Under the Stars: A photographer explains why northern Michigan has the best skies
Shelly Leigh has been taking photos of the night sky for a long time. As a kid growing up near Lansing, she said just seeing the Milky Way was enough for her to constantly wonder what was out there.
As she sets up her photography equipment on the shore of Manistique Lake, Shelly Leigh greets the stars like old friends.
She points out constellations, nebulas, her favorite clusters to capture.
Leigh has been taking photos of them for a long time. As a kid growing up near Lansing, she said just seeing the Milky Way was enough for her to constantly wonder what was out there.
But when she went up north to visit family, Leigh was able to see so much more.
“There are very few places where you’re going to see stars like this,” she said, looking north over the lake.
Now, after years of practice and acquiring plenty of good equipment, Leigh could capture stunning photos of the stars from pretty much anywhere.
Tonight, she’s hoping to capture the Northern Lights sprawling over the Upper Peninsula.
If they’re up to her standards, she might sell prints on “Michigan Milkyway” her online store she started in 2014. Each of her images depicts a different Michigan landmark or piece of natural scenery with the dazzling milky way as the backdrop.
Leigh learned how to do it all by herself, through careful research and seeking advice from experts. After all, night sky photography involves so much more than hitting buttons on a camera.
She said the man that helped her the most communicated through Facebook Messenger – a seasoned Swiss astrophotographer named Ralf Rohner.
“I bothered that man for years,” Leigh said. “And he was always very patient and answered any question.”
A lot of those questions had to do with equipment and editing.
But before Leigh can even get out in the field, she needs to plan her itinerary months in advance by charting the stars and northern lights.
“I have programs that I use. I can type in coordinates and they'll take me to where I want to go. And they'll show me what day I need to be there, what time I need to be there to get what I want,” she said.
April through July is the magic window. All of her best work is usually captured then but the fall months have some opportunity.
Her equipment is the secret to capturing a great photo. High quality cameras, big lenses, robotic tripods and tracking devices are all needed to achieve high definition images of the scenes she wants.
It’s the kind of stuff that’s not taught in your typical photography class, she said.
“To get really detailed pictures… I prefer to leave a camera out all night long. Because the more data that you have, the more detail I can pull out of it,” she said.
But, when she finally gets to where she needs to be, there’s no guarantee the weather, the light pollution or the equipment will actually cooperate with her. Sometimes, she’ll need proper permission and licenses to shoot in places like Tahquamenon Falls or on private property.
Leigh learned a long time ago that patience is part of the job.
“I just try to plan what I can and do what I can to make it work,” she said. “You can’t be let down if the Northern Lights don’t show up, then you’ll be more happy when they do actually show up.”
Unfortunately, tonight there were no lights.
After waiting for about an hour and a half, Leigh decided to pack up her equipment. But not without capturing a photo of Chamberlin's Ole Forest Inn, a local bed and breakfast just up the road from where she waited.
“It’s still a beautiful night,” she says as she snaps some photos.
This season has already been productive for capturing great photos and “Michigan Milkyway” continues to grow as new customers discover Leigh’s work.
Her main customer base, however, continues to be people who feel connected to Northern Michigan – people like Sherry Scarbarth.
“All of these photographs she’s taken reminds me of places I’ve grown up seeing,” Scarbarth said. “They remind me of all the time I spent with my grandma and grandfather up north.”
Now that Leigh’s made the Upper Peninsula her home, she can’t imagine doing anything else.
“I’m having a great time,” she said. “I get to go to a lot of really cool places and I get to be under this sky. This is my thing.”