Testing the Venus Optics 15mm Lens


Laowa Test Title

I test out a fast and very wide lens designed specifically for Sony mirrorless cameras. 

In a previous test I presented results on how well the Sony a7III mirrorless camera performs for nightscape and deep-sky photography. It works very well indeed.

But what about lenses for the Sony? Here’s one ideal for astrophotography.


TL;DR Conclusions

Made for Sony e-mount cameras, the Venus Optics 15mm f/2 Laowa provides excellent on- and off-axis performance in a fast and compact lens ideal for nightscape, time-lapse, and wide-field tracked astrophotography with Sony mirrorless cameras. (UPDATE: Venus Optics has announced versions of this lens for Canon R and Nikon Z mount mirrorless cameras.)

I use it a lot and highly recommend it.


Size and Weight

While I often use the a7III with my Canon lenses by way of a Metabones adapter, the Sony really comes into its own when matched to a “native” lens made for the Sony e-mount. The selection of fast, wide lenses from Sony itself is limited, with the new Sony 24mm G-Master a popular favourite (I have yet to try it).

However, for much of my nightscape shooting, and certainly for auroras, I prefer lenses even wider than 24mm, and the faster the better.

Auroral Swirls over Båtsfjord, Norway Aurora over Båtsfjord, Norway. This is a single 0.8-second exposure at f/2 with the 15mm Venus Optics lens and Sony a7III at ISO 1600.

The Laowa 15mm f/2 from Venus Optics fills the bill very nicely, providing excellent speed in a compact lens. While wide, the Laowa is a rectilinear lens providing straight horizons even when aimed up, as shown above. This is not a fish-eye lens.

Laowa 15mm Front View with Filter Though a very wide lens, the 15mm Laowa accepts standard 72mm filters. The metal lens hood is removable. © 2019 Alan Dyer

The Venus Optics 15mm realizes the potential of mirrorless cameras and their short flange distance that allows the design of fast, wide lenses without massive bulk.

Sigma 14mm vs Laowa 15mm Sigma 14mm f/1.8 Art lens (for Nikon mount) vs. Venus Optics 15mm f/2 lens (for Sony mount). © 2019 Alan Dyer

While compact, at 600 grams the Laowa 15mm is quite hefty for its size due to its solid metal construction. Nevertheless, it is half the weight of the massive 1250-gram Sigma 14mm f/1.8 Art. The Laowa is not a plastic entry-level lens, nor is it cheap, at $850 from U.S. sources.

For me, the Sony-Laowa combination is my first choice for a lightweight travel camera for overseas aurora trips

Laowa 15mm Back View The lens mount showing no electrical contacts to transfer lens metadata to the camera. © 2019 Alan Dyer

However, this is a no-frills manual focus lens. Nor does it even transfer aperture data to the camera, which is a pity. There are no electrical connections between the lens and camera.

However, for nightscape work where all settings are adjusted manually, the Venus Optics 15mm works just fine. The key factor is how good are the optics. I’m happy to report that they are very good indeed.


Testing Under the Stars

To test the Venus Optics lens I shot “same night” images, all tracked, with the Sigma 14mm f/1.8 Art lens, at left, and the Rokinon 14mm SP (labeled as being f/2.4, at right). Both are much larger lenses, made for DSLRs, with bulbous front elements not able to accept filters. But they are both superb lenses. See my test report on these lenses published in 2018.

Sigma and Rokinon 14mm The Sigma 14mm f/1.8 Art lens (left) vs. the Rokinon SP 14mm f/2.4. © 2019 Alan Dyer

The next images show blow-ups of the same scene (the nightscape shown in full below, taken at Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta), and all taken on a tracker.

I used the Rokinon on the Sony a7III using the Metabones adapter which, unlike some brands of lens adapters, does not compromise the optical quality of the lens by shifting its focal position. But lacking a lens adapter for Nikon-to-Sony at the time of testing, I used the Nikon-mount Sigma lens on a Nikon D750, a DSLR camera with nearly identical sensor specs to the Sony.


Vignetting

Laowa 15mm @ f2 A tracked image with the Venus Optics Laowa 15mm at f/2. Click or tap on an image to download a full-resolution JPG for closer inspection.

Above is a tracked image (so the stars are not trailed, which would make it hard to tell aberrations from trails), taken wide open at f/2. No lens correction has been applied so the vignetting (the darkening of the frame corners) is as the lens provides.

As shown above, when used wide open at f/2 vignetting is significant, but not much more so than with competitive lenses with much larger lenses, as I compare below.

And the vignetting is correctable in processing. Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom have this lens in their lens profile database. That’s not the case with current versions (as of April 2019) of other raw developers such as DxO PhotoLab, ON1 Photo RAW, and Raw Therapee where vignetting corrections have to be dialled in manually by eye.

Laowa 15mm @ f2.8 A tracked image with the Venus Optics Laowa 15mm stopped down 1 stop to f/2.8.

When stopped down to f/2.8 the Laowa “flattens” out a lot for vignetting and uniformity of frame illumination. Corner aberrations also improve but are still present. I show those in close-up detail below.

Lens Comparison - Vignetting 15mm Laowa vs. Rokinon 14mm SP vs. Sigma Art 14mm – Comparing the left side of the image for vignetting (light fall-off), wide open and stopped down. ©2018 Alan Dyer

Above, I compare the vignetting of the three lenses, both wide open and when stopped down. Wide open, all the lenses, even the Sigma and Rokinon despite their large front elements, show quite a bit of drop off in illumination at the corners.

The Rokinon SP actually seems to be the worst of the trio, showing some residual vignetting even at f/2.8, while it is reduced significantly in the Laowa and Sigma lenses. Oddly, the Rokinon SP, even though it is labeled as f/2.4, seemed to open to f/2.2, at least as indicated by the aperture metadata.


On-Axis Performance

Lens Comparison - Centre 15mm Laowa vs. Rokinon 14mm SP vs. Sigma Art 14mm – Comparing the centre of the image for sharpness, wide open and stopped down. Click or tap on an image to download a full-resolution JPG for closer inspection. © 2018 Alan Dyer

Above I show lens sharpness on-axis, both wide open and stopped down, to check for spherical and chromatic aberrations with the bright blue star Vega centered. The red box in the Navigator window at top right indicates what portion of the frame I am showing, at 200% magnification in Photoshop.

On-axis, the Venus Optics 15mm shows stars just as sharply as the premium Sigma and Rokinon lenses, with no sign of blurring spherical aberration nor coloured haloes from chromatic aberration.

Laowa 15mm Side with Focus Point This is where this lens reaches sharpest focus on stars, just shy of the Infinity mark. © 2019 Alan Dyer

Focusing is precise and easy to achieve with the Sony on Live View. My unit reaches sharpest focus on stars with the lens set just shy of the middle of the infinity symbol. This  is consistent and allows me to preset focus just by dialing the focus ring, handy for shooting auroras at -35° C, when I prefer to minimize fussing with camera settings, thank you very much!


Off-Axis Performance

Lens Comparison - Upper Left 15mm Laowa vs. Rokinon 14mm SP vs. Sigma Art 14mm – Comparing the centre of the image for sharpness, wide open and stopped down. Click or tap on an image to download a full-resolution JPG for closer inspection. © 2018 Alan Dyer
Lens Comparison - Upper Right 15mm Laowa vs. Rokinon 14mm SP vs. Sigma Art 14mm – Comparing the upper right corner of the image for aberrations, wide open and stopped down. © 2018 Alan Dyer

The Laowa and Sigma lenses show similar levels of off-axis coma and astigmatism, with the Laowa exhibiting slightly more lateral chromatic aberration than the Sigma. Both improve a lot when stopped down one stop, but aberrations are still present though to a lesser degree.

However, I find that the Laowa 15mm performs as well as the Sigma 14mm Art for star quality on- and off-axis. And that’s a high standard to match.

The Rokinon SP is the worst of the trio, showing significant elongation of off-axis star images (they look like lines aimed at the frame centre), likely due to astigmatism. With the 14mm SP, this aberration was still present at f/2.8, and was worse at the upper right corner than at the upper left corner, an indication to me that even the premium Rokinon SP lens exhibits slight lens de-centering, an issue users have often found with other Rokinon lenses.


Real-World Examples – The Milky Way

Sweep of the Autumn Milky Way This is a stack of 8 x 2-minute exposures with the Venus Optics Laowa 15mm lens at f/2 and Sony a7III at ISO 800, on the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer tracker. A single exposure taken through the Kenko Softon A filter layered in with Lighten mode adds the star glows, though exaggerates the lens distortion on the bright stars.
Mars and the Milky Way over Writing-on-Stone This is a stack of 12 exposures for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise, and one exposure for the sky, all 30 seconds at f/2 with the Laowa 15mm lens on the Sony a7III camera at ISO 6400. These were the last frames in a 340-frame time-lapse sequence.

The fast speed of the Laowa 15mm is ideal for shooting tracked wide-field images of the Milky Way, and untracked camera-on-tripod nightscapes and time-lapses of the Milky Way.

Image aberrations are very acceptable at f/2, a speed that allows shutter speed and ISO to be kept lower for minimal star trailing and noise while ensuring a well-exposed frame.


Real World Examples – Auroras

Coloured Curtains over CNSC (Feb 9, 2019) Aurora over the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Churchill, Manitoba. This is 6 seconds at f/2 with the 15mm Venus Optic lens and Sony a7III at ISO 3200.
Sky-Filling Aurora at Tibbitt Lake Aurora from near Yellowknife, NWT, September 8, 2018. This is 2.5-seconds at f/2 with the Venus Optics 15mm lens and Sony a7IIII at ISO 3200.
Aurora from at Sea Near Lofotens #1 The Northern Lights from at sea when leaving the Lofoten Islands, Norway heading toward the mainlaind, from Stamsund to Bodo, March 3, 2019. This was from the Hurtigruten ship the ms Trollfjord. This is a single 1-second exposure for at f/2 with the 15mm Venus Optics lens and Sony a7III at ISO 6400.

Where the Laowa 15mm really shines is for auroras. On my trips to chase the Northern Lights I often take nothing but the Sony-Laowa pair, to keep weight and size down.

Above is an example, taken from a moving ship off the coast of Norway. The fast f/2 speed (I wish it were even faster!) makes it possible to capture the Lights in only 1- or 2-second exposures, albeit at ISO 6400. But the fast shutter speed is needed for minimizing ship movement.


Video Links

The Sony also excels at real-time 4K video, able to shoot at ISO 12,800 to 51,200 without excessive noise.

Aurora Reflections from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.

The Sky is Dancing from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.

The Northern Lights At Sea from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.

Examples of my aurora videos shot with the Sony and Venus Optics 15mm lens are in previous blogs from Yellowknife, NWT in September 2018, from Churchill, Manitoba in February 2019, and from at sea in Norway in March 2019.

Click through to see the posts and the videos shot with the Venus Optics 15mm.

As an aid to video use, the aperture ring of the Venus Optics 15mm can be “de-clicked” at the flick of a switch, allowing users to smoothly adjust the iris during shooting, avoiding audible clicks and jumps in brightness. That’s a very nice feature indeed.

In all, I can recommend the Venus Optics Laowa 15mm lens as a great match to Sony mirrorless cameras, for nightscape still and video shooting. UPDATE: Versions for Canon R and Nikon Z mount mirrorless cameras will now be available.

— Alan, April 20, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

Conjunctions, Satellites & Auroras, Oh My!


Friday the 13th Aurora Title

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.


Conjunctions

Venus & Mars in Close Conjunction #2 (Oct 5, 2017)
Venus and Mars in close conjunction in the dawn sky on October 5, 2017. Venus is the brightest object; Mars is below it; while the star above Venus is 4th magnitude Sigma Leonis. The foreground is illuminated by light from the setting Full Moon in the west. This is a single 1-second exposure with the 135mm lens at f/2 and Canon 60Da at ISO 800. 

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

Overhead Pass of the Space Station in Moonlight
An overhead pass of the ISS on October 5, 2017, with the Full Moon rising in the east at left. The ISS is moving from west (at right) to east (at left), passing nearly overhead at the zenith at centre. North is at the top, south at bottom in this fish-eye lens image with an 8mm Sigma fish-eye lens on the Canon 6D MkII camera. This is a stack of 56 exposures, each 4 seconds long at an interval of 1 second. 

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.


Satellites: Iridiums

Twin Iridium Satellite Flares (October 9, 2017)
A pair of nearly simultaneous and parallel Iridium satellite flares, on October 9, 2017, as they descended into the north. The left or westerly flare was much brighter and with a sharp rise and fall in brightness. While it was predicted to be mag. -4.4 I think it got much brighter, perhaps mag -7, but very briefly. These are Iridium 90 (left) and Iridium 50 (right). This is a stack of 40+ exposures each, 2 seconds at 1-second intervals, with the Sigma 24mm lens at f/1.4 and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.

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.


Auroras

Aurora and Circumpolar Star Trails (Oct, 13, 2017)
A circumpolar star trail composite with Northern Lights, on October 13, 2017, shot from home in southern Alberta. The Big Dipper is at bottom centre; Polaris is at top centre at the axis of the rotation. The bottom edge of the curtains are rimmed with a pink fringe from nitrogen. This is a stack of 200 frames taken mostly when the aurora was a quiescent arc across the north before the substorm hit. An additional single exposure is layered in taken about 1 minute after the main star trail set to add the final end point stars after a gap in the trails. Stacking was with the Advanced Stacker Plus actions using the Ultrastreaks mode to add the direction of motion from the tapering trails. Each frame is 3 seconds at f/2 and ISO 6400 wth the Sigma 14mm lens and Nikon D750.

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.

Aurora from October 13, 2013
A decent aurora across the north from home in southern Alberta, on Friday the 13th, October, 2017, though these frames were taken after midnight MDT. 3 seconds at f/2 and ISO 6400 wth the Sigma 14mm lens and Nikon D750.

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!

— Alan, October 16, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

Northern Lights Over a Prairie Lake


Auroral Arch over a Prairie LakeThe 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.

Aurora and Noctilucent Clouds over Crawling Lake v2

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.

Aurora and Noctilucent Clouds over Crawling Lake v1

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.

Arcs of the Aurora and Milky Way
A 360° panorama of the aurora and Milky Way in the twilight sky of a summer solstice evening.

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.

Thanks!

— Alan, June 26, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com

 

Auroras from Alberta


Aurora Self-Portrait (March 2 2017)

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.

Fish-Eye Aurora (March 1, 2017)
A full-frame fish-eye lens image of the aurora on March 1 with curtains reaching up into the Big Dipper.

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.

