My free Amazing Sky Calendar for 2018 is now available for download! Plan your astronomical year!
As in recent years, I have prepared a free 12-month Calendar listing loads of celestial events, Moon phases, highlighted space events, and with small charts to show what’s happening in the sky for the coming year. The monthly pages are illustrated with my favourite images from 2017.
You can download it as a 25-megabyte PDF at my website at
However, while you can read all about how to shoot the eclipse, nothing beats actually shooting to ensure success. But how do you do that, when there’s only one eclipse?
Here are my “Top 10” suggestions:
Wide-Angle Shots – Shoot a Twilight Scene
The simplest way to shoot the eclipse is to employ a camera with a wide lens running on auto exposure to capture the changing sky colors and scene brightness.
Auto Exposure Check in Twilight
If you intend to shoot wide-angle shots of the eclipse sky and scene below, with anything from a mobile phone to a DSLR, practice shooting a time-lapse sequence or a movie under twilight lighting. Does your camera expose properly when set to Auto Exposure? If you are using a phone camera, does it have any issues focusing on the sky? How big a file does a movie create?
With Telephotos and Telescopes – Shoot the Filtered Sun
The toughest techniques involve using long lenses and telescopes to frame the eclipsed Sun up close. They need lots of practice.
Framing and Focusing
You’ll need to have your safe and approved solar filter purchased (don’t wait!) that you intend to use over your lens or telescope. With the filter in place, simply practice aiming your lens or telescope at the Sun at midday. It’s not as easy as you think! Then practice using Live View to manually focus on the edge of the Sun or on a sunspot. Can you get consistently sharp images?
Exposures of the filtered Sun will be the same as during the partial phases, barring cloud or haze, as above, that can lengthen exposure times. Otherwise, only during the thin crescent phases will shutter speeds need to be 2 to 3 stops (or EV steps) longer than for a normal Sun.
With the camera aimed away from the Sun (very important!), perhaps at a distant landscape feature, practice removing the filter quickly. Can you do it without jarring the camera and bumping it off target? Perhaps try this on the Moon at night as well, as it’s important to also test this with the camera and tripod aimed up high.
Ease of Use
With the Sun up high at midday (as it will be during the eclipse from most sites), check that you can still look through, focus, and operate the camera easily. Can you read screens in the bright daylight? What about once it gets darker, as in twilight, which is how dark it will get during totality.
If you are using an untracked tripod, check how much the Sun moves across your camera frame during several minutes. For videos you might make use of that motion. For still shots, you’ll want to ensure the Sun doesn’t move too far off center.
Aligning Tracking Mounts
If you plan to use a motorized equatorial mount capable of tracking the sky, “Plan A” might be to set it up the night before so it can be precisely polar aligned. But the reality is that you might need to move on eclipse morning. To prepare for that prospect, practice roughly polar aligning your mount during the day to see how accurate its tracking is over several minutes. Do that by leveling the mount, setting it to your site’s latitude, and aiming the polar axis as close as you can to due and true north. You don’t need precise polar alignment to gain the benefits of a tracking mount – it keeps the Sun centered – for the few minutes of totality.
Telephotos and Telescopes – Shoot Full Moon Closeups
Shoot the Full Moon around July 8 or August 7. If you intend to use Auto Exposure during totality, check how well it works on the Full Moon. It’s the same brightness as the inner corona of the Sun, though the Moon occupies a larger portion of the frame and covers more metering sensor points. This is another chance to check your focusing skill.
Telescopes and Telescopes – Shoot Crescent Moon Closeups
Shoot the waxing crescent moon in the evening sky during the last week of June and again in the last week of July. Again, test Auto Exposure with your camera in still or movie mode (if you intend to shoot video) to see how well the camera behaves on a subject with a large range in brightness. Or step through a range of exposures manually, from short for the bright sunlit crescent, to long for the dark portion of the Moon lit by Earthshine. It’s important to run through your range of settings quickly, just as you would during the two minutes of totality. But not too quickly, as you might introduce vibration. So …
In the resulting images, check for blurring from vibration (from you handling the camera), from wind, and from the sky’s east-to-west motion moving the Moon across the frame, during typical exposures of 1 second or less.
By practicing, you’ll be much better prepared for the surprises that eclipse day inevitably bring. Always have a less ambitious “Plan B” for shooting the eclipse simply and quickly should a last-minute move be needed.
However, may I recommend …
For much more detailed advice on shooting options and techniques, and for step-by-step tutorials on processing eclipse images, see my 295-page eBook on the subject, available as an iBook for Apple devices and as a PDF for all computers and tablets.
I present my Top 10 Tips for photographing the August 21 total eclipse of the Sun.
If the August total eclipse will be your first, then you could heed the advice of many and simply follow “Tip #0:” Just don’t photograph it! Look up and around to take in the spectacle. Even then, you will not see it all.
However, you might see less if you are operating a camera.
But I know you want pictures! To help you be successful, here are my tips for taking great photos without sacrificing seeing the eclipse.
TIP #1: Keep It Simple
During the brief minutes of totality, the easiest way to record the scene is to simply hold your phone camera up to the sky and shoot. Zoom in if you wish, but a wide shot may capture more of the twilight effects and sky colors, which are as much a part of the experience as seeing the Sun’s gossamer corona around the dark disk of the Moon.
Better yet, use an adapter to clamp your phone to a tripod. Frame the scene as best you can (you might not be able to include both the ground and Sun) and shoot a time-lapse, or better yet, a video.
Start it 2 or 3 minutes before totality (if you can remember in the excitement!) and let the camera’s auto exposure take care of the rest. It’ll work fine.
That way you’ll also record the audio of your excited voices. The audio may serve as a better souvenir than the photos. Lots of people will have photos, but nobody else will record your reactions!
Just make sure your phone has enough free storage space to save several minutes of HD video or, if your camera has that feature, 4K video.
TIP #2: Shoot Wide With a DSLR
For better image quality, step up to this hands-off technique.
Use a tripod-mounted camera that accepts interchangeable lenses (a digital single lens reflex or a mirrorless camera) and use a lens wide enough to take in the ground below and Sun above.
Depending on where you are and the sensor size in your camera, that’ll likely mean a 10mm to 24mm lens.
By going wide you won’t record details in the corona of the Sun or its fiery red prominences. But you can record the changing sky colors and perhaps the dark shadow of the Moon sweeping from right to left (west to east) across the sky. You can also include you and your eclipse group silhouetted in the foreground. Remember, no one else will record you at the eclipse.
TIP #3: Shoot on Auto Exposure
For wide shots, there’s no need to attend to the camera during the eclipse. Set the camera on Auto Exposure – Aperture Priority (Av), the camera ISO between 100 to 400, and your lens aperture to f/2.8 (fast) to f/5.6 (slow).
Use a higher ISO if you are using a slower lens such as a kit zoom. But shoot at ISO 100 and at f/2.8 if you have a wide lens that fast.
In Av mode the camera will decide what shutter speed to use as the lighting changes. I’ve used this technique at many eclipses and it works great.
TIP #4: Let the Camera Do the Shooting
To make this wide-angle technique truly hands-off use an intervalometer (either built into your camera or a separate hardware unit) to fire the shutter automatically.
Once again, start the sequence going 3 to 5 minutes before totality, with the intervalometer set to fire the shutter once every second. Don’t shoot at longer intervals, or you’ll miss too much. Shutter speeds won’t likely exceed one second.
Again, be sure your camera’s memory card has enough free space for several hundred images. And don’t worry about a solar filter on your lens. It’ll be fine for the several minutes you’ll have it aimed up.
Out of the many images you’ll get, pick the best ones, or turn the entire set into a time-lapse movie.
TIP #5: Shoot on Manual Focus
Use Auto Exposure and an intervalometer. But … don’t use Auto Focus.
Switch your lens to Manual Focus (MF) and focus on a distant scene element using Live View.
Or use Auto Focus to first focus on something in the distance, then switch to Manual and don’t touch focus after that. If you leave your lens on Auto Focus the shutter might not fire if the camera decides it can’t focus on the blank sky.
TIP #6: Shoot Raw
For demanding subjects like a solar eclipse always shoot your images in the Raw file format. Look in your camera’s menus under Image Quality.
Shoot JPGs, too, if you like, but only Raw files record the widest range of colors and brightness levels the camera sensor is capable of detecting.
Later in processing you can extract amazing details from Raw files, both in the dark shadows of the foreground, and in the bright highlights of the distant twilight glows and corona around the Sun. Software to do so came with your camera. Put it to use.
TIP #7: OK, Use a Telephoto Lens! But …
If you really want to shoot close-ups, great! But don’t go crazy with focal length. Yes, using a mere 135mm or 200mm lens will yield a rather small image of the eclipsed Sun. But you don’t need a monster 600mm lens or a telescope, which typically have focal lengths starting at 600mm. With long focal lengths come headaches like:
•Keeping the Sun centered. The Earth is turning! During the eclipse that motion will carry the Sun (and Moon) its own diameter across your frame from east to west during the roughly two minutes of totality. While a motorized tracking mount can compensate for this motion, they take more work to set up properly, and must be powered. And, if you are flying to the eclipse, they will be much more challenging to pack. I’m trying to keep things simple!
•Blurring from vibration. This can be an issue with any lens, but the longer your lens, the more your chances of getting fuzzy images because of camera shake, especially if you are touching the camera to alter settings.
An ideal focal length is 300mm to 500mm. But …
When using any telephoto lens, always use a sturdy tripod with a head that is easy to adjust for precise aiming, and that can aim up high without any mechanical issues. The Sun will be halfway, or more, up the sky, not a position some tripod heads can reach.
TIP #8: Use Auto Exposure, or … Shoot a Movie
During totality with your telephoto, you could manually step through a rehearsed set of exposures, from very short shutter speeds (as short as 1/4000 second) for the diamond rings at either end of totality, to as long as one or two seconds at mid-totality for the greatest extent of the corona’s outermost streamers.
But that takes a lot of time and attention away from looking. Yes, there are software programs for automating a camera, or techniques for auto bracketing. But if this is your first eclipse an easier option is to simply use Auto Exposure/Aperture Priority and let the camera set the shutter speed. Again, you could use an intervalometer to fire the shutter so you can just watch.
Don’t use high ISO speeds. A low ISO of 100 to 400 is all you need and will produce less noise. The eclipsed Sun is still bright. You don’t need ISO 800 to 3200.
Even on Auto Exposure, you’ll get good shots, just not of the whole range of phenomena an eclipsed Sun displays.
Or, once again and better yet – put your camera into video mode and shoot an HD or 4K movie. Auto Exposure will work just fine, allowing you to start the camera then forget it.
Place the Sun a solar diameter or two to the left of the frame and let the sky’s motion drift it across the frame for added effect. Start the sequence running a minute or two before totality with your solar filter on. Then just let the camera run … except …
TIP #9: Remember to Remove the Filter!
