On two clear evenings the Harvest Moon rose red and and large over the Alberta prairie.
I present a short music video (linked to below) of time-lapse sequences of the Harvest Moon of 2020 rising. I shot the sequences through a small telescope to zoom in on the Moon’s disk as it rose over the flat horizon of the prairie near where I live. I love being able to see the horizon!
Note the effects of atmospheric refraction squishing the Moon’s disk close to the horizon. The Moon becomes more normal and spherical as it rose higher.
People sometimes think the refraction effect is responsible for making the Full Moon appear large on the horizon, but the atmosphere has nothing to do with it. The effect is strictly an optical illusion. The Moon is no bigger on the horizon than when it is higher in the sky.
The photo below shows a composite of images taken September 30, 2020.
Note in the image below, from October 1, how much redder the Moon appears. That’s the effect of atmospheric absorption, in this case from dust and smoke in the air dimming and reddening the Moon (the same happens to the rising or setting Sun). At times this evening it looked like the Moon was in a total eclipse.
Below is the link to the time-lapse music video on Vimeo. It is in 4K. I used Adobe Camera Raw, Adobe Bridge, and LRTimelapse to process the component images as raw files for the time-lapse sequences, as per tutorials in my Nightscape and Time-Lapse ebook, above.
On November 11, I traveled to the near-flung corners of my backyard to observe the rare transit of Mercury across the Sun.
History is replete with tales of astronomers traveling to the far corners of the Earth to watch dark objects pass in front of the Sun — the Moon in eclipses, and Mercury and Venus in transits.
On November 11, to take in the last transit of Mercury until 2032, I had planned a trip to a location more likely to have clear skies in November than at home. A 3-day drive to southern Arizona was the plan.
But to attend to work and priorities at home I cancelled my plans. Instead, I decided to stay home and take my chances with the Alberta weather, perhaps making a run for it a day’s drive away if needed to chase into clear skies.
As it turned out, none of that was necessary. The forecast for clear, if cold, skies held true and we could not have had a finer day for the transit. Even the -20° C temperatures were no problem, with no wind, and of course sunshine!
Plus being only steps from home and a warming coffee helped!
As it turned out, the site in Arizona I had booked to stay was clouded out for the entire event. So I was happy with my decision!
For my site in Alberta, as for all of western North America, the Sun rose with the transit in progress. But as soon as the Sun cleared the horizon there was Mercury, as a small, if fuzzy, black dot on the Sun.
As the Sun rose the view became sharper, and was remarkable indeed — of a jet black dot of a tiny planet silhouetted on the Sun.
I shot through two telescopes, my 4-inch and 5-inch refractors, both equipped with solar filters of course. I viewed through two other telescopes, for white-light and hydrogen-alpha filtered views.
I was able to follow the transit for three hours, for a little more than half the transit, until Mercury exited the Sun just after 11 a.m. MST. The view below is from moments before Mercury’s exit, or “egress.”
I shot still frames every 15 seconds with each of the two cameras and telescopes, for a time-lapse, plus I shot real-time videos.
At this transit Mercury passed closer to the centre of the Sun’s disk than it will for any other transit in the 21st century, making this event all the more remarkable. That point is recorded above, from a shot taken at 8:19 a.m. MST.
Stacking a selection of the time-lapse frames, ones taken 1-minute intervals, produced this composite of the transit, from just before mid-transit until Mercury’s egress.
I assembled all the best images and 4K videos together into a movie, which I narrated live at the telescope as the transit was happening. I hope this provides a sense of what it was like to view this rare event.
The Transit of Mercury from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
We won’t see another until 2032, but not from North America. The next transit of Mercury viewable from here at home is not until 2049! This was likely my last transit, certainly for a while!
It was a magical night as the rising Moon lit the Badlands with a golden glow.
When doing nightscape photography it’s often best not to fight the Moon, but to embrace it and use it as your light source.
I did this on a fine night, Easter Sunday, at one of my favourite nightscape spots, Dinosaur Provincial Park.
I set up two cameras to frame different views of the hoodoos as they lit up with the light of the rising waning Moon.
The night started out as a dark moonless evening as twilight ended. Then about 90 minutes after the arrival of darkness, the sky began to brighten again as the Moon rose to illuminate the eroded formations of the Park.
This was a fine example of “bronze hour” illumination, as some have aptly called it.
Photographers know about the “golden hour,” the time just before sunset or just after sunrise when the low Sun lights the landscape with a golden glow.
The Moon does the same thing, with a similar tone, though greatly reduced in intensity.
The low Moon, especially just after Full, casts a yellow or golden tint over the scene. This is caused by our atmosphere absorbing the “cold” blue wavelengths of moonlight, and letting through the “warm” red and yellow tones.
Making use of the rising (or setting) Moon to light a scene is one way to capture a nightscape lit naturally, and not with artificial lights, which are increasingly being frowned upon, if not banned at popular nightscape destinations.
“Bronze hour” lighting is great in still-image nightscapes. But in time-lapses the effect is more striking — indeed, in time-lapse lingo it is called a “moonstrike” scene.
The dark landscape suddenly lights up as if it were dawn, yet stars remain in the sky.
The best nights for such a moonstrike are ones with a waning gibbous or last quarter Moon. At these phases the Moon rises after sunset, to re-light a scene after evening twilight has faded.
On April 21 I made use of such a circumstance to shoot moonstrike stills and movies, not only for their own sake, but for use as illustrations in the next edition of my Nightscapes and Time-lapse eBook (at top here).
One camera, the Nikon D750, I coupled with a device called a bramping intervalometer, in this case the TimeLapse+ View, shown above. It works great to automatically shift the shutter and ISO speeds as the sky darkens then brightens again.
Yes, in bright situations the camera’s own Auto Exposure and Auto ISO modes might accomplish this.
But … once the sky gets dark the Auto circuits fail and you’re left with hugely underexposed images.
The TimeLapse+ View, with its more sensitive built-in light meter, can track right through into full darkness, making it possible to shoot so-called “holy grail” time-lapses that go from daylight to darkness, from sunset to the Milky Way, all shot unattended.
For the other camera, the Sony a7III (with the Laowa 15mm lens I just reviewed) I set the camera manually, then shifted the ISO and shutter speed a couple of times to accommodate the darkening, then brightening of the scene.
Processing the resulting RAW files in the highly-recommended program LRTimelapse smoothed out all the jumps in brightness to make a seamless transition.
I also used the new intervalometer function that Sony has just added to the a7III with its latest firmware update. Hurray! I complained about the lack of an intervalometer in my original review of the Sony a7III. But that’s been fixed.
I shot 425 frames with the Sony, which I not only turned into a movie but, as one can with time-lapse frames, I also stacked into a star trail still image, in this case looking north to the circumpolar stars.
I prefer this action set over dedicated programs such as StarStaX, because it works directly with the developed Raw files. There’s no need to create a set of JPGs to stack, compromising image quality, and departing from the non-destructive workflow I prefer to maintain.
While the still images are very nice, the intended final result was this movie above, a short time-lapse vignette using clips from both cameras. Do watch in HD.
I rendered out the frames from the Sony both as a “normal” time-lapse, and as one with accumulating star trails, again using the Advanced Stacker Plus actions to create the intermediate frames for assembling into the movie.
All these techniques, gear, and apps are explained in tutorials in my eBook, above. However, it’s always great to get a night perfect for putting the methods to work on a real scene.
It took a chase but it was worth it to catch the January 20, 2019 total eclipse of the Moon in the winter sky.
While the internet and popular press fawned over the bogus moniker of “Super Blood Wolf” Moon, to me this was the “Cold Moon” eclipse. And I suspect that was true for many other observers and eclipse chasers last Sunday.
Total solar eclipses almost always involve a chase, usually to far flung places around the world to stand in the narrow shadow path. But total lunar eclipses (TLEs) come to you, with more than half the planet able to view the Moon pass through the Earth’s shadow and turn red for several minutes to over an hour.
The glitch is clouds. For several of the last TLEs I have had to chase, to find clear skies in my local area, creating pre-eclipse stress … and post-eclipse relief!