Aurora over Frozen Pond
A 160° panorama of the main auroral oval to the north on March 2 about 11:40 pm MST.

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.

Aurora Panorama with Isolated Arc
A 220° panorama of the isolated arc to the west (left) and east (right) and the main auroral oval to the north.

The panorama above shows just the western and eastern portion of the arc. Overhead (image below) it looked like this briefly.

Isolated Auroral Arc Overhead
The overhead portion of the isolated arc at its peak.

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.

Isolated Auroral Arc West
The western portion of the isolated auroral arc at its peak.

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.

— Alan, March 4, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

The Sky Was Dancing


Aurora Panorama from Northern Studies Centre #2 (January 29, 201

The Northern Lights once again performed beautifully from Churchill, Manitoba, making the sky dance with colours. 

As I do each winter, I spent time in Churchill, Manitoba at the wonderful Churchill Northern Studies Centre, attending to groups of “aurora tourists” there to check an item off their bucket list – seeing the Northern Lights.

Auroral Arcs over Boreal Forest #2

In the 30 years the courses have been presented only one group has ever come away not seeing the Lights. Well, make that two now. A bout of unseasonably warm weather in my first week brought clouds every night. Mild temperatures to be sure. But we want it to be -25° C! That’s when it is clear.

Winter Star and Milky Way from Churchill Manitoba

Our first clear night was very clear, affording us a wonderful view of the winter Milky Way before the Lights came out. Such a view is unusual from the North, as the Lights usually wash out the sky, which they did later this night. Even here, you can see some wisps of green aurora.

Orion over Snow Inukshuk

Normal temperatures didn’t return until week 2 of my stay. The second group fared much better, getting good displays on 4 of their 5 nights there, more typical of Churchill.

Photographers Under the Northern Lights

A few determined die-hards from Group 1 (here shooting the Lights) stayed on a couple of more nights, and were rewarded with the views they had come for. They were happy!

All-Sky Aurora from Churchill #2 (January 29, 2017)

In the images here, at no time did the auroral activity exceed a level of Kp 3 (on a scale of 0 to 9) and was often just Kp 1 or 2. Farther south no one would see anything. But at latitude 58° N Churchill lies under the auroral oval where even on quiet nights the aurora is active and often spectacular.

Aurora Panorama from Northern Studies Centre #3 (January 29, 201

In speaking to a Dene elder who presents a cultural talk to each of the CNSC groups, Caroline said that to the Dene of northern Canada their word for the Lights translates to “the sky is dancing.” Wonderful! It did for us.

The Auroras of Churchill from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.

This music video presents a montage of time-lapse movies I shot over four nights, from January 25 to 29, 2017. They provide an idea of what we saw under the dancing sky.

As usual, choose HD and enlarge to full screen to view the movie. Or go to Vimeo with the V button.

— Alan, February 3, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer/AmazingSky.com 

 

Harvest Aurora


Harvest Moon Aurora

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.

Aurora and Harvest Moon at the Old Barn
A diffuse arc of aurora and the rising waning gibbous Moon light the sky over the old barn near home at harvest time, September 19, 2016. The glows from Strathmore and Calgary light the clouds to the west at far left. The Big Dipper shines over the barn, with Capella and the stars of Perseus at right. The Pleiades are rising to the left of the Moon. This is a panorama of 5 segments, with the 20mm lens and Nikon D750. Stitched with ACR.

The image above was from later in the night, just down the road at a favourite and photogenic grand old barn.

Big Dipper and Aurora over Old Barn #1
The Big Dipper and a diffuse aurora over the old barn near home, in southern Alberta, on September 16, 2016. The waning gibbous Moon off camera at right provides the illumination. This is a stack of 4 exposures, averaged, for the ground to smooth noise and one exposure for the sky to keep the stars untrailed. All 13 seconds at f/2.8 with the Sigma 20mm lens, and ISO 1600 with the Nikon D750. Diffraction spikes on stars added with Noel Carboni’s Astronomy Tools actions.

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.

— Alan, September 20, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

TWAN-black

 

Sweep of the Auroral Oval


Arc of the Northern Lights

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.

Concentric Arcs of the Auroral Oval
A 180° panorama of the Northern Lights exhibiting classic concentric ars across the north, with an isolated arc to the east at far right. This is a stitch of 10 segments, each 2-second exposures with the 20mm Sigma Art lens at f/1.6 and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200. Stitched with PTGui.
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.

Isolated Auroral Arc #2 (Sept 2, 2016)
An isolated auroral arc to the east on September 2, 2016, shot from near home during a fine display with active curtains to the north at left. A single 8-second exposure with the 20mm lens at f/1.4 and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200.
This is a closeup, showing the characteristic form of these odd “isolated arcs” — usually featureless, often thin, without much motion, and often red.

Isolated Auroral Arc #4 (Sept 2, 2016)
An isolated auroral arc to the west on September 2, 2016, shot from home during a fine display with active curtains to the north. A single 13-second exposure with the 20mm lens at f/1.4 and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200.
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.

Isolated Auroral Arc #3 (Sept 2, 2016)
An isolated overhead auroral arc on September 2, 2016, shot from home during a fine display with active curtains to the north. The Summer Triangle stars stand out here due to high cloud fuzzing their images. A single 13-second exposure with the 20mm lens at f/1.4 and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200.
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.

Isolated Auroral Arc #5 (Sept 2, 2016)
An isolated auroral arc to the southeast on September 2, 2016, shot from home during a fine display with active curtains to the north. This one displays the classic picket fence apperarance, with fingers of green aurora that moved along the band during a time-lapse of the scene. A single 13-second exposure with the 20mm lens at f/1.4 and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200.
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.

— Alan, September 7, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

TWAN-black

A Night at Moraine Lake


Aurora over Desolation Valley PanoramaWhat 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.

Moraine Lake TPE

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.

Milky Way over Moraine Lake
This is looking southwest with the images taken about 11:15 pm on August 31, 2016.The ground is illuminated by a mix of starlight, lights from the Moraine Lake Lodge, and from a display of aurora brightening behind the camera to the north. The starclouds of Scutum and Sagittarius are just above the peaks of the Valley of Ten Peaks. This is a stack of 16 images for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise, and one exposure for the sky, untracked, all 15 seconds at f/2 with the Sigma 20mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400. The frames are part of a 450-frame time-lapse.

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.

Aurora over Desolation Valley #2
The Northern Lights in a fine Level 4 to 5 display over Desolation Valley at Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, on the night of August 31/Sept 1. This is one frame from a 450-frame time-lapse with the aurora at its best. This is a 2-second exposure at f/2 with the Sigma 20mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 5000.

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.

Aurora and Winter Stars Rising over Tower of Babel
The early winter stars rising behind the Tower of Babel formation at Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, with a bright aurora to the north at left. Visible are the Pleiades at centre, and Capella and the stars of Auriga at left. Just above the mountain are the Hyades and Taurus rising. At top are the stars of Perseus. Aries is just above the peak of Babel. The aurora in part lights the landscape green. This is a stack of 16 images for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise, and 1 image for the sky, untracked, all for 15 seconds at f/2.2 with the Sigma 20mm Art lens, and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200. All with LENR turned on.

In a summer of clouds and storms, this was a night to make up for it.

— Alan, September 4, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Member of The World at Night photo group

TWAN-black

 

The Perseids Perform


Radiant of the Perseid Meteor Shower (2016)

It was a great night for shooting meteors as the annual Perseids put on a show.

For the Perseid meteor shower I went to one of the darkest sites in Canada, Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan, a dark sky preserve and home to several rare species requiring dark nights to flourish – similar to astronomers!

This year a boost in activity was predicted and the predictions seemed to hold true. The lead image records 33 meteors in a series of stacked 30-second exposures taken over an hour.

It shows only one area of sky, looking east toward the radiant point in the constellation Perseus – thus the name of the shower.

Extrapolating the count to the whole sky, I think it’s safe to say there would have been 100 or more meteors an hour zipping about, not bad for my latitude of 49° North.

Lone Perseid in the Moonlight
A lone Perseid meteor streaking down below the radiant point in Perseus, with the sky and landscape lit by the waxing gibbous Moon, August 11, 2016. Perseus is rising in the northeast, Andromeda is at right, with the Andromeda Galaxy right of centre. Cassiopeia is at top. Taken from the 70 Mile Butte trailhead in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan.

The early part of the evening was lit by moonlight, which lent itself to some nice nightscapes scenes but fewer meteors.

Perseid Meteor Shower Looking North (2016)
The 2016 Perseid meteor shower, in a view looking north to the Big Dipper and with the radiant point in Perseus at upper right, the point where the meteors appear to be streaking from. This is a stack of 10 frames, shot over one hour from 1:38 a.m. to 2:37 a.m. CST. The camera was on the Star Adventurer tracker so all the sky frames aligned. The ground is from a stack of four frames, mean combined to smooth noise, and taken with the tracker motor off to minimize ground blurring, and taken at the start of the sequence. All exposures 40 seconds at f/3.2 with the 16-35mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 6400.

But once the Moon set and the sky darkened the show really began. Competing with the meteors was some dim aurora, but also the brightest display of airglow I have even seen.

It was bright enough to be visible to the eye as grey bands, unusual. Airglow is normally sub-visual.

But the camera revealed the airglow bands as green, red, and yellow, from fluorescing oxygen and sodium atoms. The bands slowly rippled across the sky from south to north.

Airglow is something you can see only from dark sites. It is one of the wonders of the night sky, that can make a dark sky not dark!

TECHNICAL:

Meteor Composite Screen ShotThe lead image is stack of 31 frames containing meteors (two frames had 2 meteors), shot from 1:13 am to 2:08 a.m. CST, so over 55 minutes. The camera was not tracking the sky but was on a fixed tripod. I choose one frame with the best visibility of the airglow as the base layer. For every other meteor layer, I used Free Transform to rotate each frame around a point far off frame at upper left, close to where the celestial pole would be and then nudged each frame to bring the stars into close alignment with the base layer, especially near the meteor being layered in.

This placed each meteor in its correct position in the sky in relation to the stars, essential for showing the effect of the radiant point accurately.

Each layer above the base sky layer is masked to show just the meteor and is blended with Lighten mode. If I had not manually aligned the sky for each frame, the meteors would have ended up positioned where they appeared in relation to the ground but the radiant point would have been smeared — the meteors would have been in the wrong place.

Unfortunately, it’s what I see in a lot of composited meteor shower shots.

It would have been much easier if I had had this camera on a tracker so all frames would have been aligned coming out of the camera. But the other camera was on the tracker! It took the other composite image, the one looking north.

The ground is a mean combined stack of 4 frames to smooth noise in the ground. Each frame is 30 seconds at f/2 with the wonderful Sigma 20mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 5000. The waxing Moon had set by the time this sequence started, leaving the sky dark and the airglow much more visible.

— Alan, August 13, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

The Beauty of the Northern Lights


Beauty of Northern Lights Title

My latest music video includes images, time-lapses and real-time videos of the Northern Lights shot in February and March 2016 in Churchill. 

While I’ve posted my recent images of the aurora here and at many social media sites, all the videos I shoot take more work before they are ready to unveil to the public. Videos work best when set to music.

In this case, I’m very pleased to have received permission from EverSound Music to incorporate the music of one of my favourite artists, John Adorney, in my latest music video montage. The selection is If a Rose Could Speak, from his 2013 album The Wonder Well. It features vocals by Daya.

The video incorporates still images, as well as time-lapse sequences, and real-time videos of the Northern Lights.

The all-sky time-lapses are intended to be projected in digital planetarium theatres, recreating the scene on their 360° domes.

Please click on the V for Vimeo button to really see the video well. And select 1080p HD for the best image quality. And do share! 

ABOUT THE VIDEO

I shot all scenes at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, near Churchill, Manitoba, on the shore of Hudson Bay at a latitude of 58° North. Churchill’s location places it under the usual location of the auroral oval, providing spectacular displays of Northern Lights even on nights when locations to the south are seeing nothing.

I was at the CNSC to present sets of 5-night aurora viewing programs to guests from across North America. Click the link above for more details on their programs. The 2016 aurora season is over, but we’ll have more aurora programs in January and February of next year.

TECHNICAL

I shot all images with Canon 6D and Nikon D750 DSLR cameras, usually at ISO 3200. The fish-eye all-sky sequences were with a Sigma 8mm lens on the Canon, while most of the still images and other full-frame time-lapses were with the Sigma 20mm Art lens on the Nikon. For the “rapid-cadence” time-lapses I used 1- to 2-second exposures at an interval of one second.

The real-time video clips were with the Nikon – set to ISO 25600 – and the Sigma wide open at f/1.4. While these clips are prone to digital noise, they do record the fast movement and subtle colour of the aurora much as the eye saw it. See my earlier music video with real-time clips shot February 12 for more examples of these.

The all-sky sequences were processed through LRTimelapse v4 software, to handle the huge range in brightness of the Lights. Real-time video clips were processed in Photoshop with the Camera Raw filter.

Temperatures ranged from a bitter -35° C to just (!) -15° C on most nights.

I kept the long-duration, all-sky, time-lapse camera going by placing it in a Camera Parka (www.atfrostedlens.com) and inserting disposable hand warmer packs inside the insulated parka. It worked very well, making it possible to shoot for up to 3 hours. Without it, the battery died after an hour.

— Alan, March 18, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

An Amazing Night of Northern Lights


Aurora Panorama over Northern Studies Centre

It was a night to remember, when the sky exploded with a jaw-dropping display of Northern Lights.

Warnings went out around the world and the aurora meters were hitting high numbers. By sunset we were charged up with high expectations of seeing the aurora in high gear dancing in the twilight. We were not disappointed.

From our location at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre near Churchill, Manitoba (latitude 58° North), we see aurora almost every clear night, even when indicators are low.

But this night, the Index was reading 7 on the scale of 0 to 9. I was afraid, after all the effort to come north to see the Lights, the Lights would abandon us and head south. Not so!

The night did start with the Lights in the south, as shown in the panorama image at top. It takes in a full 360°, with the aurora arcing from east to west across the southern sky in Orion. The north over the Centre is clear.

But the curtains soon moved back north and engulfed most of our sky for most of the rest of the night.

Participants in our aurora tour group took their aurora “selfies,” and just looked up in awe at one of nature’s great sky shows. When the last of the group turned in at 2:30 a.m. the Lights were still going.

What follows is a selection — just a few! — of the still shots I took. I also shot time-lapse sequences and real-time videos. All those will take more editing to turn them into a music video, still to come.

Enjoy!

