under the stars with a friend

Updated: Sep 22

“if you have two friends in your lifetime, you're lucky. if you have one good friend, you're more than lucky.”

s.e. hinton


“we are almost there, mark…” my friend mark sackett and i had just passed a road marker that told us we were almost at our destination, an abandoned farmstead. i’ve been to it before a few times in years past. it’s one of my more favorite locations.


i had asked mark if he wanted to come along and join me in capturing two scenes among others that he might want to capture. the first was fireflies as it was about that time of year when they make their appearance. with all the recent rains and humidity, i had high hopes we would see them. i had previously made an image of fireflies at the same location about three or four years previous. this time, i was making images with my fujifilm camera and lens. i was hoping i would produce a much higher quality image and composition than i had made in the past. i was also hoping for a better composition this year in capturing the milky way. that is the second scene i was hoping to capture. mark is always game if he is available. even after i mentioned to him we’d most likely be out until the wee hours of the morning, he was up for it!


as it turns out, mark is one of my better friends because he is always willing to drive. no…that’s not true. he’d be a good friend no matter what as we both love photography. but, i confess, as one who really prefers to be in the passenger seat, it certainly didn’t hurt the “love my friend” factor 😂! and he does like to drive. or so he says…and i’m not digging deeper to find out!


mark drove past the entrance and made a u-turn back so we could pull out into the middle of the road and back in. it’s not so much a driveway as a rutted path that has been worn down over the years from, i’m guessing, vehicles, farm implements/machinery and the like. the grass grew tall in between the ruts as well as on the outsides of the ruts. to the passenger side of the vehicle, a two story farmhouse was in full decay. it was still standing but barely. in fact, one portion of the roof was collapsed at least 3-4 years ago when i made my first trip there. i’m sure it was much longer past that. one look inside the front door confirms that to walk in there would be a poor choice. i’ve never tried to go inside that house. mark had the same mindset that night. I can’t help but think of this scene from a classic Indiana Jones movie….


"he chose poorly"


we both got out of the car and grabbed our headlamps and gear. it’s kind of funny when you look at the both of us. i’m saddled with a backpack that weighs in the vicinity of 20-25 pounds and is filled with various tools of the trade. i’m already a short, stocky guy made to look stockier when hauling a backpack. mark is a fair bit taller than me and slimmer. his gear weighs ounces at most for he is an iphonegrapher. That simply means he makes images with only his iphone. let me tell you straightaway one thing…the gear doesn’t matter. it’s how well one uses the gear to make images that matters. yes, there is something to be said for having newer pieces of gear after years of using older gear. but if you don’t know how to use your newer gear, your images are still going to be less than desired and you will have spent money for nothing.


while i use my iphone pretty regularly to make images, my main camera is a fujifilm mirrorless camera which I bought after 11 years of using an older camera. the large majority of my images will come from the fujifilm camera. mark makes images solely with his iphone and he makes great images! there will always be the debate whether a smartphone can produce images as well as a camera can. all i will say is do a search for photographers (like mark) who make images with their smartphone only or most of the time. look at their images. if they didn’t tell you, you’d think they would be using a camera, not a smartphone. i’m not saying everyone who uses a smartphone makes great images. but neither do people who use a camera. heck, for all i know, you may think i’m only mediocre (or worse) at best😂!


we roamed around in the dark for a bit that was punctuated by miniature glowing yellowish lights everywhere the eye looked. the fireflies were out and about! for me personally, a great wave of nostalgia washes over me when watching them. while i could not point to specific time periods as a boy watching fireflies, i know that they were something that i watched as a boy and, now, as an adult. there is something wonderfully fantastical about watching fireflies on a warm and humid night!


we eventually made our way over to the barn. even though the property is abandoned, the barn is still in use for storing hay. i believe someone rents the field as corn and hay are grown there. back when I first came here, i found out from a neighbor right across the street that it was ok for me to make images there as long as i was respectful of the property since no one lived there.