That was the case for the January 20, 2019 total lunar, as the weather predictions above, based on Environment Canada data, were showing east-central Alberta along the Saskatchewan border as the only clear hole within range and accessible.
The above is a screen shot from the wonderful app Astrospheric, a recommended and great aid to astronomers. In 2014, 2015, and 2018 the Environment Canada predictions led me to clear skies, allowing me to see an eclipse that others in my area missed.
So trusting the predictions, the day before the eclipse I drove the 5 hours and 500 km north and east to Lloydminster, a town where the provincial border runs right down the main street, Highway 17.
The morning of the evening eclipse, I drove up and down that highway looking for a suitable site to setup. Scenery was not in abundance! It’s farm land and oil wells. I settled for a site shown above, an access road to a set of wells and tanks where I would likely not be disturbed, that had no lights, and had a clear view of the sky.
The image above is from the iOS app Theodolite, another fine app for planning and scouting sites, as it overlays where the camera was looking.
Scenery was not a priority as I was mostly after a telephoto view of the eclipsed Moon near the Beehive star cluster. Wide views would be a bonus if I could get them, for use in further ebook projects, as is the plan for the image below.
The site, which was east of the border in Saskatchewan, served me well, and the skies behaved just as I had hoped, with not a cloud nor haze to interfere with the view. It was a long and cold 5-hour night on the Prairies, with the temperature around -15° C.
It could have been worse, with -25° not uncommon at this time of year. And fortunately, the wind was negligible, with none of the problems with frost that can happen on still nights.
Nevertheless, I kept my photo ambitions in check, as in the cold much can go wrong and running two cameras was enough!
Above was the main image I was after, capturing the red Moon shining next to the Beehive star cluster, a sight we will not see again for another 18-year-long eclipse “saros,” in January 2037.
But I shot images every 10 minutes, to capture the progression of the Moon through the shadow of the Earth, for assembly into a composite. I’d pick the suitable images later and stack them to produce a view of the Moon and umbral shadow outline set amid the stars.
Above is the final result, showing the outline of the circular umbral shadow of the Earth defined by the shadow edge on the partially eclipsed Moons. The umbra is about three times the size of the Moon. And at this eclipse the Moon moved across the northern half of the shadow.
So mission accomplished!
I usually try to take a “trophy” shot of the successful eclipse chaser having bagged his game. This is it, from mid-eclipse during totality, with the red Moon shining in the winter sky beside the Beehive.
With this eclipse I can now say I have seen every total lunar eclipse visible from my area of the world since May 2003. I’m not counting those TLEs that were visible from only the eastern hemisphere — I’m not so avid as to chase those. And there were a couple of TLEs in that time that were visible from North America, but not from Alberta. So I’m not counting those.
And a couple of TLEs that were visible from here I did not see from here in Alberta — I saw April 15, 2014 from Australia and April 4, 2015 from Utah.
With that tally I’ve seen all the locally visible TLEs over a full saros cycle, 18 years. The last local TLE I missed was January 20, 2000, exactly 19 years — a Metonic cycle — ago. It must have been cloudy!
The next total eclipse of the Moon is May 26, 2021, visible from Alberta as the Moon sets at dawn. I’d like to be in Australia for that one (depicted above in a screen shot from StarryNight™), to see the eclipsed Moon beside the galactic centre as both rise in the east, a sight to remember. Being late austral autumn, that will be a “cool Moon.”
Three perfect nights in July provided opportunities to capture the night sky at popular sites in Banff National Park.
When the weather forecast in mid-July looked so promising I made an impromptu trip to Banff to shoot nightscapes and time-lapses under unusually clear skies. Clouds are often the norm in the mountains or, increasingly these days, forest fire smoke in late summer.
But from July 15 to 17 the skies could not have been clearer, except for the clouds that rolled in late on my last night, when I was happy to pack up and get some sleep.
My first priority was to shoot the marvellous close conjunction of the Moon and Venus on July 15. I did so from the Storm Mountain viewpoint on the Bow Valley Parkway, with a cooperative train also coming through the scene at the right time.
This was the view later with the Milky Way and Mars over Bow Valley and Storm Mountain.
The next night, July 16, was one of the most perfect I had ever seen in the Rockies. Crystal clear skies, calm winds, and great lake reflections made for a picture-perfect night at Bow Lake on the Icefields Parkway. Above is a 360° panorama shot toward the end of the night when the galactic centre of the Milky Way was over Bow Glacier.
Streaks of green airglow arc across the south, while to the north the sky is purple from a faint display of aurora.
This is a rare appearance of the unusual STEVE auroral arc on the night of July 16-17, 2018, with a relatively low Kp Index of only 2 to 3. While the auroral arc was visible the ISS made a bright pass heading east. This is a blend of a single 15-second exposure for the sky and ground, with seven 15-second exposures for the ISS, but masked to reveal just the ISS trail and its reflection in the water. The ISS shots were taken at 3-second intervals, thus the gaps. All with the Sigma 20mm Art lens at f/2 and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400. Taken from Bow Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta.
The unusual STEVE auroral arc across the northern sky at Bow Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta on the night of July 16-17, 2018. The more normal green auroral arc is lower across the northern horizon. But STEVE here appears more pink. The STEVE aurora was colourless to the eye but did show faint fast-moving rays, here blurred by the long exposure. They were moving east to west. The Big Dipper is at left. The lights are from Num-Ti-Jah Lodge. This is a single exposure for the sky and a mean-stacked blend of 3 exposures for the ground to smooth noise. All 15 seconds at f/2 with the Sigma 20mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.
Earlier that night the usual auroral arc known as Steve put in an unexpected appearance. It was just a grey band to the eye, but the camera picked up Steve’s usual pink colours. Another photographer from the U.S. who showed up had no idea there was an aurora happening until I pointed it out.
My last night was at Herbert Lake, a small pond great for capturing reflections of the mountains around Lake Louise, and the Milky Way. Here, brilliant Mars, so photogenic this summer, also reflects in the still waters.
A blend of images to show the stars of the southern sky moving from east to west (left to right) over the peaks of the Continental Divide at Herbert Lake near Lake Louise, in Banff, Alberta. The main peak at left is Mount Temple. A single static image shows the Milky Way and stars at the end of the motion sequence. The star trails and Milky Way reflect in the calm waters of the small Lake Herbert this night on July 17, 2018. This is a stack of 100 images for the star trails, stacked with the Long Streak function of Advanced Stacker Plus actions, plus a single exposure taken a minute or so after the last star trail image. The star trail stack is dropped back a lot in brightness, plus they are blurred slightly, so as to not overwhelm the fixed sky image. The sky images are blended with a stack of 8 images for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise in the ground. All are 30 seconds at f/2.8 with the 24mm Sigma lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200. All were taken as part of a time-lapse sequence. Clouds moving in added the odd dark patches in the Milky Way that look like out of place dark nebulas. The reflected star trails are really there in the water and have not be copied, pasted and inverted from the sky image. They look irregular because of rippling in the water.
A blend of images to show the stars of the southern sky moving from east to west (left to right) over the Rocky Mountains at Bow Lake, in Banff, Alberta. The main peak at centre is Bow Peak. Crowfoot Glacier is at far left; Bow Glacier is at right below the Milky Way. A single static image shows the Milky Way and stars at the end of the motion sequence. The star trails and Milky Way reflect in the calm waters of Bow Lake this night on July 16, 2018, though they appear large and out of focus. This is a stack of 300 images for the star trails, stacked with the Ultrastreak function of Advanced Stacker Plus actions, plus a single exposure taken a minute or so after the last star trail image. The star trail stack is dropped back a lot in brightness, plus they are blurred slightly, so as to not overwhelm the fixed sky image. The sky images are blended with a stack of 8 images for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise in the ground. All are 30 seconds at f/2 with the 15mm Laowa lens and Sony a7III at ISO 3200. All were taken as part of a time-lapse sequence. Bands of airglow add the green streaks to the sky.