Aurora Watcher with Twilight Curtains (March 6, 2016)
A lone observer gazes skyward at the start of a wonderful aurora display on March 6, 2016, as the curtains begin to appear and dance in the deep blue twilight. This was at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Churchill, Manitoba.
Gazing at a Colourful Twilight Aurora
A lone observer gazes at an array of colourful curtains of aurora during an active display, March 6, 2016, with curtains in the evening twilight adding blue tints to the sky and tops of the curtains, as well as the greens and reds from oxygen. Curtains toward the horizon are more yellow due to atmospheric extinction. Jupiter is rising at left, then near opposition.
Converging Colourful Curtains of Aurora
Auroral curtains converge at the zenith in the evening twilight during a Kp Index 7 night of aurora in Churchill, Manitoba. Blue twilight adds the blue tints to the sky and curtains.
CNSC Group with Purple Aurora (March 6, 2016)
Our group of Learning Vacations tourists enjoy the start of a fine display of Northern Lights at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, March 6, 2016. As curtains appear to the east, another array of curtains shines to the west behind them with a strong purple tint lighting the sky and ground. The Andromeda Galaxy sits amid the curtains.
Aurora Watchers at CNSC (March 6, 2016)
Aurora watchers looking south to a bright curtain of Northern Lights while other curtains rippled behind them to the north. This was a fabulous all-sky display, March 6, 2016. The temperature was about -25° C.
Green Aurora over Green Snow
The green aurora lights the ground and snow green in a spectacular display March 6, 2016. This is looking northeast from the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Churchill, Manitoba.
Multiple Curtains of Aurora
A series of curtains of aurora, in a layered series across the sky, from the March 6, 2016 display in Churchill, Manitoba,
Aurora over CNSC (March 6, 2016)
The aurora over the Churchill Northern Studies Centre building, home to Arctic research and to many programs for tourists about northern ecology and science. The March Learning Vacations aurora tour group experienced a fabulous display this night, March 6, 2016.
Aurora Group Outside CNSC (March 6, 2016)
Some of our group of Learning Vacations aurora tourists outside the Churchill Northern Studies Centre enjoying the sky show on March 6, 2016 on a night with a Level 5 to 7 aurora.
Abstract Patterns in a Zenith Aurora
What do you see in the swirling patterns of aurora curtains at the zenith? They rapidly take many forms as they move about. This was the wonderful display of March 6, 2016.

— Alan, March 9, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

The Northern Lights … As They Appeared


Aurora As It Appeared Title

My 10-minute video captures the Northern Lights in real-time video – no time-lapses here!

I hadn’t tried this before but the display of February 12, 2016 from Churchill, Manitoba was so active it was worth trying to shoot it with actual video, not time-lapse still frames.

I used very high ISO speeds resulting in very noisy frames. But I think the motion and colours of the curtains as they ripple and swirl more than overpower the technical limitations. And there’s live commentary!

 

Select HD and Enter Full Screen for the best quality.

Scenes have been edited for length, and I did not use all the scenes I shot in the final edit. So the scenes you see in the 10-minute video actually took place over about 20 minutes. But each scene is real-time. They show the incredibly rapid motion and fine structure in the auroral curtains, detail blurred in long multi-second exposures.

I used a Nikon D750 camera at ISO speeds from 12,800 to 51,200. While it is certainly very capable of shooting low-light video, the D750 is not optimized for it. A Sony a7s, with its larger pixels and lower noise, would have been a better camera. Next time!

The lens, however, was key. I used the new Sigma 20mm Art lens which, at f/1.4, is the fastest lens in its focal length class. And optical quality, even wide open, is superb.

The temperature was about -30 degrees C, with a windchill factor of about -45 C. It was cold! But no one in the aurora tour group of 22 people I was instructing was complaining. Everyone was outside, bundled up, and enjoying the show.

It was what they had traveled north to see, to fulfill a life-long desire to stand under the Northern Lights. Everyone could well and truly check seeing the aurora off their personal bucket lists this night.

For more information about aurora and other northern eco-tourism tours offered by the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, see churchillscience.ca 

— Alan, February 17, 2016 / www.amazingsky.com 

Scenes from Under the Auroral Oval


Classic Curtains of the Auroral Oval

From Churchill, Manitoba the Northern Lights dance almost every night over the boreal forest.

This year, as in the last two years, I have traveled to the shores of a frozen Hudson Bay and to the town of Churchill, Manitoba to view and photograph the aurora borealis.

I’m instructing two tour groups at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, one this week and one last week, in the science and sagas of the aurora and on how to shoot the Lights. The participants in the groups are fabulous, keenly interested and unfazed by the cold and wind.

From Churchill’s latitude of 58° N, we are under the main auroral oval almost every night. Even on nights with low official activity levels, as they were on all the nights I shot these images, we still get sky-filling displays.

Here’s a selection of still images from the last week of shooting, with clear skies on all but a couple of nights. There’s still room in our March sessions!

Circumpolar Star Trails and Aurora (Feb 9, 2016)
Circumpolar star trails and aurora over the boreal forest at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Churchill, Manitoba, on Feb 9, 2016. This is a stack of 250 frames shot over one hour (until the battery died) for a time-lapse but here stacked for a single image star trail using the Advanced Stacker Plus actions and Long Streaks effect. Each exposure was 15 seconds at f/2.8 with the 15mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 6400.
All-Sky Aurora from Churchill (Feb 5, 2016)
An all-sky aurora display of multiple curtains of aurora borealis over the boreal forest at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, in Churchill, Manitoba, taken on Feb 5, 2016. The view is looking almost due north. Jupiter is at right. The Big Dipper is at centre frame. This is one frame from a 380-frame time-lapse sequence shot for digital dome projection in planetariums. This is a 20-second exposure at f/5 (stopped down by accident — should have been f/3.5) with the 8mm Sigma fish-eye lens and Canon 6D at ISO 3200. Temperature was -35° C. But no wind!
Observing the Aurora on Deck at CNSC
Participants in the Arctic Skies tour and course observe and photograph the Northern Lights from the upper level observing deck at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Churchill, Manitoba on Feb 10, 2016, the first night of their tour. A Level 1 to 2 display provided a good first night show though with bitterly cold temperatures and wind chills of near -50° C. This is a single exposure of 8 seconds at f/1.4 with the 20mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200.
Aurora over Churchill Northern Studies Centre #1 (Feb 8, 2016)
The Northern Lights over the Churchill Northern Studies Centre on Feb 8/9, 2016 during a weak all-sky display. The arcs lay primarily in the south when the display was at its best this night. Orion and the Pleiades are just setting in the west over the town of Churchill. This is a 20 second exposure at f/2.8 with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens and Canon 6D at ISO 3200.
Northern Lights Panorama #2 from CNSC Deck
A panorama across the northern horizon of the sweeping curtains of the aurora, taken from the observation deck of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Manitoba. I shot this on Feb 10, 2016 on the first night of the Arctic Skies tour group week. Vega is low in the north at left of centre, Arcturus is the bright star at right of centre. This is a 4-segment panorama, stitched with Adobe Camera Raw, with each segment 5 seconds at f/1.4 with the 20mm Sigma lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200.
Aurora with Leo and Jupiter Rising (Feb 5, 2016)
Curtains of the aurora looking northeast and east toward Leo rising (at upper right) and Jupiter (at right), over the boreal forest of the Hudson Bay Lowlands near Churchill, Manitoba, on Feb 5, 2016. This is a single frame from a 680-frame time-lapse. This is a 4-second exposure at f/1.4 with the Sigma 20mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200.
Vertical Curtains of Aurora over the Boreal Forest
Vertical curtains of aurora converging to the zenith overhead over the snowy boreal forest at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Churchill, Manitoba. I shot this Feb 4, 2016 on a night with temperatures of -35° C with a slight wind. The Big Dpper is at right. Exposure was 10 seconds at f/2.8 with the 15mm lens anf Canon 6D at ISO 3200.
Gazing at the Aurora from Churchill
A lone figure gazes skyward at the aurora over the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Churchill, Manitoba. I shot this Feb 4, 2016 on a night with temperatures of -35° C with a slight wind. Exposure was 13 seconds at f/2.8 with the 15mm lens anf Canon 6D at ISO 3200.
Aurora, Big Dipper and Polaris
A wide vertical portrait of the Northern Lights in the northern sky, with the stars of the Big Dipper and Polaris above centre. Shot from the upper deck of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre on a very windy night with wind chills of -50°, so standing in the wind to take this image was bitter! You grab a few images and retreat! This is a single 15-second exposure at f/2.8 with the 15mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 3200.
Arctic Skies Group Under the Aurora
The February Arctic Skies tour group watching and photographing the aurora from the second floor deck of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, where it is out of the wind, which this night was producing -50° C wind chills. This is a single 6-second exposure at f/2.8 with the 15mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 6400.
Watching the Aurora in the Winter Stars
A self-portrait of me watching the Northern Lights from the upper deck of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, looking south to the winter stars of Orion, Gemini and Auriga. This was Feb 11, 2016, a very windy, almost blizzard night with blowing snow and reduced visibility. However the aurora did appear through the haze and clouds. In the distance are the buildings of the old Churchill Rocket Range. This is a single 15-second exposure at f/2.8 with the 15mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 3200.

— Alan, February 12, 2016 / www.amazingsky.com 

 

New Year’s Eve Sky: Aurora, Orion, and a Comet


New Year's Eve Winter Sky

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).

New Year's Eve Aurora, Dec. 31, 2015

Toward midnight the Lights kicked up again, now with Jupiter (on the horizon) and Leo rising in the east (below).

New Year's Eve Aurora #2 (Dec 31, 2015)

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.


 

Comet Catalina near Arcturus on New Year's Day
Comet Catalina (C/2013 US10) near Arcturus in the constellation of Bootes, at pre-dawn on the morning of January 1, 2016, with the Last Quarter Moon nearby illluminating the sky. A long, faint ion tail is visible extending 2 to 3 degrees to the right while a brighter but stubby dust tail extends down to the south. Shot from home using the 200mm Canon telephoto and 1.4x extender at f/4.5 for a stack of 8 x 2-minute exposures at ISO 800 with the Canon 6D. Median combined stacked to eliminate satellite trails. The comet is slightly blurred due to its own motion in that time.
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.

Happy New Year to all! Have a celestial 2016!

 

Don’t forget, you can download my free 2016 Sky Calendar as a PDF. See my previous blog for details and the link. 

— Alan, January 1, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / amazing sky.com

Astrophotography Video Tutorials – Free!


 

Video Tutorial FB PR ImageLearn 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.  

Or they can be viewed on my YouTube channel

Thanks for watching!

And for much more information about shooting and processing nightscapes and time-lapse movies, check out my 400-page multimedia eBook, linked below.

— Alan, November 21, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com/tutorials.html

 

Dawn Sky Delight – the Real Scene


A gathering of planets in the dawn sky on October 8, 2015, with - from bottom to top: Jupiter, Mars, Venus and the Moon, with the star Regulus in Leo left of Venus.  This is a 15-second exposure with shorter exposure blended in for the area around Venus and the Moon to avoid them overexposing too much. So not a true HDR, but using masking to blend the short exposure elements.

The Moon, planets and Northern lights provided a wonderful show in the dawn sky.

What a superb scene this was. On October 8 the waning crescent Moon shone near Venus (brightest) and Regulus, with red Mars and bright Jupiter paired below.

If that wasn’t enough, as the wide-angle panorama below shows, the Northern Lights were also ending a night of performance, with an arc along the horizon and pulsing waves rising up the sky to the northeast near the planet grouping.

A panorama of the pre-dawn sky on October 8, 2015, with a sky full of wonders: • the Northern Lights, or aurora • The Big Dipper above the aurora, somewhat distorted by the panorama projection • at centre, a conjunction and line-up of planets, with from bottom to top: Jupiter, Mars and Venus, with the bright waning crescent Moon beside Venus at top, and also beside the star Regulus in Leo • The Beehive star cluster well above the planet grouping • Orion and Canis Major in the winter sky at right with the Milky Way. I shot this from home, using the Canon 6D and 24mm lens on a fixed tripoid (no tracking), for 7 segments, each a 30-second exposure at f/2.2 and at ISO 1250. Stitched in Photoshop.

The panorama also sweeps right, to the south, to take in the winter Milky Way and constellations of Orion and Canis Major.  Click on the image to bring it up full screen.

The Moon will appear near Mars and Jupiter on the morning of October 9, and then the three planets will begin to converge for a tight gathering for a few mornings around October 25.

Be sure to wake early for the dawn sky show that continues all this month!

– Alan, October 8, 2015 / © 2015  / www.amazingsky.com

The Dancing Lights over Dinosaur Park


The Northern Lights over the badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, on September 11, 2015. This is one frame from a 280-frame time-lapse sequence. Although, in this image the ground came from a later exposure in the sequence when passing car headlights lit the ground briefly on an otherwise dark, moonless night, to help sculpt the ground. This was with the Nikon D750 and 24mm lens for 15 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 6400.

The Northern Lights dance over the badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, a World Heritage Site.

Aurora alerts called for a fine display on Friday, September 11. Forewarned, I headed to one of my favourite shooting spots at Dinosaur Provincial Park, and aimed three cameras at the sky. It didn’t take long before the lights appeared, right on cue.

An aurora and the autymn Milky Way over the Badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, on September 11, 2015. The stars, constellations and Milky Way of the autumn and early winter sky are rising in the northeast, including the objects: the Andromeda Galaxy at top, and the Pleiades at bottom.  This is one frame from a 200-frame time-lapse sequence, though in this image the ground comes from a Mean Combine stack of 7 images to smooth noise but the sky is from one image, each 30 seconds at f/2.8 with the Rokinon 14mm lens and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 3200 on a dark moonless night.

The display started out with lots of promise, but did fade after 12:30 a.m., just when it was supposed to be peaking in intensity. I let the cameras run for a while but eventually stopped the shutters and packed it in…

…But not before I captured this odd bit of aurora in the east, shown below, that appeared as an isolated and stationary band pulsing up and down in brightness, but with little movement.

An odd isolated arc of aurora in the eastern sky over the badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, on September 11, 2015. This arc sat stationary and pulsed up and down in brightness over a few seconds. It was in some frames but not others. The winter stars of Taurus, including the Pleiades cluster, and Auriga are rising in the east.  The sky here is from a single exposure but the ground came from a Mean Combine stack of 8 exposures to smooth noise. Each was 40 seconds at f/2.8 with the 14mm Rokinon lens and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 3200 on a moonless night.

I’ve seen these before and have never heard a good explanation of what process creates such an effect, with a patch of sky appearing to “turn on” and off.

