Even in the summer, it’s cold on top of Independence Pass in the middle of the night. But that doesn’t deter Joe Kyle (joekyle.net) from creating a breathtaking photograph of the Milky Way galaxy. Over several months, Kyle spends more than 15 nights camped out on top of the 12,095-foot pass, carefully focusing in on parts of the galaxy to get the more than 70 images he needs for one final photograph.
It is a solitary hobby, interrupted only by wandering wildlife and the occasional car stopping at the parking lot alongside Highway 82 on top of the Continental Divide. “I’m camped out off of the trail a bit, so people usually don’t know I’m there,” says Kyle, “but I can hear them as they look up, oftentimes seeing the night sky with no light pollution at altitude for the first time. ‘Oh, wow!’ and ‘Oh, my God, look at that!’ are the common refrain. I haven’t run into a mountain lion yet, but I know they’re out there and just hope they leave me alone.”
Kyle uses a tracking mount for his camera that compensates for the rotation of the Earth, allowing him to take long-exposure photographs of celestial objects without blurring. But that’s the relatively easy part of the project. In addition to the lonely nights taking pictures, he spends more than 100 hours putting together the final image. To get the resolution and detail he wants, Kyle divides the image up into as many as 10 different areas, each of which is photographed separately. To reduce the noise from the camera’s sensor and atmospheric disturbances, he takes five to 10 photos of each area and layers them together. He also separately photographs the Maroon Bells and, taking a bit of artistic license, adds them to the foreground. In the end, the image will have more than 70 different photographs that are processed and stitched together. The result is a labor-intensive but stunning view of the cosmos. Kyle plans to sell prints of his work and have a show soon—bringing an audience to his solo endeavor.