PHLEARN MagazineHow Ryan Heffron Perfectly Timed the Milky Way Over a Field of Blooming Sunflowers

How Ryan Heffron Perfectly Timed the Milky Way Over a Field of Blooming Sunflowers

Kansas City-based landscape photographer Ryan Heffron has traveled to some pretty amazing locations to shoot everything from the Northern Lights and a moose hunt in Sweden to New Zealand’s beautiful, imposing mountains.

But, it was in his own backyard, or at least not too far from it, that gave him the photo opportunity that would really put him on the map. Ryan’s unique images of a Kansas sunflower field set against the Milky Way have earned him massive recognition online, and have been featured on some of the industry’s biggest websites and shared extensively throughout the community.

The success of the sunflower series was a definite turning point in his career, and it all happened because of an even bigger turning point in his life: the birth of his son. Deciding to put travel on hold and stay home with the new baby, Ryan took this as a chance to photograph the nearby sunflower field, which he had been thinking about for years. But, he only had a very short window of time to get the shot – six days where the sunflowers would be in bloom and the Milky Way would be visible. He had no idea what to expect.

I recently had the chance to talk to Ryan about the sunflowers photoshoot and its success; how he was able to capture a complete solar eclipse; and how having a child has changed his life and the way he chooses his photo projects.


How did you get started in photography?

Ryan

It kind of goes back to my childhood. My mom worked in graphic design, so I got a lot of experience going into the shop when I was a kid. Going into the shop and playing with Photoshop, the original versions of Photoshop. So, growing up I wanted to do a similar thing. Through college and highschool, I took some intro photography classes and that Photoshop design background kind of blended pretty well into photography. It was something I always had a passing interest in. And then once I got into college, I started taking a lot more classes.

One of the big pushes for me to get more into photography was when I took a student ambassador trip to Australia when I was 16. In one of the gift shops, I ended up picking up one of Peter Lik‘s landscape photography books, and seeing all those landscape pictures inspired me to really want to get into photography and do landscape photography. It all just snowballed from there.

I primarily do weddings and family portraits, all the revenue-makers, but my passion is still landscape and nature photography and traveling. For three years, I worked as Director of Photography for a marketing agency here. We did a lot of photo and film media for companies like ZEISS, GORE-TEX, YETI Coolers, a lot of their sporting divisions. We would go around the world on different trips to New Zealand or maybe South Africa, making short films of the trip, and then getting all the photos for their product launches. But, once we found out our little guy was coming along, I couldn’t be on the road for five, six months out of the year, so it took a back seat. Now I’m a stay-at-home dad and doing other stuff in the meantime.

You mentioned Peter Lik, who are some other big influences in your work?

Ryan

Yeah, definitely Peter Lik. Seeing his landscape work is really what inspired me to get into that particular genre. He had a big influence on me when I was growing up and just getting into the field. Another big one would probably be Galen Rowell.

When it comes to your landscape photography, do you have any particular habits that are part of how you begin your creative process?

Ryan

A lot of it is starts with pre-production and just scouring Google Earth. I don’t get a lot of opportunities to take big trips, so I try to keep a lot of trips to two or three days where I can just drive out and drive back. I just scour Google Earth for stuff that’s five to 10 hours from home. Then, a lot of time is spent on apps looking for sun and moon positions, sunset times, Milky Way positions. I try to get as much planning done, try to map out different spots I want to hit along the route, to maximize my time. Then I get there and just see what I see at that point. I try and maintain a similar schedule but, obviously, I play it by ear.

Talking about apps that you’re using to scout locations, how did you find those? How did you become knowledgeable about all of that information?

Ryan

I had just picked stuff up through other searches. Google Earth and Google Maps are my starting point. That’s the best way to scour locations and get an idea of where I really want to be. Then I use The Photographer’s Ephemeris. That has an app that shows all the sun and moon positions, and the shadow positions and how it travels across the landscape. I use that one and a mix of PlanIt! app. I use that one a lot for Milky Way positions, and seeing when the moon is going to be hidden and when the Milky Way is going to be brightest. It shows e-maps for where the city lights are and where dark sky is.