mark and i peered inside the barn with our headlights and flashlights from our phone. except at the entrance and just a short walk in, the whole barn appeared to be full of bales of hay. the neighbor i spoke of earlier had told me back then that sometimes turkey vultures can be found in the barn. i have no idea if that was accurate or not. a part of me would really love to see that someday. another part of me thinks it might be a scene out of a horror movie if a turkey vulture (or three) all of a sudden started swooping down toward me! i have seen spiders in their web the size of my wrist or a little bigger in mid air of the barn. trust me, you don’t want to walk into that web! shades of “arachnophobia”! search for that movie and watch it if you dare! 🕷


we headed back out of the barn. mark asked if i’d be ok with him going off on his own to explore the farmstead since i was going to be pretty much in one general area for a while. that’s another thing that works well with mark and i doing photography together. we like hanging with each other but we are both ok if one or the other or both of us want to go a separate way for a bit. while mark headed off, i searched for a spot in the dried rutted mud and random sprouts of old corn stalks from the previous year to make an image from. once i picked my location, i set up my tripod and camera.


i sometimes use what’s called a star tracker to make very long exposures of stars. with that, i can expose for minutes at a time and the stars will stay sharp as the tracker rotates with the movement of the stars. however, i confess that it has been a while since i have used the tracker. i knew i would be fumbling a bit with it in terms of setting it up and using it correctly (note to self: always practice at home when something hasn’t been use for a while!). had i felt comfortable using the tracker, it would have been much easier making two separate images and blending them together as a single image by itself. with the tracker, it isn’t really possible to produce a good balance of sharp stars and lots of fireflies with a sharp foreground. when you use a tracker, the stars will be sharp but the foreground will be blurry as the tracker is rotating with the stars. you have to make one image of the stars, then turn off the tracker and make another image of the foreground. you then blend the two images together. it’s common in the photography world and is done to show what we actually saw with our eyes but can’t be duplicated with just one image.


so i made multiple images, each ten seconds long. with my camera settings and the focal length i was using, ten seconds is about the longest i can expose for and still get reasonably sharp stars. making multiple images help to bring the stars out better in the final image. think in terms of the more light that you let in through the camera lens, the brighter the stars can be in simple terms. with a star tracker, i could go minutes for one exposure and the stars would be bright due to all the light that entered through the lens. with only 10 seconds at night, not a whole lot of light gets through the lens. you need to make lots of images of the same scene to get up to par what one image made with a star tracker can make in terms of star brightness.


then i made multiple images of the foreground with the fireflies, also for 10 seconds each. why multiple images when 10 seconds seem like it would capture a lot of fireflies? well, fireflies light up in random timing and patterns. they also light up when moving so they are not in one spot at a time. each image i made only captured a small amount of fireflies. i really wanted to give more of what i was seeing that night, which was fireflies all over the abandoned farmstead. hence, the multiple images made of fireflies as well. the next step was to load all the images in a software program that stacks the images and then blends them all together to produce a final single image. it is not a composite image (adding things not there or swapping out one thing for another). here is the end result of what i was seeing that night….



i love all the fireflies here. you can see them across the whole foreground even into the far right of the scene. if you look closely, you’ll even see some swirling patterns between the silo and the chute coming out of it as well as just to the left of the chute. the moon had not yet risen, so the shadow of the hay escalator on the barn must be from the stars. there was only one single light source way back down the road that would not have been remotely enough to cast this shadow. in the upper right, you can see the faint outline of the milky way. this is definitely one of my favorite images to date and, in my opinion, much better than the previous one i made a few years back!


i then turned my attention to the milky way rising over the barn and shed. the shed might have been some sort of chicken coop though I wouldn’t swear to it. this time, i wanted a panorama image to capture the core of the milky way as well.


an interesting side note about astrophotography (night photography of the moon, stars, milky way, northern lights, etc.) is that cameras are immensely better able to “see” celestial events than we are able to see with our eyes. in the case of the milky way, it is usually a faint, kind of hazy white blob to our eyes. but when captured on camera, it stands out in much better detail and color. i can vaguely remember the first time i made an image of the milky way. i really couldn’t even see it then as i didn’t know what to look for. i just made an image in the general direction of the milky way (usually in a southeasterly direction). when the image showed up on the back of my camera, it was like a bomb went off in my head! i was so excited! it never gets old seeing any astrophotography image right after it was made on my camera screen. it always shows more detail than we see with our eyes!