You will need a safe solar filter over your lens or telescope to shoot the partial phases of the eclipse, and to frame and focus the Sun. This cannot be a photo neutral density or polarizing filter. It must be a filter designed for observing and shooting the Sun, made of metal-coated glass or Mylar plastic. Anything else is not safe and likely far too bright.
But you do NOT need the filter for totality.
Remove it … when?
The answer: a minute or so before totality if you want to capture the first diamond ring just before totality officially starts. Set a timer to remind you, as visually it is very difficult to judge the right moment with your unaided eye. The eclipse will start sooner than you expect.
If you have your camera on Auto Exposure, it will compensate just fine for the change in brightness, from the filtered to the unfiltered view.
But don’t leave your unfiltered camera aimed at the Sun. Replace the filter no more than a minute or so after totality and the second diamond ring ends.
TIP #10: Focus!
Everyone worries about getting the “best exposure.” Don’t! You’ll get great looking telephoto eclipse close-ups with any of a wide range of exposures.
What ruins most eclipse shots, other than filter forgetfulness, is fuzzy images, from either shaky tripods or poor focus.
Focus manually using Live View on the filtered partially eclipsed Sun. Zoom up on the edge of the Sun or sharp tip of the crescent. Re-focus a few minutes before totality, as the changing temperature can shift the focus of long lenses and telescopes.
But you needn’t worry about re-focusing after you remove the filter. The focus will not change with the filter off.
TIP #1 AGAIN: Keep It Simple!
I’ll remind you to keep things simple for a reason other than giving you time to enjoy the view, and that’s mobility.
You might have to move at the last minute to escape clouds. Complex photo gear can be just too much to take down and set up, often with minutes to spare, as many an eclipse chaser can attest is often necessary. Keep your gear light, easy to use, and mobile. Committing to an overly ambitious and inflexible photo plan and rig could be your undoing.
By following both my “Ten Tips” advice blogs you should be able to get great eclipse images to wow your friends and fans, all without missing the experience of actually seeing … and feeling … the eclipse.
However … may I recommend …
For much more detailed advice on shooting options and techniques, and for step-by-step tutorials on processing eclipse images, see my 295-page eBook on the subject, available as an iBook for Apple devices and as a PDF for all computers and tablets.
After a year of work, the new edition of my Nightscapes and Time-Lapse ebook is on the e-shelves at the Apple iBooks Store.
In the two years since I first published this ebook, the field of nightscape shooting has enjoyed many changes, to equipment, software and techniques. Not to mention I’ve learned a lot!
All those changes are reflected in this new and expanded edition. It is 100 pages bigger – 500 pages now – than the first edition. It contains:
• 60 step-by-step image processing tutorials, all with current late-2016 software
• a dozen galleries of comparison “before-and-after” images
• 40 HD videos of time-lapse examples
• reviews of current equipment
• reviews of software, some very new – like this week! – to use in place of Adobe
• information on Nikon and Pentax cameras, as well as Canons
• In addition, many images can be tapped on to zoom up. And most text can now be enlarged in a Scrolling View for use on small-screen devices.
The previous 2014 edition garnered rave reviews, with readers calling it:
“Incredibly well put together and visually stunning.”
“Simply amazing! From hardware to software, it’s all covered. Alan Dyer got it right!”
and “It is a must-have resource for anyone doing nightscape and time-lapse photography.”
As with the first edition, I’ve designed the ebook to appeal to both amateur astronomers and landscape photographers by providing what I feel is the most comprehensive information available in any ebook on the hugely popular field of nightscape and time-lapse photography.
This isn’t a simple 50-page PDF pamphlet, as so many ebooks are. This is an extensive and detailed tutorial, with loads of interactive and multi-media content.
The size and media content of the ebook make it impossible to publish on Kindle/Amazon or Google Play/Android.
How to Photograph & Process Nightscapes and Time-Lapses is available worldwide exclusively through the Apple iBooks Store, for the iBooks app on Apple Macs, iPads and iPhones.
I’m pleased to announce that after a year in production, our video tutorial series, Nightscapes and Time-Lapses: From Field to Photoshop, is now available.
It’s been quite a project! Over the last few years I’ve presented annual astrophoto workshops in conjunction with our local telescope dealer All-Star Telescope to great success.
However, we always had requests for the workshops on video. Attempts to video the actual workshops never produced satisfactory results. So we spent a year shooting in the field and in the studio to produce a “purpose-built” series of programs.
They are available now as a set of three programs, totalling 4 hours of instruction, for purchase and download at Vimeo at
For those wanting “hard copies” we will also be selling the programs on mailed USB sticks. See All-Star Telescope for info and prices. The downloaded version can also be ordered from there.
This series deals with the basics of capturing, then processing nightscape still images and time-lapse movies of the night sky and landscapes lit by moonlight and starlight.
Here’s the content outline:
Program 1 – Choosing Equipment (1 Hour)
• Tips for Getting Started • Essential Gear • Choosing A Camera • Photo 101 – Exposure Triangle • Setting Exposure • Expose to the Right • Setting a Camera – File Types • Photo 101 – Noise Sources • Setting a Camera – Noise Reduction • Setting a Camera – Focusing • Setting a Camera – Other Menus • Choosing Lenses • Choosing an IntervalometerSummary and Tips
Program 2 – Shooting in the Field (1 hour)
• Climbing the Learning Curve • Twilights • Astronomy 101 – Conjunctions • Shooting Conjunctions • Moonrises • Shooting Auroras • Astronomy 101 – Auroras • Photo 101 – Composing • Moonlit Nightscapes • Astronomy 101 – Where is the Moon? • Choosing a Location • Shooting the Milky Way • Astronomy 101 – Where is the Milky Way? • Astronomy 101 – Daily Sky Motion • Tracking the Sky • Shooting Star Trails • Shooting Time-Lapses • Calculating Time-Lapses • A Pre-Flight Checklist • Summary and Tips
Program 3 – Processing Nightscapes and Time-Lapses (2 hours)
• Workflows • Using Adobe Bridge – Importing and Selecting • Photo 101 – File Formats • Using Adobe Lightroom – Importing and Selecting • Adobe Camera Raw – Essential Settings • Adobe Camera Raw – Developing Raw Images • Adobe Lightroom – Develop Module • Adobe Photoshop – Introduction • Photoshop – Setup • Photoshop – Smart Filters • Photoshop – Adjustment Layers • Photoshop – Masking • Photoshop – Processing Star Trails & Time-Lapses • Stacking Star Trails • Assembling Time-Lapse Movies • Archiving • Summary & Finale
If this first introductory series is successful we may produce follow-up programs on more advanced techniques.
With the harvest in full swing, the aurora and Moon lit the fields on a clear September evening.
This night, September 19, showed prospects for a good display of Northern Lights, and sure enough as it got dark a bright, well-defined arc of Lights danced to the north.
I headed off to some photogenic spots near home, on the prairies of southern Alberta. By the time I got in place, the aurora had already faded.
However, the arc still photographed well and provided a great backdrop to these rural scenes. The rising Moon, then 3 days past full, lit the foreground. In the lead image, lights from combines and trucks working the field behind the bins are at left.
The image above was from later in the night, just down the road at a favourite and photogenic grand old barn.
Note the Big Dipper above the barn. A waning and rising Moon like this is great for providing warm illumination.
The time around equinox is usually good for auroras, as the interplanetary and terrestrial magnetic fields line up better to let in the electrons from the Sun. So perhaps we’ll see more Lights, with the Moon now gradually departing the evening sky.
On Friday night the Harvest Moon rose amid the arching shadow of the Earth.
This was the view on Friday, September 16 at moonrise on the Red Deer River. The view is from the Orkney Viewpoint overlooking the Badlands and sweeping curve of the river.
Above is the wide arch of the dark shadow of the Earth rising into the deepening twilight. Almost dead centre in the shadow is the Full Moon, the annual Harvest Moon.
Hours earlier the Moon passed through the shadow of our planet out at the Moon’s distance from Earth, creating a minor penumbral eclipse. No part of that eclipse, such as it was anyway, was visible from here.
But the alignment did place the Moon in the middle of our planet’s shadow projected into our atmosphere, as it does at every sunset and sunrise.
But it takes a very clear sky for the shadow to stand out as well as this in the darkening sky. I like how the curve of the shadow mirrors the curve of the river.
This is a marvellous spot for photography. I shared the site with one other photographer, at far right, who also came to capture the rising of the Harvest Moon.
The image is a 7-segment panorama with a 20mm lens, stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.
The aurora has been lighting up our skies a lot in recent nights, in a great sweeping arc across the northern sky.
It’s been a good week or so for Northern Lights, with several nights in a row of fine displays. These images are from one night, taken near home in southern Alberta, on September 2.
The lead image at top shows the display at its best, with the arc of curtains reflected in a nearby pond. The green curtains fade to shades of magenta as they tower into the high atmosphere, as one process of glowing oxygen giving off green light transitions to another emitting red light.
A little later the curtains had changed form, into a more homogenous arc above a set of sharper curtains below that are farthest north. People in northern Alberta or the Northwest Territories would have been seeing these curtains dancing above them.
What we are seeing is the classic curving arc of the auroral oval, the ring of light created by electrons raining down into our atmosphere in roughly an oval sweeping across the continent and centred on the magnetic pole in the Canadian Arctic.
However, at right, you can see a odd detached bit of more southerly aurora, with a dominant red colour.
This is a closeup, showing the characteristic form of these odd “isolated arcs” — usually featureless, often thin, without much motion, and often red.
Later, the arc had brightened and expanded to cross the sky. The above view is looking west from home, with the arc now displaying a mix of pink, white and green.
Here, we are looking up the isolated arc, with the impression of it being a thin sheet seen at an angle, with the bottom green component being closest and the red top being highest and farthest away.
This is the view looking southeast to the strange aurora. For a time it broke up and displayed a “picket fence” formation. And it moved!
Just what these isolated arcs are is a mystery. They have been called “proton arcs,” under the assumption they are caused by incoming protons, not electrons. But while there are such things as proton arcs and auroras, they are diffuse and invisible to the eye and camera in normal visible light. So these features are not proton arcs.
Nevertheless, these odd arcs are not like the usual auroral curtains, and likely have a different origin. But just what is still the object of research. Images by amateur astronomers such as these can help in the study.
What a night this was – perfect skies over an iconic location in the Rockies. And an aurora to top it off!
On August 31 I took advantage of a rare clear night in the forecast and headed to Banff and Moraine Lake for a night of shooting. The goal was to shoot a time-lapse and stills of the Milky Way over the lake.
The handy planning app, The Photographer’s Ephemeris, showed me (as below) that the Milky Way and galactic centre (the large circles) would be ideally placed over the end of the lake as astronomical twilight ended at 10:30 p.m. I began the shoot at 10 p.m. as the sky still had some twilight blue in it.
I planned to shoot 600 frames for a time-lapse. From those I would extract select frames to create a still image. The result is below.
As the caption explains, the still is a composite of one exposure for the sky and 16 in succession for the ground, averaged together in a technique to smooth noise. The camera wasn’t tracking the sky, so stacking sky images isn’t feasible, as much as I might like to have the lower noise there, too. (There are programs that attempt to align and stack the moving sky but I’ve never found they work well.)
About midnight, the Valley of Ten Peaks around the lake began to light up. An aurora was getting active in the opposite direction, to the north. With 450 frames shot, I stopped the Milky Way time-lapse and turned the camera the other way. (I was lazy and hadn’t hefted a second camera and tripod up the steep hill to the viewpoint.)
The lead-image panorama is the first result, showing the sweeping arc of Northern Lights over Desolation Valley.
Still images shot, I began a time-lapse of the Lights, grabbing another 450 frames, this time using just 2-second exposures at f/1.6 for a rapid cadence time-lapse to help freeze the motion of the curtains.
The final movies and stills are in a music video here:
I ended the night with a parting shot of the Pleiades and the winter stars rising behind the Tower of Babel formation. I last photographed that scene with those same stars in the 1980s using 6×7 film.
In a summer of clouds and storms, this was a night to make up for it.
Saturn, Mars and the Milky Way appeared in the twilight over the Bow River.
I shot this scene on August 24 from the viewpoint at Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park, overlooking the Bow River. Mars appears between Saturn above and Antares below, in a line of objects west of the Milky Way.
The valley below is the traditional meeting place of the Blackfoot Nation, and the site of the signing of Treaty Seven between Chief Crowfoot and Colonel MacLeod of the North West Mounted Police in 1877.
The image is a panorama of two images, each 20-second exposures at f/2 and ISO 1600 with the 24mm lens. I shot them just prior to shooting time-lapses of the moving sky, using two cameras to create a comparison pair of videos, to illustrate the choices in setting the cadence when shooting time-lapses.
The movies, embedded here, will be in the next edition of my Nightscapes and Time-Lapse ebook, with the current version linked to below. The text explains what the videos are showing.
Choose Your Style
When shooting frames destined for a time-lapse movie we have a choice:
Shoot fewer but longer exposures at slower ISOs and/or smaller apertures.
Shoot lots of short exposures at high ISOs and/or wide apertures.
The former yields greater depth of field; the latter produces more noise. But with time-lapses, the variations also affect the mood of a movie in playback.
This comparison shows a pair of movies, both rendered at 30 frames per second:
Clip #1 was taken over 2 hours using 20-second exposures, all at ISO 2000 and f/2 with 1-second intervals. The result was 300 frames.
Clip #2 was taken over 1 hour using 5-second exposures also at f/2 and 1-second intervals, but at ISO 8000. The result was 600 frames: twice as many frames in half the time.
Clip #2 exhibits enough noise that I couldn’t bring out the dark foreground as well as in Clip #1. Clip 2 exhibits a slower, more graceful motion. And it better “time-resolves” fast-moving content such as cars and aircraft.
Which is better? It depends …
Long = Fast
The movie taken at a longer, slower cadence (using longer exposures) and requiring 2 hours to capture 300 frames resulted in fast, dramatic sky motion when played back. Two hours of sky motion are being compressed into 10 seconds of playback at 30 frames per second. You might like that if you want a dramatic, high-energy feel.
Short = Slow
By comparison, the movie that packed 600 frames into just an hour of shooting (by using short exposures taken at fast apertures or fast ISOs) produced a movie where the sky moves very slowly during its 10 seconds of playback, also at 30 frames per second. You might like that if you want a slow, peaceful mood to your movies.
So, if you want your movie to have a slow, quiet feel, shoot lots of short exposures. But, if you want your movie to have a fast, high-energy feel, shoot long exposures.
As an aside – all purchasers of the current edition of my ebook will get the updated version free of charge via the iBooks Store once it is published later this year.
I present a montage of time-lapses illustrating the motion of the sky in the Northern Hemisphere.
Any stargazer should be familiar with how the sky moves, with stars rising in the east and setting in the west.
From the northern hemisphere, when we look north we see the sky rotating counter-clockwise around the North Celestial Pole, near Polaris. As you’ll see in the video, even Polaris moves, though not much over the night. The stars that never set, but just move across the northern horizon, are the circumpolar stars.
When we look south we see the seasonal constellations, the ones that rise and set, and change over the seasons.
I shot the images for these sequences from southern Arizona, in early December 2015.
So the night starts with the summer stars setting in the west and the autumn stars dominating the sky. But then Orion and the winter stars rise and march across the sky over the night, setting before dawn, as the spring stars rise.
The south-looking movie is a dusk-to-dawn sequence. Note the Zodiacal Light in the west at right in the early evening, then reappearing in the east at left before dawn brightens the sky, and as Venus and the Moon rises.
Also note the moving bands of red and green airglow, a natural phenomenon of the upper atmosphere.
I posted a matching set of moviesin my previous blog post, shot from the Southern Hemisphere. But here’s the link to the movie.
Both sets of movies were shot from nearly identical latitudes – about 31°, but 31° N for Portal, Arizona and 31° S for Coonabarabran, Australia.
As such the Celestial Poles appear at equal altitudes above the horizon. And the angles that the stars rise and set at in relation to the horizon are the same.
But the direction they move is opposite. When looking 180° away from the Pole, the seasonal stars move from left to right in the Northern Hemisphere, but from right to left in the Southern Hemisphere.
Visitors from one hemisphere to the other are bound to get turned around!
Nothing amazes even the most inveterate skywatcher more than traveling to another hemisphere and seeing sky move. It moves the wrong way!
Whether you are from the southern hemisphere traveling north, or as I do, travel south from the Northern Hemisphere, watching how the sky moves can be disorienting.
Here I present a video montage of time-lapses shot last April in Australia, at the annual OzSky Star Party near Coonabarabran in New South Wales.
Select HD and Enlarge button to view at full screen at best quality.
You’ll see the sky set in the west but traveling in arcs from right to left, then in the next clip, rise in the east, again moving from right to left. That’s the wrong angle for us northerners.
Looking north you see the seasonal constellations, the ones that rise and set over a night and that change with the seasons. In this case, the night starts with Orion (upside-down!) to the north but setting over in the west, followed by Leo and bright Jupiter. The sky is moving from east to west, but that’s from right to left here. The austral Sun does the same thing by day.
Looking south, we see the circumpolar constellations, the ones that circle the South Celestial Pole. Only there’s no bright “South Star” to mark the pole.
The sky, including the two Magellanic Clouds (satellite galaxies to the Milky Way) and the spectacular Milky Way itself, turns around the blank pole, moving clockwise – the opposite direction to what we see up north.
I shot the sequences over four nights in early April, as several dozen stargazers from around the world revelled under the southern stars, using an array of impressive telescopes supplied by the Three Rivers Foundation, Australia, for us to explore the southern sky.
It was a great night for shooting meteors as the annual Perseids put on a show.
For the Perseid meteor shower I went to one of the darkest sites in Canada, Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan, a dark sky preserve and home to several rare species requiring dark nights to flourish – similar to astronomers!
This year a boost in activity was predicted and the predictions seemed to hold true. The lead image records 33 meteors in a series of stacked 30-second exposures taken over an hour.
It shows only one area of sky, looking east toward the radiant point in the constellation Perseus – thus the name of the shower.
Extrapolating the count to the whole sky, I think it’s safe to say there would have been 100 or more meteors an hour zipping about, not bad for my latitude of 49° North.
The early part of the evening was lit by moonlight, which lent itself to some nice nightscapes scenes but fewer meteors.
But once the Moon set and the sky darkened the show really began. Competing with the meteors was some dim aurora, but also the brightest display of airglow I have even seen.
It was bright enough to be visible to the eye as grey bands, unusual. Airglow is normally sub-visual.
But the camera revealed the airglow bands as green, red, and yellow, from fluorescing oxygen and sodium atoms. The bands slowly rippled across the sky from south to north.
Airglow is something you can see only from dark sites. It is one of the wonders of the night sky, that can make a dark sky not dark!
The lead image is stack of 31 frames containing meteors (two frames had 2 meteors), shot from 1:13 am to 2:08 a.m. CST, so over 55 minutes. The camera was not tracking the sky but was on a fixed tripod. I choose one frame with the best visibility of the airglow as the base layer. For every other meteor layer, I used Free Transform to rotate each frame around a point far off frame at upper left, close to where the celestial pole would be and then nudged each frame to bring the stars into close alignment with the base layer, especially near the meteor being layered in.
This placed each meteor in its correct position in the sky in relation to the stars, essential for showing the effect of the radiant point accurately.
Each layer above the base sky layer is masked to show just the meteor and is blended with Lighten mode. If I had not manually aligned the sky for each frame, the meteors would have ended up positioned where they appeared in relation to the ground but the radiant point would have been smeared — the meteors would have been in the wrong place.
Unfortunately, it’s what I see in a lot of composited meteor shower shots.
It would have been much easier if I had had this camera on a tracker so all frames would have been aligned coming out of the camera. But the other camera was on the tracker! It took the other composite image, the one looking north.
The ground is a mean combined stack of 4 frames to smooth noise in the ground. Each frame is 30 seconds at f/2 with the wonderful Sigma 20mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 5000. The waxing Moon had set by the time this sequence started, leaving the sky dark and the airglow much more visible.
The waning Moon shone near the bright star Aldebaran in the dawn sky.
This was a beautiful sight this morning, before dawn on July 29. The crescent Moon, its night side illuminated by Earthshine, shone just below the brightest star in Taurus.
We are currently in 3-year period when the Moon’s path is taking it near or in front of Aldebaran every month. However, most of these occultations or conjunctions are not well-timed for any particular location. And many involve the too-brilliant gibbous or full Moon.
But this morning the timing and Moon phase were perfect. From my longitude on Earth in Alberta, the Moon passed closest to the star just before the sky was getting too bright with dawn. Having them set against the deep blue twilight was perfect.
From farther east the Moon would not have appeared as close to Aldebaran as this before sunrise. From farther west the Moon and star would have appeared much lower in the sky at closest approach.
For this image I shot 6 exposures, from 2 seconds for the Earthshine, twilight sky colour and stars, to 1/125th second for the bright crescent. I then stacked, aligned, and blended them together using luminosity masks – masks that hide or reveal parts of the image based on the brightness of the scene. You can see them in the Photoshop screen shot – Click on the image to enlarge it.
How do you create these masks?
• Turn off all the layers except the one you want to create a mask for.
• Go to Channels and Command/Control Click on the RGB Channel.
• That automatically selects all the highlights.
• Go back to the image layer and then hit the Add Mask button down at the bottom of the Layers panel (the rectangle with the black dot in it).
• Done. Repeat that for each image layer.
More traditional high dynamic range or “HDR” stacking left odd colour fringing artifacts and double images on the slowly moving Moon, despite applying what is called “de-ghosting” and despite using a mount tracking at the lunar rate. I tried merging the images with HDR, but it didn’t work.
A nifty Photoshop action from the Astronomy Tools set by Noel Carboni added the diffraction spikes.
I shot all images with the 130mm Astro-Physics refractor at f/6 and the Canon 60Da camera at ISO 400.
The sky presented a pyrotechnic display of light and colour in the sunset sky.
What a show tonight, July 18, as a thunderstorm lit the sky with bolts of lightning. As the storm retreated, the Sun broke through, ideal lighting for a rainbow. In this case I was able to capture the rainbow pierced by bolts of lightning. See below for tech details.
A little later, the sunlight got stronger and the rainbow grew to span the sky, in a beautiful display of a double rainbow lit by the red light of the setting Sun.
As the beams of sunlight lit the clouds, it looked like the rainbow was on fire.
It has been a stormy start to summer in Alberta, but at times the sky has put on a stunning show. That was certainly the case tonight.
Technical on the Lightning and Rainbow shot at top:
This is a stack of 35 consecutive video frames taken with HD (1920 x 1080) resolution at 30 frames per second with the Canon 6D, and extracted as an image sequence with Photoshop, then processed in Adobe Camera Raw, then stacked with Russell Brown’s Stack-A-Matic into a smart object with maximum stack mode, to accumulate the frames taken over about 1 second into one still frame.
So I could have got this with a single 1-second exposure with the lens stopped way down and a ND filter, but my timing would have had to have been very, very lucky!
I am pleased to present my latest music video featuring Alberta Skies in motion, set to the music of Ian Tyson.
My 5-minute video features time-lapse imagery shot over the last three years in the plains, badlands, and mountains of Alberta.
Do click through to Vimeo and view in HD for the best quality.
The footage is set to the music of Alberta singer/songwriter Ian Tyson, and his superb rendition of Home on the Range. It is used by kind permission of Ian Tyson and Stony Plain Records. Thanks!
It was hearing Ian’s version of this song on CBC one day in 1992 when his album And Stood There Amazed came out that inspired me to move back to Alberta and the great landscapes of the west that I knew I wanted to capture.
Little did I know at the time how it was going to be possible in the 2000s to do it in time-lapse.
We achieved our funding goal on Kickstarter with 10 days to go.
Hurray! We made it to the top, with funding now secure to complete the production of our video tutorial series.
But the Kickstartercampaign doesn’t end now! You have until July 15 to back us, and get the videos at a big discount off the final retail prices when they are released later this year. So there’s still time to act and save!
A bright display of noctilucent clouds last night prompts me to remind northerners to look north at this prime season for night shining clouds.
Noctilucent clouds (NLCs) can be seen only in summer and are best in the few weeks before and after (mostly after) summer solstice. I shot all these images in the middle of the night. Indeed, the two images above and just below are from 3 am on the morning of June 27.
NLCs are high altitude clouds at the edge of space some 80 kilometres above the Earth, far above any normal weather clouds. Their height allows sunlight streaming over the pole to illuminate them all night long.
Their cause is a mystery. They may form by water vapour condensing on meteoric dust particles.
They look luminescent, as if glowing on their own. But these are not auroras. They shine only by reflected sunlight.
And they have complex structures, with intricate waves and ripples.
And they move very slowly, as this time-lapse from June 17 shows.
Readers living at a latitude between 45° and 55° are best situated to see “NLCs.” From farther south the clouds will be below the horizon. From farther north the sky may be too bright with twilight and the angle of illumination wrong for optimum viewing.
Unlike auroras, there is no predicting when they might appear. Some nights when it is clear where you are, no NLCs appear. Perhaps that’s because of cloud much farther north blocking the path of light from the Sun on the other side of the planet to the clouds on our side of the Earth.
But by the end of July NLC season is coming to an end as the Sun drops farther below the northern horizon at night, and the nights get darker.
So over the next four weeks, look low in the north for night shining clouds.
On the night before the solstice Full Moon, the sky added a coloured halo around the Moon.
On June 19 I was at Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta to teach a workshop on night photography, as one of the programs of the Park’s annual Wildflower Festival. The night proved hazy, but that added the attraction of an ice crystal halo around the Moon.
The lead image above is from Driftwood Beach, looking south across Middle Waterton Lake. Note Mars shining above the mountains at right.
Earlier in the night, at Red Rock Canyon, we watched the Moon rise in the twilight, then climb up the side of Mt. Blakiston. Here (below) it shines above the summit, surrounded by its hazy halo.
The workshop participants made the best of the night, shooting the moonlit scene down the canyon, toward the north and Cassiopeia.
And as here, shooting from the canyon footbridge, toward the very photogenic Anderson Peak, with Jupiter just above the peak.
In keeping with the wildflower theme, I shot wild roses, Alberta’s provincial flower, in the moonlight, with Anderson Peak and stars in the distance.
While we might like dark skies when going to places like Waterton, there are many magical options for photography when the Moon is shining.
Our video tutorial project is now live on Kickstarter!
For the last two years I’ve been involved in a project to produce a set of comprehensive video tutorials on how to shoot and process Nightscapes and Time-Lapses, to complement my ebook by the same name.
If you’ve not been able to attend my workshops – or even if you have! – these videos will provide you with all the information, and more, in a format you can review over and over.
We’ve shot all the field and studio footage, but to complete the production, we need your help. Back us on Kickstarterand we’ll be able to make the programs available this September, as downloads and on a shipped USB drive.
Our Kickstarter page has all the details. Early backers can purchase the tutorial programs now for as little as $55 – and that’s Canadian! – vs. $80 for the final retail price. The final programs will provide several hours of instruction, both in the field and at the computer.
If you have not participated in a Kickstarter campaign before, it is no risk. Nothing is charged to your credit card until and when the project is successfully funded after the 30-day campaign. If it isn’t successful, you are charged nothing.
Here’s our promo video describing the programs.
We have 30 days to make our goal. We invite you to join us in making our project a reality.
The nights were short and never fully dark, but early June provided a run of clear nights in the Rockies to enjoy Mars and the Milky Way.
Weather prospects looked good for a run of five nights last week so I took advantage of the opportunity to shoot nightscapes from Banff and, as shown here, in Yoho National Park across the Continental Divide in B.C.
The lead image above is a sweeping panorama at Emerald Lake, one of the jewels of the Rockies. Though taken at 1:30 a.m., the sky still isn’t dark, but has a glow to the north that lasts all night near summer solstice. Even so, the sky was dark enough to reveal the Milky Way arching across the sky.
The mountain at centre is Mt. Burgess, home of the famous Burgess Shale Fossils, an incredible collection of fossilized creatures from the Cambrian explosion.
The image is a panoramic stitch of 24 segments but cropped in quite a bit from the original, and all shot with an iPano motorized panning unit. Each exposure was 30 seconds at f/2.2 with the Sigma 24mm lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 4000. One short exposure of the lodge was blended in to reduce its light glare. The original, stitched with PTGui software, is 15,000 x 9,000 pixels.
The view above, a single frame image, shows the view to the south as the Milky Way and galactic centre descend toward the horizon over the south end of the lake. Lights from the Lodge illuminate the trees.
The next night (above) I was at the same spot to shoot Mars in the deepening twilight, and reflected in the calm waters of Emerald Lake, with Cathedral Peak at left.
Another multi-frame panorama, this time sweeping up from the horizon, captures Cassiopeia (the “W”) and the rising autumn constellations reflected in the lake waters.
Vega is at top, Deneb below it, while the stars of Perseus and Pegasus are just rising.
It was a magical two nights in Yoho, a name that means “wonderful!” Both by day and by night.
How many sources of skyglow can you pick out here?
There are at least five:
• the Milky Way (at left),
• green airglow (below the Milky Way),
• all too prevalent light pollution (especially reflected off the clouds coming in from the west at right),
• lingering blue twilight across the north (at left and right), common in May and June from my northern latitude,
• and even a touch of aurora right at the northern horizon at far left.
In this scene from May 28, the Milky Way arches over an abandoned pioneer farmstead from the 1930s and 40s near my home in southern Alberta.
Mars (very bright and in some clouds) and Saturn shine at lower centre, while Jupiter is the bright object in clouds at right just above the old house.
Arcturus is the brightest star here at upper right of centre, made more obvious here by shining through the clouds. The Big Dipper, distorted by the map projection used in the this panorama, is at upper right.
Technical: This is a 360° horizon to zenith panorama taken with the iPano motorized panning unit, using the 24mm lens at f/2.8 and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400, for a stitch of 28 panels, in 4 tiers of 7 segments each. Stitched with PTGui. South is at centre, north to either end. The original is 25,700 x 7,700 pixels.
Just after I shot the panorama I captured the International Space Station passing directly overhead in one of several passes this night.
At this time of year the ISS is lit all night by the Sun that never sets for the astronauts. We see the ISS cross the sky not once but several times in a night at 90-minute intervals.
While the sky near solstice is never dark at my latitude, it does have its compensations and attractions.
Mars is now shining brightly in the evening sky, as close and as bright as it has been since 2005.
Look southeast to south after dark and you’ll see a brilliant reddish “star.” That’s Mars, now at opposition, and retrograding slowly westward each night through Scorpius into Libra.
My image above captures Mars set in the entirety of the northern spring sky, complete with the arch of the Milky Way, twilight glows to the north (at left), some satellite trails …
… and Mars itself as the brightest object just right of centre shining above the landscape of Dinosaur Provincial Park.
Just to the left of Mars is Saturn, while below both is the star Antares in Scorpius, for a neat triangle of objects. Jupiter is the bright object in Leo at far right.
Technical: I shot the lead image on the evening of May 25. It is a 360° and horizon-to-zenith panorama stitched from 44 images, taken in 4 tiers of 11 panels each, shot with a motorized iOptron iPano mount. I used a 35mm Canon lens at f/2.8 for 30-second exposures with the Canon 6D at ISO 6400. I stitched the images with PTGui. The original image is a monster 32,500 pixels wide by 8,300 pixels high.
I shot the panorama above earlier in the evening, when Mars and Saturn were just rising in the southeast at left, and the sky to the northwest at right was still bright with twilight.
This shows the geometry of Mars at opposition. It lies opposite the Sun and is so rising at sunset and directly opposite the sunset point. The Sun, Earth and Mars are in a straight line across the solar system with Earth in the middle and as close to Mars as we get.
Actual date of opposition was May 22 but Earth is closest to Mars on May 30. That’s when it will look largest in a telescope. But to the unaided eye it appears as a bright red star.
This is a video 37 years in the making, compiling images and videos I’ve shot of total solar eclipses since my first in 1979.
Though I’ve “sat out” on the last couple of total eclipses of the Sun in 2015 and 2016, I’m looking forward to once again standing in the shadow of the Moon in 2017 – on August 21.
If you have not yet seen a total eclipse of the Sun, and you live in North America, next year is your chance to. It is the most spectacular and awe-inspiring event you can witness in nature.
I hope my video montage relays some of the excitement of being there, as the Moon eclipses the Sun.
As always, click HD and enlarge to full screen.
My montage features images and movies shot in:
• Manitoba (1979)
• Chile (1994)
• Curaçao (1998)
• Turkey (1999)
• Zimbabwe (2001)
• Australia (2002)
• Over Antarctica (2003)
• South Pacific near Pitcairn Island (2005)
• Libya (2006)
• Over Arctic Canada (2008)
• South Pacific near the Cook Islands (2009)
• Australia (2012)
• Mid-Atlantic Ocean (2013)
Out of the 15 total solar eclipses I have been to, only the 1991 and 2010 eclipses that I did go to are not represented in the video, due to cloud. Though we did see much of the 1991 eclipse from Baja, clouds intervened part way through, thwarting my photo efforts.
And I only just missed the 2010 eclipse from Hikueru Atoll in the South Pacific as clouds came in moments before totality. Of course, it was clear following totality.
Cameras varied a lot over those years, from Kodachrome film with my old Nikon F, to digital SLRs; from 640×480 video with a Sony point-and-shoot camera, to HD with a DSLR.
I shot images through telescopes to capture the corona and prominences, and with wide-angle lenses to capture the landscape and lunar shadow. I rarely shot two eclipses the same way or with the same gear.
I hope you enjoy the video and will be inspired to see the August 21, 2017 eclipse. For more information about that eclipse, visit:
Mars is approaching! It now shines brightly in the midnight sky as a red star in Scorpius.
You can’t miss Mars now. It is shining brighter than it has since 2005, and is about to come as close to Earth as it has in 11 years as well.
Mars is now approaching opposition, when the Earth comes closest to Mars, and the Sun, Earth and Mars lie along the same line. Opposition date is May 22. That’s when Mars shines at its brightest, at magnitude -2.1, about as bright as Jupiter. Only Venus can be a brighter planet and it’s not in our sky right now.
A week later, on May 30, Mars comes closest to Earth, at a distance of 75 million kilometres. That’s when the disk of Mars looks largest in a telescope. And you will need a telescope at high power (150x to 250x) to make out the dark markings, north polar cap, and bright white clouds on Mars.
In these views, I show Mars shining as a bright reddish star low in my western Canadian sky. I shot the lead image from Dinosaur Provincial Park on May 16. The image just above was from my backyard the night before.
This week, Mars is passing between Beta and Delta Scorpii, two bright stars in the head of Scorpius, as the red planet retrogrades westward against the background stars.
Saturn shines to the east (left) of Mars now, with both planets shining above the red giant star Antares in Scorpius. In these photos they form a neat triangle.
Even without a telescope to magnify the view, it’ll be rewarding to watch Mars with the unaided eye or binoculars as it treks west out of Scorpius into Libra this spring and summer. It stops retrograding on June 30, then starts looping back into Scorpius, for a rendezvous with Antares and Saturn in late August.
This little compilation of time-lapse movies shows Mars, Saturn, and the rest of the sky, rising into the southeast and across the south on two nights this past week.
Be sure to explore Mars this month and next, whether by eye or by telescope. It’s the best we’ve seen it in a decade.
It’s next close approach in 2018 will be even better, though Mars will appear even lower in our northern sky.
On May 9, a last-minute chase into clear skies netted me a view of the rare transit of Mercury across the Sun.
The forecast called for typical transit weather – clear the day before, and clear the day after. But the day of the transit of Mercury? Hopeless at home in Alberta, unless I chanced the prospects of some clearing forecast for central Alberta.
As the satellite image below, for 8:30 a.m. MDT on May 9, shows, that clearing did materialize. But I headed west, as far west as I needed to go to be assured of clear skies – to central BC. Kamloops in fact.
I stayed at the Alpine Motel, got a great room as the end, and set up in the parking lot away from traffic. Not the most photogenic of observing sites, but I was happy! I had my clear skies!
I set up two telescopes, above: a 130mm refractor to shoot through, and an 80mm refractor to look through. Both with dense solar filters!
Both worked great. However, low cloud prevented me seeing the Sun as soon as it cleared the eastern hills. So this was my first good look, below, at the transit as the Sun rose above the clouds.
There it was – the fabled “little black spot on the Sun today.” Mercury is the dot at lower left, with a sunspot group at upper right. This was the first transit of Mercury since November 8, 2006. We see only about 13 Mercury transits a century, so in a lifetime of stargazing (the Sun is a star!) even the most avid amateur astronomer might see only a handful. This was only my third transit of Mercury.
This was the view, above, a little later, as the Sun entered more assuredly clear skies. From about 7 a.m. PDT on, the Sun was in the clear most of the morning, with just occasional puffy clouds intervening now and then.
I shot still images every 30 seconds, to eventually turn into a time-lapse movie (after a ton of work hand registering hundreds of frames!).
But for now, I’ll be content with this composite of 40 frames, below, taken at 7-minute intervals. It shows the progress of Mercury across the Sun over the last 4.5 hours or so of the event, until egress at 11:38 a.m. PDT.
This motion is due to Mercury’s movement around the Sun. A transit is one of the few times you can easily see a planet actually orbiting the Sun.
In this composite, the disks of Mercury are not all perfect dots. The wobbly seeing conditions distorted the images from frame to frame. But I used the actual images taken at that moment, rather than clone some perfect image across the disk to simulate the path.
To wrap up, here’s Mercury Transit: The Movie! I shot several HD and zoomed-in “crop mode” movies at the beginning of the transit and again at the final egress. Commentary is from me talking live into the camera mic as I was shooting the clips. Background noise is courtesy Pacific Drive and the Trans-Canada Highway!
Enjoy, and do enlarge to HD and full-screen for the best look.
The next transit of Mercury is November 11, 2019. If you are hoping for a transit of Venus, good luck. The next is not until December 10, 2117!
The sky and sea present an ever-changing panorama of light and colour from the view point of an Australian lighthouse.
Last week I spent a wonderful four nights at the Smoky Cape Lighthouse, in Hat Head National Park, on the Mid-North Coast of New South Wales. I was after panoramas of seascapes and cloudscapes, and the skies didn’t disappoint.
At sunset, as below, the sky to the east glowed with twilight colours, with the bright clouds providing a beautiful contrast against the darkening sky. The kangaroo at far right was an added bonus as he hopped into frame just at the right time.
At sunrise, the Sun came up over the ocean to the east, providing a stunning scene to begin the day.
The Smoky Cape Lighthouse was lit up for the first time in 1891. It was staffed for decades by three keepers and their families who lived in the cottages visible in the panoramas above. They tended to the kerosene lamps, to cleaning the lenses, and to winding the weight-driven clockwork mechanism that needed resetting every two hours to keep the reflector and lens assembly turning. By day, they would draw the curtains across to keep the Sun from heating up the optics.
The huge optical assembly uses a set of nine lenses, each a massive fresnel lens, to shot focused beams out to sea. The optics produce a trio of beams, in three sets.
Each night you could see the nine beams sweeping across the sky and out to sea, producing a series of three quick flashes followed by a pause, then another three flashes, the characteristic pattern of the Smoky Bay Light. Each lighthouse has its own flashing pattern.
The lead photo, repeated above, shows the beams in the twilight, with the stars of the Southern Cross as a backdrop. Three beams are aimed toward the camera while the other two sets of beam trios are shooting away out to sea.
The image below shows the beam trio shining out over the water toward one of the dangerous rocks off shore.
The Lighthouse was converted to electricity in 1962, when staff was reduced. Then in the 1980s all lighthouses were automated and staff were no longer needed.
While we might romanticize the life of a lighthouse keeper, it was a lonely and hard life. Keepers were usually married, perhaps with children. While that may have lessened the isolation, it was still a difficult life for all.
Today, some of the cottages have been converted into rentable rooms. I stayed in the former house of the main light keeper, filled with memorabilia from the glory days of staffed lighthouses.
The image above takes in the Southern Cross over the moonlit beach in the dawn twilight.
The last image below is my final astrophoto taken on my current trip to Australia, a 360° panorama of the Milky Way and Zodiacal Light from the back garden of the Lighthouse overlooking the beach at Hat Head National Park.
It’s been a superb trip, with over half a terabyte of images shots and processed! The last few blogs have featured some of the best, but many more are on the drives for future posts.
When visiting southern latitudes nothing disorients a northern hemisphere astronomer more than seeing our familiar Moon turned “the wrong way!”
With the Moon now dominating the night sky, my photo attention in Australia turns to it as my celestial subject.
It’s wonderful to see the Moon as a crescent phase in the evening sky, but now flipped around so it looks like the Moon we see from home up north when it is a waning crescent in the morning.
However, the lead image above actually shows the waxing crescent in the evening. It shines above the volcanic hills near Warrumbungles National Park, with the added silhouette of the dome of the Australian Astronomical Telescope, the largest optical telescope in Australia.
After a lifetime of seeing the Moon in its northerly orientation, seeing the austral Moon throws off your sense of time and direction. Are we looking west in the evening? Or east in the morning? The Moon just doesn’t make sense!
Then there’s the Full Moon. It rises in the east, as does the Sun. But like the Sun, the “down under Moon” moves from right to left across the northern, not southern sky. And the familiar “Man in the Moon” figure is upside down, as seen above.
The photo above is from Friday night, and shows the Full Moon rising in the northeast over the Pacific Ocean.
This “HDR” image above from earlier in the evening captures the golden glitter path of moonlight on the ocean waves. I photographed these Full Moon scenes from the Headlands viewpoint at Woolgoolga, a great spot for panoramic seascapes.
The Full Moon this night was the apogee Full Moon of 2016 – the smallest and most distant Full Moon of the year, the opposite of a “supermoon.”
Earlier in the week I was inland, high on the New England Tablelands in New South Wales. This image shows the waxing gibbous Moon in the evening twilight over Ebor Falls on the Guy Fawkes River, one of the few waterfalls on the famed Waterfall Way in New Soith Wales that has water flowing year round.
From southern latitudes the most amazing region of the sky shines overhead late on austral autumn nights.
There is no more spectacular part of the Milky Way than the regions around its galactic centre. Or at least in the direction of the galaxy’s core.
We can’t see the actual centre of the Galaxy, at least not with the cameras and telescopes at the disposal of amateur photographers such as myself.
It takes large observatory telescopes equipped with infrared cameras to see the stars orbiting the actual centre of the Milky Way. Doing so over many years reveals stars whipping around an invisible object with an estimated 4 million solar masses packed into the volume no larger than the solar system. It’s a black hole.
By comparison, looking in that direction with our eyes and everyday cameras, we see a mass of stars in glowing clouds intersected by lanes of dark interstellar dust.
The top image shows a wide view of the Milky Way toward the galactic centre, taking in most of Sagittarius and Scorpius and their incredible array of nebulas, star clusters and rivers of dark dust, all located in the dense spiral arms between us and the galactic core.
Zooming into that scene reveals a panoramic close-up of the Milky Way around the galactic centre, from the Eagle Nebula in Serpens, at left, to the Cat’s Paw Nebula in Scorpius, at right.
This is the richest hunting ground for stargazers looking for deep-sky wonders. It’s all here, with field after field of telescopic and binocular sights in an area of sky just a few binocular fields wide.
The actual galactic core area is just right of the centre of the frame, above the bright Sagittarius StarCloud.
Zooming in again shows just that region of sky in an even closer view. The contrast between the bright star fields at left and the dark intervening dust at right is striking even in binoculars – perhaps especially in binoculars.
The visual impression is of looking into dark canyons of space plunging off bright plateaus of stars.
In fact, it is just the opposite. The dark areas are created by dust much closer to us, hiding more distant stars. It is where the stars are most abundant, in the dust-free starclouds, that we see farthest into the galaxy.
In the image above the galactic centre is at right, just above the small diffuse red nebula. In that direction, some 28,000 light years away, lurks the Milky Way’s monster black hole.
To conclude my tour of the galactic centre, I back out all the way to see the entire sky and the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon, with the galactic centre nearly overhead in this view from 3 a.m. earlier this week.
Only from a latitude of about 30° South can you get this impressive view, what I consider one of the top “bucket-list” sights the sky has to offer.
Mars outshines his rival red star Antares in the heart of the Scorpion.
This was the view last night from my observing site in Australia, of red Mars shining near the red star Antares, whose very name means “rival of Mars.” But as Mars nears its closest approach to Earth next month it is already far brighter than Antares, easily winning the rivalry now.
The view takes in the head of Scorpius, one of the most colourful areas of the night sky when photographed in long exposures. Uniquely, Antares illuminates a nearby dust cloud with its light which is more yellow than red.
Other dust clouds reflect the blue light of hot young stars in this section of the Milky Way. Red nebulas are emitting their own light from glowing hydrogen.
The area around Antares is also streaked with lanes of dark dust that absorb light and at best appear a dull brown.
Mars reaches its closest point to Earth since 2005 on May 30. All through May and June Mars will shine as a brilliant red star near Antares. A telescope will provide the best view of the red planet we’ve had in a decade.
While you are in the area aim your telescope a little to the east to catch Saturn, also in the area, though technically over the border in the constellation of Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer.
In the view above, Saturn is the bright “star” to the left of Mars. Saturn reaches its closest to Earth in early June. Its rings are now wide open and a spectacular picture postcard sight in any telescope.
This final view shows Mars and Saturn rising with Scorpius in the moonlight from two nights ago. From my current latitude of 32° south, Scorpius comes up on his side.
Last week, northerners marvelled at the splendours of the southern hemisphere sky from a dark site in Australia.
I’ve attended the OzSky Sky Safari several times and have always come away with memories of fantastic views of deep-sky wonders visible only from the southern hemisphere.
This year was no exception, as skies stayed mostly clear for the seven nights of the annual star party near Coonabarabran, New South Wales.
About 35 people from the U.S., Canada and the U.K. attended, to take in views through large telescopes supplied by the Australian branch of the Texas-based Three Rivers Foundation. The telescopes come with the best accessory of all: knowledgeable Aussies who know the southern sky and are delighted to present its splendours to us visiting sky tourists.
Here are a few of the night scenes from last week.
The lead image above shows a 360° panorama of the observing field and sky from early in the evening, as Orion sets in the west to the right, while Scorpius rises in the east to the left. The Large Magellanic Cloud is at centre, while the Southern Cross shines to the upper left in the Milky Way.
This panorama, presented here looking south in a fish-eye scene, is from later in the night as the galactic core rises in the east. Bright Jupiter and the faint glow of the Gegenschein are visible at top to the north.
Each night observers used the big telescopes to gaze at familiar sights seen better than ever under Australian skies, and new objects never seen before.
The Dark Emu of aboriginal sky lore rises above some of the 3RF telescopes.
Carole Benoit from Calgary looks at the Orion Nebula as an upside-down Orion sets into the west.
John Bambury hunts down an open cluster in the rich southern Milky Way near Carina and Crux.
David Batagol peers at a faint galaxy below the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy to our Milky Way.
The Southern Cross, the iconic constellation of the southern sky, shines high in the south on austral autumn nights.
I’m in one of my favourite places, Australia, in particular at its self-proclaimed “astronomy capital,” Coonabarabran in New South Wales. Down the road from me is the Siding Spring Observatory.
But for 3 weeks I’m using my own telescope gear to observe and photograph the fabulous southern skies.
For part of my time here I’m attending the annual OzSky Star Party, a small and rather exclusive event for observers from around the world who come here to revel in celestial wonders visible only from southern latitudes.
The lead image at top is a 7-panel panorama of the star party in action, on the grounds of the Warrumbungles Mountain Motel, with a dozen or more large and premium telescopes set up for our use.
Overhead is the arch of the southern Milky Way, with the Southern Cross here at its highest about local midnight now in early April at the start of autumn. Below the Milky Way is the Large Magellanic Cloud, a companion galaxy to the Milky Way, itself a superb target for telescopes.
To the far right in the Milky Way is Sirius amid the gum trees, and the stars of Canis Major diving into the west. To the far left are the bright star clouds of Scorpius and Sagittarius rising in the east, bringing the glowing core of our Galaxy high into the austral sky. Bright Mars and Saturn shine in and around Scorpius.
This is a view of the Milky Way everyone should see – it is should be one of the top items on any amateur astronomer’s bucket list.
Here, above, I’ve stacked images from a time-lapse to create a star trail scene with the stars of the southern sky rotating about the blank South Celestial Pole. Again, the Southern Cross is at top.
This view, above, focuses on the Milky Way of the deep south, from Vela to Centaurus, passing through Carina and Crux, with the bright Carina Nebula, the Southern Cross, and the dark Coal Sack front and centre.
Here I zoom into the Southern Cross itself, in a mosaic of 3 panels to cover the smallest constellation using a high-resolution astrograph, a 300mm f/4 lens. The Coal Sack is at lower left while numerous star clusters lie embedded within and around the Cross, including the famous “Jewel Box” at left, next to Beta Cruxis, aka Becrux.
I shot the Crux mosaic from my cottage site at Tibuc Gardens, a superb dark sky site and home to a new cottage built after the devastating bush fires of 2013 which destroyed all the other cottages I had stayed at in previous years.
There’s much more to come, as I rapidly fill up my hard drive with time-lapses and deep-sky images of the southern sky. I already have several blogs worth of images processed or about to be. In the meantime, check my Flickr site for the latest images hot off the hard drive and uploaded as best my Oz internet connectivity allows.
My latest music video includes images, time-lapses and real-time videos of the Northern Lights shot in February and March 2016 in Churchill.
While I’ve posted my recent images of the aurora here and at many social media sites, all the videos I shoot take more work before they are ready to unveil to the public. Videos work best when set to music.
In this case, I’m very pleased to have received permission from EverSound Music to incorporate the music of one of my favourite artists, John Adorney, in my latest music video montage. The selection is If a Rose Could Speak, from his 2013 album The Wonder Well. It features vocals by Daya.
The video incorporates still images, as well as time-lapse sequences, and real-time videos of the Northern Lights.
The all-sky time-lapses are intended to be projected in digital planetarium theatres, recreating the scene on their 360° domes.
Please click on the V for Vimeo button to really see the video well. And select 1080p HD for the best image quality. And do share!
ABOUT THE VIDEO
I shot all scenes at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, near Churchill, Manitoba, on the shore of Hudson Bay at a latitude of 58° North. Churchill’s location places it under the usual location of the auroral oval, providing spectacular displays of Northern Lights even on nights when locations to the south are seeing nothing.
I was at the CNSC to present sets of 5-night aurora viewing programs to guests from across North America. Click the link above for more details on their programs. The 2016 aurora season is over, but we’ll have more aurora programs in January and February of next year.
I shot all images with Canon 6D and Nikon D750 DSLR cameras, usually at ISO 3200. The fish-eye all-sky sequences were with a Sigma 8mm lens on the Canon, while most of the still images and other full-frame time-lapses were with the Sigma 20mm Art lens on the Nikon. For the “rapid-cadence” time-lapses I used 1- to 2-second exposures at an interval of one second.
The real-time video clips were with the Nikon – set to ISO 25600 – and the Sigma wide open at f/1.4. While these clips are prone to digital noise, they do record the fast movement and subtle colour of the aurora much as the eye saw it. See my earlier music video with real-time clips shot February 12 for more examples of these.
The all-sky sequences were processed through LRTimelapse v4 software, to handle the huge range in brightness of the Lights. Real-time video clips were processed in Photoshop with the Camera Raw filter.
Temperatures ranged from a bitter -35° C to just (!) -15° C on most nights.
I kept the long-duration, all-sky, time-lapse camera going by placing it in a Camera Parka (www.atfrostedlens.com) and inserting disposable hand warmer packs inside the insulated parka. It worked very well, making it possible to shoot for up to 3 hours. Without it, the battery died after an hour.
It was a night to remember, when the sky exploded with a jaw-dropping display of Northern Lights.
Warnings went out around the world and the aurora meters were hitting high numbers. By sunset we were charged up with high expectations of seeing the aurora in high gear dancing in the twilight. We were not disappointed.
From our location at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre near Churchill, Manitoba (latitude 58° North), we see aurora almost every clear night, even when indicators are low.
But this night, the Index was reading 7 on the scale of 0 to 9. I was afraid, after all the effort to come north to see the Lights, the Lights would abandon us and head south. Not so!
The night did start with the Lights in the south, as shown in the panorama image at top. It takes in a full 360°, with the aurora arcing from east to west across the southern sky in Orion. The north over the Centre is clear.
But the curtains soon moved back north and engulfed most of our sky for most of the rest of the night.
Participants in our aurora tour group took their aurora “selfies,” and just looked up in awe at one of nature’s great sky shows. When the last of the group turned in at 2:30 a.m. the Lights were still going.
What follows is a selection — just a few! — of the still shots I took. I also shot time-lapse sequences and real-time videos. All those will take more editing to turn them into a music video, still to come.
I present a sweeping panorama of the winter and spring stars on a February night.
The lead image is a panorama I shot last Saturday, February 27 that takes in about 200° of sky from northeast to west, and nearly to the zenith. It encompasses most of the northern spring and winter stars and constellations.
I’ve added the labels to help you pick out the celestial highlights. The winter sky, containing Orion as the central constellation, is at right setting into the west. This area of sky contains a rich collection of bright stars and identifiable constellations.
The left side of the sky contains the spring constellations, now coming into view in the east. Note how that area of sky is sparsely populated by bright stars. You can see the Big Dipper, Regulus in Leo, and Arcturus rising at lower left.
The reason for the difference is the Milky Way – you can see it at right arcing up from the southern horizon passing by Orion and through Gemini, Taurus and Auriga. In that direction we are looking into the outlying spirals arms of our galaxy, toward rich areas of star formation.
To the east, at left, we are looking at right angles out of the plane of our spiral galaxy, toward the galactic North Pole, here just left of Leo. In that direction there are very few bright stars between us and the starless depths of intergalactic space. The spring sky is rather blank compared to the rich winter sky.
But you can see Jupiter, the brightest object in view here, and now prominent in the evening sky.
Note one other subtle glow just above Jupiter. That diffuse glow is the Gegenschein, caused by sunlight reflecting off interplanetary dust opposite the Sun in our solar system and in the plane of the ecliptic.
Jupiter is just east (left) of the Gegenschein here, as Jupiter was then just over a week before its date of opposition, March 8. By then the Gegenschein will have moved to superimpose right over Jupiter, as both then lie opposite the Sun.
I shot this scene from home on February 27, 2016, using the new iOptron iPano motorized “gigapan” unit, which I programmed to move and shoot 36 exposures with the Canon 5D MkII and 35mm lens, arranged in 4 rows high with 9 panels wide in each row from east to west. The result is a huge mosaic, 24,000 by 10,000 pixels.
Each exposure was 25 seconds at f/2 and at ISO 3200. The camera was not tracking the sky. I stitched the 36 segments with PTGui using its Spherical Fisheye projection. The image has black margins but I think the circular format is more suggestive of the spherical dome of the sky above and around you. But that’s me, a longtime planetarium show producer.
Next time I will shoot the zenith cap images as well!
My 10-minute video captures the Northern Lights in real-time video – no time-lapses here!
I hadn’t tried this before but the display of February 12, 2016 from Churchill, Manitoba was so active it was worth trying to shoot it with actual video, not time-lapse still frames.
I used very high ISO speeds resulting in very noisy frames. But I think the motion and colours of the curtains as they ripple and swirl more than overpower the technical limitations. And there’s live commentary!
Select HD and Enter Full Screen for the best quality.
Scenes have been edited for length, and I did not use all the scenes I shot in the final edit. So the scenes you see in the 10-minute video actually took place over about 20 minutes. But each scene is real-time. They show the incredibly rapid motion and fine structure in the auroral curtains, detail blurred in long multi-second exposures.
I used a Nikon D750 camera at ISO speeds from 12,800 to 51,200. While it is certainly very capable of shooting low-light video, the D750 is not optimized for it. A Sony a7s, with its larger pixels and lower noise, would have been a better camera. Next time!
The lens, however, was key. I used the new Sigma 20mm Art lens which, at f/1.4, is the fastest lens in its focal length class. And optical quality, even wide open, is superb.
The temperature was about -30 degrees C, with a windchill factor of about -45 C. It was cold! But no one in the aurora tour group of 22 people I was instructing was complaining. Everyone was outside, bundled up, and enjoying the show.
It was what they had traveled north to see, to fulfill a life-long desire to stand under the Northern Lights. Everyone could well and truly check seeing the aurora off their personal bucket lists this night.
For more information about aurora and other northern eco-tourism tours offered by the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, see churchillscience.ca
From Churchill, Manitoba the Northern Lights dance almost every night over the boreal forest.
This year, as in the last two years, I have traveled to the shores of a frozen Hudson Bay and to the town of Churchill, Manitoba to view and photograph the aurora borealis.
I’m instructing two tour groups at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, one this week and one last week, in the science and sagas of the aurora and on how to shoot the Lights. The participants in the groups are fabulous, keenly interested and unfazed by the cold and wind.
From Churchill’s latitude of 58° N, we are under the main auroral oval almost every night. Even on nights with low official activity levels, as they were on all the nights I shot these images, we still get sky-filling displays.
Here’s a selection of still images from the last week of shooting, with clear skies on all but a couple of nights. There’s still room in our March sessions!
Orion appears in his winter element, over snowscapes on crisp January nights.
A couple of clear-ish winter nights this past weekend allowed me to capture that most iconic of constellations, Orion, over snowy landscapes close to home here in Alberta.
At top, he rises over the famous Hoodoos near East Coulee, Alberta in the Red Deer River valley. Clouds moving in on Sunday night, January 10, added the photogenic glows around the stars, emphasizing their colour and brilliance.
Here, from a shot on Saturday, January 9, Orion appears down the end of my rural country Range Road, with Sirius, his companion Dog Star, following at his heels above the treetops and in some haze.
If this looks cold, it was – at minus 25° C. Though two hours later it was only -15° C and by morning it was 0° C. Winter in Alberta!
Both images are short exposures, 10 to 15 seconds, at f/2 or f/2.8 with the wonderful Sigma 24mm Art lens and my new favourite camera, the Nikon D750 at ISO 3200. In both cases the ground is from a stack of several exposures to smooth noise but the sky is from a single exposure to minimize star trailing.
The waning Moon joined Venus and Saturn on a cold winter dawn.
This was the scene this morning, January 6, as the waning crescent Moon met with Venus (bright, at centre) and Saturn (below and left of Venus) in the cold morning twilight.
The grouping appeared above the stars of Scorpius. Antares is just above the treetops.
The top image is with the Canon 60Da and 50mm lens.
The view below, with the 135mm telephoto and Canon 6D camera, is from a half hour earlier before the sky began to brighten with morning twilight.
Venus passes very close to Saturn this weekend, with the two worlds appearing within a telescope field on the mornings of January 8 and 9. Get up early before sunrise and look southeast. Binoculars will provide a superb view.
Venus is hard to miss, but is now dropping lower each morning and will soon be gone from view as it ends its wonderful appearance as a morning star.
The Quadrantid meteors streaked out of the northern sky on a fine winter’s night.
The temperature was mild and skies clear in the early evening for the annual Quadrantid meteor shower. This is a prolific but short-lived shower with a brief peak. The cold and low altitude of its radiant point keeps this shower from becoming better known.
This was the first year I can recall shooting it. I had some success during a 2-hour shoot on January 3, from 9 to 11 pm MST.
The result above is a stack of 14 images, the best out of 600 shot that recorded meteors. The ground and sky comes from one image with the best Quad of the night, and the other meteor images were masked and layered into that image, with no attempt to align their paths with the moving radiant point.
However, over the 2 hours, the radiant point low in the north would not have moved too much, as it rose higher into the northern sky.
Most of the meteors here are Quads, but the very bright bolide at left, while it looks like it is coming from the radiant, it is actually streaking toward the radiant, and is not a Quadrantid. But oh so close! I left it in the composite for the sake of the nice composition!
Light clouds moving in added the natural star glows around the Big Dipper stars.
All frames were 10 seconds at f/2 with the 24mm lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200.
I present a horizon-to-zenith panorama of the pantheon of autumn constellations.
Yes, I know it’s winter, but as it gets dark each night now in early January the autumn stars are still front and centre. I took the opportunity during a run of very clear nights at home to shoot a panorama of the autumn sky.
It is a mosaic that sweeps up the sky and frames many related Greek mythological constellations:
• from the watery constellations of Aquarius, Pisces, and Cetus at the bottom near the horizon…
• to Pegasus and Aries in mid-frame…
• on up to Andromeda and Perseus at upper left…
• and finally Cassiopeia and Cepheus at the top of frame embedded in the Milky Way overhead. The Andromeda Galaxy, M31, is just above centre.
Here, I’ve labeled the participating constellations, though only a few, such as the “square” of Pegasus and the “W” of Cassiopeia, have readily identifiable patterns.
Most of these constellations are related in Greek mythology, with Princess Andromeda being the daughter of Queen Cassiopeia and King Cepheus, who was rescued from the jaws of Cetus the Sea Monster by Perseus the Hero, who rode on Pegasus the Winged Horse in some accounts.
Zodiacal Light brightens the sky at bottom right in Aquarius, and angles across the frame to the left.
I shot this from home on a very clear night January 2, 2016 with the Zodiacal Light plainly visible to the naked eye.
This is a mosaic of 5 panels, each a stack of 5 x 2 minute exposures, plus each panel having another stack of 2 x 2 minute exposures blended in, and taken through the Kenko Softon filter to add the fuzzy star glows to make the constellations stand out.
All were shot with the 24mm Canon lens at f/2.8 and Canon 5DMkII at ISO 1600. All tracked on the AP Mach One mount.
All stacking and stitching in Photoshop CC 2015. Final image size is 8500 x 5500 pixels and 3.6 gigabytes for the layered master.
The New Year’s sky was filled with Northern Lights, a panorama of stars, and a comet at dawn.
It was a busy night for stargazing as 2015 turned to 2016. A fine display of Northern Lights kicked off the celebrations, as curtains danced in the east as Orion rose (below).
Toward midnight the Lights kicked up again, now with Jupiter (on the horizon) and Leo rising in the east (below).
I shot hundreds of frames for time-lapse sequences, and assembled them into a short music video. Click on the buttons to enlarge it to HD.
Just before midnight, while the second time-lapse was going and the aurora was still active, but before the Last Quarter Moon rose to light the sky, I shot a set of tracked images taking in the entire winter sky from horizon to well past the zenith.
That image is at top. It takes in the winter sky and northern winter Milky Way, from Canis Major just above the horizon, up past Orion, then on up to Perseus and Cassiopeia at top right.
It shows how Orion and Sirius, the night sky’s brightest star, stand nearly due south at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
The final show of the night, now before dawn on New Year’s Day 2016, was Comet Catalina sitting right next to the bright spring star Arcturus. The comet was visible in the moonlight as a fuzzy object next to brilliant Arcturus, but the photo begins to show its faint tails, just standing out in the moonlit sky.
The comet will become more visible later this month once the waning Moon exits the dawn sky, as Catalina is expected to remain a nice binocular comet for most of the month as it heads high into northern sky.
In a sweeping panorama, here is the entire northern hemisphere Milky Way from horizon to horizon.
This is the result of one of the major projects on my recent trek to Arizona and New Mexico – a mosaic of images shot along the Milky Way over several hours.
The goal is a complete 360° panorama of the entire Milky Way, and I’ve got most of the other segments in previous shoots from Alberta, Australia and Chile. But I did not have good shots of the northern autumn segments, until now.
The panorama sweeps from Cygnus (at top, setting in the western sky in the evening), across the sky overhead in Perseus, Auriga and Taurus (in the middle), and down into Orion, Canis Major, and Puppis (at bottom, low in the southern sky at midnight).
The view is looking outward to the near edge of our Milky Way, in the direction opposite the centre of our Galaxy. In this direction the Milky Way becomes dimmer and less defined. Notable are the many red H-alpha emission regions along the Milky Way, as well as the many lanes of dark interstellar dust nearby and obscuring the more distant stars.
However, a diffuse glow in Taurus partly obscures its Taurus Dark Clouds — that’s the Gegenschein, caused by sunlight reflecting off cometary dust particles directly opposite the Sun and marking the anti-solar point this night, by coincidence then close to galactic longitude of 180° opposite the galactic centre.
