There’s a slogan used in the U.S. National Parks that “half the Park is after dark.” It is certainly true at Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta.
Last Friday night, March 29, I spent the evening at one of my favourite nightscape sites, Dinosaur Provincial Park, about an hour’s drive east of my home. It was one of those magical nights – clear, mild, dry, and no mosquitoes! Yet!
I wanted to shoot Orion and the photogenic winter sky setting into the evening twilight over the Badlands landscape. This was the last moonless weekend to do so.
I shot some individual images (such as above) and also multi-panel panoramas, created by shooting a series of overlapping images at equal spacings, then stitching them later at the computer.
There’s a narrow window of time between twilight and full darkness when the Milky Way shows up well but the western sky still has a lingering blue glow. This window occurs after the normal “blue hour” favoured by photographers.
The panorama above shows the arch of the winter Milky Way but also the towering band of the Zodiacal Light rising out of the twilight and distant yellow glow of Calgary. Zodiacal Light is sunlight scattering off meteoric and cometary dust orbiting in the inner solar system, so this is a phenomenon in space not in our atmosphere. However, the narrow streak is an aircraft contrail.
Later that night, when the sky was fully dark I shot this complete panorama showing not only the Milky Way and Zodiacal Light to the west, but also the faint arc of the Zodiacal Band continuing on from the pyramid-shaped Zodiacal Light over into the east, where it brightens into the subtle glow of Gegenschein. This is caused by sunlight reflecting off interplanetary dust particles in the direction opposite the Sun.
Both the Band and Gegenschein were visible to the naked eye, but only if you knew what to look for, and have a very dark sky.
A closeup shows the Zodiacal Light in the west as the subtle blue glow tapering toward the top as it meets the Milky Way.
It takes a dark site to see these subtle glows. Dinosaur Park is not an official Dark Sky Preserve but certainly deserves to be. Now if we could only get Calgary, Brooks and Bassano to turn down and shield their lights!
A closeup facing the other way, to the east, shows the area of sky opposite the Milky Way, in the spring sky. The familiar Big Dipper, now high our spring sky, is at top with its handle pointing down to Arcturus and Spica (just rising above the horizon) – remember to “arc to Arcturus, and speed on to Spica.”
Leo is at right of centre, flanked by the Beehive and Coma Berenices star clusters.
Polaris is at left — however, the distortion introduced by the panorama stitching at high altitudes stretches out the sky at the top of the frame, so the Dipper’s Pointer stars do not point in a straight line to Polaris.
The faint Zodiacal Band is visible at right, brightening toward the horizon in the Gegenschein.
I shoot images like these for use as illustrations in future eBook projects about stargazing and the wonders of the night sky. Several are in the works!
For two magical nights I was able to capture the Rockies by moonlight, with the brilliant stars of winter setting behind the mountains.
I’ve been waiting for nights like these for many years! I consider this my “25-Year Challenge!”
Back during my early years of shooting nightscapes I was able to capture the scene of Orion setting over Lake Louise and the peaks of the Continental Divide, with the landscape lit by the Moon.
Such a scene is possible only in late winter, before Orion sets out of sight and, in March, with a waxing gibbous Moon to the east to light the scene but not appear in the scene. There are only a few nights each year the photograph is possible. Most are clouded out!
Above is the scene in March 1995, in one of my favourite captures on film. What a night that was!
But it has taken 24 years for my schedule, the weather, and the Moon phase to all align to allow me to repeat the shoot in the digital age. Thus the Challenge.
Here’s the result.
Unlike with film, digital images make it so much easier to stitch multiple photos into a panorama.
In the film days I often shot long single exposures to produce star trails, though the correct exposure was an educated guess factoring in variables like film reciprocity failure and strength of the moonlight.
Below is an example from that same shoot in March 1995. Again, one of my favourite film images.
This year, time didn’t allow me to shoot enough images for a star trail. In the digital age, we generally shoot lots of short exposures to stack them for a trail.
Instead, I shot this single image of Orion setting over Mt. Temple.
Plus I shot the panorama below, both taken at Morant’s Curve, a viewpoint named for the famed CPR photographer Nicholas Morant who often shot from here with large format film cameras. Kevin Keefe of Trains magazine wrote a nice blog about Morant.