The stars trailing as they move east to west (left to right), ending with the Milky Way and Galactic Centre (right) over Storm Mountain and the Vermilion Pass area of the Continental Divide in Banff National Park, Alberta. Mars is the bright trail at left. Saturn is amid the Milky Way at right. This was July 15, 2018. The lights at left are from the Castle Mountain interchange at Highways 1 and 93. This is a stack of 8 exposures, mean combined to smooth noise, for the ground, plus 200 exposures for the star trails, and one exposure, untracked, for the fixed sky taken about a minute after the last star trail image. All 30 seconds at f/2.8 with the 24mm Sigma lens, and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400. The frames were taken as part of a time-lapse sequence. Dynamic Contrast filter from ON1 applied to the ground, and Soft and Airy filter from Luminar applied to the sky for a soft Orton effect.
At each site I shot time-lapses, and used those frames to have some fun with star trail stacking, showing the stars turning from east to west and reflected in the lake waters, and with a single still image taken at the end of the sequence layered in to show the untrailed sky and Milky Way.
But I also turned those frames into time-lapse movies, and incorporated them into a new music video, along with some favourite older clips reprocessed for this new video.
Banff by Night (4K) from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
Enjoy! And do enlarge to full screen. The video is also in 4K resolution.
Solstice nights have been filled with twilights, planets, and noctilucent clouds.
Astronomers tend to curse the short nights and late sunsets of summer solstice. But the bright nights do offer unique sights.
Over the last few nights I’ve set up at what I call “Solstice Pond,” a prairie slough near home ideal for shooting the aurora to the north and, at this time of year, the glow of twilight and noctilucent clouds.
Below is the view on the night before solstice, looking north toward the glow of “perpetual twilight” that lights the northern horizon at solstice time from my latitude of 50° north.
From farther north the twilight would be more prominent, while above the Arctic Circle at 66° N latitude, the twilight turns to full daylight as the Sun never sets.
The view looking south this night, with the Moon just off frame at right, includes the Milky Way at centre, with Saturn embedded, flanked by bright Jupiter at right and reddish Mars at left, both casting shimmering “glitter paths” on the still waters.
A few nights later (below), on June 24, the star of the solstice sky put in an appearance. Bright noctilucent clouds (NLCs) shone to the north, reflected in the pond.
These are water vapour clouds 80 kilometres high at the edge of the atmosphere – in the mesosphere – almost in space. They form over the Arctic in summer, and are high enough to remain sunlit even in the middle of the night as they catch the Sun shining over the pole.
Southern Western Canada – the Prairies where I live – is well-placed to see them, as we are far enough north to see them in our sky, but not so far north that our sky is too bright.
An even better display appeared two nights later, on June 26, brighter and with more structure.
The curving arc of the top of the display defines the most southerly edge where sunlight is able to reach. That edge drops lower through the first part of the night, as the Sun itself drops lower below the horizon. This causes less of the NLC display to be sunlit.
You can see this effect of the changing illumination of the clouds in this time-lapse compilation from June 26 (below).
Also notice the waving motion of the clouds. It is as if the NLC material is flowing over standing waves in the atmosphere – and it is! The waves are called “gravity waves,” and are bumps in the high atmosphere created by disturbances far below in the normal layers of the atmosphere, the stratosphere and troposphere.
The video includes two clips shot simultaneously: from a camera with a 24mm wide-angle lens, and from a camera with an 85mm moderate telephoto. Expand to view full screen in HD.
The motion, here over an hour or more, is hypnotic. The NLCs move right to left (east to west), while the dark normal weather clouds on the horizon are blowing left to right (west to east). The stars are also turning left to right. The water ripples in the wind, while ducks swim by.
The strange aurora named Steve put on a show on Sunday, May 6.
The past weekend was a good one for Northern Lights here in Alberta and across western Canada.
A decent display lit the northern sky on Saturday, May 5, on a warm spring evening. I took in that show from a favorite spot along the Red Deer River.
The next night, Sunday, May 6, we were hoping for a better show, but the main aurora never amounted to much across the north.
Instead, we got a fine showing of Steve, an unusual isolated arc of light across the sky, that was widely observed across western Canada and the northern U.S. I caught his performance from my backyard.
Popularized by the Alberta Aurora Chasers Facebook group, Steve is the fanciful name applied to what still remains a partly unexplained phenomenon. It might not even be a true aurora (and it is NOT a “proton arc!”) from electrons streaming down, but a stream of hot gas flowing east to west and always well south of the main aurora.
Thus Steve is “backronymed” as Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.
To the eye he appears as a grey arc, not doing much, but fading in, slowly shifting, then fading away after 30 to 60 minutes. He doesn’t stick around long.
The camera reveals his true colours.
This is Steve to the west, displaying his characteristic pink and white tints.
But overhead, in a fish-eye lens view, he displayed ever so briefly another of his talents – slowly moving fingers of green, called a picket fence aurora.
It was appropriate for Steve to appear on cue, as NASA scientists and local researchers who are working on Steve research were gathered in Calgary to discuss future aurora space missions. Some of the researchers had not yet seen Steve in person, but all got a good look Sunday night as they, too, chased Steve!
I shot a time-lapse and real-time videos of Steve, the latter using the new Sony a7III camera which can shoot 4K videos of night sky scenes very well.
The final video is here on Vimeo.
Steve Aurora – May 6, 2018 (4K) from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
It is in 4K, if you choose to stream it at full resolution.
With summer approaching, the nights are getting shorter and brighter, but we here in western Canada can still see auroras, while aurora destinations farther north are too bright and lack any night skies.
Plus our latitude south of the main auroral oval makes western Canada Steve country!
Clear nights and a waxing Moon made for great opportunities to shoot the Badlands under moonlight.
This has not been a great spring. Only now is the last of the snow melting here in Alberta.
But some mild and clear nights this week with the waxing gibbous Moon allowed me to head to the Red Deer River valley near where I live in Alberta for some moonlit nightscapes.
Here’s the Big Dipper high overhead as it is in spring pointing down to Polaris.
I shot this and some other images in this gallery with the new Sony a7III mirrorless camera. A full test of its astrophoto abilities is in the works.
This is Jupiter rising, with the Moon lighting the sky, and illuminating the landscape. Moonlight is the same colour as sunlight, just much fainter. So while this might look like a daytime scene, it isn’t.
This is Venus setting in the evening twilight at the Hoodoos on Highway 10 near Drumheller. The winter stars are setting into the west, to disappear for a few months.
Here’s Venus in closeup, passing between the Hyades and Pleiades star clusters in Taurus, low in the twilight over the scenic Horsethief Canyon area of the Red Deer River.
While Venus is climbing higher into our evening sky this spring, the Pleiades, Hyades and all the winter stars are fast disappearing from view.
We say goodbye to winter, and not a moment too soon!
Prospects looked bleak for seeing the January 31 total eclipse of the Moon. A little planning, a chase, and a lot of luck made it possible.
A mid-winter eclipse doesn’t bode well. Especially one in the cold dawn hours. Skies could be cloudy. Or, if they are clear, temperatures could be -25° C.
I managed to pull this one off, not just seeing the eclipse of the Moon, but getting a few photos.
The secret was in planning, using some helpful apps …
Because this eclipse was occurring before dawn for western North America the eclipsed Moon was going to be in the west, setting.
To plan any shoot the first app I turn to is the desktop planetarium program Starry Night™.
Shown above, the program simulates the eclipse with the correct timing, accurate appearance, and location in the sky at your site. You can set up indicators for the fields of various lenses, to help you pick a lens. The yellow box shows the field of view of a 50mm lens on my full-frame camera, essential information for framing the scene.
With that information in mind, the plan was to shoot the Moon over the Rocky Mountains, which lie along the western border of Alberta.
The original plan was a site in Banff on the Bow Valley Parkway looking west toward the peaks of the Divide.
But then the next critical information was the weather.
Not good! Home on the prairies was not an option. While Banff looked OK, the best prospects were from farther south in the Crowsnest Pass area of Alberta, as marked. So a chase was in order, involving a half-day drive south.
But what actual site was going to be useful? Where could I set up for the shot I wanted?
I needed a spot off a main highway but drivable to, and with no trees in the way. I did not know the area, but Allison Road looked like a possibility.
