Photographer Dan Morgan captures the cosmos in our backyard
NORTH ADAMS — When photographer Dan Morgan is looking for peace or inspiration, he looks to the night sky.
"Even if there is no interest in anyone else looking at these photographs, it's something I do for my sanity; for my own peace of mind," Morgan said of his work capturing the cosmos, which is currently capturing attention across social media locally.
Morgan documents his nightly hunts for breathtaking images of the galaxy in motion, caught in one picture, on his Facebook page. In one post he writes: "Last night was actually pretty nice skies, despite the stars fighting the waxing moon for attention, they got it." He includes an image of the sky over Greylock Glen in Adams — a time-lapse photo taken over an hour that shows stars streaking across the sky as the bright moon peeks out over the mountain.
In more ways than one you could say this isn't the photographer's day job. The father of two — a 16-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter — works at Crane & Co. in North Adams; "My future [at the company] is not entirely clear, so I do as much as I can with photography on the side," he said, noting the stationery factory's recent announcement to close its plant. Morgan and his wife and kids quarantined at home for most of March, but he returned back to his office sometime in mid-April, he said, and still goes in.
His photography — something he began to take an interest in thanks to a high school graphic art class and a "fantastic" teacher, he said — has been a constant source of creativity, stress relief and occasional income. Morgan moved to the area in 1998 and got a part-time job shooting for the North Adams Transcript, where he worked with current Berkshire Eagle photographer Gillian Jones. After three years, he took the third shift at Crane, which led to his nightly or early morning quests for photos of the sky.
"I started shooting mostly for myself," he said. "Back then, I still was using film, which was still quite expensive to do. Nowadays, it's so much easier to experiment. Thanks to digital, the only cost is the time you put in it."
Through trial and error and a lot of research, Morgan found that the best way to capture the night sky in one image is by stacking or taking 30-second shots taken over an hour or 45 minutes and stacking the images on top of one another using a photo editing tool to create one image that shows the ark (arc?) and movement of the stars.
Some photographers will obtain these kind of images by using a long-exposure time, setting up the camera with a slow shutter speed in one spot for an extended period of time. But Morgan found out the hard way it didn't always work.
"For quite a long time, I tried that way and failed miserably," he said. "It's OK — life is all about failure and learning from it. I wanted to do those kinds of shots, but too many things work against you, one stray cloud can come through and ruin everything, or the camera battery will fail."
He sells his images at small shops around the Berkshires and through his Facebook page. Pre-coronavirus, Morgan also did family portraits, freelance for The Eagle, small-venue concerts and the occasional wedding. Though, he said, street scenes and events with a lot of people and night skies are still his favorite things to shoot.
"I go through phases," he said. "I'll have an hour where I can go set up and shoot a couple of pictures; though, I'm limited to the range of how far I can drive [due to a lack of free time]. I probably have 150,000 images from around Berkshire County; it's an amazing amount of images, all within a 20-minute drive."
Morgan has always had a love of astronomy. In college, he majored in physics and astronomy, but after a few years decided that while he loved the subjects, he didn't want it to be his life's work, he said. He ended up taking a few film classes and learning about black-and-white photography. But when the recent SpaceX rocket launch happened, and Comet NEOWISE was streaking across the night sky in July, Morgan said he felt the familiar pull of wonder.
"Personally, it's a very zen thing, to go out and sit and look at the stars," he said. "I take the kids on Route 2 to an old gift shop ... and just sit. It's one of the darker places I can go and it's just within 10 minutes of North Adams. And we sit and watch the stars. I'm amazed at how many stars you can see, and your eyes get used to the darkness and all of a sudden you see your own shadows from the starlight, practically. It connects you to the earth better."
The unofficial astronomer said this is the best time of year to photograph the sky because the northern hemisphere faces the galactic core. It's also the toughest, thanks to weather.
"I watch the weather all the time, just to see the skies," he said. "The winter sky is nicer — it's clear and dry, but we're facing away from the galaxy center in the winter. If I want to do Milky Way stuff, I have to do that in the summer; but summer is tough because there is more humidity and shorter amount of night time. On those nice, 85-percent humidity days, the night time kills the stars. I watch the weather all the time, for clear skies, low humidity. That's a good recipe for getting a good viewing experience."
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.