pot, for I am about to share some of my adventures in carousing the after hours with camera in hand.

You may be wondering what exactly I am photographing when there is no light. I mean, photography is all about the light isn't it? Of course, there are millions of stars, planets and the moon. With the DSLR boom, cameras and lenses now possess the capability to expose what is there but not there, so to speak. Speaking of the moon, this past September I was able to capture the 'super blood moon' total eclipse, a phenomenon that has not been witnessed in 30 years. Because of the above stated camera advancements, I could document this spectacular event for the first time ever.

Amazing Moon_Theresa Schmelzer
"Amazing Moon" was taken in my backyard in Sturgeon Bay

Another prized night photography subject to shoot is our very own large galaxy made up of billions of stars aptly named the Milky Way. I must admit I never gave much notice to the Milky Way until I began photographing it and really began to see how incredible it was when these images were brought into my editing software. The challenging part of Milky Way composition is trying to find interesting foreground in relation to the position it is in, since it continually changes with the earth's rotation and movement. Light painting these foregrounds with various light devices adds another element of fun to the mix.

Galactic Hay Bale_Theresa Schmelzer
"Galactic Hay Bale" captured in rural Jacksonport

How about meteor showers? Another one of the magical celestial events to get out and capture in the still of night. When I am lucky enough to get one streaking across while my shutter is open I am filled with an immense joy. Trying to have this happen again, though, is a bit like Russian roulette. For every rare fireball that happens to get frozen mid frame, there are countless others whose brief existence is only witnessed by the eye alone. Which goes along with the reality that not every moment can be captured in photography. One of my favorite memories was the night, a few years ago, of the Camelopardalids shower when some friends and I were photographing at Cave Point county park. We became so engrossed in our shooting that we pulled an all nighter and suddenly turned around to realize the sun was coming up. I will admit, I was a bit tired that day, but the price of precious sleep to get the shot is something I am willing to sacrifice every once in awhile.

Rock and Universe_Theresa Schmelzer
"Rock and Universe" captured at Cave Point during the Camelopardalids meteor shower

Yet, if there is one thing I am absolutely obsessed with in astrophotography it is, without a doubt, the dancing lights in the sky known as the aurora borealis.  At the beginning of this year, I made it my solemn oath to photograph these for the first time. Well, my dream quickly became a reality on St Patrick's Day night. The entire day I was receiving text alerts of extremely high aurora activity. I never wanted a day to end so fast and when night finally arrived I joined up with a friend and we spent the evening chasing this spectacular storm from Fish Creek to Garrett Bay.  I knew that northern lights could be seen in Door County, but being able to shoot them with a camera and see all the detail not visible to the human eye is what sealed the deal for me.

Solar Symphony_Theresa Schmelzer
"Solar Symphony" aurora storm on St. Patrick's day taken along the shoreline in Fish Creek

Luckily, I have been able to witness a few more of these storms over the course of this past summer and fall. Each time I have gone out has been a completely different experience and I continue to learn and refine my craft. The awe and wonder I experienced my first time watching them never seems to go away. The momentary pain of pulling oneself out of a warm bed at wee hours of the night quickly becomes a faint memory once standing on an empty beach viewing a show that gracefully unfolds on its own accord.

Hot Night Lights_Theresa Schmelzer
"Hot Night Lights" taken in August at Frank Murphy Park, Egg Harbor

With the click of a shutter, the world of astrophotography has allowed me the ability to "see the unseeable" and share with the world a depth of beauty that would never be known due to the cover of darkness. The limits of this depth only continues to get pushed as technology progresses and allows the photographer to reach deeper and deeper into the shadows of the night. With that being said, for me, going out and standing under the cosmos on a still, quiet evening here is simply a lesson in perspective and humility. Stars cannot shine without darkness and the more I search for the hidden treasures of the dark, the more I can appreciate what is clearly seen in the light. Funny how it works that way.

Late Night at Big Red_Theresa Schmelzer
"Late Night at Big Red" captured at the Sturgeon Bay North Pier Lighthouse