In Search of the Hunter

Night in the Sawatch Range


Over the last few years, as I've found the joy of photographing the Milky Way, the disappearance of the core of the galaxy in the late fall has been a bit of a let down, knowing it will be a few months before I can see it again. Last winter I decided that just because the core of the galaxy was gone didn't mean I had to stop going out at night with my camera. The dimmer band of the galaxy is still there after all, and the winter night sky here in the northern hemisphere has its own highlights. The main one of course is the constellation Orion and it's other nearby neighbors.

I decided during the winter of 2019/20 that I was going to get out there and see them, and try and bring home some nice images. I even had a composition picked out up in Rocky Mountain National Park with Orion and the dimmer part of the Milky Way in the sky above the mountains of the Continental Divide. Alas, pretty much every weekend I planned to go and do it clouds filled the sky, or the cold was so extreme that it just would have been miserable. Then, in early March the pandemic arrived here in Colorado and by the time it felt okay to go out again with friends the opportunity for that image had passed by. It was just one of a number of planned opportunities in 2020 that were lost or just didn't work out. As this winter came around again, I determined that I would get out there and try again.

The weather still seemed to be determined to keep me away however, that's just the nature of winter in the Rocky Mountains I guess. But, as the first weekend of February was on the way, it seemed that the right opportunity was finally coming around. The weather forecast in Rocky looked pretty good, up until a couple days in advance and it started to deteriorate. But Sunday night after the Super Bowl still looked pretty good, and then that started to go bad too.... So looking at the cloud forecast led me down to the mountain town of Buena Vista, that looked pretty good for Saturday night. Then that forecast started to go bad... but Sunday night looked just about perfect. The challenge was that it was a 3 hour drive up into the mountains, to try and get some photographs for maybe a couple hours from midnight to 1:30-2 AM, and then drive back home to work the next day. Was the blitz up into the mountains on a winter night going to be worth it? It looked good enough, and I had a new lens to test out for this that I thought would be perfect. With one other friend joining in, I decided to go for it.

After being forced to abandon our first choice of shooting location by the strong light coming from the town of Buena Vista below, we moved to a second location that I had found on Google Maps, just in case that happened. It turned out to be much darker, but the lower vantage point meant Orion was sinking fast in the sky towards Mount Antero. We had maybe 15 minutes before the bottom of the constellation started to disappear. My first image I framed up was the one you see at the top of this post. It's a wider view shot at 24 mm, taking in 4 of Colorado's famous 14er's in the Sawatch Range. In the night sky you can see Sirius (the brightest star in the sky), the Orion constellation, Aldebaran, and the Pleiades. And above all that the dimmer band of the Milky Way arcs overhead. After all the frantic last minute planning and adjustments, we had found our clear skies.

The Mountain Hunter

As the bottom of Orion started to drop behind the mountains, I framed up this tighter composition at a focal length closer to 50 mm. I like how even more details and colors in the stars of the constellation show in this image, and it really focuses attention on the main elements of the photo. Of course, after capturing these images and trying to film some video clips along the way, the long drive back home awaited. It turned out the tired caught up with me just south of Leadville and I had to pull off the highway into a roadside trailhead parking area to catch a nap for 2-3 hours. About 6:30 a snowplow came barreling into my rest spot rather aggressively, and the jolt of adrenaline got me back on the road and carried me all the way home. After dealing with a classic I-70 traffic jam, I finally made it back after a 12+ hour adventure up into the mountains, but I'm definitely happy with the images I captured that night.

As it turned out, 4 weeks later on a very windy but clear evening in Rocky Mountain National Park, I finally got the opportunity to try out that composition I'd had in mind for over a year. You can see that photo below. The wind did make it hard to keep things still, so I think I can do it even better, but it's a pretty good start.

If you would like to see more of the behind the scenes of capturing these photos, or you're just the kind of person who enjoys sharing the experience through video as well, check out the YouTube video I put together about the adventure. I've embedded it at the bottom of this post to make it easy to find, but if you enjoy watching it I hope you'll subscribe to my channel so you can continue to share the experiences. There's definitely many more great moments to share! I'd love your support as I work hard to get my channel up and running.

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