The TPE app shows the direction to the Sun and Moon to help plan images by day. And in its night mode it can show where the Milky Way is. Here, the thin blue line is showing the direction to the Moon during totality, showing it to the south of Mt. Tecumseh. I wanted the Moon over the mountains, but not behind a mountain!
With a possible site picked out, it was time to take a virtual drive with Google Earth.
The background map TPE uses is from Google Earth. But the actual Google Earth app also offers the option of a Street View for many locations.
Above is its view from along Allison Road, on the nice summer day when the Google camera car made the drive. But at least this confirms there are no obstructions or ugly elements to spoil the scene, or trees to block the view.
But there’s nothing like being there to be sure. It looks a little different in winter!
After driving down to the Crowsnest Pass the morning before, the first order of the day upon arrival was to go to the site before it got dark, to see if it was usable.
I used the mobile app Theodolite to take images (above) that superimpose the altitude and azimuth (direction) where the camera was aimed. It confirms the direction where the Moon will be is in open sky to the left of Tecumseh peak. And the on-site inspection shows I can park there!
There is one more new and very powerful app that provides another level of planning. From The Photographer’s Ephemeris, you can hand off your position to a companion mobile app (for iOS only) called TPE 3D …
It provides elevation maps and places you on site, with the actual skyline around you drawn in. And with the Moon and stars in the sky at their correct positions.
While it doesn’t simulate the actual eclipse, it sure shows an accurate sky … and what you’ll frame with your lens with the actual skyline in place.
Compare the simulation, above, to the real thing, below:
Zooming out with TPE 3D provides this preview of a panorama I hoped to take.
It shows Cassiopeia (the W of stars at right) over the iconic Crowsnest Mountain, and the stars of Gemini setting to the right of Tecumseh.
Here’s the real thing, in an even wider 180° view sweeping from south to north. Again, just as predicted!
Between the weather predictions – which proved spot on – and the geographical and astronomical planning apps – which were deadly accurate – we now have incredible tools to make it easier to plan the shot.
If only we could control the clouds! As it was, the Moon was in and out of clouds throughout the 70 minutes of totality. But I was happy to just get a look, let alone a photo.
The next total lunar eclipse is in six months, on July 27, 2018, but in an event visible only from the eastern hemisphere.
The next TLE for North America is a more convenient evening event on January 20, 2019. That will be another winter eclipse requiring careful planning!
I present a new 4-minute music video (in 4K resolution) featuring time-lapses of the Milky Way.
One of the most amazing sights is the Milky Way slowly moving across the sky. From Canada we see the brightest part of the Milky Way, its core region in Sagittarius and Scorpius moving across the souther horizon in summer.
But from the southern hemisphere, the galactic core rises dramatically and climbs directly overhead, providing a jaw-dropping view of our edge-on Galaxy stretching across the sky. It is a sight all stargazers should see.
I shot the time-lapses from Alberta, Canada and from Australia, mostly in 2016 and 2017.
I include a still-image mosaic of the Milky Way from Aquila to Crux shot in Chile in 2011.
Do watch in 4K if you can! And in Full-Screen mode.
Locations include Writing-on-Stone and Police Outpost Provincial Parks, and Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta.
In Australia I shot from the Victoria coast and from inland in New South Wales near Coonabarabran, with some scenes from the annual OzSky Star Safari held each April.
New Year’s Day proved to be a busy one for sky sights from home in southern Alberta.
Clear skies and warming temperatures allowed me to capture a trio of sights on January 1: Mercury in the morning, a unique mirage called the Fata Morgana in the afternoon, and the rising Full Moon in the evening.
On January 1 elusive Mercury was at its greatest elongation away from the Sun in the morning sky. This placed it as high as it can get above the horizon, though that’s not high at all at the best of times.
I captured Mercury before dawn as a bright star in the colourful twilight, using a telephoto lens to frame the scene more closely.
At this time the temperature outside was still about -24° C, as a cold snap that had plunged the prairies into frigid air for the last week still held its grip.
But by the afternoon, warmer air was drifting in from the west, in a Chinook flow from the Rockies.
As evidence of the change, the air exhibited a form of mirage called the Fata Morgana, named after the sorceress Morgan le Fay of Arthurian legend. The illusion of castles in the air was thought to be a spell cast by her to lure sailors to their doom.
The mirage produced the illusion of bodies of water in the distance, plus distorted, elongated forms of wind turbines and farm buildings on the horizon. The cause is the refraction of light by layers of warm air aloft, above cold air near the ground.
By evening the mirage effect was still in place, producing a wonderful moonrise with the Full Moon writhing and rippling as it rose through the temperature inversion.
As the lead image at top shows, at moments the top of the disk had a green rim (almost a distinct green flash), while the bottom was tinted red.
Here’s a short time-lapse video of the scene, shot through a small telescope. The lead image above and below is a composite of four of the frames from this movie.
This was also the largest and closest Full Moon of the year, what has become popularly called a “supermoon,” but more correctly called a perigean Full Moon.
A lunar cycle from now, at the next Full Moon, the Moon undergoes a total eclipse in the dawn hours of January 31 for western North America. This will be another misnamed Moon, a “blue Moon,” the label for the second Full Moon in a calendar month.
And some will also be calling it a “supermoon,” as it also occurs close to perigee – the closest point of the Moon to Earth in its monthly orbit – but not as close a perigee as it was at on January 1.
So it will be less than super, but it will nevertheless be spectacular as the Full “blue” Moon turns red as it travels through Earth’s shadow.
The clouds cleared to present a magical night under the Moon in the Badlands of southern Alberta.
At last, a break in the incessant clouds of November, to provide me with a fine night of photography at one of my favourite places, Dinosaur Provincial Park, declared a U.N. World Heritage Site for its deposits of late Cretaceous fossils.
I go there to shoot the night sky over the iconic hoodoos and bentonite clay hills.
November is a great time to capture the equally iconic constellation of Orion rising in the east in the early evening. The scene is even better if there’s a Moon to light the landscape.
November 27 presented the ideal combination of circumstances: clear skies (at least later at night), and a first quarter Moon to provide enough light without washing out the sky too much and positioned to the south and west away from the target of interest – Orion and the winter sky rising in the east.
Below is a slide show of some of the still images I shot, all with the Canon 6D MkII camera and fine Rokinon 14mm f/2.5 lens, used wide open. Most are 15-second exposures, untracked.
I kept another camera, the Nikon D750 and Sigma 24mm Art lens, busy all night shooting 1200 frames for a time-lapse of Orion rising, with clouds drifting through, then clearing.
Below is the resulting video, presented in two versions: first with the original but processed frames assembled into a movie, followed by a version where the movie frames show accumulating star trails to provide a better sense of sky motion.
To create the frames for this version I used the Photoshop actions Advanced Stacker Plus, from StarCircleAcademy. They can stack images then export a new set of frames each with the tapering trails, which you then assemble into a movie. I also used it to produce the lead image at top.
The techniques and steps are all outlined in my eBook, highlighted at top right.
The HD movie is just embedded here, and is not published on Vimeo or YouTube. Expand to fill your screen.
To help plan the shoot I used the astronomy software Starry Night, and the photo planning software The Photographer’s Ephemeris, or TPE. With it, you can place yourself at the exact spot to see how the Sun, Moon and stars will appear in sightlines to the horizon.
Here’s the example screen shot. The spheres across the sky represent the Milky Way.
Look east to see Orion now in the evening sky. Later this winter, Orion will be due south at nightfall.
October has brought clear skies and some fine celestial sights. Here’s a potpourri of what was up from home.
We’ve enjoyed some lovely early autumn weather here in southern Alberta, providing great opportunities to see and shoot a series of astronomical events.
On October 5, Venus and Mars appeared a fraction of a degree apart in the dawn twilight. Venus is the brightest object, just above dimmer but red Mars. This was one of the closest planet conjunctions of 2017. Mars will appear much brighter in July and August 2018 when it makes its closest approach to Earth since 2003.
Satellites: The Space Station
The Space Station made a series of ideal evening passes in early October, flying right overhead from my site at latitude 51° N. I captured it in a series of stacked still images, so it appears as a dashed line across the sky. In reality it looks like a very bright star, outshining any other natural star. Here, it appears to fly toward the rising Moon.
