Awesome Auriga


My previous post was a profile of Perseus. Right next door in the current evening sky is Auriga the Charioteer, embedded right in the middle of the Milky Way. This is a 50mm “normal” lens shot of all of Auriga showing its distinctive pentagon shape with the bright yellow star, Capella, at top. It’s the bright star shining high overhead on winter nights, at least if you live in the northern hemisphere at latitudes like the US and Canada. What is not obvious (because it can’t be resolved through a telescope) is that Capella is a close double star, made of twin suns orbiting each other at about the same distance apart as are the Sun and Venus. A planet orbiting the pair would definitely see a Tatooine-style double-Sun sunset. Not to say Luke Skywalker was from the Capella system — remember Luke’s tale took place in a Galaxy far, far away! Capella is just 42 light years from Earth.

What shows up here just below centre is some of the wisps of red nebulosity in the middle of Auriga (tough to see visually but easy for the camera to see), as well as the trio of star clusters first catalogued by Charles Messier in the 18th century and that are great objects for any telescope. Notice how the Milky Way brightens through Auriga, partly by way of contrast to the lanes of dark nebulosity to the right that weave through Taurus and Perseus. The streak of nebulosity at right is the California Nebula in Perseus. Flip back to the previous blog to see more of Perseus, in a shot taken the same night.

I took this shot on January 23, 2011 (just about the last decent night we’ve had!) with the Canon 5D MkII set at ISO 800 and the 50mm Sigma lens set at f/2.8. It’s stack of  five 4-minute exposures, plus three 4-minute exposures with the Kenko soft filter to add the star glows. The blog “Fuzzy Constellations” a few posts back gives some more details about my technique.

– Alan, February 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Pursuing Perseus


One of the tenets of my astrophotography “philosophy,” if there can be such a thing (my university degree is in Philosophy after all), is to not spend an enormous amount of time and money chasing after the same images others do, knowing they will likely get far better results than I might achieve, given my location and choice number of clear skies. I don’t live in Arizona, New Mexico or Chile.

Yes, there are certain showpiece objects one is obliged to shoot, to add to the portfolio. But rather than go after many of the usual galaxies and nebulas, I often prefer to shoot wider-field targets that others often bypass.

Simple shots of constellations are often more in demand by publishers than closeups of deep-sky objects, and yet are usually in short supply, as many astrophotographers dismiss them as being “just for beginners.” But good constellation shots still take the right gear, techniques and skies to stand out. Only now am I getting the results I’ve long sought.

With new techniques now in hand, one of my goals is to accumulate a complete portfolio of constellation portraits, though not all of these star patterns stand out as being photogenic. But this one does.

This shot is a recent favourite of mine, of the constellation of Perseus, a rich area of sky. Modern digital cameras show it as the old film cameras never could, laced with reddish dark nebulas of different densities. The Milky Way through this region takes on such a variety of subtle hues achieving correct colour balance is tough.

At top is the loose collection of hot blue stars known as the Perseus Association. At bottom is the most famous tightly bound cluster of stars, the Pleiades. Between is the finger of glowing hydrogen gas called the California Nebula. This photo is an example of how “simple constellation” shots can take on a beauty of their own.

– Alan, February 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

The Wonderful Winter Sky


While I took this image a year ago in early 2010, I thought I’d post this up now, with the new blog now underway. This is a mosaic of what surely ranks as one of the most amazing areas of sky — the vast panorama of the night sky visible in the northern hemisphere each winter. Here we see more bright stars than at any other season of the year, in the constellations (in clockwise order) of Orion, Canis Minor, Gemini, Auriga, and Taurus. Canis Major and its luminary, Sirius, are just off the bottom of the frame.

This is a 4-panel mosaic, each panel consisting of four 4-minute exposures plus two 4-minute exposures with a soft diffuser filter to add the star glows. Each was taken at ISO 800 with the Canon 5D MkII and a 35mm lens at f/4. Slight haze, changing sky fog, and changing elevation of the fields make it tough to get consistent colours across the sky during the couple of hours of exposure time needed to grab the images for such a mosaic, especially from my home latitude. But this attempt worked pretty well and records the wealth of bright red and dark nebulosity throughout this area of sky, a region of the Milky Way in our spiral arm but a little farther out from the centre of the Galaxy than where we live.

– Alan, January 2011 / Image © 2010 Alan Dyer

The Dark Clouds of Taurus


An area of sky often neglected but ideal for digital imaging is the region of Milky Way in Taurus and Auriga. Threaded through this area of sky are large lanes of dark interstellar dust, forming cold molecular clouds out of which stars form. This complex is close, only 400 light years away, in our spiral arm of the Galaxy, and so is spread out over a wide area of sky. Only piggybacked cameras with normal and wide-angle lenses capture it. But today’s digital cameras are able to record these kinds of dark nebulae as more than just dark holes in the sky — they have colour, usually shades of reddish-brown.

This is a shot from January 2011 from my home backyard, and takes in all of Taurus, most of Auriga and southern Perseus, with the Pleiades at right and the Hyades below.

— Alan, January 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Hazy Hyades


Here’s a photogenic rendering of a classic northern winter sky object, the Hyades star cluster in Taurus. The Kenko Softon filter added the star glows and punched out the subtle colour variations in the stars. Note how the Hyades stars come in shades of blue and white. The yellow star is Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the Bull and an interloper here — Aldebaran is actually halfway between us and the Hyades, which lie about 150 light years away, and are true cluster of stars moving together through space. Note the much more distant and smaller star cluster, NGC 1647, at left.

— Alan, January 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Fuzzy Constellations


I’ve tried for years to create the effect of fuzzy haloes around stars to pop out the brighter stars and make the constellation pattern more obvious. It’s the “Akira Fuji” effect, named for the ace Japanese astrophotographer who has long perfected the technique with beautiful and widely-published results. I’ve tried various soft focus and diffusion filters, scratched UV filters, vaseline-smeared filters, breathing on filters, etc., etc. None have worked well. Till now.

The Kenko “Softon” filter offered by Hutech Scientific works fabulously well! It’s a tough filter to find in local camera stores here — but Hutech sells it. And it really changes the way I do constellation shooting, making any previous shots obsolete. I take several shots without the filter then one or more of the same exposure with the filter in place. I stack the two types of exposures  in Photoshop, with the fuzz-filter layer blended with a Lighten mode to a varying opacity to “dial in” the level of fuzziness that looks good. Too much and it looks overdone and fake.

The technique also pops out the star colours, like here on red Betelgeuse amid the blue-white stars of  Orion. This was from January 2011 from my backyard and is a stack of four 5-minute exposures w/o filter and one with. All with the Canon 5D MkII and 50mm Sigma lens, a terrific combination for constellation portraits.

— Alan, January 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Canis Major Hopping


On one of the few clear nights so far this winter I was able to make Canis Major obey for a while and pose for a shot of the canine constellation hopping along my horizon in the south. From my latitude of 51° N he never appears high in the sky, though the placement on the horizon does make for a photogenic winter scene. Here, you can see the Messier star cluster M41 just below Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest star in the night sky and the bright jewel in the collar of Canis Major (according to some depictions of the constellation). This is a stack of five 4-minute exposures  with the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 and a 50mm Sigma lens at f/2.8, plus a single 4-minute exposure with the Kenko soft filter to add the enhanced hazy star glows.

– Alan, January 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer