The Ghostly Glow of Gegenschein


Northern Spring Sky Panorama

It takes a dark spring night to see it well, but now lurking near Jupiter is a ghostly sky glow called Gegenschein. 

This diffuse glow lies directly opposite the Sun. It is caused by sunlight reflecting off interplanetary dust particles in the outer solar system. They reflect light more effectively at the anti-Sun point where each dust particle is fully lit by the Sun.

Like the Sun, the Gegenschein moves around the sky along the ecliptic, moving about a degree from west to east from night to night. March and April provide good nights for seeing the Gegenschein as it then lies in an area of sky far from the Milky Way.

Even so, it is very subtle to the unaided eye. Look south at about 1 a.m. local daylight time.

However, this year, in early April the Gegenschein will be more difficult as it will then lie right on top of Jupiter, as that planet reaches its point opposite the Sun on April 7. Jupiter will then be superimposed on the Gegenschein.

The main image at top is a 7-image vertical panorama of the spring sky, from Corvus and Virgo above the horizon, up past Leo, into Ursa Major and the Big Dipper overhead. Spica lies below bright Jupiter, Arcturus in Böotes is at left, while Regulus in Leo is at right. The grouping of stars near centre is the Coma Berenices star cluster.

Orion over the Old Barn

Earlier in the night, I shot the sky’s other main glow – the Milky Way, as the winter portion of the Milky Way around Orion set into the southwest.

But over in the west, at the right edge of the frame, is the Zodiacal Light, caused by the same dust particles that create the Gegenschein, but that are located in the inner solar system between us and the Sun.

The Zodiacal Light is better depicted in images in my previous post from Dinosaur Park

We bid adieu to the winter Milky Way now. As it departs we are left with an evening sky without the Milky Way visible at all. As seen from northern latitudes it lies along the horizon.

But later in spring, late at night, we’ll see the summer Milky Way rising, beginning its seasons of prominence until late autumn.

— Alan, March 19, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

Glows and Streaks in the Spring Sky


The Spring Sky over the Pioneer Farmstead

How many sources of skyglow can you pick out here?

There are at least five:

• the Milky Way (at left),

• green airglow (below the Milky Way),

• all too prevalent light pollution (especially reflected off the clouds coming in from the west at right),

• lingering blue twilight across the north (at left and right), common in May and June from my northern latitude,

• and even a touch of aurora right at the northern horizon at far left.

In this scene from May 28, the Milky Way arches over an abandoned pioneer farmstead from the 1930s and 40s near my home in southern Alberta.

Mars (very bright and in some clouds) and Saturn shine at lower centre, while Jupiter is the bright object in clouds at right just above the old house.

Arcturus is the brightest star here at upper right of centre, made more obvious here by shining through the clouds. The Big Dipper, distorted by the map projection used in the this panorama, is at upper right.

Technical: This is a 360° horizon to zenith panorama taken with the iPano motorized panning unit, using the 24mm lens at f/2.8 and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400, for a stitch of 28 panels, in 4 tiers of 7 segments each. Stitched with PTGui. South is at centre, north to either end. The original is 25,700 x 7,700 pixels.

Just after I shot the panorama I captured the International Space Station passing directly overhead in one of several passes this night.

ISS Pass #2 (May 28/29, 2016)
The second Space Station pass of May 28/29, 2016, at 1:40 a.m., with cloud moving in adding the glows to all the stars. Taken with the 8mm fish-eye lens from home. The Big Dipper is high in the west at right. Mars is bright at bottom, to the south. Several other satellites are in the sky as well. This is a stack of 3 exposures, each 2.5-minutes with the camera on the Star Adventurer tracker.

At this time of year the ISS is lit all night by the Sun that never sets for the astronauts. We see the ISS cross the sky not once but several times in a night at 90-minute intervals.

While the sky near solstice is never dark at my latitude, it does have its compensations and attractions.

— Alan, May 29, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

Capturing the Quadrantids


Quadrantid Meteor Shower Composite

The Quadrantid meteors streaked out of the northern sky on a fine winter’s night.