Often appearing brighter than even the ISS, Iridium satellite flares can blaze brighter than even Venus at its best. One did so here, above, in another time-lapse of a pair of Iridium satellites that traveled in parallel and flared at almost the same time. But the orientation of the reflective antennas that create these flares must have been better on the left Iridium as it really shot up in brilliance for a few seconds.
Little in the sky beats a fine aurora display and we’ve had several of late, despite the Sun being spotless and nearing a low ebb in its activity. The above shot is a composite stack of 200 images, showing the stars circling the celestial pole above the main auroral arc, and taken on Friday the 13th.
This frame, from some 1300 I shot this night, October 13, captures the main auroral arc and a diffuse patch of green above that pulsed on and off.
You can see the time-lapse here in my short music video on Vimeo.
Friday the 13th Aurora from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
It’s in 4K if your monitor and computer are capable. It nicely shows the development of the aurora this night, from a quiescent arc, through a brief sub-storm outburst, then into pulsing and flickering patches. Enjoy!
What all these scenes have in common is that they were all shot from home, in my backyard. It is wonderful to live in a rural area and to be able to step outside and see these sites easily by just looking up!
I’ve assembled a music video of time-lapse clips and still images of the fine aurora of September 27, with Steve making a cameo appearance.
The indicators this night didn’t point to a particularly great display, but the sky really performed.
The Northern Lights started low across the north, in a very active classic arc. The display then quietened.
But as it did so, and as is his wont, the isolated arc that has become known as Steve appeared across the south in a sweeping arc. The Steve arc always defines the most southerly extent of the aurora.
Steve faded, but then the main display kicked up again and began to fill the sky with a post-sub-storm display of pulsing rays and curtains shooting up to the zenith. Only real-time video can really capture the scene as the eye sees it, but the fast time-lapses I shot do a decent job of recording the effect of whole patches of sky turning on and off.
The display ended with odd pulsing arcs in the south.
Here’s the video, available in 4K resolution.
Alberta Aurora (Sept. 27, 2017) from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
“No ocean of water in the world can vie with its gorgeous sunsets; no solitude can equal the loneliness of a night-shadowed prairie.” – William Butler, 1873
In the 1870s, just before the coming of the railway and European settlement, English adventurer William Butler trekked the Canadian prairies, knowing what he called “The Great Lone Land” was soon to disappear as a remote and unsettled territory.
The quote from his book is on a plaque at the site where I took the lead image, Sunset Point at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.
The night was near perfect, with the Milky Way standing out down to the southern horizon and the Sweetgrass Hills of Montana. Below, the Milk River winds through the sandstone rock formations sacred to the Blackfoot First Nations.
The next night (last night, July 26, as I write this) I was at another unique site in southern Alberta, Red Rock Coulee Natural Area. The sky presented one of Butler’s unmatched prairie sunsets.
This is “big sky” country, and this week is putting on a great show with a succession of clear and mild nights under a heat wave.
The waxing crescent Moon adds to the western sky and the sunsets. But it sets early enough to leave the sky dark for the Milky Way to shine to the south.
This was the Milky Way on Wednesday night, July 27, over Red Rock Coulee. Sagittarius and the centre of the Galaxy lie above the horizon. At right, Saturn shines amid the dark lanes of the Dark Horse in the Milky Way.
I’m just halfway through my week-long photo tour of several favourite sites in this Great Lone Land. Next, is Cypress Hills and the Reesor Ranch.
The summer Full Moon arcs low across the southern sky, mimicking the path of the winter Sun.
This is a project I had in mind for the last month, and hoped to capture at the July Full Moon. A clear, dry, and cooperative night provide the chance.
The still images are composites of 40 images of the Moon traveling across the sky from dusk to dawn, taken at 10-minute intervals. They are layered onto a blend of background images of the 10 p.m. dusk sky (left), 2 a.m. middle-of-the-night sky (middle), and 5 a.m dawn sky (right).
As a bonus, the 10 p.m. sky shows some dark crepuscular rays in the twilight, while at 2 a.m. the Moon was in light cloud and surrounded by iridescent colours. By 5 a.m. denser clouds were moving in to obscure the Moon.
I shot the still image composite (above) and time-lapse movie (below) to illustrate the low arc of a summer Full Moon. In summer (June or July) the Full Moon sits at a similar place near the ecliptic as does the Sun in winter near the December solstice.
From the northern hemisphere the low position of the winter Sun gives us the short, cold days of winter. In summer, the similar low position of the Full Moon simply gives us a low Full Moon! But it is one that can be impressive and photogenic.
The time-lapse movie uses all 400 frames of the moving Moon superimposed onto the same background sky images, but now dissolving from one to the other.
The movie is 4K in resolution, though can be viewed at a smaller resolution to speed up playback if needed.
For the technically minded:
The Moon disks in the time-lapse and still composite come from a series of short 1/15-second exposures, short enough to record just the disks of the bright Moon set against a dark, underexposed sky.
I took these shots every minute, for 400 in total. They are blended into the bright background sky images using a Lighten blend mode, both in Photoshop for the still image, and in Final Cut for the movie.
The background sky images are longer exposures to record the sky colours, and stars (in the case of the 2 a.m. image). They are blended with gradient masks for the still image, but dissolved from one to the other in the time-lapse movie.
I shot the frames with a 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens and Canon 6D, with the camera not moved during the 7-hour shoot.
The Northern Lights dance in the solstice sky over a prairie lake.
This was a surprise display. Forecasts called for a chance of Lights on Saturday, June 24, but I wasn’t expecting much.
Nevertheless, I headed to a nearby lake (Crawling Lake) to shoot north over the water, not of the Lights, but of noctilucent clouds, a phenomenon unique to the summer solstice sky and our latitudes here on the Canadian prairies.
But as the night darkened (quite late at solstice time) the aurora began to appear in the deepening twilight.
I started shooting and kept shooting over the next four hours. I took a break from the time-lapses to shoot some panoramas, such as the headline image at top, capturing the sweep of the auroral oval over the lake waters.
Just on the horizon you can see some noctilucent clouds (NLCs) as well – clouds so high they are lit by the Sun all night long. NLCs sit at the same height as the bottom of the auroral curtains. But they appear here lower and much farther away, which they likely were, sitting farther north than the auroral band.
I also shot this 360° panorama (above) capturing the arc of the aurora and of the Milky Way. This is a stitch of 8 segments with a 14mm lens mounted in portrait mode.
I’ve assembled the several time-lapse sequences I shot into a short music video. Check it out on Vimeo here. Click through to the Vimeo page for more technical information on the video sequences.
As always click HD, and relax and enjoy the dancing lights over the calm waters of a prairie lake on a summer evening.
The Full Moon of June rose into a twilight sky over a prairie pond.
On June 9, the clouds cleared to present an ideal sky for capturing the rising of the so-called “Strawberry Moon,” the popular name for the Full Moon of June.
The lead image is a composite of 15 frames, taken at roughly 2.5-minute intervals and stacked in Photoshop with the Lighten blend mode.
The image below is a single frame.
I set up beside a small local prairie pond, to shoot the moonrise over the water. Ducks enjoyed the view and a muskrat swam by at one point.
I shot over 1100 frames, at two-second intervals to create a time-lapse of the rising Moon, as it brightened and turned from yellow-orange (not quite strawberry pink) to a bright white.
Here’s the time-lapse vignette.
Click on HD for the best view.
While the Harvest Moon gets lots of PR, as this sequence shows any Full Moon can provide a fine sight, and look yellow, due to absorption of the blue wavelengths by the atmosphere as the Moon rises, or as it sets.
However, the timing can vary from Full Moon to Full Moon. This one was ideal, with it rising right at sunset. If the Moon comes up too late, the sky might have already darkened, producing too great a difference in brightness between the Moon and background sky to be photogenic.
But what of these Moon names? How authentic are they?
Who called this the Strawberry Moon? Native Americans? No. Or at best only one or two nations.
The names like “Strawberry Moon” that are popularized in the media today come from the American Farmers Almanac, and everyone – science writers and bloggers – ends up copying and pasting the same wrong, or at best misleading, information from the Almanac.