You can see the effect at the end of the time-lapse compilation, linked below from Vimeo.

As usual, please enlarge to full-screen and watch in HD for the best quality.

Unfortunately, a patrolling park official checking on things, spoiled some frames with her truck’s headlights. It’s one of the hazards of time-lapse imaging.

As a final image, here are all the fish-eye lens frames stacked into one image, to create a single star trail showing the sky rotating about the celestial pole.

A composite stack of 198 images creating a circumpolar star trail image of the entire sky, with the motion of the stars and the Northern Lights over an hour recorded onto one frame.  The 8mm fish-eye lens take in almost all the sky, with the camera aimed northeast to the centre of the auroral arc, with Polaris, the centre of the sky’s rotation, at left. The scene is at Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, from September 11, 2015.  Each exposure was 20 seconds at f/3.5 with the Sigma 8mm lens and at ISO 6400 with the Canon 6D. The ground comes from a stack of 16 images taken early in the sequence turned into a smart object and mean combined with Mean stack mode, to average out and smooth noise. The sky comes from 198 exposures, Lighten stacked using the Advanced Stacker Actions from StarCircleAcademy.com.
Each exposure was 20 seconds at f/3.5 with the Sigma 8mm lens and at ISO 6400 with the Canon 6D. The ground comes from a stack of 16 images taken early in the sequence turned into a smart object and mean combined with Mean stack mode, to average out and smooth noise. The sky comes from 198 exposures, Lighten stacked using the Advanced Stacker Actions from StarCircleAcademy.com.

It’s been a good week for auroras, with a promise of more to come perhaps, as we approach equinox, traditionally a good time for magnetic field lines to align, funnelling solar storm particles into our magnetosphere.

Keep looking up!

— Alan, September 13, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

The Dancing Northern Lights


A still frame from a 865-frame time-lapse movie taken the morning of Sept. 9, 2015 from the back deck, using the Nikon D750 and 24mm lens for 2-second exposures for a fast cadence. Focus is soft.

The lights came out and danced in my sky in the early morning hours.

The early warning signs weren’t calling for anything too impressive for a display last night, September 8/9, but the sky surprised us with a fantastic display of Northern lights.

I shot with one camera – it was very late, or very early! – but shot enough frames to create this short 1.5-minute music video.

I photographed the sequence with a single fixed-camera aimed east toward a bright auroral curtain, showing fast pulsing forms common to the later stages of a substorm. But then a new bright curtain sweeps in from the north and the display brightens even more in a new substorm. The display then fades.

The exposures were taken over an hour from 1:30 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. MDT. Each was a 2-second exposure with an interval of 2 seconds, shot with the Nikon D750 at ISO 3200 and Sigma 24mm lens at f/2, for a total of just over 850 frames.

Music is my Adi Goldstein at AGSoundtrax.com.

— Alan, September 9, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

The Milky Way over the Milk River


The summer Milky Way with a meteor streaking at centre as a bonus. An aurora to the north off frame is lighting the foreground with a green glow. Haze and forest fire smoke obscure the horizon. I shot this at the Battle Scene viewpoint at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, in southern Alberta. Sagittarius and the galactic centre is on the horizon at left of centre. Capricornus is amid the haze at left of centre. On the horizon are the Sweetgrass Hills in Montana. The Milk River winds below amid the sandstone formations that are home to historic First Nations petroglyphs.  This is a single 30-second exposure with the Nikon D750 at ISO 3200 and Sigma 24mm Art lens at f/2, taken as part of a time-lapse sequence.

The summer Milky Way shines over the Milk River and the sandstone formations of Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.

Earlier this week I spent two nights shooting at a favourite site in southern Alberta, near the U.S. border. Here, the Milk River winds through a small canyon and coulees lined with eroded sandstone formations called hoodoos. Carved on those hoodoos are ancient graffiti – petroglyphs dating back hundreds of years recording life on the plains. Thus the name: Writing-on-Stone.

It’s a beautiful place, especially so at night. I was there to shoot video scenes for an upcoming “How to Photograph the Milky Way” tutorial. And to collect images for the tutorial.

Above is a shot that is one frame from a time-lapse sequence, one that captures a meteor and the Milky Way over the Milk River, with the Sweetgrass Hills of Montana in the distance.

The summer Milky Way over the Milk River Valley and sandstone formations of Writing-on-Stone Provincial park, in southern Alberta. On the horizon are the volcanic Sweetgrass Hills in Montana. The red tint at top is from an aurora active that night and the ground is partly illuminated by green auroral light from the north. The Summer Triangle stars are at top left. Sagittarius is on the horizon sinking into the low clouds at botton right which are illuminated by lights from Sweetgrass, Montana. Clouds and smoke from forest fires to the west cut down the transparency and clarity of the sky this night, especially toward the horizon.  This is a stack of 4 x 3-minute tracked exposures for the sky, and 4 x 5-minute untracked exposures for the ground, all with the 15mm Canon full-frame fish-eye and Canon 6D at ISO 1000, on the iOptron Sky-Tracker unit.

This image is from a set of exposures I took with the camera and ultra-wide 15mm lens tracking the turning sky, to prevent the stars from trailing in long exposures. A set of images with the tracker motor turned off supplied the sharp ground.

It shows the sweep of the summer Milky Way, with some clouds and forest fire smoke intruding to the south.

In both images the ground is green because, in part, it is being lit by an aurora display going on behind the camera to the north.

An aurora display to the northeast over the Milk River Valley and Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in southern Alberta, night of July 22/23, 2015. The ground is lit by aurora light. The view is looking east to the rising autumn constellations of Cassiopeia and Perseus at left, and Andromeda and Pegasus at centre. The Milky Way runs from left to top centre. I shot this with the 15mm full-frame fisheye and Canon 6D. The sky is from one image, but the ground is from a stack of 4 images, mean combined, to smooth noise.

Here’s the view looking east, with a green aurora fringed with red lighting the northern sky.

The arc of the auroral oval as seen from southern Alberta, July 22/23, 2015, from Writing on Stone Provincial Park, looking north over the flat prairie. The Big Dipper is at left. This is a 4-segment panorama with the Canon 60Da and 16-35mm lens at 16mm, stitched in Photoshop.

The display on the night of July 22/23 formed a classic arc across the north. This was my panoramic view of the vast auroral oval that was wrapping around the planet at far northern latitudes. Here, I was at 49° north, almost on the Canada-U.S. border, and well south of the main oval.

In all, it was a magical two nights at a scenic and sacred site.

– Alan, July 24, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

The Great Solstice Aurora: THE MOVIE!



On June 22 I shot the great all-sky aurora with three cameras all shooting time-lapse frames. Here’s the result!

The rapidly moving and astonishing patterns of the aurora are ideal for time-lapse photography. Except for a total eclipse of the Sun, nothing else in the sky changes with such dramatic and jaw-dropping intensity.

For the June 22 outbreak of Northern Lights across the sky, I shot some 2,200 frames, and assembled them into the time-lapse compilation here.

One sequence records the entire sky and the complete development of the display, from when it first appeared in twilight about 11:15 p.m., to when it faded into a diffuse glow across the sky by 1:15 a.m. I shot that sequence with an 8mm fish-eye lens, to capture a scene suitable for projection in a digital planetarium theatre.

I shot the other sequences with 15mm and 24mm lenses. All total, the 3-minute movie comes from about 50 gigabytes of images.

Still images from this night, and from the time-lapse sequences, are in my previous blog post.

I hope you enjoy the video. Do enlarge it to full screen 1080p HD.

– Alan, June 24, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

The Great Solstice Aurora of 2015


The all-sky aurora of June 22, 2015, during a level 7 to 9 geomagnetic storm, as the display began already active in the darkening twilight of a solstice night. This is one frame from a 568-frame time-lapse, taken with the 8mm Sigma fish-eye lens at f/3.5 and with the Canon 6D, composed for projection in tilt-dome digital planetariums. I was on the south shore of Crawling Valley Lake and Reservoir in southern Alberta.

Aurora watchers were on alert! Look up after sunset on June 22 and the sky should be alive with dancing lights.

And the predictions were right.

I headed out to a nearby lake in preparation for seeing and shooting the show. And as soon as the sky got dark enough the Lights were there, despite the bright solstice twilight.

The all-sky aurora of June 22, 2015, during a level 7 to 9 geomagnetic storm, as the display began already active in the darkening twilight of a solstice night. This is one frame from a 960-frame time-lapse, taken with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens at f/2.8 and with the Canon 60Da, looking north to the perpetual twilight of solstice. I was on the south shore of Crawling Valley Lake and Reservoir in southern Alberta.

The display reached up to the zenith, as seen in my fish-eye images, like the one below. I shot with three cameras, all shooting time-lapses, with the fish-eye camera recording the scene suitable for projection in a digital planetarium.

The all-sky aurora of June 22, 2015, during a level 7 to 9 geomagnetic storm, as the display peaked in a substorm with rays converging at the zenith in the darkening twilight of a solstice night. This is one frame from a 568-frame time-lapse, taken with the 8mm Sigma fish-eye lens at f/3.5 and with the Canon 6D, composed for projection in tilt-dome digital planetariums. I was on the south shore of Crawling Valley Lake and Reservoir in southern Alberta.

However, it was apparent we here in western Canada were seeing the end of the display that had been going on for hours during an intense geomagnetic storm. The aurora was most intense early in the evening, with a minor outburst about 11:30 to 11:45 pm MDT.

The all-sky aurora of June 22, 2015, during a level 7 to 9 geomagnetic storm, as the display began already active in the twilight of a solstice night. This is one frame from a 960-frame time-lapse, taken with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens at f/2.8 and with the Canon 60Da, looking north to the perpetual twilight of solstice. I was on the south shore of Crawling Valley Lake and Reservoir in southern Alberta.

The aurora then subsided in structure and turned into a more chaotic pulsating display, typical of the end of a sub-storm.

A sky-covering display of Northern Lights, here in the western sky over a distant thunderstorm on the Alberta prairies. I shot this June 22, 2015 on a night with a grand display over most of the sky, with the sky bright with solstice twilight. The site was on the south shore of Crawling Valley Lake in southern Alberta. This is one frame from a 350-frame time-lapse, taken with the Nikon D750 and 24mm lens,

However, an attraction of this display was its juxtaposition over another storm, an earthly one, flashing lightning to the northwest of me.

The all-sky aurora of June 22, 2015, during a level 7 to 9 geomagnetic storm, as the display brightened again in the middle of the night at about 1 am, with rays converging at the zenith in the perpetual twilight of a solstice night. This is one frame from a 568-frame time-lapse, taken with the 8mm Sigma fish-eye lens at f/3.5 and with the Canon 6D, composed for projection in tilt-dome digital planetariums. I was on the south shore of Crawling Valley Lake and Reservoir in southern Alberta.

By 1 a.m. MDT the display, while still widespread over a large area of the northern sky, had turned into a diffuse glow.

But 60 gigabytes of images later, I headed home. The time-lapse compilation will come later!

– Alan, June 23, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Reflections of Solstice Planets and Northern Lights


The evening planets of Venus (right) and Jupiter (left), to the right of the waxing crescent Moon on the evening of summer sosltice, June 21, 2015. The star Regulus is to the upper right of the Moon, between Jupiter and the Moon. The view is overlooking Crawling Lake in southern Alberta. This is an HDR stack of 5 exposures to retain detail in the bright twilight sky and the dark foreground.

The summer solstice sky was filled with twilight glows, planets, and dancing Northern Lights. 

What a magical night this was. The evening started with the beautiful sight of the waxing crescent Moon lined up to the left of the star Regulus, and the planets Jupiter and Venus (the brightest of the trio), all set in the late evening twilight.

They are all reflected in the calm waters of a prairie lake.

I shot the above photo about 11 p.m., as late a twilight as we’ll get. From here on, after solstice, the Sun sets sooner and the sky darkens earlier.

An aurora display on the evening of summer solstice, June 21, 2015, overlooking Crawling Valley Reservoir in southern Alberta. This is one frame of 360 shot as part of a time-lapse, each frame being 15 seconds at f/2.5 with the 24mm lens, and with the Canon 6D at ISO 3200.

Later, about 12:30 a.m., as predicted by aurora apps and alert services, a display of Northern Lights appeared on cue to the north. It was never very bright to the eye, but the camera nicely picks up the wonderful colours of a solstice aurora.

At this time of year the tall curtains reaching up into space catch the sunlight, with blue tints adding to the usual reds fringing the curtain tops, creating subtle shades of magenta and purple.

The display made for a photogenic subject reflected in the lake waters.

– Alan, June 22, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

Aurora and the Old Farm Truck


An aurora display on the night of June 7/8, 2015 from southern Alberta, with an old rustic farm truck as the foreground. This is a frame from a 450-frame time-lapse with the Nikon D750 at ISO 1600 and the Sigma 24mm lens at f/2.8, for 8 seconds each. The foreground is from a stack of 8 images adjacent in time to the sky image stacked in Mean mode for smoothing of noise.

The northern lights returned to our prairie sky in a colourful display near solstice.

Last night, Sunday, June 7, I headed out to a nearby abandoned farmyard to shoot the planets setting into the western twilight. But as the sky darkened the faint arc of an aurora appeared to the northeast, promising a fine show after midnight.

Sure enough, as the sky got dark, which doesn’t happen until very late now at 50° north in mid-June, the aurora began to dance.

The top image is a frame from the display at its best. It is one of 400 frames I shot for a time-lapse sequence.

An aurora display on the night of June 7/8, 2015 from southern Alberta, with an old rustic farm truck as the foreground. This is a frame from a 450-frame time-lapse with the Nikon D740 at ISO 1600 and the Sigma 24mm lens at f/2.8, for 8 second each. The foreground is from a stack of 8 images adjacent in time to the sky image stacked in Mean mode for smoothing of noise.

This image is from the start of the sequence, just as the aurora was beginning to get good, with curtains of green laced with tints of magenta and purple. At this time of year the tops of the curtains often look blue, as they scatter direct sunlight streaming over the pole.

However, the colours were not visible to the unaided eye — only the camera brought out the colours, as this display never got intensely bright to the eye.

An aurora display on the night of June 7/8, 2015 from southern Alberta, with an old rustic farm truck as the foreground. This is a frame from a 450-frame time-lapse with the Nikon D740 at ISO 1600 and the Sigma 24mm lens at f/2.8, for 8 second each. The foreground is from a stack of 8 images adjacent in time to the sky image stacked in Mean mode for smoothing of noise.

Toward the end of the sequence the display began to spread out, becoming patchy and less colourful, a typical behaviour after a substorm outburst.