The temperature was mild and skies clear in the early evening for the annual Quadrantid meteor shower. This is a prolific but short-lived shower with a brief peak. The cold and low altitude of its radiant point keeps this shower from becoming better known.

This was the first year I can recall shooting it. I had some success during a 2-hour shoot on January 3, from 9 to 11 pm MST.

The result above is a stack of 14 images, the best out of 600 shot that recorded meteors. The ground and sky comes from one image with the best Quad of the night, and the other meteor images were masked and layered into that image, with no attempt to align their paths with the moving radiant point.

However, over the 2 hours, the radiant point low in the north would not have moved too much, as it rose higher into the northern sky.

Most of the meteors here are Quads, but the very bright bolide at left, while it looks like it is coming from the radiant, it is actually streaking toward the radiant, and is not a Quadrantid. But oh so close! I left it in the composite for the sake of the nice composition!

Light clouds moving in added the natural star glows around the Big Dipper stars.

All frames were 10 seconds at f/2 with the 24mm lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200.

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

Waterton Lakes by Moonlight


Cassiopeia and the northern stars over Red Rock Canyon in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, with illumination from a waxing gibbous Moon. This is a composite of three 30-second exposures for the ground to smooth noise and one 30-second exposure for the sky, all with the 24mm lens at f/3.5 and Canon 6D at ISO 1600.

Mountain scenes take on a new look when photographed by moonlight.

Last week I spent four wonderful nights shooting the landscapes of Waterton Lakes National Park under the light of the waxing Moon. For two of the evenings I taught small groups of photographers eager to learn how to extend their photo skills into the night.

A nightscape photographer from one of my workshops, shooting in the moonlight at Red Rock Canyon, in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta. Clouds partly obscure the gibbous Moon but add a colourful iridescent corona around the Moon, which is reflected in the Red Rock Canyon Creek. This is an HDR stack of 5 exposures with the 14mm lens and Canon 6D, to preserve detail in the bright clouds and the disk of the Moon, and in the dark shadows.

We shot at Red Rock Canyon both nights, an ideal spot for its many composition options for shooting both toward and away from the Moon.

The lead image is a view looking up the canyon, with Cassiopeia in view. Always nice to have a recognizable constellation so well positioned.

The image just above looks toward the Moon, partly hidden by colourful clouds diffracting the moonlight. A student is at left trying out a composition.

Photographers at a Nightscapes Workshop at Red Rock Canyon in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, June 2015, in the moonlight.

Here, students, silhouetted by the Moon, use the footbridge as their vantage point to photograph moonlight on the canyon waters and walls.

Alpine flowers in the moonlight at Red Rock Canyon, in Waterton Lakes National Park, with the scene lit by light from the waxing gibbous Moon. The “Matterhorn” style peak is Anderson Peak. This is a blend of two exposures: 30 seconds for the sky and 50 seconds for the ground, all with the 24mm lens at f/5 and Canon 6D at ISO 3200.

My workshops were part of the annual Waterton Wildflower Festival. So, a number of us tried to shoot flowers by moonlight, no easy task considering the wide apertures and shallow depth of field usually required, even under bright moonlight.

But the photo above is my take on summer alpine flowers in a meadow with the iconic Anderson Peak in the distance.

A panorama of the flower-filled Blakiston Valley on a moody moonlit cloudy night at Waterton Lakes National Park, June 24, 2015. The Big Dipper is at upper right, with its handle pointing to Arcturus at left of centre. Spica is at far left. A subtle halo surrounds the first quarter Moon which has just set behind Crandell Mountain at left.  This is a 9-segment panorama with the Nikon D750 and 24mm lens, mounted portrait, and stitched with Photoshop using spherical geometry and corrected with Wide Angle Adaptive Lens Correction to straighten the scene. Liberal use of Highlight and Shadow recovery in ACR and Shadows and Highlights in PS brought out the flower-filled foreground while retaining detail in the bright sky. Each segment was 30 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 1600.