Search for “Strawberry Moon” or “Moon names” and you’ll find the same explanation repeated verbatim and unquestioned by many writers. Alas, the Almanac is not an authoritative source – after all, they were the source of a misleading definition of Blue Moon decades ago.
No one predicted this spectacle. But on May 27 the last-minute warnings went out to look for a fabulous show as night fell.
And what a show it was! As darkness fell the sky was lit with green curtains. After midnight the curtains converged at the zenith for that most spectacular of sky sights, a coronal burst.
As the night began I was at the Rothney Observatory helping out with the public stargazing night.
We saw the Space Station rise out of the west over the Rockies and pass through the Northern Lights.
It then headed off east, appearing here as the streak amid the Lights and light pollution of Calgary.
To continue to shoot the display I, too, decided to head east, to home. I should have gone west, to the mountains.
I drove through rain to get home, and missed the peak of the display, judging by images from others in the Rockies, and those to the north.
But as I got home clouds began to clear enough for a glimpse of the Space Station, on its next pass, flying overhead, again through the aurora. I wonder what the astronauts might have been seeing looking down.
From home, I caught another bright sub-storm outburst to the north, as the curtains suddenly exploded in brightness and rapid motion, with characteristic pink fringes at the bottoms, from nitrogen molecules.
What impressed me about this display was the smell! Yes, you see auroras and some claim to hear them. But this display is one I’ll remember for the springtime scent of lilacs in the night air as the Lights danced.
The Great Aurora of May 27 from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
Here is a short music video of several time-lapse sequences I shot, of the sub-storm then post-storm subsidence into the patchy flaming and flickering effect that we often see at the end of a great display. And this was certainly one of them.
We southerners were treated to the class of display you usually have to travel north the Arctic and auroral oval to see.
The arch of the Milky Way mirrors the sweep of the Red Deer River on a magical night in the Alberta Badlands.
Images of the Milky Way arching across the sky are now iconic. They are almost always assembled from individual frames stitched together to make a seamless panorama.
From the northern hemisphere, spring is the best season to shoot such a panorama as the Milky Way then remains confined to the eastern sky.
Later in summer, when the Milky Way passes directly overhead, panoramas are still possible, but the Milky Way looks distorted. The process of mapping a round sky onto a rectangular image, as I show here, inevitably stretches out the Milky Way near the zenith.
Last Saturday, in search of the Milky Way during prime panorama season, I set up for the night at Orkney Viewpoint overlooking the Red Deer River in the Alberta Badlands north of Drumheller. There, the river performs a grand curve through the valley below.
Above, the Milky Way, often described as a river of stars, sweeps in mirror-image fashion above the earthly river.
The panorama above contains the reflection of stars – of the constellation of Delphinus in particular – in the smooth water on a windless night.
To the north at left, the Northern Lights put on a subtle show. While never spectacular to the eye, the camera records the aurora’s colour and forms that often elude the naked eye.
The display was brightest early in the evening – that’s 11 p.m. now in May at my latitude.
The display then faded in intensity before I shot the two panoramas about 1 a.m., but the last few frames of the time-lapse show a final burst of colour from a lone curtain reflected in the river.
This was a magical night indeed. And a rare one this spring with clouds more often the norm at night.
The next dark of the Moon coincides with summer solstice. So while the moonlight won’t interfere, critical for shooting the Milky Way, the glow of perpetual twilight at my latitude will. The Milky Way will be set in a deep blue sky.
By July’s dark of the Moon the Milky Way will be high overhead, making panorama arches tough to assemble. It looks like this might have been my one best night to capture such a scene this year. But it was a good one.
Stargazers in western Canada will have seen him – Steve, the odd auroral arc.
There’s been a lot of publicity lately about an unusual form of aurora that appears as a stationary arc across the sky, isolated from the main aurora to the north. It usually just sits there – motionless, featureless, and colourless to the eye, though the camera can pick up magenta and green tints.
We often see these strange auroral arcs from western Canada.
In lieu of a better name, and lacking a good explanation as to their cause, these isolated arcs have become labelled simply as “Steve” by the aurora chasing community (the Alberta Aurora Chasers Facebook group) here in Alberta.
In a gathering of aurora chasers at Calgary’s Kilkenny Pub, aurora photographer extraordinaire and AAC Facebook group administrator Chris Ratzlaff suggested the name. It comes from the children’s movie Over the Hedge, where a character calls anything he doesn’t understand “Steve.” The name has stuck!
The 270° panorama from March 2, 2017 shows Steve to the west (right) and east (left) here, and well isolated from the main aurora to the north.
This is the view of that same March 2, 2017 arc looking straight up, showing Steve’s characteristic gradient from pink at top though white, then to subtle “picket-fence” fingers of green that are usually very short-lived.
The view above is Steve from exactly 6 months earlier, on September 2, 2016. Same features. I get the impression we’re looking up along a very tall but thin curtain.
Another view of the September 2, 2016 Steve shows his classic thin curtain and gradation of colours, here looking southeast.
Looking southwest on September 2, 2016, Steve takes on more rippled forms. But these are very transient. Indeed, Steve rarely lasts more than 30 minutes to an hour, and might get bright for only a few minutes. But even at his brightest, he usually looks white or grey to the eye, and moves very slowly.
Here’s a classic Steve, from October 1, 2006 – a white featureless arc even to the camera in this case.
So what is Steve?
He is often erroneously called a “proton arc,” but he isn’t. True auroral proton arcs are invisible to the eye and camera, emitting in wavelengths the eye cannot see. Proton auroras are also diffuse, not tightly confined like Steve.
Above is Steve from August 5, 2005, when he crashed the Saskatchewan Summer Star Party, appearing as a ghostly white band across the sky. But, again, the camera revealed his true colours.
Steve Auroras in 2015 from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
Here are a couple of time-lapses from 2015 of the phenomenon, appearing as an isolated arc overhead in the sky far from the main auroral activity to the north. I shot these from my backyard in southern Alberta. In both clips the camera faces north, but takes in most of the sky with a fish-eye lens.
In the first video clip, note the east-to-west flow of structure, as in classic auroras. In the second clip, Steve is not so well-defined. Indeed, his usual magenta band appears only briefly for a minute or so. So I’m not sure this second clip does show the classic Steve arc.
The origin and nature of Steve are subjects of investigation, aided by “citizen science” contributors of photos and videos.
Local aurora researcher Dr. Eric Donovan from the University of Calgary has satellite data from the ESA Swarm mission to suggest Steve is made of intensely hot thermal currents, and not classic electrons raining down as in normal auroras. He has back-acronymed Steve to mean Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.
Learning more about Steve will require a unique combination of professional and amateur astronomers working together.
Now that he has a name, Steve won’t be escaping our attention any longer. We’ll be looking for him!
In a winter of cloud, the skies cleared for a magical night in the Alberta Badlands.
Two weeks ago, on February 28, I took advantage of a rare and pristine night to head to one of my favourite spots in Dinosaur Provincial Park, to shoot nightscapes of the winter sky over the Badlands.
A spate of warm weather had melted most of the snow, so the landscape doesn’t look too wintery. But the stars definitely belong to winter in the Northern Hemisphere.
The main image above shows the winter Milky Way arching across the sky from southeast (at left) to northwest (at right). The tower of light in the west is the Zodiacal Light, caused by sunlight reflecting off dust particles in the inner solar system. It is an interplanetary, not atmospheric, effect.
Above, this 360° version of the scene records the entire sky, with the winter Milky Way from horizon to horizon. With a little averted imagination you can also trace the Zodiacal Light from west (right) over to the eastern sky (left), where it brightens in the diffuse glow of the Gegenschein, where dust opposite the Sun in the outer solar system reflects light back to us.
A rectangular version of the panorama wraps the sky around from east (left), with Leo rising, to northeast (right), with the Big Dipper standing on its handle. I’ve added the labels in Photoshop of course.
Here, in a single-frame shot, Orion is at centre, Canis Major (with Sirius) is below left, and Taurus (with Aldebaran) is at upper right. The Milky Way runs down to the south. The clusters M35, M41, M46 and M47 are visible as diffuse spots, as is the Orion Nebula, M42, below Orion’s Belt.
