My absolute favorite 2022 photo

Milky Way Over Grain Elevator

Milky Way Over Grain Elevator is my undisputed favorite photo of 2022!

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The back story on this amazing Milky Way photo

It would normally be very difficult for me to choose a favorite photo from any year like 2022 that included day-long stays at two national parks resulting in numbers of amazing photos — but I can't get one particular print from last year out of my head.

"Milky Way Over Grain Elevator" rises to top of my favorites list for a couple of reasons.

First, it's just beautiful. I mean, look at it! I know, I'm probably a little partial, but it quickly became one of my best sellers when I released it. That has to count for something!

But I also love the image because it's the culmination of a vision I've had in my head since my first trip to South Dakota back in 2018. I absolutely wanted to find an old grain elevator and set up for a Milky Way photo.

Watching a good buddy of mine, Colorado's Matt Vincent, shoot grain elevators in that part of the Great Plains has only added to my desire for "the shot."

So when I planned my August run through North and South Dakota, finding an abandoned grain elevator was high on my list. I ran across mentions of the ghost town of Arena not too far from Bismarck, so I put a pin on my Google Map.

Then, while chatting with fellow Bassmaster photographer James Overstreet, who literally has been everywhere in the United States, I shared my hope of creating the Milky Way shot with a grain elevator. He immediately told me I should get to Arena.

That cinched it.

I headed out to the Dakotas a few weeks later, spending several days at both Badlands National Park and the amazing Theodore Roosevelt National Park, before driving to a bass-fishing tournament in Mobridge, South Dakota.

Every day while photographing that event, my mind was on one thing: Getting to Arena to check out that grain elevator.

So when the event was finally over, I packed up the mini camper and hurried north for the drive across the border into North Dakota. I was tempted to stop a couple of times along the way, but I  wanted to be in Arena for sunset.

I was not disappointed when I finally pulled off the highway. The grain elevator was magnificent, with the main portion having lost its metal sheathing, revealing the wonderful wood shell. A check of where the Milky Way should be sitting that evening indicated it would set up perfectly.

So I settled in to shoot sunset in the little town.

I first drove across the road to the abandoned St. John's Lutheran Church. At first sight, I wasn't going to bother shooting it because it was pretty broken up. So I went back to the grain and shot the beautiful pastel skies backing the old facility..

Ghost Town Sunset

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Sunsets last forever at this latitude, however, so when I finished at the grain elevator I figured I might as well head back to the church and see what it would look like on camera.

I'm so happy I did.

The basement of St. John's has collapsed, cracking the once proud church into three pieces. But the sky was still so beautiful I couldn't help but set up.

The final print turned out great, acting as a statement on the decay of towns across the Great Plains as economies have changed and drawn people to more urban settings.

Sunset at St. John's Lutheran Church

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And then it was time to get some rest before a late-night Milky Way shoot. OK, so I have to be honest, here: I actually wasn't as hyped up as I thought I would be. By the time I found a secluded spot next to the old Arena cemetery that was level enough to jump in the camper, I was just blasted.

I had been on the road for almost three weeks, getting up no later than 4:30 a.m. and hitting the rack well after sunset every day, and I was just tired.

So as I set an 11:30 p.m. alarm and drifted to sleep, I sort of hoped I would wake up to find clouds obscuring the night skies. At least then I could say I tried before rolling over and getting some much-needed rest.

It seemed I had just closed my eyes when the alarm chirped me awake — and I felt like someone had hit me in the head with a skillet. I almost rolled over without even checking out the skies.

Thankfully, I pulled back the curtain and saw the Milky Way in its full glory. I groaned, but climbed out of the camper to drive back to the elevator.

The setup was perfect, with the Milky Way pointing right to the top of the old structure. I set up my Benro tripod so the galactic center that was just above the horizon would show around the top of the grain elevator. There was even a little light pollution from Bismarck lighting up some light clouds on the horizon to add a little flare to the image.

So I started shooting. I knew this would be a composite image, using one solid shot of the building and combining it with the night sky.

First, I used a small LED panel to light up the grain elevator. The trick is to put just enough light on the building to give it some detail. I didn't want it to look like it was daytime because that would be unnatural. So I held the panel straight up so just the edges of the light tickled the elevator, with the brightest point being those peaks (which is where I wanted the eye to be drawn).

I took probably a dozen photos focusing solely on the lighting of the building to ensure I had a great frame to use.

Then it was time to turn off the light and shoot that beautiful night sky. This was accomplished by shooting about 30 consecutive long exposures. All those photos would then be combined in a software program to align the stars and stack the images, which greatly reduces the noise inevitable with astrophotography.

I would then combine the well-exposed photo of the grain elevator with the wonderful sky image resulting from stacking all those individual frames.

So there I was, standing in the middle of North Dakota in my pajamas, just clicking away when I realized I had something in my mouth: I was so tired when the alarm went off, I didn't even realize I had failed to pull out the mouthpiece I use to keep me from snoring. I had a good laugh about that.

I wrapped up the session about 1:30 a.m., knowing I had the goods. I drove back to the cemetery and slept until about 7 a.m.

Looking at the images when I downloaded them to my laptop the next morning had me jazzed. I knew everything would fall in place for an amazing photo.

The final print is just special, the result of planning and sacrifice to transform a vision into reality. To have it become an instant Best Seller was just icing on the cake.

Prints are available here!