at the farmstead that night, i made a total of six images and then merged them together for the final image. three horizontal images were made for the lower half of the image and then three horizontal images were made for the upper half of the image. for each set of three images, the camera was moved a bit to the right before each capture to create a panorama.


merging images together is a bit different than blending images together. you overlap however many images you make (about 40-50% is a good recommendation) so that the images can find a “stitching” point between image one and two, two and three and so on. a key step when making a panorama that involves more than one plane of images (two in this case - one higher and one lower) is to to be exact. where the camera was made with image number one, it has to be at that same exact point when making image four. the same has to be done for images two and five and images three and six. if you are off even just a little, the merging will almost not be able to happen as it can’t find the “stitching point” to merge it all the images together. how do i make sure i’m at the exact point again? by utilizing the compass degree i have on my tripod ballhead. i note where it was set at for image one and set it at the same degree for image four. the same is done for the other 2 sets of images. surely that wasn’t too confusing to understand🤪! here’s the final image…



over to the far right, you can see the galactic core of the milky way. the core is much denser looking than the rest of the milky way and has more color as well. it is a bit faint in this image due to light pollution in the lower right just above the horizon. were this up north or down south where the skies are truly dark, the galactic core would have been quite vivid in color and detail. i love the half arch it makes as it rises over the shed and barn. it is not uncommon to see images from photographers of the entire arch of the milky way. it is an incredible sight to see based on images i’ve seen. that would definitely be a bucket list item for me!


one of the things i love most about this image is that small spot of light on the right in the foreground. that is mark sitting on the ground, in his own world making images. in all this time, except for the occasional glint of a red headlamp out in the field, i had completely forgotten that mark was even there with me! turns out he was a busy man with his iphone that night. he shared with me images that he made and they were awesome! he is like me; he’s not afraid to try different perspectives, angles and ideas. suffice it to say he enjoyed the night as much as i did!


we finally headed back to his vehicle and took off a bit after midnight. mark’s wife called just before we left to make sure he was doing ok. she must take after my wife. if i don’t let her know where i am periodically, i get a text from her to let her know if i’m ok. so we not only are kindred spirits where photography is concerned, we have doting wives who make sure we have not been devoured or kidnapped or something horrible like that! the ride home was uneventful which is a good thing when driving at night. we made a quick stop for a snack and drink along the way. the rest of the drive was conversation between two friends that can only be had between two friends. we talked about everything and nothing in particular. can’t think of a better way to end my time with mark!


well, another blog written and shared with you all from my little corner of the world! i’m curious if you have ever taken the time to check out what the skies have to offer you after dark? i know it can be hard for some of you to do that depending on what you have going on in life right now. or it could just be that it’s not your thing. it’s good enough for you to live vicariously through people like myself who share our adventures under the night skies. that’s completely ok! for those of you who have not done so and would like to see some of the celestial beauty that is experienced only at night, call up a friend and make plans to do so! a friend can make it easier to not be afraid or nervous out in the night. and if for some reason it turns out to be a bust (hey, it happens to me as a photographer), then you still have a win because of the fantastic company! if you have done such a thing, share about it in the comments below. i’d love to hear about what you saw and experienced!

i’m doing something new starting with this blog. i’ve often wonder how many of you have seen an image you might have liked to purchase, but had hesitations based on how it would look in your home. i’m going to be sharing the images posted earlier in the blog down here but in a home/business setting. it’ll help you to better visualize how something might look hung in a certain space. i’ll share the dimensions of the print in that setting as well to further help you understand the size of the print in relation to the space. it’ll be a great tool for those of you wanting to pursue buying a print. if you want to see it in another space than the one i chose, simply let me know in the comments below and i’ll send it directly to you for your viewing convenience. with that, here are the two images from this blog!


barn and milkyway pano 26"x45"


barn and fireflies 24"x36"


thanks again so much for carving time in your life to read my blog. please share this blog with others you know or think would enjoy reading it. simply copy and past the url above into the media of your choice or use one of the three icons below to share it.


this blog was a little longer in being written and shared than I wanted it to be. part of it is because i’m preparing for a show coming up in October. I’ll be sharing more about that on my FB page so keep an eye out for it if you live in or plan to be in the upper midwest region during that time.


I’ll be back soon with more “images from a quiet world”!


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