I was shooting multi-segment panoramas when a whistle in the distance to the west alerted me to the oncoming train. I started the panorama segment shooting at the left, and just by good luck the train was in front of me at centre when I hit the central segment. I continued to the right to catch the blurred rest of the train snaking around Morant’s Curve. I was very pleased with the result.
The night before I was at another favourite spot, Two Jack Lake near Banff, to again shoot panoramas of the moonlit scene below the bright stars of the winter sky.
A run up to the end of the Vermilion Lakes road at the end of that night allowed me to capture Orion and Siris reflected in the open water of the upper lake.
Unlike in the film days, today we also have some wonderful digital planning tools to help us pick the right sites and times to capture the scene as we envision it.
This is a screen shot of the PhotoPills app in its “augmented reality” mode, taken by day during a scouting session at Two Jack, but showing where the Milky Way will be later that night in relation to the real “live” scene shot with the phone’s camera.
The app I like for planning before the trip is The Photographer’s Ephemeris. This is a shot of the plan for the Lake Louise shoot. The yellow lines are the sunrise and sunset points. The thin blue line at lower right is the angle toward the gibbous Moon at about 10 p.m. on March 19.
Even better than TPE is its companion program TPE 3D, which allows you to preview the scene with the mountain peaks, sky, and illumination all accurately simulated for your chosen location. I am impressed!
Compare the simulation above to the real thing below, in a wide 180° panorama.
These sort of moonlit nightscapes are what I started with 25 years ago, as they were what film could do well.
These days, everyone chases after dark sky scenes with the Milky Way, and they do look wonderful, beyond anything film could do. I shoot many myself. And I include an entire chapter in my ebook above about shooting the Milky Way.
But … there’s still a beauty in a contrasty moonlit scene with a deep blue sky from moonlight, especially with the winter sky and its population of bright stars and constellations.
I’m glad the weather and Moon finally cooperated at the right time to allow me to capture these magical moonlit panoramas.
As I do a couple of times a year, earlier this month I was cruising the coast of Norway chasing the Northern Lights – successfully!
One of my “retirement gigs” is to serve as a lecturer for the educational travel company Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) on some of their aurora cruises along the Norwegian coast on one of the Hurtigruten ferry ships.
This time, as I was last autumn, I was on Hurtigruten’s flagship coastal ferry, the m/s Trollfjord.
Our tour group was treated to five fine nights with auroras, an unusually good take out of the 12-day round trip cruise from Bergen to Kirkenes and back to Bergen. Our first look, above, was on February 27, but through cloud.
But after we reached the top end at Kirkenes and turned around for the southbound voyage, skies cleared remarkably. We had a wonderful four clear days and nights in a row, all with Northern Lights.
The best show was March 1, and when we were in port in the northern coastal village of Båtsfjord. The Lights danced overhead in the best show I had seen from Norway.
The next night we got a good show while we were in the port of Skjervøy.
As we continued south we emerged out from under the auroral oval zone, placing the Lights to the north, back in the direction we had come from.
A self-portrait on the back deck of the ms Trollfjord, southbound out of Berlevag this night and under the Northern Lights.
Aurora photographers and observers on the rear deck 9 area of the Hurtigruten ferry ship the ms Trollfjord on the southbound voyage along the Norwegian coast, on March 2, 2019. This is a single 1.6-second exposure at f/2 with the 15mm Venus Optics lens and Sony a7III at ISO 6400.
Curtains of Northern Lights over the Hurtigruten ferry ship the ms Trollfjord on March 1, 2019. This is a single 1.6-second exposure at f/2 with the 15mm Venus Optics lens and Sony a7III at ISO 10000.
A low arc of aurora late in the voyage south on March 4, 2019, our last sighting for the cruise, after we crossed the Arctic Circle. A single exposure at ISO 10000 due to the large motion of the ship. The smoke from the ship is at top, illuminated by the funnel lights that were not turned off this night.
An example of multiple concentric auroral curtains, here over the Norwegian coast on the southbound Hurtigruten ship ms Trollfjord on March 2, 2019. This is a single 1.6-second exposure at f/2 with the Venus Optics 15mm lens and Sony a7III at ISO 10000.