There’s a location I’m planning on going to here next month that I’m really excited about, because there’s going to be no moon and it’s like one of the darkest spots in the country. I’m really hoping to get some good Milky Way shots behind these cool rock formations up in the middle of Kansas. It’s out in the middle of the plains. There are these giant limestone cliffs, rock formations and tunnels, and completely out of the element for the middle of Kansas. I think it should look really cool. I’ve been looking at that, keeping my plans on my phone, monitoring the conditions, weather also, got to keep an eye on the weather, you know. Nice, somewhat cloudy evenings just after storms are great, nice dramatic skies, I don’t like plain skies. Plain, clean skies are boring.

What’s your favorite location that you’ve ever shot?

Ryan

I was down filming for ZEISS in New Zealand two years ago. New Zealand is amazing. Everywhere you look, it’s just a beautiful picturesque location. Being up in the mountains there, you know, some Lord of the Rings landscapes, it looks pretty amazing.

The other cool one, I was up north of the Arctic Circle in Sweden filming a moose hunt for ZEISS Sports Optic, and getting to experience the Northern Lights up there for the first time was really awesome. I was just in awe sitting out on the porch all night just looking up at the sky. When you see them starting to flow, it’s a really cool sight, especially up there where we were because it’s such an old culture and an old land. It just had that feeling of what’s it like a thousand years ago when people were sitting next to campfires, and they’d look up and see this stuff, that they had to have imagined it. It was pretty cool.

Do you have a favorite book that you would recommend to other creative people?

Ryan

My favorite book would be “Australia: Images of a Timeless Land.” That’s the book that I bought by Peter Lik, one of his original Australian landscape books that inspired me to get into it all. Just seeing that you can obtain in the right light, in the right conditions, really made me want to hunt for it.

But, honestly, there’s so much media stuff out there these days that we can learn from peers, and be inspired by our peers. I think the best way to learn is just to grab your camera and get out there and just keep shooting. I’ve been shooting for 10 years and most of what I know, it’s a lot of osmosis from seeing and picking up through other people. But a lot of is just experimenting and shooting a lot.

What do you do when you hit a wall or have a creative clock, how do you get past that?

Ryan

Honestly, I just take a step away and focus on shooting this little guy.
[Ryan’s two-year-old son has been joining in the interview today, running in and out of the room with his infectious giggle, and jumping up on Ryan’s lap, eager to show me things like Daddy’s phone, pointing out that it’s raining outside, and talking about butterflies.]

And just taking some time away to clear the mind, focus on family for a little bit. Inevitably, I’ll hop back on Instagram and see another awesome picture and that’ll get me scouring the landscape again for some more cool shots. That’s the beautiful thing about the world. There’s beauty all around, there’s always something pretty to find.

What does your son think about you taking pictures? Does he like it?

Ryan

Oh, yeah. He’s starting to become a little ham in front of the camera. I just got a D850 not too long ago and, you know, they’re pretty big, heavy, professional cameras. I had it sitting on the floor the other day, and he comes up and he grabs it. He picks it up, this whole thing, struggling to prop it up with his arms, and he holds it up to his eye, points it at me, presses the trigger, and it’s a perfectly clear shot. I’m like, “Oh man, come on.” He’s using my professional SLR and takes a decent picture. I’m really looking forward to when he’s a couple years older and he can come on trips with me.

Do you ever take the family on trips now if there’s somewhere fairly close by that you’re going to shoot?

Ryan

I haven’t with him. I drag my wife along sometimes to her dismay. I guess she gets a little bored, but she just sits and reads a book, and helps me carry stuff. It gets us out on some hiking and backpacking trips. She just doesn’t like the part when we finally get to where we’re going and she has to wait for me to take all my pictures. We’re actually planning a trip out to Colorado next month and that’s when I’m going to shoot the stuff in Kansas that I was talking about.

Do you have a favorite photo you’ve taken?

Ryan

The sunflower ones are probably some of my favorites right now. They were some of the first ones where I had it pretty visualized for months. And, it worked out almost as perfect as I could have hoped for.

One of my favorites of all time is actually of my son running through a field of flowers. This is right after him taking his first steps. Kind of a landscape one, nice field of pretty flowers.

How did the sunflower photos came about? What was involved in the planning to get those shots?

Ryan

I’ve lived in Kansas City for almost 10 years and pretty quickly after I moved down here, I started seeing some pictures of sunflowers in the area. I knew that there was a really great farm not too far from here that had really great sunflower fields. For years I would see pictures of it – sunset shots, daytime shots, and I was, like, “Okay, I’m gonna go out and get my sunflower pictures too, but I wonder if anyone has ever tried to do any at night?” I was looking out there and I kept thinking, “If I could get a clear sky I could probably get the Milky Way behind it and that might make for some really cool, unique ones.”

So, finally after years, I made a plan. I got on those apps, I scoured my directions, my Milky Way, when it was going to be as high in the sky as possible, vertical, and picked the six-day window where the moon was going to be either a new moon or still down below the horizon. Usually, there is only a week or two window where they’re blooming every year. So, you gotta be quick. Between when the moon was going to be right, when the flowers were going to be blooming, and then spending the weeks leading up just keeping an eye on the weather for when there wasn’t going to be rain or storms.

Luckily, as we got closer, I saw that there were going to be two days where we were going to have clear nights. I went out there the first night, on September 1st, one of the first nights that all the flowers had bloomed. And I tested it out, perfect concept, all the shots worked. I used some focus stacking for the ones with the flowers close-up and the Milky Way way in the back.

And then, I saw that I was going to get another clear night, four nights later, on September 5th, so I asked my mom to come out with me that night to help with the light, light stands, and stuff because I wanted to get some brighter shots. We made it out there and had my camera facing the Milky Way to get the flowers lit up. I had some LED light panels with me and I made it out there to light up the fields of flowers to balance with the Milky Way behind it. That night, looking right in the camera, I knew I had exactly what I wanted.

I was drenched because I was wearing rain gear, even though it wasn’t raining, because I despise bugs and mosquitoes and they’re horrible out there. I knew I was going to be standing out there, so I had rain gear on, taped up, drenched in bug spray. Miserable conditions. But, I’d rather be miserable for one night for a few hours than miserable for the next two weeks itching all over.

Luckily, the Milky Way came up fairly soon after sunset, so I hung out getting some timelapses and shooting at sunset. And then at 10:30 it was really dark and I could start getting my shots. I just hung out and played around until about midnight. It’s only about 45 minutes away so I was home before 1:00 and back in bed.

The response to the sunflower photos has been incredible. At what point did you decide to share them and were you surprised by the response?

Ryan

Yeah, I was really surprised, honestly. I knew when I saw them that they looked cool and it was unique, that I hadn’t seen anything like that before. And, I knew that because there’s such a short window that they’re blooming that there’s also a short window where people are going to be interested in them. So, I got them processed as quick as I could, and I threw them up on my business Facebook page, not expecting much of a response.

I just tagged the farm and let it go. Up until that point, my biggest post had been a paid post that got 3,000 views or whatever. And this one, by the time it was all said and done, I had it on Facebook completely organic, it got 500,000 views with 15,000 likes and 5,000 shares. I was blown away. So, I decided to put it up on Reddit too and it ended up hitting the front page of Reddit. I think on there it got over five million views. PetaPixel saw it, asked about it and that kind of got it some more exposure. It was just one of those things where the timing was right, and it was a unique perspective that people hadn’t seen, so it really took off. I was pretty amazed by it.