Three nights were wonderfully clear. But my first night, set aside for scouting locations for the Workshops, was beset by some clouds. However, I made use of them to create a moody moonlit cloudscape panorama of the Big Dipper over Blakiston Valley.

I’ll be back in Waterton in September for the Wildlife Festival. We won’t try to shoot bears by moonlight! One did wander by at the start of our Saturday Workshop!

Instead, we’ll concentrate on photographing the Milky Way. That’s Friday, September 18.

– Alan, July 3, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

Nightscapes at Double Arch


Star Trails Behind Double Arch

The iconic Double Arch looks great under dark skies, moonlight, or painted with artificial light.

Last night, I returned to the Double Arch at Arches National Park, to capture a star trail series, starting from the onset of darkness at 9:30 p.m., and continuing for 2.5 hours until midnight, an hour after moonrise at 11:00 p.m. The lead image is the result.

I think it turned out rather well.

The Big Dipper is just streaking into frame at top right, as I knew it would from shooting here the night before. The bright streak at upper left is Jupiter turning into frame at the end of the sequence. Note how the shadow of the moonlit foreground arch matches the shape of the background arch.

On the technical end, the star trail composite is a stack of 160 frames, each 45 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 3200, with the Canon 6D and 14mm lens. The foreground, however, comes from a stack of 8 frames taken toward the end of the shoot, as the moonlight was beginning to light the arches. An additional 45-second exposure taken a couple of minutes after the last star trail frame adds the star-like points at the “head” of the star trail streaks.

I used the excellent Advanced Stacker Actions from StarCircleAcademy to do the stacking in Photoshop.

Dark Sky Behind Double Arch

Before starting the star trail set, I took some initial short-exposure nightscapes while the sky was still dark. The result is the above image, of Double Arch in a dark sky. Passing car headlights provided some rather nice accent illumination.

On such a fine night I thought others might be there as well. Arches is a very popular place for nightscape imaging.

Sure enough, 6 others came and went through the early evening before moonrise. We had a nice time chatting about gear and techniques.

As expected, a few photographers came armed with bright lights for artificially lighting the arches. I kept my camera running, knowing any illumination they shone on the foreground wouldn’t affect my star trails, and that I’d mask in the foreground from frames taken after moonrise.

Photographer Lighting Double Arch

Here’s one frame from my star trail sequence where one photographer headed under the arch to light it for his photos. It did make for a nice scene – a human figure adds scale and dimension.

However, I always find the light from the LED lamps too artificial and harsh, and comes from the wrong direction to look natural. I also question the ethics of blasting a dark sky site with artificial light.

On a night like this I’d rather wait until moonrise and let nature provide the more uniform, warmer illumination with natural shadows.

Big Dipper over Double Arch

As an example, I took this image the night before using short exposures in the moonlight to capture the Big Dipper over Double Arch. When I shot this at 11 p.m. I had the site to myself. Getting nature to provide the right light requires the photographer’s rule of “waiting for the light.”

– Alan, April 7, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Moonlighting at Monument Valley


Moonrise Behind the Mittens at Monument Valley (#1)

The Full Moon rises behind the famous Mitten buttes at Monument Valley.

I spent a fabulous weekend capturing sunsets and nightscapes at the iconic Monument Valley on the Utah/Arizona border, the photogenic outdoor set of dozens movies over the decades.

On the eve of the total lunar eclipse I shot the nearly Full Moon rising behind the West (left) and East (centre) Mittens and Merrick Butte (at right). On the evening of Friday, April 3 the Moon rose and sat amid the sunlit clouds with the Sun still up.

The alignment that would place the Moon directly opposite the Sun to create the eclipse was still 11 hours away.

Note how the butte’s shadows point almost, but not quite directly, at the nearly Full Moon. They point at the place in the sky the Moon would be before dawn at the end of that night.

Indeed, on eclipse morning on Saturday, April 4 the Moon set exactly as the Sun rose (see my photos in my previous blog).

But on eclipse eve the Moon rose 30 minutes before the Sun set, providing a chance to catch the Moon behind the still sunlit red buttes.

