Last year, I wanted to capture the galaxy for my birthday. On the first minute of my 27th at midnight, sleepy Oscar drove me to the Puuc in the darkness of the New Moon, where dry tropical forests roll across large hills. The hills remind me of pyramids, vertical peninsulas, and the night sky surrounds me, like the deepest ocean.
The ancient Maya constructed huge agricultural communities among the hills, building their temples and observatories on top. Most certainly, the region was more densely populated in those times. Today, small Maya-speaking towns sprinkle lightly across the map, giving off very little light pollution and making southern Yucatán prime territory for stargazing – humanity’s most timeless ritual.
The moonless night sky coaxes out the stars, leading to complete, overwhelming visibility of astral phenomena. That night, along the one-lane road leading from Oxkutzcab to Yaxhachén, I took my first-ever photograph of the Milky Way (demystifying the process; learn “how-to” on our website).
This month, the lunar calendar presents daily opportunities for entertainment. The New Moon falls on March 17 and again on April 16. Each New Moon is in the middle of a four-day window ideal for getting out of the city and heading to the the Puuc to revel underneath the starriest night skies.
On March 20, invite Spring into your life by observing the Equinox at Dzibilchaltún or Chichén Itzá – a memory of ancient cosmology and a spectacular visual experience. Be sure to reflect on the importance that the Maya civilization placed on these special dates, and ponder why this event is absent in many modern cultures.
And then, over the next ten days, observe the low-hanging moon move through its phases into its fullest expression on March 31, the last day of the month. Watch the Full Moon duck between colonial architecture in Mérida’s Centro or see it illuminating the waves on our coastal shores. Unlike the New Moon (which commands you to leave the city and immerse yourself in darkness), the Full Moon reveals herself no matter where you are – just go outside.
How to Capture the Galaxy
Although it might feel intimidating, you can photograph the stars during the New Moon (March 17 and April 16) using the manual settings on your smartphone or by downloading the photography application “VSCO.” Before heading out set these four settings to the following:
WB (White Balance): 3,500 Kelvin
F/stop (Aperture): Lowest number available (wide open)
Shutter speed (Velocity): from 1/8 to 30 seconds
During your first shoot, leave WB, ISO, and f/stop constant and focus only on changing your camera’s shutter speed and determining a pleasing composition. Compose your photo around a tree or building, which looks like a big shadow in front of you and has a clear background of stars.
Start by taking photos with a few seconds of exposure, and move all the way up to 30 seconds. Remember the most important factors are darkness and stability – zero movement. Over the course of an hour or more, patiently take pictures at different velocities using a tripod or steady surface. Later, study and edit your photos in VSCO.