Here I provide a guided map of the mosaic. Orion is at lower right, while the Pleiades and Andromeda Galaxy lie near the right edge. The Andromeda Galaxy is the only thing in this image that is not part of the Milky Way.
The bright star Canopus is just rising at bottom, in haze. Vega and Altair are just setting at the very top. So the panorama sweeps from Altair to Canopus.
The sky isn’t perfect! Haze and airglow in our atmosphere add discolouration, especially close to the horizon. In my final 360° pan, I’ll use only the central portions of this panorama.
Now let’s put the horizon-to-horizon panorama into cosmic perspective…
In this diagram, based on art from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope Institute, I show my Northern Milky Way Panorama in perspective to the “big picture” of our entire Galaxy, using artwork based on our best map of how our Galaxy is thought to look.
We are looking in a “god’s eye” view across our Galaxy from a vantage point on the far side of the Galaxy.
Where we are is marked with the red dot, the location of our average Sun in a minor spiral arm called the Orion Spur.
The diagram places my panorama image in the approximate correct location to show where its features are in our Galaxy. As such it illustrates how my panorama taken from Earth shows our view of the outer portions of our Galaxy, from the bright Cygnus area at right, to Perseus in the middle, directly opposite the centre of the Galaxy, then over to Orion at left.
The panorama sweeps from a “galactic longitude” of roughly 90° at right in Cygnus, to 180° in Perseus, over to 240° in Orion and Canis Major at left.
In the northern autumn and early winter seasons we are looking outward toward the outer Perseus Arm. So the Milky Way we see in our sky is fainter than in mid-summer when we are looking the other way, toward the dense centre of the Galaxy and the rich inner Norma and Sagittarius arms.
Yet, this outer region contains a rich array of star-forming regions, which mostly show up as the red nebulas. But this region of the Milky Way is also laced with dark lanes of interstellar “stardust.”
The panorama is composed of 14 segments, most being stacks 5 x 2.5-minute exposures with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600 and 35mm lens at f/2.8.
The end segments near the horizons at top and bottom are stacks of 2 x 2.5-minute exposures.
Each segment also has an additional image shot through a Kenko Softon filter to add the star glows, to make the bright stars show up better.
The camera was oriented with the long dimension of the frame across the Milky Way, not along it, to maximize the amount of sky framed on either side of the Milky Way.
The camera was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker. I shot the segments for this pan from Quailway Cottage, Arizona on December 8/9, 2015, with the end segments taken Dec 10/11, 2015. I decided to add in the horizon segments for completeness, and so shot those two nights later when sky conditions were a little different.
Meteors from the Geminid shower rain over the dishes of the VLA radio telescope.
Sunday night was a prime night for the annual Geminid meteor shower, one of the best of the year. To capture it, I traveled to the Plains of San Agustin in the high desert of New Mexico.
It’s there that the National Radio Astronomy Observatory operates the 27 dishes of the Very Large Array radio telescope, one of the most photogenic – and photographed – astronomical facilities in the world.
I set up at a viewing point near the entrance, to look northwest over the dishes, arrayed that night, and all season, in its most compact configuration, with all the dishes clustered closest together.
It was an active meteor shower! One particularly bright meteor left a persistent “train” – a smoke trail that lasted over 15 minutes. It creates the fuzzy cloud around the meteor at right. The bright bolide is on two frames, as the shutter closed then opened again as the meteor was still flying! So its bright streak got cut in two. Pity!
I shot with two cameras. The image here is from one, using a 35mm lens to shoot 334 frames over 3 hours. Each exposure was 32 seconds at f/2 and at ISO 3200.
I’ve taken about two dozen of the frames, the ones with meteors, and stacked them here, with the sky and ground coming from one frame. The camera was not tracking the sky.
Bands of natural airglow and clouds illuminated by the lights of Albuquerque to the north add colour to the sky.
I would have shot for longer than three hours, but this was a very cold night, with a brisk wind and temperatures below freezing. A snowstorm had even closed some roads the day before. Three hours was enough on the high plains of San Agustin this night.
The sky of December contains an amazing array of bright stars and deep-sky delights.
At this time of year we peer out toward the edge of our Galaxy, in the direction opposite to what we see in July and August. Even though we are looking away from the centre of our Galaxy, the Milky Way at this time of year contains a stunning collection of sights – for the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope.
I can’t list them all here, but most are in the lead image above! The image is a mosaic of the northern winter Milky Way, including the brilliant stars and constellations in and around Orion the Hunter.
The Milky Way extends from Perseus in the north at top, to Canis Major in the south at bottom. Throughout the scene are dark lanes and dust clouds, such as the Taurus Dark Clouds at upper right.
The Milky Way is dotted with numerous red “hydrogen-alpha” regions of emission nebulosity, such as the bright Rosette Nebula at lower left and the California Nebula at upper right. The curving arc of Barnard’s Loop surrounds the east side of Orion. Orion is below centre, with Sirius, the night sky’s brightest star, at lower left.
The constellation of Taurus is at upper right and Gemini at upper left. Auriga is at top and Perseus at upper right.
There’s an unusually bright area in Taurus just right of centre in the mosaic which I thought might be an image processing artifact. No. It’s the Gegenschein – a glow of sunlight reflected off comet dust directly opposite the Sun.
Two highlights of this sky that are great regions for binoculars are the Hyades cluster in Taurus ….
…and the Belt and Sword of Orion.
The Hyades – the face of Taurus – is one of the nearest and therefore largest open star clusters.
Orion the Hunter, who battles Taurus in the sky, contains the famous Orion Nebula, here overexposed in order to bring out the much fainter nebulosity in the region.
The magenta and blue arcs in the image below are photographic targets, but the bright Orion Nebula in Orion’s Sword is easy in binoculars, shining below the trio of his Belt Stars.
For us in the northern hemisphere, Orion and company are winter sights. But for those down under, in the southern hemisphere, this is the summer sky. So pardon the northern chauvinism in the title!
Either way, on a dark, moonless night, get out and explore the sky around Orion.
I shot the segments for the main mosaic at top on a very clear night on December 5, 2015 from the Quailway Cottage at Portal, Arizona. This is a mosaic of 8 segments, in two columns of 4 rows, with generous overlap. Each segment was made of 4 x 2.5-minute exposures stacked with mean combine stack mode to reduce noise, plus 2 x 2.5-minute exposures taken through the Kenko Softon filter layered in with Lighten belnd mode to add the star glows. Each segment was shot at f/2.8 with the original 35mm Canon L-series lens and the filter-modified (by Hutech) Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600, riding on the iOptron Sky-Tracker. All stacking and stitching in Photoshop CC 2015. The soft diffusion filter helps bring out the star colors in this area of sky rich in brilliant giant stars.
Comet Catalina sports two tails as it moves past Venus in the dawn sky.
This was the view this morning, December 9, from my site in Arizona, of Comet Catalina near Venus in the dawn sky. This is a telephoto lens shot that provides a view similar in size to what binoculars show.
However, the blue ion tail visible here stretching back several degrees is mostly a photographic target. Visually, just Catalina’s short, stubby dust tail at lower right is obvious.
The ion tail points away from the Sun, while the dust tail extends along the comet’s orbit, showing where the comet has been.
The view, both visually and photographically, of the comet will improve as it climbs higher into the eastern morning sky and as it moves away from the glare of Venus. The Moon is also now gone from the dawn, at least for the next couple of weeks.
The comet is dimmer than expected but should at least maintain this brightness for the next month or so.
This is a stack of 5 x 90-second exposures, taken with the 135mm telephoto and 1.4x extender for a focal length of 190mm, at f/2.8 and with the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600, tracked on the iOptron Sky-Tracker. Two other exposures, of 15s and 1s, were blended in with luminosity masks to reduce the glare of Venus to a smaller size.
What a morning of sky sights, both before dawn and after sunrise.
December 7 – This was the prime day I came to Arizona to enjoy, to be better assured of clear skies. As it turned out this will likely be the cloudiest day of the week here, but skies were clear enough for a fine view of a conjunction and an occultation. The comet was a bonus.
At 4 a.m. the waning crescent Moon rose accompanied by Venus, as the two worlds appeared in close conjunction in the pre-dawn sky. The view above captures the scene as the Moon and Venus rose over the Peloncillo Mountains of New Mexico. Comet Catalina is in this scene but barely visible.
An hour or so later, with the Moon and Venus higher and with skies a little less cloudy, I was able to capture this scene, above, that included Comet Catalina, as a tiny blue dot next to Venus and the Moon. But if I hadn’t labeled it, you wouldn’t know it was there! The comet is proving to be less wonderful than anticipated, and any cloud dims the view even more.
I had hoped for a superb scene of a bright comet next to the two brightest objects in the night sky. But comets do what comets do — surprise people with unexpected brightness (as Comet Lovejoy did last January) or with disappointing dimness … or by disappearing altogether, as Comet ISON did two years ago. I came here in December 2013, to this same location on the Arizona-New Mexico border, to catch ISON but no luck there at all!
Regardless of the comet, the conjunction of the Moon and Venus was stunning, about as good as such events get. Here’s the view, above, an hour later again, with the eastern sky brightening in the dawn twilight. The only thing that would have made this event even more spectacular is if the Moon had actually covered up Venus in this twilight sky. Not quite.
For the occultation itself, we had to wait until well after sunrise for an event in the blue daytime sky, at 9:30 a.m. local time.
All of North America got to see this fairly rare occultation of Venus by the Moon, albeit in the daytime. Nevertheless, the two objects are so bright, this was visible to the unaided eye, even with some cloud about. In binoculars it was wonderful.
To shoot it, all I had was a telephoto lens, so the image scale doesn’t do the event justice. But the image above provides a good impression of the binocular view, with Venus as a brilliant jewel on the “ring” of the Moon.
I got the comet but it isn’t what was hoped for – a faint fuzzball in binoculars.
This was Comet Catalina (aka C/2013 US10) in the dawn sky this morning, December 6, with the comet appearing as a fuzzy star below brilliant Venus in binoculars, and just revealing its two short tails in photos. It’s the cyan-colored object near the centre. Venus is the brilliant object.
This image is with a telephoto lens, and covers a little more of the sky than typical binoculars would show. I knew this would be a binocular comet at best, but it’s barely that. This is more a comet for telescopes.
But as the Moon departs the scene and the comet climbs higher the view may improve. Still, if you are pining for views of Comet Catalina and are stuck under cloudy winter skies at home, don’t be worried. You aren’t missing too much. Except …
This was the view of the autumn Milky Way from here in Arizona last night. Pretty impressive under nearly perfect sky conditions. And then there’s this …
This was the winter Milky Way with Orion setting into the west over the Chiricahuas at dawn. Turn around from looking at the comet and this was the view. So who cares if the comet isn’t too great? There’s lots more to see and shoot. With no snow, no frost, no dew.