Fall has come and gone quickly in the Canadian Rockies, meaning it’s time for me to round up my five favourite milky way shots of 2021. This year, I spent a lot of time shooting in Waterton Lakes National Park. I worked with the Dark Sky Guides, creating digital content while following them around during their tours. It was such a fun project and the perfect fit for me – most of the shooting was done at night and outside.

A dark sky tour guide pointing out constellations to a family on a hike at red rock canyon in Waterton

During one of our more stringent lockdowns in the spring, I spent over a month focusing on wildlife photography. Waterton is also known for its wildlife viewing, and I spent a few days there for bears. I did take advantage of any clear night skies during my wildlife trips, of course.

A black bear cub perches on a fallen tree while the sow walks behind

More than half of the images I’ve picked as my favourites are from Waterton since I spent so much time there during the 2021 Milky Way season. Waterton is a fantastic place for night photography – if you can find a night where the wind isn’t going to take out your tripod. Waterton Lakes National Park and Glacier National Park (on the other side of the lake) are recognized by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) as an International Dark Sky Park. Waterton is Bortle Class 2, meaning the skies are very dark. It’s easy to spot constellations, the Milky Way, and other night sky objects that are large enough to be visible to the naked eye (cameras can pick up more than our eyes can, and of course, some people have telescopes).

Here’s the Waterton heavy 2021 list of favourite Milky Way shots. I’ve included some notes on settings and techniques used in night photography.

Edge

Hiker standing on a ridge over Waterton Lakes and Town with Milky Way over Vimy Peak

Some years I can’t pick which Milky Way image would be the absolute top one. However, this self-portrait wins this year. It snowed until almost precisely when I needed to start hiking to catch the Milky Way rising above the mountains. The wind was nonexistent at the parking lot, but by the time I had my cameras set up, it was gusty pretty strongly and sometimes blowing the fresh snow around. Luckily for me, the wind direction was pushing me onto the plateau and not off of it.

Technical:

ISO6400 f2.8 14mm 13s
Nikon d850 + Nikkor 14-24 f2.8
Single shot

Otherworld

Milky Way over Ha Ling Peak in Kananaskis Alberta

I love shooting at night in the spring because the snow on the mountains reflects starlight well (as well as light pollution). I think the mountains are extra beautiful with snow on them. The atmosphere had some haze in it this night, giving some of the brightest stars a glowing effect. I used a star tracker to capture this image as well. If you wonder how much weight I carry up a mountain, well…I’ve never calculated it. If my joints don’t know the exact number, then they can handle carry everything, right?
The camera gear I take includes two Nikons, three lenses, a star tracker, two tripods, remotes, and other small accessories.

Technical:

ISO1600 f4 14mm 90s
Nikon d850 + Nikkor 14-24 f2.8
Stacked and tracked

Ridge

Corniced ridge leading to Ha Ling with the Milky Way rising in the sky

This image is all about triangles and leading lines. Light pollution from Canmore lights up everything in the foreground. While that’s great for getting detail in the ridge with the small cornice and the mountain in the background, it does affect the night sky. The Milky Way is low to the horizon in the early spring as it rises before dawn. It’s not very bright, and light pollution can dim it more. Even though the Milky Way doesn’t pop much as it does in some of my other images, I love this composition.

Technical:

Sky: ISO6400 f2.8 14mm 15s
Foreground: ISO3200 f2.8 14mm 30s
Nikon d850 + Nikkor 14-24 f2.8
Focus stacked, blended and stacked for noise

Rise Above

Milky Way arcing over Waterton Lakes National Park and town

Milky Way panoramas are one of my favourite things to shoot, especially in May. May was actually a very cloudy and rainy month this year, so I didn’t get out very much. This panorama – taken very close to dawn – over Waterton is one of the few panoramas I shot in 2021. On the left side, you can see colour on the horizon from the sun approaching the horizon. The sky is quite bright already, and the Milky Way is fading away. Light pollution lights up the surrounding mountains, even though the town of Waterton has taken steps to minimize light pollution.

Technical:

ISO6400 f2.8 14mm 13s
Nikon d850 + Nikkor 14-24 f2.8
10 shot panorama

Meteors of Waterton

Milky Way and Prince of Wales Hotel reflecting in Waterton Lake with perseids meteor showers raining down

I was in Waterton for the Perseids meteor shower this year and lucked out with a good amount of clear skies. This image is a blend of multiple shots over four hours. I set up the camera to run a timelapse, taking 15s exposures with 1s in between. While the camera ran, I relaxed on the chilly beach and watched and listened to my camera miss tons of meteors. The meteors you see in this photo are the best ones from the four-hour timelapse in my frame.

Technical:

ISO6400 f2.8 18mm 15s
Nikon d850 + Nikkor 14-24 f2.8
Blend

Favourite Non Milky Way Shot

Green aurora and purple pillars above the Town of Banff at Night

I spent seven hours shooting through the night above Banff on the night I took this image. There was a prediction for the aurora to happen that night, but the timing is never exact. I headed up just before darkness, prepared with a book, blanket, hot tea, and snacks. A faint band was visible when I arrived at my vantage point. I had just enough time to set up my cameras when the lights started dancing. I love how the bright arc was low and above the town lights in this image, with purple pillars spiking up high into the sky.

And no, I didn’t touch my book while I up there.

Technical:

ISO6400 f2.8 18mm 5s
Nikon d850 + Nikkor 14-24 f2.8
Single


If you’d like to experience Waterton during the day and night, join me for Wonders of Waterton May 23-26th, 2022. For a full night photography workshop, Milky Way March in Banff, Mar 25-27, 2022, is a great one! You can also book a private workshop and customize the session to what you want to work on.
I will also be launching a Women’s Night Photography Retreat soon – it will be running Mar 15-19, 2023!