You also have a series of eclipse photos that have made an impact online. Could you tell us a little bit about those?

Ryan

I had heard about the eclipse for about a year prior. My mom sent me a newspaper clipping and was like, “Hey, you see there’s going to be an eclipse coming right over us?” The last time I saw a partial one, I was probably around six, when I lived back up near Seattle. This time, the path of the eclipse came almost right over where we’re living now. So, I was only going to have to drive a short ways to be in complete totality, and obviously, it was an experience I wasn’t going to pass up.

So, I again went to Google Earth and Google Maps to scour locations along the route there to see if there’s anything particularly cool. I wanted to get one with a really cool tree in the foreground and the eclipse above it. But, being that it was in the middle of the day, the sun was going to be really high in the sky when it happened, so I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to. But, I did find a big, cool, old oak tree outside of Columbia, Missouri, so I decided that was going to be the spot that I was going to go to.

Once I had that spot picked out, I got online to buy some solar film, did as much reading as I could to read up on best practices for getting the shot right as the sun transitions and all that stuff because I never shot an eclipse before. I rented a 600mm from BorrowLenses. I got that out and my solar filter over the top and I practiced just shooting the plain sun for a day or two beforehand to be ready. Then, it was the day. We drove out there, picked our spot, got all set up. Apparently, other people had the same thing in mind too, because there were like 200 other cars that ended up parking along the road.

It wasn’t as secluded as I was thinking. It turned out to be a pretty popular location. But it was kind of a fun little experience because it turned out to be a little bit of a party. People were picnicking out there and having a good time.

I had my stuff set up, all ready to go, and clouds started moving in, and everyone was freaking out because two minutes to go time and there was mostly cloud cover. All this time and patience waiting and now we might miss it. As it went to full eclipse, clouds came over, but I had my 600mm.

Luckily, I had two cameras with me at that time. I had one shooting video and one taking pictures. The video that I got of the full eclipse coming out as the clouds started to clear in front of it is like the coolest shot I’ve ever seen in my life. I was so pumped about it. How it’s just shaping out the sides and stuff, that’s all from clouds and I think it just gave it that extra oomph that really made it look cool.We only got about 20 seconds of actually seeing the full totality, but I was pretty amazed at myself because it happened so quick that if you’re just off a little bit, or don’t have your settings right, that’s it.

The whole experience of feeling the shadow coming towards you, and it’s starting to look like sunset in the middle of the day. You feel the temperature lower and the crickets start to come out and chirp. Then, as it hits, it’s like a 360-degree sunset all around the horizon and it’s so cool. It’s a unique feeling that you really can’t describe because it’s so unusual. It was a fun experience.

I know that you’re just staying close to home now, shooting weddings and things like that, but anything on the horizon that we should be keeping an eye out for? Do you have any new projects that you’re working on?

Ryan

This one I’ve got coming up next month is one that I am looking forward to. But no, no big trips on the horizon, unfortunately. Just a couple smaller projects, trying to make Kansas look pretty.

Yeah, I’m surprised that the Kansas Tourism Board hasn’t contacted you yet.

Ryan

Actually, I think the sunflower ones are in the most recent Kansas Tour Guide for 2018!

Update: The day we posted this interview, Ryan shot the rock formations he was talking about. This landscape in the middle of Kansas used to be at the bottom of a shallow sea. If you’d like to see more photos from the same night, visit Ryan’s Facebook page.

You can see more of Ryan’s beautiful landscape photography on his website and on his Instagram and Facebook pages.

Jennifer Berube

Jen is Editor of PHLEARN Magazine, where she helps shape inspiring stories and handy tips for aspiring and seasoned photographers. She has worked as a photography writer for many years, contributing to numerous industry-leading publications. Proudly Canadian, wannabe globetrotter, self-taught photographer, Jen is temporarily settled in Spain.

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