A strange race of humans, astrophotographers are known to run away from their homes in the mountains in the middle of the night when they first hear of snow.
Laying down, grabbing his gear and having a coffee on the way, New Zealand’s Nick Faulkner rode back roads in the dark through several country towns, passing thousands of sheep along the way, until he arrives at Castle Hill, located in the heart of North Canterbury.
A self-proclaimed “dark sky lover,” Faulkner found himself in a lonely place dotted with hundreds of weathered limestone tors – huge “rippled” boulders – protruding from the earth. These would make for an impressive photogenic supporting cast to complement its main feature – the real stars of the show – the Milky Way galaxy in all its glory, a breathtaking stellar arc suspended in the night sky above, its galactic center the crown jewel of the show. It must have been his photo.
“This alpine region is one of my favorite places to photograph the stars,” Faulkner said. “Add to that a late winter snowfall and it doesn’t get much better.”
His next move, he aptly nicknamed “Solitude” and he submitted it to the 2022 Milky Way Photographer of the Year competition, which brings together images from around the world and presents 25 of the best winners each year. Faulkner and two dozen other astrophotographers from 14 different nationalities – taking scenes everywhere from New Zealand to Japan, the United States to Spain, Egypt to Australia and beyond – were among the choice this year.
At an altitude of 5,070 meters (16,630 feet), photographer Alvin Wu captured a surreal scene in sub-zero temperatures: a frozen blue lake in a Tibetan landscape. You can almost hear the ice crack treacherously under his feet. The dazzling constellation of Orion hangs above, evoking a fantasy world, while a solitary central figure in furs carries a lamp, its warm glow reflecting off the cold, blue surface of the lake. Wu has aptly dubbed this gem “Ice Age”.
“I felt so happy to have the stars as my companions on this magical night,” Wu said.
Most of these entries use a technique of capturing stars and foreground separately using different cameras, allowing the photographer to use a star tracker with a camera – to capture starlight with a longer exposure (and therefore more detail) and less motion (sharper) – while the foreground camera focuses on the detail of objects that are closer.
It is imperative to plan photo shoots for moonless nights where artificial light pollution is minimal. Thus, secluded locations are often preferred. Timing the position of stars, often striving to highlight the galactic center, is another challenge astrophotographers face. The presence of a character in the shot, giving an idea of the scale, adds even more difficulty.
For Uroš Fink, six months of planning resulted in a Perseid meteor shower, which “brightened the night” in the highest part of the Alps in Slovenia – all against a galactic backdrop.
“You just have to be in the right place at the right time,” he said. “At the end of the day, the experience does not disappoint me in any way.”
In other submissions, Jinyi He snapped the Milky Way galaxy amid eroded hill formations in the deserts of Xinjiang, China; Rubén Vela photographed our galaxy in the totally lonely mountains of northern Spain in winter, where deep snow made hiking nearly impossible, even on snowshoes; Spencer Welling captured unreal landforms in the badlands of Utah, where on moonless nights it is so dark that the stars themselves cast noticeable shadows on the ground. Mount Fuji, surreal lavender fields, rustic Spanish castles, ocean caves and meteor showers also made appearances, with the Milky Way still taking center stage.
Contest winners are chosen based not only on image quality, but also on a compelling story of how they were taken and the overall inspiration behind them. The contest aims to “bring our galaxy closer together so that everyone can learn and experience more of our Milky Way.”
Here are other 2022 Milky Way Photographer of the Year winners:
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