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Shooting for the stars (12 photos)

Thunder Bay’s night skies are some of the best in the province.

Local photographer Kay Lee took his first Milky Way photo in 2017, inspired by night sky photos from New Zealand that a friend posted on Instagram. “I started researching the Milky Way, and realized that in Thunder Bay, during the new moon phase, you can see it right over the Sleeping Giant,” he recalls.

In 2019, when he heard that Quetico Provincial Park was trying to get recognized as a dark sky preserve by the International Dark-Sky Association, he offered to take some night sky photos for the park. “Those were some of the best photos I’ve ever taken,” Lee says. He was honoured that Ontario Parks used his photos to spread awareness about light pollution.

Fortunately for us, Northwestern Ontario has plenty of dark skies, even if they are not certified. Lee says he used to just drive around, looking for good spots to take night sky photos.

“But planning helps,” he says. “At home, I spend a lot of time on Google Maps and Google Earth. I go check out [locations] during the day.”

Nowadays, there are numerous websites and apps that help with planning. There are dark sky location websites, northern lights prediction alerts and weather apps that include cloud cover and sky visibility predictions. A comprehensive app like PhotoPills can calculate where objects in the sky such as the sun, the moon and the Milky Way, will be at any given location and time.

Lee says some of his favourite places to go are MacKenzie Point and Silver Harbour. “They’re facing the perfect direction, they’re out of light pollution, and they’re well maintained,” he says. He hopes to be more adventurous this year, perhaps camping overnight to get to locations that require hiking.

People who want to try night sky photography don’t necessarily need to spend lots on new equipment, according to Lee. “Any modern DSLR or mirrorless camera from the last 10 years or so is ok, even with a kit lens,” he says. “And if you feel like this is a thing you want to do, you can invest in a better camera; that helps to a certain level. And faster lenses - with a lower f-stop number f2.8 or lower, help a lot.”

“But probably the most important thing is a tripod,” he adds. Frequently overlooked, tripods are the foundation of every night sky photo. “It’s not the easiest thing to do, but spend at least 10 per cent or even 20 per cent of the cost of your camera and lens into purchasing a tripod.”

Lee recently started a Facebook group, Thunder Bay Starchasers, so that enthusiasts can share their photos, experiences and knowledge. A commercial photographer by day, he feels lucky being able to make his passion his full time job. Being able to branch out into night time photography is a big perk of living in Thunder Bay.

“It’s amazing what we can see in Thunder Bay - it’s a blessing,” he says.