More activity may be in store this week. So keep looking up! And check Spaceweather.com for alerts.

— Alan, June 8, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

Under an Endless Open Sky


Circumpolar star trails at dawn over the historic Butala homestead at the Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area in southwest Saskatchewan, taken May 2015. This is a stack of 70 frames from a larger time-lapse sequence, from the end of the sequence in the dawn twilight. Each exposure is 40 seconds with the 14mm lens at f/2.8 and Canon 60Da at ISO 1600. Stacked with Advanced Stacker Actions. The foreground comes from a stack of 8 of the final exposures, mean combined, to smooth noise.

The skies were spectacular at a pioneer homestead on the Saskatchewan prairie.

Canada’a province of Saskatchewan bills itself as the “Land of Living Skies,” and that was certainly true last week when I spent three perfect nights under some of the darkest skies in the country.

The location was the Old Man on His Back Prairie & Heritage Conservation Area, deep in dry southwest Saskatchewan, between Grasslands National Park and Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, two favourite places of mine for nightscape photography and astronomy.

The Conservation Area reclaims and preserves original short grass prairie habitat. It is named for the formation to the west that is said to resemble the profile of Napi, the creator being of Siksika legends, who after creating the world, lay back here to rest.

The land was once a working ranch first settled by the Butala family. The white pioneer house in my photos dates from that time. It was built in Montana and moved here in the 1920s.

The waxing crescent Moon and Venus (above) over the old farm house at the Visitor Centre at the Old Man on His Back Natural and Historical Conservation Area in southwest Saskatchewan, May 20, 2015, on a very clear night. The old house was the original house lived in by the Butala family who settled the area in the 1920s. This is a single exposure taken as part of an 850-frame time-lapse sequence with the 14mm Rokinon lens and Canon 60Da camera.

In the mid-1990s Peter and Sharon Butala transferred their land to the Nature Conservancy of Canada, to create an island of original prairie amid the heavily grazed land around it.

A 360° panorama of the night sky and prairie landscape from the Visitor Centre and farmyard at the Old Man on His Back Prairie & Heritage Conservation Area in southwest Saskatchewan. The Milky Way arches across the eastern sky from north to south, while an aurora display (faint to the naked eye) glows in an arch of green and magenta across the northern horizon. The pioneer house was built in the 1920s and this was a working ranch until the 1990s when the land was turned over to the Nature Conservancy of Canada to turn into a natural area to preserve the short grass prairie habitat.  This a stitch of 8 segments, each a 1 minute untracked exposure at f/3.5 with the 15mm lens and ISO 4000 with the Canon 6D. Stitched with PTGui software. I shot these May 18, 2015.

For astronomers, the Area serves also as an island of darkness amid intruding light pollution. The region is very dark, with few lights and manmade sky-glows on the horizon.

My 360° panorama above shows that the greatest glows come from the arc of the aurora to the north and the arch of the Milky Way stretching across the sky. This is a stargazer’s paradise.

My 2-minute compilation of time-lapse videos and still images taken over three crystal clear nights attempts to capture the wonder of the night sky from such a dark site. Be sure to enlarge the video to full screen to view it.

It was in the little white house that Sharon Butala wrote some of her best-selling books retelling stories of her life on the prairie, notably The Perfection of the Morning, and Wild Stone Heart.

In the latter book, Sharon writes:

“At night the Milky Way glittered and gleamed above us, fathomlessly deep and numberless, the constellations wheeled slowly across the sky with the seasons, and the moon came and went, sometimes white as a maiden’s face, sometimes a looming orange sphere … under such an endless, open sky.”

– Sharon Butala, Wild Stone Heart (Harper Collins, 2000)

– Alan, May 25, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

The Red Aurora of May 10


A strange red/magenta auroral arc overhead across the sky, with a more normal green diffuse glow to the north, as seen on May 10, 2015, in a stack of 80 frames taken over 45 minutes. The Big Dipper is overhead in the centre of the frame, Jupiter is at left in the west and Arcturus is at top to the south. I shot this from home, using an 8mm fish-eye lens to take in most of the sky, with the camera looking north. The 80 exposures were stacked and blended with Advanced Stacker Actions from StarCircleAcademy.com using the Long Trails effect. Each exposure was 32 seconds at f/3.6 and ISO 3200 with the Canon 6D. An individual exposure adds the more point-like stars at the start of the tapered star trails, and add the blue from the last twilight glow still illuminating the sky at the start of the sequence.

A strange red arc of aurora moved slowly across the sky on May 10.

All indicators looked favourable early in the evening on May 10 for a good auroral display later that night, and sure enough we got one. But it was an unusual display.

From my site in southern Alberta, the northern sky did have a diffuse glow of “normal” green aurora that never did take much form or structure.

But overhead the aurora took the form of an arc across the sky, starting as an isolated ray in the southeast initially, then reaching up to arch across the sky with what looked to the eye like a colourless band.

But the camera showed it as a red arc, with just a fringe of green curtains appearing for a few minutes.

Be sure to click HD and enlarge the video to fill your screen.

The time-lapse movie shows the sequence, over about 90 minutes, with 170 frames playing back at 12 frames per second. You can see the red arc develop, then become more narrow, then exhibit a few green curtains. Then it fades away.

Large-scale pulses also brighten the whole sky momentarily.

A strange red/magenta auroral arc overhead across the sky, with a more normal green diffuse glow to the north, as seen on May 10, 2015. The Big Dipper is overhead in the centre of the frame, Jupiter is at left in the west and Arcturus is at top to the south. I shot this from home, using an 8mm fish-eye lens to take in most of the sky, with the camera looking north. It is part of a 170-frame time-lapse sequence. Exposure was 32 seconds at f/3.6 and ISO 3200 with the Canon 6D.

The other images are individual frames taken during the evening, showing snapshots of the red arc development, as it became more narrow in structure and gained green curtain-like fringes.

Presumably the red structure was very high in the atmosphere while the green curtains attached to it that did appear hung down from the high-altitude red arc.

A strange red/magenta auroral arc overhead across the sky, with a more normal green diffuse glow to the north, as seen on May 10, 2015. The Big Dipper is overhead in the centre of the frame, Jupiter is at left in the west and Arcturus is at top to the south. I shot this from home, using an 8mm fish-eye lens to take in most of the sky, with the camera looking north. It is part of a 170-frame time-lapse sequence. Exposure was 32 seconds at f/3.6 and ISO 3200 with the Canon 6D.

I shot all images with an 8mm fish-eye lens to capture most of the sky. The camera is looking north toward Polaris, with the Big Dipper almost directly overhead near the centre of the frames.

The main image at top is a star-trail stack of 80 frames showing the sky’s circumpolar motion around Polaris and the aurora blurred and blended over 45 minutes of motion. I stacked the frames with the Advanced Stacker Actions from StarCircleAcademy.com

– Alan, May 11, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Back Under the Northern Lights


Aurora & Old Pioneer House

The aurora dances behind a pioneer homestead on the Alberta prairies.

After a stay of five months in New Mexico I arrived back in Alberta earlier this week, and was greeted tonight, April 15, with a display of Northern Lights. They’ve been very active in the last month, but I’ve seen nothing of them from where I was in New Mexico.

But here in southern Alberta, I just walk out onto my back deck and there they are! An email alert prompted me to have a look, after predictions earlier in the day called for little activity tonight. But indicators picked up nicely late in the evening.

I headed to an abandoned pioneer homestead near my acreage. A photogenic foreground always adds to the scene.

Aurora over Prairie Pond

A little further down the road is a prairie pond, ruffled a little by wind tonight, blurring the reflection I was hoping to capture.

It’s nice to be back under the Northern Lights. Bring them on!

– Alan, April 16, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Dance of the Northern Lights



My new 3-minute music video compiles still and time-lapse imagery of the aurora I shot in February 2015 from Churchill, Manitoba.

Churchill’s location at 58° North on the shore of Hudson Bay puts it directly under the main auroral oval, the zone of greatest auroral activity. Over the 9 nights, 2 were cloudy, with a roaring blizzard.

But on the 8 clear nights we saw aurora every night. I shot time-lapses on 6 of those nights, shooting about 3,500 frames, most of which appear in the final cut of this movie.

Despite the amazing displays we saw, on no night was the auroral activity index (on a scale of 0 to 9) higher than 2 or 3. These were all “normal” quiet nights for auroras in Churchill. Anyone farther south would have seen little in their sky on most of these nights.

I shot many of the time-lapses with an 8mm spherical fish-eye lens, to create sequences suitable for projection in digital planetarium domes. One other time-lapse sequence (the last in this movie) I shot with a 15mm full-frame fish-eye. Even it is not wide enough to take in the entire display when the Lights fill the sky.

Exposures were typically 10 to 15 seconds at f/3.5 and ISO 1600 to 4000, all with the Canon 6D. I powered it from its lone internal battery. Amazingly, despite temperatures that were considered extreme even for Churchill (often -32° C at night) the batteries lasted 90 to 150 minutes allowing me to take lots of frames with no battery change or perhaps just one battery change. Churchill is very dry and only on one night did I have an issue with the lens frosting up.

Music is by Dan Phillipson, his composition “Into the Unknown,” purchased for royalty-free use through Triple Scoop Music. I edited the movie in Apple Aperture, with a title sequence created in Photoshop. Processing of the original images was with Adobe Camera Raw, Photoshop, and LRTimelapse, with assembly of movie frames done with Sequence for MacOS.

I hope you enjoy it! Do click on the Enlarge button to watch it full screen. It may take a while to start playing.

— Alan, March 6, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Green Waves of Northern Lights


Ultrawide Aurora #4 - Feb 21, 2015

Last night the sky exploded with waves of green and pink as the Northern Lights danced in the bitter cold.

With blizzard conditions forecast for the next two days, last night might have been our last for viewing the aurora from Churchill. But if so, we ended on a high note.

Ultrawide Aurora #1 - Feb 21, 2015

The aurora appeared on schedule again at about 9 to 9:30 p.m., following my evening lecture, as it has done every clear night for the last couple of weeks. It began as a sweeping arc to the north, as above, then moved south to encompass the entire sky.

Ultrawide Aurora #5 - Feb 21, 2015

About 11 p.m. the sky burst open with waves of green arcs, but with generous tints of red and magenta that the camera picks up easily. To the eye, the reds are barely visible unless the aurora gets very bright.

Shooting the Northern Lights (Feb 21, 2015)

Despite the bitterly cold temperatures of -34° C with a -50° wind chill, everyone in the tour group braved the night to take in the sight. And many managed to work their cameras and tripods, no small feat under such conditions, to get great shots.

The groups this week and last saw aurora every clear night, with clear nights on at least 3 out of the 5 nights of each course. Not a bad take, fulfilling everyone’s “bucket list” dream of standing under the aurora borealis.

– Alan, February 22, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

A Cold Night of Auroral Lights


Pink Aurora over Boreal Forest #1 (Feb 20, 2015)

It was a bitterly cold night for watching the dancing Northern Lights.

When Environment Canada issues Extreme Cold warnings for Churchill, you know its cold! With temperatures at -32° C and with high winds last night, the wind chill equivalent was -50° C.

But that didn’t stop us from watching the Lights!

Aurora from Churchill #4 (Feb 20, 2015)

I nicely finished my evening lecture at 9 pm when the Lights appeared on cue. They were faint at first, but then brightened nicely by 10 pm. The show was over by midnight, a well-timed and convenient display.

Aurora from Churchill #3 (Feb 20, 2015)

The 22 participants in this week’s course all bundled up and headed out, onto the second floor viewing deck and out onto the ground for views and photos of the aurora.

Aurora from Churchill #1 (Feb 20, 2015)

This was not a brilliant display – the official activity level was still reading only 1 or 2 on scale of 0 to 9. But it provided us with some beautiful curtains and lovely colours. The hazy appearance is from high clouds and local blowing snow.

Aurora from Churchill #5 (Feb 20, 2015)

The views from the Deck overlooking the boreal forest make for some nice photo opportunities, from a spot largely out of the constant westerly winds.

We have three more nights here, though snow is forecast for the last two. Tonight may be our last night to enjoy the Northern Lights. But all are happy with what they have seen and shot so far.

– Alan, February 21, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

The Colourful Curtains of the Northern Lights


All-Sky Aurora #1 (Feb 17, 2015)

The Northern Lights have performed beautifully the last few nights, presenting curtains of light dancing across the sky.

Two nights ago in Churchill, Manitoba we were treated to a “storm level” show of aurora, with the Lights all across the sky in green curtains waving and curling before our eyes.

The curtains tower several hundred kilometres up into the atmosphere, from the lower edge at about 80 km up (still high above the stratosphere) to the curtain tops at about 400 km altitude at the edge of space.

The camera picks up the colours far better than the eye can, recording not only the predominant green hues but also shades of pink, magenta and red.

All-Sky Aurora #5 (Feb 17, 2015)

The magentas and reds come from the sections of the curtains at the highest altitudes, from the top of the auroral curtains. Here, where the atmosphere is a near vacuum, sparse oxygen atoms can glow with a red emission line.

However, there must be a blue component as well, leading to the magenta or pink tones, as in my photos here. Nitrogen can glow in blues and purples and might be contributing to the colours.

The top two photos are from Tuesday night, Feb 17, when storm levels of 5 were in effect worldwide.

All-Sky Auroral Curtains #2 (Feb 18, 2015)

Lower down, at about 100 km altitude, the air is denser and oxygen glows with a brighter green hue, which the eye can detect more easily.

The photo above from last night, with an activity level of just 2, also shows most of the sky covered with a faint emission, with a patchy appearance, with dark “holes” also moving and flowing in the time-lapse movies I shot.

Closer to the horizon, and far to the north, the aurora brightens into the more characteristic green snaking curtains.

Red Auroral Curtains

This image from three nights ago shows an usually coloured aurora at the start of the night, glowing mostly a deeper red and orange.

The green was still off in the distance far to the east. It arrived a few minutes later as green curtains swept in over us.

But the initial red was from low-energy electrons lighting up just high-altitude oxygen. Only when the higher energy particles arrived did the sky light up green.

All-Sky Aurora #7 (Feb 17, 2015)

I shot all these images with an 8mm fish-eye lens as frames in time-lapse sequences intended for use projected in digital planetarium domes, where the 360° “all-sky” scene would be recreated on the dome as it was in real life.

If you are with a planetarium, contact me if you’d like to get aurora clips.

Our second group of aurora tourists has arrived today at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, and the weather is warming to a high of -20° C. Balmy!

We’re hoping for more fine displays, though the space weather forecast calls for a quiet magnetic field in the next few days.

– Alan, February 19, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

The Blizzard Aurora


Aurora over the Old Rocket Range

Beautiful curtains of light draped across the sky despite the blizzard blowing below.

Last night, February 16, was the last night for aurora viewing for the first aurora tour group hosted by the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.

Despite predictions calling for an active display, we had given up hope of seeing anything, as a blizzard had been raging all day and into the evening. But about 10 pm I knocked on doors down the hall — get up! The Lights are out!

Against all odds, skies cleared enough to reveal a wonderful all-sky display of Northern Lights, with multiple curtains of light snaking over the sky.

The view above overlooks the now derelict launch buildings of the abandoned Churchill Rocket Range, in use from the late 1950s until the 1980s. Some 3500 rockets were fired from here in its heyday, shot into the active auroras that occur here almost nightly under the auroral oval.

Auroral Curtains in Green & Magenta #2

This view overlooks the boreal forest on the frozen shore of Hudson Bay, and shows the multiple curtains that twisted and turned across the sky.

Tonight’s display was marked by fringes of magenta, rather than the deeper reds we observed 2 nights ago.

Aurora in Orion & Overhead

Winds were howling and snow was blowing, but from the shelter of the Centre’s second floor observing deck we could view the display in windless comfort, despite the -30° C temperatures.

Aurora from the Viewing Deck

The group was delighted at having this bonus viewing night. Now the concern is whether the blizzard will abate enough to allow flights in and out of Churchill Airport. The group might get another night under the Lights!

– Alan, February 17, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Standing Under the Auroral Oval (2015)


Standing Under the Auroral Oval

The Northern Lights dance overhead each night from Churchill, Manitoba.

If you really want to see the Northern Lights, don’t wait for them to come to you. Instead, you go to them.

For the second year in a row I’ve been able to participate as an instructor during week-long aurora courses and tours at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre on the shore of Hudson Bay. The site is at 58° latitude, far enough north to place us directly under the main auroral oval, the prime location for viewing the Northern Lights.

If it’s clear, a view of dancing arcs and curtains of aurora is almost guaranteed. Two nights ago we had a marvellous display, despite official indicators of aurora strength and geomagnetic activity all reading low or even zero.

Still, the Lights came out and danced across the sky.

The top photo is selfie of me standing the display in a 360° all-sky image shot for use in a planetarium. The research centre building is at left. The view is generally looking north.

Watching the Northern Lights

This view is from the second floor deck of the centre, usually a bit more sheltered from the wind. It allows a good view to the north and east, where displays typically start, as they did this night. Feb. 13.

Auroral Curtain over the Boreal Forest

As the display developed the curtain rose up into the sky to arc from east to west across heavens.

All-Sky Auroral Curtains (Feb 13, 2015)

This image, also a 360° fish-eye image taken with an 8mm lens, shows the display at its best, with rippling curtains hanging overhead. It’s part of a time-lapse sequence.

Red Auroral Curtains

The next night, February 14, was marked by fainter but an unusually red aurora, appropriate for Valentine’s Day perhaps. Or the 50th anniversary of our red and white Canadian flag.

The sky was a little hazier, but the aurora shone through, initially only with a red and orange tint, colours we could just see with the unaided eye – the long exposures of the camera really bring out the colours the eye can only just perceive when the aurora is dim.

The green curtains, seen here in the distance, did arrive a few minutes later, lighting up the curtains in the more usual green colour, with just upper fringes of red.

It seems the red is from low-energy electrons exciting oxygen only in the upper atmosphere. Only later did the more energetic electrons arrive to excite the green oxygen transition that occurs at lower altitudes.

With luck, I’ll have more nights to stand under the auroral oval and look up in wonder at the Northern Lights.

– Alan, February 15 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Aurora and Airglow Panorama


Aurora & Airglow Panorama

The sky lights up in greens and reds from aurora and airglow.

This has been a good week for aurora watching. Friday night the Northern Lights danced again, this time in a sky already filled with a more subtle phenomenon, airglow.

Airglow adds its own bands of reds and greens across the sky, seen here as arcs from left (west) to centre (north) and into the east. Airglow is light from fluorescing air molecules releasing energy absorbed from the Sun by day.

The aurora adds the brighter green curtains across the north with vertical beams of yellow and red shooting up.

A weird structure which I assume is from the aurora is the sharp-edged yellow band at left in the west. It lasted no more than 2 or 3 minutes, enough to record in three frames of this 7-segment 180° panorama taken near home at an array of grain bins, now filled from the harvest.

To the west and east urban light pollution adds glows of yellow to the horizon.

– Alan, September 27, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Autumn Stars Rising over Dinosaur Park


Autumn Sky Rising over Badlands

The autumn constellations rise into a colourful sky at Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta.

Last night the sky started out beautifully clear but as it got darker it was apparent even to the eye that the sky wasn’t really dark, despite the lack of any Moon.

The camera captured the culprit – extensive green airglow, to the east at right. A faint aurora also kicked up to the north, at left, adding a red glow. Light pollution from gas plants nearby and from Brooks 50 km away added yellow to the sky scattered off haze and incoming cloud.

The sky colours added to the scene of the autumn constellations of Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Perseus and Pegasus rising in the east. The Andromeda Galaxy is at centre. The Pleiades is (are?) just rising over the hill.

This is a composite of five stacked and tracked exposures for the sky (with the camera on the Star Adventurer tracking mount) and four stacked but untracked exposures I took at the end of the sequence for the sharp ground (I just turned the tracker motor off for these).

– Alan, September 26, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Pyramid Island Sky Panorama


Panorama from Pyramid Island Boardwalk, Jasper Park

The sky presents a panoramic show from Pyramid Island in Jasper National Park.

What a wonderful place to watch the stars. Last night I walked out to Pyramid Island in Jasper, via the historic boardwalk built in the 1930s. The site provides a panorama view around the lake and sky.

To the left is the “mainland.” Just left of centre the waxing gibbous Moon is setting over Pyramid Lake.

To the right of centre, the boardwalk leads out the small island, with Pyramid Mountain behind it.

To the right of the frame, a faint aurora glows to the northeast over the still waters of the lake.

This is a 360° panorama shot with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens in portrait orientation, with the segments stitched with PTGui software.

Big Dipper over Pyramid Mountain from Pyramid Island

After shooting some panoramas I walked to the end of the island and shot this view looking north and northwest to Pyramid Mountain. The Big Dipper is to the right of the peak, and the aurora lights up the northern horizon at right.

As I shot these images, the night was absolutely quiet. Until the wolves began to howl at the north end of the lake, in mournful howls that echoed across the waters.

It was one of the most spine-chilling moments I’ve experienced in many years of shooting landscapes at night.

– Alan, September 5, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

The Northern Lights at the Old Larson Ranch


Aurora at Larson Ranch Panorama

The northern lights dance, and light the pioneer homes at the old Larson Ranch in Grasslands National Park.

What a night this was! I arrived at the Larson Ranch site in the Frenchman River valley to shoot some Milky Way panoramas, when, right on cue, the aurora broke loose.

Some aurora had been there since nightfall as a diffuse arc, but about 11 p.m. local time (Central Standard Time in Saskatchewan) the curtains began to dance and pulse with activity as a sub-storm hit, raining solar particles onto our atmosphere from down the magnetic tail of the Earth.

The aurora glow lit the old pioneer buildings of the Larson Ranch, one of the stops on the scenic backroad drive through the Park.

The Larsons ran their ranch by the Frenchman, or Whitemud River, from the 1920s until 1985 when they sold their ranch to the National Park system, forming the first land for the new Grasslands National Park.

The house at left is the original home of cowboy author Will James, who lived here for a time working on ranches in the valley before moving to the United States. He was from Quebec, where he was Ernest Dufault.

I shot this 360° panorama using a 15mm lens, shooting 8 segments at 45° spacings, each a 1-minute exposure at ISO 2500 and f/3.2 with the Canon 6D. I used PTGui software to stitch the segments into a equi-rectangular projection pan.

– Alan, August 28, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

Milky Way & Aurora Panorama from Grasslands National Park


Grasslands Milky Way Panorama at 76 Corral

The Milky Way and the Northern Lights arch across the sky in the Frenchman River valley of Grasslands National Park.

This 360° panorama takes in two arches of light:

• The Milky Way rising out of the northeast at left and stretching across the sky overhead at top and down into the southwest at right of centre.

• And the Northern Lights, as an arc of green and red across the northern horizon. They got brighter and higher later this night, August 26/27, as my previous post shows.

Bands of green airglow also stretch across the sky from east to west.

I shot this last night from the Frenchman River coulee, a wide valley cut at the end of the Ice Age by glacial run off, and occupied today by the meandering Frenchman River. It winds through the heart of Grasslands National Park and makes its way to the Missouri River to drain into the Gulf of Mexico, one of only a handful of rivers in Canada to do so.

The river and wide pasture land made this a choice place for a ranch. For decades this was home to the 76 Ranch, one of the largest in Canada. At right is its old wood corral, in front of the Milky Way and its “Dark Horse” structure in the dark lanes of the Milky Way. Appropriate I thought.

The only lights visible are from spotlights from researches conducting studies of the nocturnal black-footed ferret. Otherwise, the site was as dark as you’ll find it in southern Canada.

I assembled this panorama using PTGui software, from 8 segments shot with a 14mm lens in portrait orientation, all untracked 80-second exposures at ISO 4000 and f/2.8.

– Alan, August 27, 2o14 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

Aurora over Grasslands Park


Aurora over Grasslands National Park #1

The Northern Lights dance over the prairie landscape of Grasslands National Park.

The aurora warnings were out for last night but I hadn’t expected to see much. But about 10:30 pm a faint arc appeared to the northeast. The display brightened about local midnight (Central Standard Time here in Saskatchewan) and became fairly active for a time.

The main arc increased in intensity and moved with fine structure and detail. The eye could see some faint, colourless curtains extending upward but the camera picks them up as red, typical of auroral curtains reaching into the top of the atmosphere.

Aurora over Grasslands National Park #2

I shot these from the Frenchman River valley, a wide coulee formed by glacial rivers and now the heart of the West Block of Grasslands National Park.

It was a beautifully dark site except for flashes of spotlights now and then (not seen in the photos here) from naturalists doing census studies of the nocturnal and endangered black-footed ferret recently re-introduced to the Park. Ironically, their lights spoiled the otherwise pristine and pitch-black night in this dark sky preserve.

– Alan, August 27, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Aurora Over the Old Barn


Purple Aurora over Old Barn #6 (June 7-8, 2014)

What a fabulous night this was! Forewarned about an impending solar storm I headed to the site of a rustic barn near home to shoot the Northern Lights.

The night started with cloud but upon looking out after midnight (it pays never to go to bed too early!) the skies were clear. Checking Spaceweather.com showed an active auroral oval lit up red and Storm in Progress warnings!

That was all the cue I needed to pack up the gear and head over to the old barn site where I have been shooting time-lapses all this week.

Purple Aurora over Old Barn #1 (June 7-8, 2014)

The aurora remained quiet and diffuse for the first hour and a half, but then about 2 a.m., the substorm hit. Within seconds the curtains began to light up with well-defined rays and beams shooting to the zenith. And they danced.

The notable feature of this display, as with one in May 2013, was the blue and purple colour of the tops of the curtains. I think this is partly due to sunlight illuminating the tops of the curtains, possible at this time of year when the upper atmosphere is perpetually lit by the midnight Sun.

Shooting the Aurora over Old Barn #2 (June 7-8, 2014)

From the start I shot with two cameras taking time-lapses (the main still image at top is a frame from one of the movies). Then toward the end of the night I switched to just shooting still images framed to suit the curtains towering up to the zenith.

As above, I also shot a “selfie” of me shooting the vertical image in the middle of the set.

But below is the result of a night of shooting time-lapse movies and stills, in a montage set to music. The link takes you to my Vimeo site. Do turn on HD mode.

 

I hope you enjoy the video!

– Alan, June 8, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer (video and stills)

What Was That Glow in the Sky?


Here’s a time-lapse of the strange glow of light that moved across the northern sky on the night of the Camelopardalid meteor shower.

What I thought was an odd curtain of slow-moving, colourless aurora — and I’ve seen those before — has many people who also saw it suspecting it was a glow from a fuel dump from an orbiting satellite. Perhaps.

This short time-lapse of 22 frames covers about 22 minutes starting at 11:59 pm MDT on May 23 (as logged by the camera’s GPS). Each frame is a 60-second exposure taken at 2 second intervals. I’m playing them back at one frame per second.

The camera was on a tracking platform to follow the stars — thus the ground slowly rotates. This was one of the cameras I had operating the night of May 23-24 to capture meteors from the Camelopardalid meteor shower. The shower was a dud, but …

The most interesting thing my cameras did catch was this odd glow which started large and diffuse and then became more defined as it got smaller and moved off (or so it appears) to the north, then fades away. My photos (and I have it on frames from another camera), and photos taken by other observers across North America, show a faint satellite moving along south to north parallel to the cloud’s long axis. Is this the culprit that caused the cloud? If so, it would have to be very high to be seen from a wide range of longitudes – astronomers in Manitoba and Minnesota also saw and shot it.

But any fuel dumps I’ve seen always have clouds that start small and concentrated then become large and diffuse. This did the opposite.

I’ll await further analysis and explanation.

P.S.: You can watch a better version of the movie here at my Flickr site.

— Alan, May 25, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

 

Hunting the Elusive Camelopardalids


Aurora & Light Pollution from Cypress Hills Park, Alberta

The Milky Way, an odd aurora, and the glow of urban light pollution lit the sky. But alas, no meteors!

On Friday afternoon, May 23 I headed 3 hours east of home toward the clearest skies in the province. The quest was for sightings of the Camelopardalid meteors, the new and much publicized meteor shower from Comet LINEAR, 209/P that had been predicted for tonight.

I had very good skies for the first couple of hours of darkness, from a viewpoint looking north over the prairies on the high rim of the Cypress Hills, Alberta. Clouds did move in about 12:30 a.m., about the time the shower was to be peaking. But up to that point I had sighted just a handful of meteors and many were likely random ones, as they didn’t seem to be streaking out of the radiant point. A few other people who had converged at the site saw other meteors to the south that might have been shower members.

Perhaps the peak came later under cover of clouds. But up to 12:30 a.m. I saw little sign of an active shower. Still, it was worth taking the chance to chase into clear skies in hopes of bagging a herd of Camelopardalids.

