The total lunar eclipse on May 15, 2022, was a spectacular sight with many photographers capturing amazing astrophotography shots. Adding to this collection of gorgeous images is a unique photograph by Dane Smith. In one image, he captures the Milky Way and the lunar eclipse as they stand high above the mountains in Spruce Knob, West Virginia. All at once, his composition showcases the splendor of the Earth and the sky.
“Having the Moon and the Milky Way in the same image is quite a rare event,” Smith tells My Modern Met. “Normally when trying to capture images of the galactic center, you want the darkest skies possible. This means taking photos when the Moon is as close to new as possible, preferably far away from any light pollution.” Although a total lunar eclipse presents such an opportunity, not every eclipse will have the optimal conditions. “I realized back in the late fall that this total lunar eclipse was going to be one of those rare moments when the Moon would go dark, but still be close enough to the galactic center to be included in a photograph.”
Once he realized his luck, Smith and a photographer friend got planning. “Clear skies are quite important when photographing the stars, so we identified about 10 locations on the East Coast of the U.S. that would potentially work for this photo. We also made sure that we were comfortable with the basics of the techniques involved in photographing the Milky Way over several outings in the spring.”
While he was prepared to take photos, successfully capturing them wasn't a given. “[On the week of the eclipse] weather throughout the mid-Atlantic region had lots of rain and clouds. With every passing day, I worried that we would get rained out and miss this rare chance. The weekend of, we narrowed the potential sites down to just two: Shenandoah in Virginia, and Spruce Knob in West Virginia.”
The photographers made their decision on the morning of the lunar eclipse and determined that Spruce Knob was their best chance of getting great photos. “We made the four-hour drive to one of the darkest sky areas in our proximity, going through rain and clouds the whole way, but once at Spruce Knob we were greeted with clearing skies and a gorgeous sunset. I set up for the main event down in a grassy clearing at the top of the mountain. I loved the boulders in the foreground and knew that the moonlight would really bring them to life.”
Although some clouds rolled in and obscured their view, the coverage was gone in about 15 minutes. “Once [the clouds] cleared, I quickly captured the images (19 in all) that I needed of the galaxy, with the dark red moon hovering off to its right. With the hardest part out of the way, I took a moment to simply enjoy where I was and what I was seeing.”
After the eclipse ended (the totality lasted about 85 minutes), Smith and his friend drove home to Virginia. “I got a few hours of sleep and then imported all of the images and began to look through them, nervous the whole time that I’d discover a mistake I missed in the field,” he recalled. “Thankfully, no such mistake surfaced; everything looked exactly as I’d hoped it would.” The prized image is a combination of many shots. “The final image is a composite of the stacked photos of the galactic center and Moon along with the foreground featuring the boulders.”