This is certainly my best shot of the evening Zodiacal Light from my area in Alberta. It is obvious at this time of year on moonless nights, but requires a site with little urban skyglow to the west.
It is best visible in the evening from northern latitudes in late winter and spring.
Here, Venus is just setting above the badlands landscape. The Andromeda Galaxy is at right, the Pleiades at left. The Milky Way runs across the frame at top.
There is a common belief among nightscape photographers that the Milky Way can be seen only in summer. Not so.
What they mean is that the brightest part of the Milky Way, the galactic centre, is best seen in summer. But the Milky Way can be seen in all seasons, with the exception of spring when it is largely absent from the early evening sky, but rises late at night.
The solar winds blew some fine auroras our way this past week.
Oh, that I had been in the North last week, where the sky erupted with jaw-dropping displays. I could only watch those vicariously via webcams, such as the Explore.org Northern Lights Cam at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.
But here in southern Alberta we were still treated to some fine displays across our northern sky. The image below is from March 1, from my rural backyard.
The Sun wasn’t particularly active and there were no coronal mass ejections per se. But a hole in the corona let a wind of solar particles through to buffet our magnetosphere, stirring up geomagnetic storms of Level 4 to 5 scale. That’s good enough to light our skies in western Canada.
Above is the display from March 2, taken over a frozen pond near home. I like how the Lights reflect in the ice.
This night, for about 30 minutes, an odd auroral form appeared that we see from time to time at our latitudes. A wider panorama shows this isolated arc well south of the main auroral oval and forming a thin arc stretching across the sky from west to east.
The panorama above shows just the western and eastern portion of the arc. Overhead (image below) it looked like this briefly.
Visually, it appeared colourless. But the camera picks up this isolated arc’s usual pink color, with a fringe of white and sometimes (here very briefly) a “picket-fence” effect of green rays.
This is the view of the isolated arc to the west. Erroneously called “proton arcs,” these are not caused by incoming protons. Those produce a very diffuse, usually sub-visual glow. But the exact nature of these isolated arcs remains a mystery.
As we head into solar minimum in the nest few years, displays of Northern Lights at lower latitudes will become less frequent. But even without major solar activity, last week’s displays demonstrated we can still get good shows.
The annual Dark Sky Festival in Jasper National Park ended with the best finale – dark skies, on a beautiful star-filled night.
On Saturday night, October 22, I left the final set of science talks in the Big Tent at the heart of the Festival and headed out down the Icefields Parkway for a night of shooting Jasper by starlight.
The lead image is of the winter stars, including the Pleiades, rising above Mt. Kerkeslin at Athabasca Falls.
I shot the image above moments later, from the usual viewpoint overlooking the Falls, reduced to a trickle in late autumn. Illumination is solely by starlight – no artificial and glaring light painting here.
Earlier in the night, I stopped at the Athabasca River Viewpoint and shot the autumn stars of Cassiopeia, Andromeda, and Perseus above Mt. Kerkeslin. The Pleiades are just appearing above the mountain ridge.
From that viewpoint I shot a scene looking south over the river and with the stars of Capricornus and Aquarius above the Divide.
At the start of the night I stopped at the viewpoint for Athabasca Pass far in the distance. The summer Milky Way was setting over the pass. This historic pass was used by David Thompson in the late 1700s and early 1800s as his route into B.C. to extend the fur trade across the Divide. Thompson writes in his Journal about one particularly clear night on the pass:
“My men were not at their ease, yet when night came they admired the brilliancy of the Stars, and as one of them said, he thought he could almost touch them with his hand.”
The night ended with a display of Northern Lights over the Athabasca River. What a superb night under the stars in Jasper!
As a finale, here’s a music video collecting together still images and time-lapse movies shot this night, and on two other nights during the Dark Sky Festival, including at the big Lake Annette “Beyond the Stars” star party I spoke at.
As usual, enlarge to full screen and go to HD for the best view.
It was a perfect night at a dark site in southern Alberta. The Milky Way shone to the south and aurora danced to the north.
I had scouted out this location in June and marked it on my calendar to return in the fall when the centre of the Milky Way would be well-placed to the southwest.
The site is Police Outpost Provincial Park, named for the North West Mounted Police fort that once occupied the site, guarding Canada’s sovereignty in the late 1800s.
One result from the night of shooting is the opening image, the first frame from a time-lapse taken while deep blue twilight still coloured the sky. The main peak is Chief Mountain in Montana.
To the north an aurora display kicked up over the lake. While it never got very bright, it still provided a photogenic show over the still waters.
The waters were calm on this windless night (rare for southern Alberta), and so reflected the stars and Northern Lights beautifully.
Here, the Big Dipper reflects in the lake as we look north to the Lights. The movie below compiles still images and two time-lapse sequences, of the Lights and Milky Way. The sounds are the natural sounds I recorded on site, as flocks of geese were getting ready to migrate and the owls hooted.
Enjoy! — As always, for the best view, enlarge to full screen or click through to Vimeo with the V button.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Last night I shot into the autumn Milky Way at the Heart Nebula.
I’m currently just finishing off a month of testing the new Nikon D810a camera, a special high-end DSLR aimed specifically at astrophotographers.
I’ll post a more thorough set of test shots and comparisons in a future blog, but for now here are some shots from the last couple of nights.
Above is the setup I used to shoot the image below, shot in the act of taking the image below!
The Nikon is at the focus of my much-loved TMB 92mm refractor, riding on the Astro-Physics Mach One mount. The mount is being “auto-guided” by the wonderful “just-press-one-button” SG-4 auto-guider from Santa Barbara Instruments. The scope is working at a fast f/4.4 with the help of a field flattener/reducer from Borg/AstroHutech.
I shot a set of 15 five-minute exposures at ISO 1600 and stacked, aligned and averaged them (using mean stack mode) in Photoshop. I explain the process in my workshops, but there’s also a Ten Steps page at my websitewith my deep-sky workflow outlined.
The main advantage of Nikon’s special “a” version of the D810 is its extended red sensitivity for a capturing just such objects in the Milky Way, nebulas which shine primarily in the deep red “H-alpha” wavelength emitted by hydrogen.
It works very well! And the D810a’s 36 megapixels really do resolve better detail, something you appreciate in wide-angle shots like this one, below, of the autumn Milky Way.
It’s taken with the equally superb 14-24mm f/2.8 Nikkor zoom lens. Normally, you would never use a zoom lens for such a demanding subject as stars, but the 14-24mm is stunning, matching or beating the performance of many “prime” lenses.
The D810a’s extended red end helps reveal the nebulas along the Milky Way. The Heart Nebula, captured in the close-up at top, is just left of centre here, left of the “W” forming Cassiopeia.
The Nikon D810a is a superb camera, with low noise, high-resolution, and features of value to astrophotographers. Kudos to Nikon for serving our market!
The summer Milky Way sets into the southwest on a late November night.
On Saturday, November 28, well into winter here in Alberta, the stars of the Summer Triangle and the summer Milky Way set into the southwest on a clear, though slightly hazy, late November night.
This is the last of the summer Milky Way, with the centre of the Galaxy now long gone, but the Summer Triangle stars remaining in the evening sky well into autumn. Glows from light pollution in the west light the horizon, in a quick series of images shot in my rural backyard.
In the Summer Triangle, Vega is at right, as the brightest star; Deneb is above centre, and Altair is below centre, farthest south in the Milky Way.
I shot this as a test image for the Nikkor 14-24mm lens, here wide-open at f/2.8 and at 14mm, where it performs beautifully, with very tight star images to the corners. It does very well at 24mm, too! This is astonishing performance for a zoom lens. It matches or beats many “prime” lenses for quality.
The camera was the 36-megapixel Nikon D810a, Nikon’s “astronomical DSLR” camera, also on test. Here it shows its stuff by picking up the red nebulas in Cygnus and Cepheus.
Thorough tests of both the camera and lens will appear later in the year. Stay tuned.
Do subscribe to my blog (click below) to get email notices of new entries.