I shot hundreds of frames with two cameras and none picked up a Cam meteor – lots of satellites, like the streak at lower centre. And for a few minutes this strange white auroral curtain appeared, slowly drifting from east to west across the northern sky, like a searchlight, above the magenta horizon glow of low-level aurora. To the northwest glowed the lights of Medicine Hat, illuminating the clouds toxic yellow in a classic demonstration of light pollution.

– Alan, May 24, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

Boreal Aurora


Aurora - Feb 9, 2014 (Snowy Trees #1)The northern lights – the aurora borealis – shine above the trees of the northern forest – the boreal forest. 

This was the scene on Sunday night, February 9, 2014, as the aurora intensified for a few minutes making for a photogenic backdrop to the snow-covered pine trees of the boreal forest.

The landscape looks like daylight but is actually being lit by the light of the bright waxing Moon in the south. These scenes are looking north.

Aurora - Feb 9, 2014 (Snowy Trees #2)

I shot these images as part of my stay at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre where I have been presenting enrichment lectures to two groups of tourists here to see the northern lights during week-long stays. Both groups have been successful in seeing the lights on at least one to two nights of their stay, with the displays usually appearing as sky-spanning arcs overhead.

Aurora - Feb 9, 2014 (Self Portrait)

Here I took the time to take a “selfie” under the northern lights, as the curtains began to wave early in the evening.

In all, it has been a fantastic experience, to witness the lights from a site right under the active auroral oval at 58° north.

– Alan, February 10, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

Waves of Northern Lights in Time-Lapse


Aurora - Feb 7, 2014 (Fisheye #3)

Watch waves of aurora wash over the sky rising out of the west to swirl overhead.

This was the spectacle we saw Friday night at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, as the northern lights filled our sky. I set up my camera on the east side of the main building, out of the bitterly cold west wind. The fish-eye lens is aimed west but its view takes in most of the sky.

The bright object at lower left is the Moon.

The still image above is a frame from the 349-frame time-lapse movie below.

Each frame is a 7-second exposure at f/3.5 and ISO 1250. The interval is 1 second.

The movie covers about 45 minutes of time, compressed into 30 seconds. It shows the aurora peaking in intensity, then fading out behind the ever-present thin cloud drifting through all night.

What amazes me are the waves and loops of auroral curtains that come at us from the west (bottom behind the building) then swirl around the zenith overhead. They move off to the east and north at the top of the frame.

Even watching this in real-time the scene was astonishing. The curtains rippled so quickly, forming and reforming over the sky, you didn’t know where to look. As the image above shows, people just stood amazed.

— Alan, February 9, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

P.S.: You can view a better-grade version of the movie at my Flickr site.

Aurora in Orion


Aurora - Feb 7, 2014 (Observers on the Deck)

Last night, February 7, the Northern Lights danced for us again, starting with a curtain of green and pink in the south.

Our second tour group at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre has been here a couple of days, all under what looked like hopeless cloud. But last night the clouds cleared unexpectedly to reveal a moonlit winter sky.

I completed my evening talk all about the Sun and aurora, during which we were monitoring the auroral activity indicators on SpaceWeather.com. Sure enough, about 9:30 pm, right on cue and perfectly timed for convenience, a curtain of light began to dance across the southern sky, appearing in Orion. The gibbous Moon is just off frame to the right. We began the viewing from the Centre’s second floor viewing deck which looks east and southeast.

Aurora - Feb 7, 2014 (Over the Rocket Range)

This view shows the auroral curtain over the derelict launch towers of the Churchill Rocket Range. Built in 1957 for the International Geophysical Year, the Rocket Range was in use until the mid-1980s as Canada’s only launch facility. Hundreds of sounding rockets, many of them Canadian-built Black Brants, were launched from here, shooting up into the ionosphere on nights just like this to study the aurora.

Orion is at right. While we saw this curtain in our southern sky, others farther south in Canada were seeing it in their northern sky. The greens were easy to see with the eye but the magentas were visible only by the camera and I have punched up their intensity here.

Aurora - Feb 7, 2014 (Zenith Curtains)

This night, as the aurora display developed it moved north to the zenith, shown here, with the sky also lit by moonlight and with some high haze. But the combination makes for a wonderful abstract swirl of light and colour.

– Alan, February 8, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Orion over the Rocket Range


Orion over the Churchill Rocket Range

Orion and Sirius shine over the abandoned launch towers of the Churchill Rocket Range.

This was the view Monday night, during a lull in the aurora display when I took a few moments to shoot the stars. You can see Orion at centre, with his trio of Belt stars pointing left and down to Sirius, the Dog Star in Canis Major, and the brightest star in the night sky. The Belt stars point up and right to Aldebaran, the brightest star in Taurus the bull.

They look closer to the horizon than you might be used to as this is from 58° north latitude.

These winter stars shine above some of the launch structures of the old Churchill Rocket Range. Built in 1957 for the International Geophysical Year, the Rocket Range served for many years as Canada’s only launch facility. No satellites were launched here. Instead the towers were used to launch sub-orbital sounding rockets into the ionosphere to explore the aurora.

Some of the rockets were repurposed military missiles, like Nikes and Aerobees. But many were Black Brants, civilian research rockets still being built in Winnipeg by Bristol Aerospace. 

But no Black Brants take off from here now. The Rocket Range was shut down in the mid-1980s as Canada’s space program focused on satellites, the Space Shuttle, and sending astronauts into space. Attempts by private companies to revive the site have all failed and the structures are now becoming derelict, being too costly to remove. 

– Alan, February 5, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

Awestruck Under the Aurora


Aurora - Feb 3-4, 2014 (Fisheye #2)

The sky simply does not get any more amazing than this, as the Northern Lights dance across the heavens.

On the last night for our first aurora tour group of the season, the sky performed perfectly. Clouds cleared to reveal a star-filled winter sky, and after the evening talks and farewell drinks, the aurora began to appear. First it was a bright arc across the north, prompting me to try some self-portraits, as below.

Aurora - Feb 3-4, 2014 (Self Portrait)

But at about 2 a.m. a diffuse arc across the zenith exploded into activity, with rapidly waving and weaving curtains.

Aurora - Feb 3-4, 2014 (Fisheye #1)

Everyone was awestruck. Some cheered and hollered. Others just watched in stunned silence. Some were busy with cameras. Others just enjoyed the view of a lifetime.

Aurora - Feb 3-4, 2014 (Fisheye #3)

It was a cold night, but the aurora kept performing in waves, dimming for a time – allowing us to retreat to the warm cafeteria for hot chocolate. Then the display would brighten again to the west and a new wave of intensity would sweep across the sky to the east. 

Aurora - Feb 3-4, 2014 (Orion & Silhouette)

You didn’t know quite where to look to take it all in. The sight was overwhelming. Here the curtains ripple through Orion, Taurus and Auriga, all setting into the west.

Aurora - Feb 3-4, 2014 (Thru the Dome)

The Churchill Northern Studies Centre has a new building opened in 2011 that is ideally set up for aurora watching. The building can go dark, and is located far enough from Churchill that local light pollution is not an issue. On the roof is a plexiglas dome where several people can view the Northern Lights and the entire sky in shirtsleeve comfort. The image is good enough for wide-angle photography. Sheer luxury!

Aurora - Feb 3-4, 2014 (Zenith Curtains)

But there’s nothing like being outside on a cold Arctic night, looking up and seeing this sight – thin curtains of light twisting and turning more quickly than you can take in and comprehend. It is one of nature’s greatest shows. And what a fantastic place to see it.

– Alan, February 4, 2014  / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

Aurora Shining Through the Clouds


Churchill Aurora Feb 2-3, 2014

Tonight the aurora shone so brightly for a time it was visible through the cloud.

Here at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre we’ve been battling clouds all week. But on several nights the clouds have cleared for 30 minutes or more, enough to give us glimpses of the aurora and stars. Tonight, February 2/3, the clouds never did clear away enough for a great view. This was as good as it got, with the Northern Lights shining through haze and cloud but nevertheless filling the sky.

Remarkably, this was on a night when the usual indicators of auroral activity were registering all quiet. This shows the benefit of traveling north to stand right under the auroral oval, the zone of maximum activity. In this case I’m at 58° North, in Churchill, Manitoba. Even on a quiet night the Churchill sky can be filled with curtains of dancing colours.

– Alan, February 3, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Underneath the Northern Lights


Churchill Aurora Feb 1-2, 2014 #1

Our tour group to see the Northern Lights finally saw what they traveled north to experience – the aurora borealis dancing across the sky.

This week and next I’m helping to lead some tour groups who have come to Churchill, Manitoba to see the aurora. We’ve been here 3 nights so far but last night was the first with clearing skies and when the Northern Lights appeared above us.

Our home base is the beautiful Churchill Northern Studies Centre, far enough from the main townsite to give us dark skies. Being able to sleep, eat and take in lectures (or for me, give lectures) right where we can see the aurora is a tremendous luxury and convenience. The Centre is perfectly set up for aurora viewing, with a rooftop dome, and the ability to “go dark” with all lights off. 

Here in Churchill, on the shores of Hudson Bay, we are at a latitude of 58° north. But critically, we are right under the usual position of the auroral oval, the main band of Northern Lights that circles the world at high latitudes. 

Churchill Aurora Feb 1-2, 2014 #3

As such, even though last night the various aurora and magnetic field indicators were registering a quiet display with little disturbance in the field, we still saw a beautiful display. It wasn’t very active but did display curtains and rays shooting up to the zenith.

Churchill Aurora Feb 1-2, 2014 #4

As seen here, for much of the time the main band of aurora was actually in the south. That’s Jupiter glowing through the aurora and thin clouds at upper right.

We’ve been fighting clouds all week but last night skies cleared for long enough and it seemed at just the right time to coincide with the brightest outburst of this display. After I took these images, the aurora died down to a more diffuse glow then the clouds thickened in again. By then it was 3 am and we all retired to our rooms. 

– Alan, February 2, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Music Video – Sky Events of 2013


 

My 2-minute music video looks back at some of the celestial highlights of 2013, in images and videos I captured. 

Some of the events and scenes I show were accessible to everyone who looked up. But some required a special effort to see.

• In 2013 we had a couple of nice comets though not the spectacle hoped for from Comet ISON.

• Chris Hadfield became a media star beaming videos and tweets from the Space Station. We on Earth could look up and see his home sailing through the stars.

• The sky hosted a few nice conjunctions of planets, notably Mars, Venus and Jupiter in late May.

• The Sun reached its peak in solar activity (we think!) unleashing solar storms and some wonderful displays of northern lights.

• Locally, record rain storms in Alberta unleashed floods of devastating consequences in June, with a much publicized super moon in the sky.

• For me, the summer proved a productive one for shooting the “star” of the summer sky, the Milky Way.

• But the year-end finale was most certainly the total eclipse of the Sun on November 3. Few people saw it. I did, from a ship in the Atlantic Ocean. The video ends with that sight and experience, the finest the sky has to offer.

I hope you enjoy this music video mix of time-lapse, real-time video and still images, shot from Alberta, New Mexico and from the Atlantic.

You can watch a better quality version of this video at my Vimeo channel.

Clear skies for 2014!

– Alan, January 1, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

Skyglows Galore in the New Mexico Dawn


New Mexico Pre-Dawn Skyglow Panorama (Dec 2013)

A mix of sky glows fills the pre-dawn sky in New Mexico.

To the eye the sky looked dark, marred only by some high haze drifting through. But the camera reveals a sky filled with an amazing wealth of colourful glows.

I took this 360° panorama in the pre-dawn hours (4:45 a.m.) this morning (December 8) from the Painted Pony Resort in southwest New Mexico. It reveals a swath of green airglow to the north, the zodiacal light, and the Milky Way. At northern latitudes there was bright aurora visible last night. We might have seen some sign of it here in New Mexico in the form of increased airglow activity.

The panorama takes in, from left to right:
• Arcturus, shining like an ornament on the treetop
• the zodiacal light rising up from the east
• red Mars embedded in the zodiacal light below Leo
• the Milky Way from Puppis and Canis Major at left arching up and across the sky down into Perseus at right
• Sirius the brightest star
• Orion setting over the main house
• Jupiter, the bright object at top centre in Gemini
• Aldebaran and the Pleiades setting right of the main house in Taurus
• Polaris over the smaller house at right
• the Big Dipper at upper right pointing down to Polaris
• a green glow along the northern horizon above the smaller house that is likely intense airglow.
• green and red bands throughout the sky are airglow, caused by atmospheric molecules flourescing at night
• bands of high cloud also permeate the sky adding natural glows around the stars.

I stitched this panorama using PTGui software, from 6 segments, all tracked, taken with the 14mm Rokinon lens at f/2.8 for 2.5 minutes each and with the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600.

As a postscript — this is blog post #401 from me.

– Alan, December 8, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

A Red October Aurora


Red Aurora in the East (Oct 1, 2013)

A red and green aurora lights the night on the Canadian prairie.

This was certainly a surprise aurora, with conditions officially registering as “quiet” early in the evening. However, checking Spaceweather.com showed the interplanetary magnetic field was tipped far south, a good sign.

So I made a point of checking after dark and sure enough, a fairly bright aurora was present all across the northern horizon. Conditions now registered “storm!”

The main image above is looking east, back over Saskatchewan. What was remarkable was the intense red curtains above the main green arc. These were invisible to the naked eye but the camera sure picked them up.

Red Aurora in the South (Oct 1, 2013)

There was also an odd green band in the southern sky, above. Again, the green band was obvious to the naked eye, but the camera picked up an isolated red arc as well.

This is proving to be a quiet solar maximum, but the best displays often come on the downside of the cycle. So with luck we’ll be in for some good sky shows in the next couple of years.

– Alan, October 1, 2013  / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

High Plains Panorama of the Night Sky


Cypress Hills Night Panorama (July 15, 2013)

The silvery Milky Way and green bands of airglow stretch across the high plains and big sky of the Cypress Hills.

The Moon had long set and the night looked as dark as it could be. No lights interrupted the flat clear horizon. These are the high plains of the Cypress Hills, the highest place in Canada between Labrador and the Rockies.

And yet, in the panoramic photos I took last night the sky revealed its true colours.

In the 360° panorama above, the Milky Way arches overhead from northeast to southwest. It was obvious to the naked eye. But stretching across the sky from east to west are also bands of green and red airglow that were completely invisible to the eye, except perhaps for making the sky look more grey than it might have otherwise.

These aren’t aurora but are emissions of light caused by oxygen atoms fluorescing as they give off some of the energy they absorbed by day. Time-lapse sequences show these bands moving slowly across the sky.