Equally spectacular in my mind were some of the sunsets and twilight skies we enjoyed as we sailed through the Lofoten Islands, including on our visit to the narrow Trollfjord fjord for which the ship is named.
On our aurora nights I mostly shot “real-time” video of the Lights, using the low-light capability and 4K functions of the Sony a7III camera. The result is a music video linked to below.
The Northern Lights At Sea from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
I hope you enjoy it. Do view it full-screen and at 4K resolution.
For 11 non-stop nights in February we had clear skies and Northern Lights in Churchill.
Every year in winter I visit Churchill, Manitoba to attend to groups of aurora tourists at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. Few groups (indeed only two over the 35 years the program has been offered) go away having not seen the Lights during the 5-night program.
But this year was the opposite exception. Even locals were impressed by the run of clear nights and displays in early February. It was non-stop Northern Lights!
Having auroras in Churchill isn’t unusual. It is located right under the auroral oval, so if it’s clear it would be unusual not to have some level of auroral activity.
But particles from a coronal hole at the Sun fired up the lights and gave us good shows every night, often starting early in evening, rather than at midnight as is typically the case. The shows pre-empted my evening lectures!
With shows every night, people soon got pretty fussy about what they’d get excited about. Some nights people viewed displays just from their bedroom windows!
Displays that on night one they would be thrilled with, by night four they were going back to bed awaiting a call later when “it gets really good!”
While auroras were active every night, the Lights showed little in the way of varied colours. Notably absent was any of the deep red from high altitude oxygen. The aurora particles were just not energetic enough I presume, a characteristic of solar minimum displays.
Increasingly, as we enter into the depths of solar minimum, with a prolonged lull expected for the next few years, aurora chasers will have to travel north to the Arctic and to the auroral oval to see displays on demand. The Lights won’t come to us!
We did see fringes of pink at times along the bottom of the auroral curtains from glowing nitrogen molecules, but even this was subtle to the eye, though obvious to the camera.
The nitrogen pinks are usually accompanied by rapid dancing motions that are amazing to watch.
The music video linked to below provides the best view of what we saw. It is made entirely of real-time video, not time-lapses, of the Lights as seen over several nights from the Studies Centre.
The video is in 4K, so do click through for the best viewing. And the Vimeo page provides more details about the video and the techniques.
I present a tour of the deep-sky wonders of the winter sky.
While some might think the Milky Way is only a summer sight, the winter Milky Way is well worth a look!
In January and February we are looking outward from our location in the Milky Way, toward the Orion Spur, the minor spiral arm we live in. In it, and in the major Perseus Arm that lies beyond, lie hotbeds of star formation.
These star forming areas create a panorama of star clusters and glowing nebulas along the winter Milky Way and surrounding the constellation of Orion. The montage above shows the best of the deep-sky sights at this time or year.
(And yes, for southern hemisphere viewers I know this is your summer sky! But for us northerners, Orion is forever associated with frosty winter nights.)
The closeups below are all with a 200mm telephoto lens providing a field of view similar to that of binoculars. However, most of these nebulas are photographic targets only.
The Belt and Sword of Orion
This is the heart of the star formation activity, in the centre of Orion.
The bright Orion Nebula (or Messier 42 and 43) at bottom in Orion’s Sword is obvious in binoculars and glorious in a small telescope.
The Horsehead Nebula above centre and just below Orion’s Belt is famous but is a tough target to see through even a large telescope.
Barnard’s Loop at left is a wave of nebulosity being blown out of the Orion area by strong stellar winds. Any sighting of this object by eye is considered a feat of observing skill!
The Rosette Nebula and Area
The small cluster of hot young stars inside the Rosette Nebula is blowing a hole in the nebula giving it its Rosette name. Above is a loose star cluster called the Christmas Tree, surrounded by more faint nebulosity that includes the tiny Cone Nebula.