For the even more technically-minded, this image is a stack, mean combined, of five 2-minute tracked exposures, at f/2.8 and ISO 800. The camera was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker. So the stars are not trailed but the ground is! I made no attempt here to layer in an untracked ground shot, as there isn’t much detail of interest worth showing, quite frankly.
At least not in the ground. But the Milky Way is always photogenic.
Orion ascends into the sky on a clear autumn night, with its stars drawing trails behind it as it rises.
Only on November nights is it possible to capture Orion rising in the evening sky. Here, I used the light of the waxing gibbous Moon to illuminate the landscape … and the sky, creating the deep blue tint.
The lead image above is an example of a star trail, a long exposure that uses Earth’s rotation to turn the stars into streaks across the sky. In the old days of film you would create such an exposure by opening the shutter for an hour or more and hoping for the best.
Today, with digital cameras, the usual method is to shoot lots of short exposures, perhaps no more than 20 to 40 seconds each in rapid succession. You then stack them later in Photoshop or other specialized software to create the digital equivalent of a single long exposure.
The image above is a stack of 350 images taken over 2.5 hours.
With a folder of such images, you can either stack them to create a single image, such as above, or string them together in time to create a time-lapse of the stars moving across the sky. The short video below shows the result. Enlarge the screen and click HD for the best quality.
For the still image and time-lapse, I used the Advanced Stacker Plus actions from StarCircleAcademyto do the stacking in Photoshop and create the tapering star trail effect. A separate exposure after the main trail set added the point-like stars at the end of the trails.
My tutorial on Vimeo provides all the details on how to shoot, then stack, such a star trail image…
… While this video illustrates how to capture and process nightscapes shot under the light of the Moon.
Learn the basics of shooting nightscape and time-lapse images with my three new video tutorials.
In these comprehensive and free tutorials I take you from “field to final,” to illustrate tips and techniques for shooting the sky at night.
At sites in southern Alberta I first explain how to shoot the images. Then back at the computer I step you through how to process non-destructively, using images I shot that night in the field.
Tutorial #1 – The Northern Lights
This 24-minute tutorial takes you from a shoot at a lakeside site in southern Alberta on a night with a fine aurora display, through to the steps to processing a still image and assembling a time-lapse movie.
Tutorial #2 – Moonlit Nightscapes
This 28-minute tutorial takes you from a shoot at Waterton Lakes National Park on a bright moonlit night, to the steps for processing nightscapes using Camera Raw and Photoshop, with smart filters, adjustment layers and masks.
Tutorial #3 – Star Trails
This 35-minute tutorial takes you from a shoot at summer solstice at Dinosaur Provincial Park, then through the steps for stacking star trail stills and assembling star trail time-lapse movies, using specialized programs such as StarStaX and the Advanced Stacker Plus actions for Photoshop.
As always, enlarge to full screen for the HD versions. These are also viewable at my Vimeo channel.
The morning planets are now strung out along the ecliptic, visualizing this line in the sky.
This was the view this morning, November 14, of the three dawn planets lined up along the ecliptic, with the stars Spica and Regulus also defining this imaginary line.
The ecliptic is the Earth’s orbital path around the Sun projected into the sky. So it is along this line that we see the Sun appear to move around the sky over a year. But it is also the path along which we find the seven other major planets – in this case, three of them: Venus, Mars and Jupiter.
These three worlds were clustered together in October, but are now spreading out along the ecliptic, as Venus drops lower but Mars and Jupiter climb higher.
The stars Spica and Regulus also lie along the ecliptic, where the Moon can occasionally pass in front of, or occult, these stars.
So the two stars and three planets are now nicely drawing the ecliptic line for us in the dawn sky. At this time of year, the ecliptic is also steeply angled above the eastern horizon.
The main image above is a stack of 4 x 20 second exposures for the ground, to smooth noise, and one 20-second exposure for the sky, all with the Nikon D810a at ISO 1000 and Nikkor 14-24mm lens at f/2.8 and at 14mm.
This image just above is with the same gear but with the lens at the 24mm setting to more tightly frame the planets.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the sky at dawn, Orion and his winter sky friends were setting into the west (image below).
All the images here are shot with the Nikon D810a camera and the amazing Nikkor 14-24mm lens, two items in hand this month for testing and review. A thorough test will appear in future blogs.
Of course, as wonderful as the gear is, it cannot extract the ecliptic line and labels from the sky – those are added in Photoshop!
This was the trio of planets at their best in the morning sky.
On the morning of October 28, Mars, Venus and Jupiter formed a neat isosceles triangle in the twilight. Venus, the brightest, was in the middle, with Mars below and Jupiter above. The grouping shone amid the stars of Leo, with its brightest star, Regulus, above the windmill in the lead image above. The rest of Leo lies above the planets.
To capture the scene I drove west at 5 am to a farmstead I had shot at before, in June, to capture Venus and Jupiter, also then in Leo near Regulus, but in the evening sky looking west. Click here for that blog post from mid-June.
This morning, the Moon, just past full as the annual Hunter’s Moon, shone in the west off camera lighting the landscape.
The dawn sky colours and the moonlit red barn made for a fine colour contrast.
After today, the planet configuration breaks up, as Venus descends to meet Mars on November 2 and 3, while Jupiter climbs higher. But another great morning sight awaits on November 7 when the waning crescent Moon will shine near the Venus-Mars pairing, with Jupiter above.
On the way home I stopped at fog-bound Lake MacGregor to capture the planets in a brightening dawn sky over the misty waters.
This morning the three planets lay just 4.5 degrees apart, close enough to frame in high-power binoculars.
We won’t see these three planets this close to each other in a darkened sky — as opposed to being so close to the Sun we really can’t see them — until November 21, 2111.
Skies were clear at dawn this morning for a fabulous view of the rare conjunction of three planets. And I could not have been at a more photogenic site.
This was the view before dawn on October 25, as brilliant Venus and dimmer Jupiter shone just a degree apart in the dawn sky. Mars, much fainter, shines just below the close duo. The three planets could easily be contained in a high power binocular field.
Not until November 2111 will these three planets be this close together again in a darkened sky.
Indeed, Venus could not have been higher, as it is just now reaching its maximum elongation from the Sun, placing it high in the eastern morning sky.
I shot from the shores of Lake Annette, site of one of the major events, the Friday star party, at the annual Jasper Dark Sky Festival which just concluded, in Jasper National Park, Alberta. The Festival celebrates the Park’s status as one of the world’s largest Dark Sky Preserves.
The hotels and restaurants were full with stargazers from around the world, making the Festival a huge success, both educationally and financially. I was honoured to be able to present some of the public and school talks.
But this dawn sky was a fine way to end a fabulous weekend of astronomy.
The image above is a panorama in the twilight, sweeping from the planets in the east, to the winter stars and constellations, including iconic Orion, in the south and southwest.
Earlier in the morning, before twilight began to brighten the sky, I shot another even wider panorama from the south shore of the lake.
In this and other photos, high haze adds the glows around the stars and planets naturally. No special effects filters here!
But Venus and Jupiter are so close and bright their images almost merge into one glow.
Here they are, with Mars below, shining in the dark sky over the Watchtower peak and over the misty waters of Lake Annette.
Four planets appear in the dawn sky outlining the morning ecliptic.
This morning, October 20, I was able to capture four planets in the morning sky, arrayed along the ecliptic.
From bottom to top they are: Mercury (just past its point of greatest elongation from the Sun), dim Mars, bright Jupiter, and very bright Venus (just 6 days away from its point of greatest elongation from the Sun). Above Venus is Regulus, in Leo.
I’ve added in the labels and the line of the ecliptic, rising steeply out of the east in the autumn dawn sky.
Of course, there is a fifth unlabelled planet in the scene, quite close in the foreground.
The image below is an unlabeled version.
Mercury will be disappearing from view very quickly now as it drops back down toward the Sun.
But over the next week the three higher planets will converge into a tight triangle just 4.5 degrees apart. We won’t see these three planets this close together in a darkened sky until November 2111.
I shot the scene from home in southern Alberta. The image is a composite stack, with manually created masks (not an HDR stack), of 5 exposures, from 15 seconds to 1 second, to contain the range of brightness from the bright horizon to the dimmer star-filled sky higher up. All are with the 35mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 800.