Shooting the Survivor Tree (July 15, 2013)

I drove up the Graburn Road last night, to the plateau of Cypress Hills, to shoot a time-lapse of the Milky Way moving above this lone tree on the plains. It’s called the Survivor Tree, subject to drought, blizzards fire, cattle, and even being cut down at one time. But still it survives. With a cold wind blowing last night I had a taste of what this tough Lodgepole Pine has had to endure.

Survivor Tree and Milky Way (July 15, 2013)

This is one frame from the final movie clip, with the tree and sky still lit by the light of the setting waxing Moon. An enduring tree beneath the timeless stars.

Noctilucent Clouds from Cypress Hills (July 15, 2013)

Early in the evening the northern sky was also marked by another sky phenomenon, noctilucent clouds – very high altitude clouds still lit by sunlight long after the Sun has set locally. These clouds made for a nice photo for a few minutes but soon faded from view as the Sun set even as seen from where these clouds live at the edge of space.

The night was left dark, with no aurora tonight – just the Milky Way and the faint wisps of airglow over the high plains of southern Alberta.

– Alan, July 16 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Road to the Northern Lights


Northern Lights Down the Road (July 14, 2013)

A country road winds off into the dancing Northern Lights.

The sky put on another fine show last night, the fourth in a row with some level of aurora activity. This was the scene Sunday night as a display blossomed for a while, dancing at the end of the back road through the Cypress Hills on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border.

I had one camera shooting north and devoted to the Northern Lights, while, as you can see below, I had two other cameras on rigs to shoot time-lapse movies looking south.

Self Portrait at Battle Creek, Cypress Hills (July 14, 2013)

This was the scene at the overlook to the Battle Creek valley, with the Moon setting and me getting the time-lapse gear going, to shoot the Milky Way moving over the hills. One camera was on a mount to pan across the landscape following the stars. The other camera was on a motion control dolly to travel down a track over the 3 hours of the shoot. I spent a lot of time in the car listening to BBC Desert Island Discs and The Life Scientific podcasts last night — the thrill of time-lapse shooting!

Milky Way over Battle Creek (July 14 2013)

This is one frame from one of the movies. Streaks of green and red airglow tint the sky around the Milky Way. Amazingly, the scene is lit only by starlight and by the aurora. You could never have done this with film. It’s the sensitivity of digital cameras that makes such scenes possible, though it takes some clever processing (such as Shadow Detail recovery in Raw, Shadows and Highlights, & masked Adjustment Layers) to balance Earth and sky in the final image.

– Alan, July 15, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

 

The Grand Sweep of the Auroral Oval


Aurora Panorama #4 from Reesor Ranch (July 13, 2013)

The Northern Lights sweep across the northern horizon in a classic arc of green and magenta curtains.

The aurora on the night of July 13/14 never got very bright but the sweep of the auroral oval still made for an interesting panoramic image.

I shot this at about 2 a.m. local time, from the high plains of southwest Saskatchewan, right on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, on the rolling hills of the historic Reesor Ranch. The only man-made light visible is a glow on the horizon just left of the auroral arc, from the city of Medicine Hat, Alberta.

The panorama takes in about 180° of sky, framing the sweep of the auroral oval across the northern horizon from northeast to northwest. In fact, you can see the gravel road I was on at far left and far right. The main band of green from glowing oxygen is topped by curtains of magenta, from oxygen and nitrogen atoms.

If you could see this display from space you would see it as an oval of light across the top half of North America. From my perspective on Earth, I could see just a portion of the complete oval, as an arc across the northern sky.

To create this image I shot 6 segments at 30° spacings, each a 30-second exposure with a 24mm lens at f/2.8 on a Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600. I used Photoshop to stitch the segments. It blended them seamlessly.

– Alan, July 14, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

Star and Satellite Trails


Big Dipper Star Trails and Iridium Flares (July 12, 2013)

A long exposure captures streaks from the turning stars and passing satellites.

This was a busy sky. The feature photo stacks a dozen images taken over 6 minutes.

During that time the northern stars around the Big Dipper turned about the celestial pole just off frame at upper right.

Meanwhile, two satellites passed through the field, both flaring in brightness briefly, tracing tapered streaks from left to right above the treetops. These may have been Iridium satellites, infamous for producing sunglint flares as they momentarily reflect the Sun from their mirror-like antenna panels.

A magenta aurora tints the northern sky as well.

Big Dipper & Purple Aurora (July 12, 2013)

This image is from the same sequence of 300 or so I took last night for a time-lapse movie, but this is a single 30-second exposure so the stars look more natural and pinpoint. Now you can make out the familiar pattern of the Big Dipper.

I shot several sequences last night, until the clouds rolled in and curtailed photography. However, skies are clearing again and the forecast is for several clear nights to come over the Cypress Hills. I’ve got a few locations picked out for time-lapse shooting if the skies cooperate.

– Alan, July 12, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

The Purple Curtains of Northern Lights


Auroral Curtains (July 9, 2013)

Curtains of purple and pink top the usual green bands of aurora.

The last couple of nights have been very clear and filled with aurora. Two nights ago, July 9, the sky really let loose for a good display showing a great range of colours. Only the green was readily visible to the naked eye, but the cameras picked up the fainter bands of purple and magenta.

Most of the colours here come from oxygen atoms glowing. But high up, in the near vacuum of space, oxygen can glow red. The curtains can also be lit by sunlight coming over the pole, lending a blue tint to the aurora. The two colours blend to give purple.

Lower down in the atmosphere, green lines from oxygen predominate. When an aurora is very energetic, the incoming electrons can trigger nitrogen lower in the atmosphere to glow red and pink, giving the curtains a red fringe on the lower edge. That didn’t happen this night.

All-Sky Auroral Curtains (July 9, 2013)

This fish-eye shot of the entire sky shows the high purple curtains arching up the sky. Over several minutes they separated and ascended away from the main green band, shooting up the sky. It seemed as if they were their own curtains and not just a different coloration fringing the main display.

The Northern Lights have been active lately so keep an eye on Spaceweather.com and AuroraWatch for alerts and warnings.

– Alan, July 11, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

Night of the Northern Lights


All-Sky Aurora #1 (June 28, 2013)

The Northern Lights danced all night, as Earth was buffeted by winds from the Sun.

As soon as I saw the warning notices at Spaceweather.com I was hoping we would be in for a wonderful night of aurora watching. I wasn’t disappointed.

Forewarned, I headed out to the Wintering Hills Wind Farm near my home in southern Alberta. I thought it would be neat to get shots of the effects of the solar wind from beneath and beside the wind turbines of the farm. The shot above is from a time-lapse movie taken with a fish-eye lens that will look great when projected in a full-dome digital planetarium.

Northern Lights over Wind Farm #3 (June 28, 2013)

I shot with three cameras, with two aimed east to where the brightest part of the auroral arc usually sits. It was also exactly where the Moon would rise after midnight. This shot, above, captures the scene right at moonrise, which was also right when the aurora kicked into high gear as a sub-storm of solar particles rained down on our upper atmosphere. The ground lit up green with the glow of oxygen in the mesosphere, some 100 kilometres up.

Moonrise and Northern Lights

This shot, taken moments later with a longer focal length lens, grabs the waning Moon shining behind the distant wind machines, and beneath the arc of auroral curtains.

In all, I shot 50 gigabytes of raw images, both still images and frames for time-lapse movies. I’ve assembled most of them into a musical collage that honours the night. In the final sequence of the movie, it almost looks like the wind machine is facing into the brunt of the solar wind, as pulses of aurora surge from out of the east toward the turbine towering overhead.

 

The music is by a new favourite artist of mine, the Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi. His latest album of alt-classical/new age music is called “In a Time Lapse.” How could you not like that?! Buy it on iTunes. It’s stunning.

I hope you got to see the Night of the Northern Lights in person. If not, I trust these images and movies give you a sense of the wonder of what the solar wind can do.

– Alan, June 29, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Summer Solstice Panorama on the Prairie


Summer Solstice Panorama

This is the prairie night sky taken at the moment of summer solstice.

I shot this 360° panorama in the field near my house just before midnight on June 20, 2013, right about the official time of summer solstice. This is the longest night of the year and the brightest. The presence of the gibbous Moon contributes most of the night light, but there to the north at left you can see the glow of twilight and an aurora. At right, the waxing Moon shines in clouds, surrounded by a faint halo from ice crystals in the clouds.

Nights around solstice are always bright and filled with wonderful colours and atmospheric phenomena.

The tranquility of the solstice scene is in contrast with the horrific weather disaster taking place west of me near the mountains, as record floods from torrential rains wash away roads, railway lines, and houses. Roads are closed in and out of the mountains and entire neighbourhoods of Calgary near rivers are being evacuated.

Everyone knows somebody who is affected. For many this is indeed a very long and stressful night. I hope everyone keeps safe.

– Alan, June 21, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

 

Time-Lapse: Northern Lights and Noctilucent Clouds


Northern Lights and Noctilucent Clouds (135mm #1) (June 9, 2013)

What strange clouds these are, moving where there shouldn’t be winds, and forming where there’s barely any air.

These are noctilucent clouds, sometimes called polar mesospheric clouds. Their icy strands form around particles at the top of the atmosphere some 80 km up. There’s almost no air up there so just how these clouds form has always been a mystery. They may be condensing around meteoric dust particles. They may also be more common now than in past decades and centuries, as the upper atmosphere cools due to an odd quirk of global warming that sees the lower troposphere warm while the upper mesosphere cools.

This was the first display of NLCs I’ve seen so far this season. They can only be seen, and indeed they only form, in summer. Sunlight streams over the pole and lights these clouds all night long. They are literally “night-shining” clouds. Only from a latitude range of 45° to 60° north and around summer solstice is the geometry right to see the clouds, usually as electric blue cirrus strands moving slowly along the northern horizon.

The time-lapse movies capture their motion over 30 to 90 minutes of shooting.

 

The 40-second movie contains three clips:

• The first, a wide-angle  view of the amazing aurora that danced in fast accompaniment to the slow noctilucent clouds.

• The second clip, very short, zooms in a little more to the northern horizon. However, I cut that sequence short so I could switch lenses and take the next clip.

• The third scene is with a telephoto lens, framing the east-to-west slow motion of the clouds. I took 4-second exposures at 1-second intervals so it shows some pretty fine motion.

This was certainly one of the best NLC displays I’d seen and my best shot at capturing them.

What was especially rare was seeing them accompanied by auroral curtains actually moving among the clouds (or so it appeared). Both are up high in the near vacuum of near space, but they may have been miles apart in latitude.

– Alan, June 10, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Northern Lights & Noctilucent Clouds


Northern Lights and Noctilucent Clouds (june 9, 2013)

Colourful sky phenomena combine to provide a remarkable sky show.

What a night this was! On Sunday, June 9 the aurora kicked off with a burst in the bright twilight but really got going as the sky got dark, shooting beams of magenta and blue up from the main green arc.

Then on cue, streamers of noctilucent clouds appeared low in the north, shining with their characteristic electric blue. These are odd clouds at the edge of space lit by sunlight streaming over the Pole.

Both these apparitions of the upper atmosphere glowed above a horizon rimmed with the orange of perpetual twilight set in a deep blue background sky.

Yes, the camera has brought out the colours more intensely than the eye saw, but nevertheless it was a remarkable evening close to solstice. This is a magical time of year when all kinds of sky glows light the night.

This night the European Einstein ATV cargo craft also flew over, twice, each time about 10 minutes ahead of the even brighter Space Station that it is chasing for a docking later this week.

More images to come from this night, including time-lapses of the Lights and Clouds.

– Alan, June 10, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Aurora at the Observatory


Aurora over Calgary from RAO (May 25, 2013)

A low aurora appears in the city skyglow and bright moonlight at the local observatory. 

After several days of rain, skies cleared beautifully for a Saturday night star party for the public at the local university observatory, the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory, southwest of Calgary.

The evening was capped off by the appearance, as expected, of an auroral arc to the north. Despite the light from the nearly Full Moon and urban sky glow to the north, the aurora managed to compete and put on a show for a few minutes before fading.

RAO Open House (May 25, 2013) #10

RAO Open House (May 25, 2013) #13

About 100 people attended the evening, and were treated to views of Saturn, shining in the south near Spica. Unfortunately, clouds to the west over the mountains never cleared away enough to allow us views, and me photos, of the triple-planet conjunction of Mercury, Venus and Jupiter. Still, a good time was had by all.

– Alan, May 26, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Aurora All-Night


Aurora with Blue Curtains #3 (May 17-18, 2013)

The Northern Lights dance through the night, ending with a finale burst of blue.

Here’s the time-lapse movie, below, that I shot Friday, May 17, beginning at 11:30 pm and ending 4 hours later at 3:30 am. The sky was bright with moonlight when I started the sequence, with the aurora especially active over half the sky. The display settled down to form a slowly pulsing green band behind the old barn, which went into silhouette after the Moon set.

Then, just as the sky was brightening with the first glow of dawn, the aurora kicked up its heels again and danced across the north, shooting beams of blue across the sky.

I ended the sequence as dawn was fading in … and I was fading out! Still, it was a wonderful night to be out under the stars.

The movie compresses 4 hours of aurora shooting into 40 seconds of aurora playback!

I assembled the time-lapse movie  from 1200 frames, each 11-second exposures at 1 second intervals, with the Canon 60Da at ISO 1600 and 10-22mm lens at f/4.

– Alan, May 20, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

Old Barn By Aurora Light


Aurora Behind Old Barn (May 17, 2013)

As the Northern Lights dance they light up an old barn on a moonlit night.

The still frame above is from the movie down below, a 3-hour-long time-lapse taken on May 17, the night of the big aurora display. I shot this with a camera riding along on a motorized dolly track, to provide the panning motion to the scene.

You can see the rig in this image just below, which I took with another camera framing the entire scene.

Aurora over Old Barn #1 (May 17-18, 2013)

Using the second camera, I was intending to take shots showing a motion-control time-lapse sequence being taken, for illustration in talks and publications.

The aurora quickly forced me to change plans with camera #2. But I let the main motion-control camera continue down its track for the rest of the night, resulting in the movie below. At one point in the movie I briefly appear at right, as I moved the second camera to the south side of the barn to look north to the main area of the display.

 

In the movie, the stars of Virgo and the planet Saturn rise into a sky lit blue by moonlight early in the evening. As the Moon sets, the shadows rise and engulf the barn.

While catching stars rising behind the rustic old building was the original intention of the shot, the Northern Lights added a bonus. Not only do they dance in the sky behind the barn, but the north face of the old grey barn, in shadow from the moonlight, lights up green from the glow of aurora shining in the north.

Very nice. It certainly made for a colourful scene under the skies of southern Alberta.

– Alan, May 19, 2013 / © 2103 Alan Dyer