Gemini Clusters and Nebulas
This field of clusters and nebulosity is above Orion in Gemini, with Messier 35 the main open star cluster here at top. Below M35 is the tiny star cluster NGC 2158. The nebulosity at left between Mu and Eta Geminorum is IC 443, a remnant of a supernova explosion, and is aka the Jellyfish Nebula. The nebula at bottom is IC 2174, just over the border in Orion and aka the Monkeyhead Nebula.
Auriga Clusters and Nebulas
Above Gemini and Orion lies Auriga, with its rich field of clusters and nebulosity, with — from left to right — Messier 37, Messier 36, and Messier 38, as the main open star clusters here. Below M38 is NGC 1907. The nebulosity at right is IC 410 and IC 405, the Flaming Star Nebula.
In between them is the colourful asterism known as the Little Fish. Messier 38 is also known as the Starfish Cluster while Messier 36 is called the Pinwheel Cluster. The bright red nebula at top is Sharpless 2-235. The little nebulas at centre are NGC 1931 and IC 417.
The California Nebula
Now we enter Perseus, more an autumn constellation but well up through most of the winter months. It contains the aptly named California Nebula, NGC 1499, at top left, with the bright star Zeta Persei. at bottom A small region of reflection nebulosity, IC 348, surrounds the star Atik, or Omicron Persei, at bottom right. The star just below NGC 1499 is Menkib, or Xi Persei, and is likely energizing the nebula.
The Pleiades, or Seven Sisters
Obvious to the eye and central to the sky lore of many cultures is the Pleiades, aka the Seven Sisters, in Taurus the bull. It is also called Messier 45.
This is a newly formed cluster of hundreds of stars, passing through a dusty region of the Milky Way, which adds the fuzzy glows around the stars — an example of a reflection nebula, glowing blue as it reflects the blue light of the young stars.
Below the Pleiades in Taurus lies the larger Hyades star cluster. The V-shaped cluster stars are all moving together and lie about 150 light years away. Bright yellow Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, is an intruder and lies at only half that distance, so is not a member of Hyades but is a more nearby star. The smaller, more distant star cluster NGC 1647 appears at left.
Low in my northern winter sky is the brightest star in the sky of any season, Sirius. Just above and to the east of Sirius lies the Seagull Nebula (at top left), also called IC 2177, on the Canis Major-Monoceros border. Like many of these nebulas. the Seagull is too faint to easily see even with a telescope, but shows up well in photographs.
Lambda Orionis Nebula
This is the head of Orion, with the red supergiant star Betelgeuse at bottom left and the blue giant star Bellatrix right at bottom right. The brightest star at top is Meissa or Lambda Orionis, and is surrounded by a large and very faint area of hydrogen nebulosity. The open cluster around Meissa is catalogued as Collinder 69.
While the winter Milky Way might not look as bright and spectacular as the summer Milky Way of Sagittarius and Scorpius, it does contains a wealth of wonders that are treats for the eye and telescope … and for the camera.
PS.: The techniques for taking and processing images like these form the content of our new Deep Sky with Your DSLR video course now being promoted on KickStarter until the end of February, and available for purchase once it is published later this spring.
We’ve embarked upon a new project to produce a comprehensive tutorial on deep-sky imaging with DSLR cameras.
This past week we launched a new KickStarter campaign to fund the production of a new multi-hour video course on how to capture deep-sky objects using entry-level telescope gear and DSLR cameras.
The emphasis in the course will be on techniques for taking and processing publication-quality images as simply and easily as possible.
The final video course will consist of several programs, including a video of one of our annual “Deep-Sky with Your DSLR” workshops presented locally here in Alberta. We’ve often had requests for a video version of those workshops, for those who cannot attend in person.
This is it! Here’s a short preview of some of the content.
We include the Workshop video, but we supplement it with much more: with video segments shot in the field by day and by night, showing how to setup and use gear, and shot in the studio showing how to process images.
While much of the content has been shot and edited, there’s more to do yet. Thus our KickStarter campaign to complete the funding and production. Backers of the project through KickStarter will get the final videos at a substantial discount off the final retail price.
All the details are on the project’s KickStarter page. Click through for the listing of course content, and options for funding levels. An FAQ page answers many of the common questions.
A week into the campaign and we’re just over 50% funded, but we have a way to go yet!
We hope you’ll consider backing our project, which we think will be unique on the market.
It took a chase but it was worth it to catch the January 20, 2019 total eclipse of the Moon in the winter sky.
While the internet and popular press fawned over the bogus moniker of “Super Blood Wolf” Moon, to me this was the “Cold Moon” eclipse. And I suspect that was true for many other observers and eclipse chasers last Sunday.
Total solar eclipses almost always involve a chase, usually to far flung places around the world to stand in the narrow shadow path. But total lunar eclipses (TLEs) come to you, with more than half the planet able to view the Moon pass through the Earth’s shadow and turn red for several minutes to over an hour.
The glitch is clouds. For several of the last TLEs I have had to chase, to find clear skies in my local area, creating pre-eclipse stress … and post-eclipse relief!
That was the case for the January 20, 2019 total lunar, as the weather predictions above, based on Environment Canada data, were showing east-central Alberta along the Saskatchewan border as the only clear hole within range and accessible.
The above is a screen shot from the wonderful app Astrospheric, a recommended and great aid to astronomers. In 2014, 2015, and 2018 the Environment Canada predictions led me to clear skies, allowing me to see an eclipse that others in my area missed.
So trusting the predictions, the day before the eclipse I drove the 5 hours and 500 km north and east to Lloydminster, a town where the provincial border runs right down the main street, Highway 17.
The morning of the evening eclipse, I drove up and down that highway looking for a suitable site to setup. Scenery was not in abundance! It’s farm land and oil wells. I settled for a site shown above, an access road to a set of wells and tanks where I would likely not be disturbed, that had no lights, and had a clear view of the sky.
The image above is from the iOS app Theodolite, another fine app for planning and scouting sites, as it overlays where the camera was looking.
Scenery was not a priority as I was mostly after a telephoto view of the eclipsed Moon near the Beehive star cluster. Wide views would be a bonus if I could get them, for use in further ebook projects, as is the plan for the image below.
The site, which was east of the border in Saskatchewan, served me well, and the skies behaved just as I had hoped, with not a cloud nor haze to interfere with the view. It was a long and cold 5-hour night on the Prairies, with the temperature around -15° C.
It could have been worse, with -25° not uncommon at this time of year. And fortunately, the wind was negligible, with none of the problems with frost that can happen on still nights.
Nevertheless, I kept my photo ambitions in check, as in the cold much can go wrong and running two cameras was enough!
Above was the main image I was after, capturing the red Moon shining next to the Beehive star cluster, a sight we will not see again for another 18-year-long eclipse “saros,” in January 2037.
But I shot images every 10 minutes, to capture the progression of the Moon through the shadow of the Earth, for assembly into a composite. I’d pick the suitable images later and stack them to produce a view of the Moon and umbral shadow outline set amid the stars.
Above is the final result, showing the outline of the circular umbral shadow of the Earth defined by the shadow edge on the partially eclipsed Moons. The umbra is about three times the size of the Moon. And at this eclipse the Moon moved across the northern half of the shadow.
So mission accomplished!
I usually try to take a “trophy” shot of the successful eclipse chaser having bagged his game. This is it, from mid-eclipse during totality, with the red Moon shining in the winter sky beside the Beehive.
With this eclipse I can now say I have seen every total lunar eclipse visible from my area of the world since May 2003. I’m not counting those TLEs that were visible from only the eastern hemisphere — I’m not so avid as to chase those. And there were a couple of TLEs in that time that were visible from North America, but not from Alberta. So I’m not counting those.
And a couple of TLEs that were visible from here I did not see from here in Alberta — I saw April 15, 2014 from Australia and April 4, 2015 from Utah.
With that tally I’ve seen all the locally visible TLEs over a full saros cycle, 18 years. The last local TLE I missed was January 20, 2000, exactly 19 years — a Metonic cycle — ago. It must have been cloudy!
The next total eclipse of the Moon is May 26, 2021, visible from Alberta as the Moon sets at dawn. I’d like to be in Australia for that one (depicted above in a screen shot from StarryNight™), to see the eclipsed Moon beside the galactic centre as both rise in the east, a sight to remember. Being late austral autumn, that will be a “cool Moon.”