Moonrise Behind the Mittens at Monument Valley (#2)

I shot this image about 20 minutes after sunset on April 3, so the foreground is now in shadow but the Moon appears in a more richly tinted twilight sky.

Orion and Venus Setting at Monument Valley

Later on April 3 I captured this scene, with the Tear Drop and Rock Door Mesas now lit by a bright Full Moon, and with the stars of the winter sky setting into the west. Canis Major and Orion are at left, while Taurus, including the Pleiades star cluster and brilliant Venus, are at right.

The Orion & Venus image is a 2-panel panorama.

Moonbeams at Monument Valley

On the evening of April 4, clouds thwarted plans for a long star trail sequence above a moonlit foreground.

Instead, I shot toward the Moon and clouds, to capture subtle moonbeams radiating out from the Moon, now some 14 hours after the eclipse, rising behind Merrick Butte. I shot this from the dusty Loop Road that winds through the valley floor.

Big Dipper over West Mitten, Monument Valley

Instead of lots of images for a star trail composite, I was content to shoot this one image, catching the Big Dipper in a brief hole in the drifting clouds, hanging in the sky over the West Mitten butte. The foreground is lit by the partly obscured Full Moon. The long exposure streaks the moving clouds.

Night or day, it’s hard not to take a great photo here, clouds or not!

Sunset Panorama at Monument Valley

On my final evening at Monument Valley, high winds common to the area, blowing dust, and the closed Loop Road, scuttled plans again for long star trail sequences from the valley floor.

So on Easter Sunday, April 5, I settled for a panorama from the classic viewpoint showing the setting Sun lighting the buttes and mesas of Monument Valley.

It is an amazing place, but one that still requires patience to wait out the clouds and dust storms.

– Alan, April 6, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

The Old Hearst Church in Moonlight


The Big Dipper over Hearst Church

The Big Dipper and the Pole Star shine above the moonlit historic Hearst Church.

Tuesday was a productive evening of shooting in the moonlight. One of the best from the night pictures the Hearst Church in the rustic town of Pinos Altos in the Gila Forest of southern New Mexico.

The Big Dipper stars shine at right, with the Pointer stars in the Bowl aiming at Polaris above the Church. Illumination is from a waxing quarter Moon and from some decorative lights in the yard next door across the street.

The Hearst Church was opened in May 1898 and indeed is named for the famous Hearst family. Money to build the church was raised by the local mining families with a major donation from Phoebe Hearst, wife of the mining magnate and senator George Hearst. Phoebe was also mother to newspaper tychoon William Randolph Hearst, the inspiration for Orson Welles’ movie Citizen Kane. Gold that decorates Hearst’s mansion in California came from the family mine near Pinos Altos.

As the mining boom went bust the Methodist church lost its pastor then its congregation. It is now an art gallery and home to the Grant County Art Guild. See their website for details on the historic church.

While I know many of my blog’s followers enjoy the photos for their own sake, lots of folks also like to learn more about the technical aspects of the images.

So with this blog, and selected others in future, I’ll present a bit more of the “how-to” information.


How the Image Was Shot and Processed

Taking the image could not have been simpler. It is a single 45-second exposure at f/2.8 with the 24mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 800, on a static tripod, about as basic as you get for nightscape shooting. There is no fancy stacking or compositing.

The trick is still in the processing, however. Here is a breakdown of the Photoshop CC 2014 file and its various layers. Every aspect of the processing is non-destructive. No pixels were ever harmed in the process. Every adjustment can be tweaked and modified after the fact.

Heart Church Processing Layers

< Star spikes top layer added with “Astronomy Tools” actions from Noel Carboni.

< Sharpening layer created from stamping the final layers into one layer using the Command-Option-Shift-E command, then a High Pass filter applied, blended with Soft Light and masked to sharpen just the ground.

< Adjustment layers for colour, brightness & contrast, and levels, applied to the sky and ground separately with masks, created using Quick Selection Tool and Refine Edge.

< A Clone & Heal layer for wiping out the power lines & power pole, using the Patch & Spot Healing Tools.

< The base image, opened from the developed Raw file as a Smart Object, with noise reduction and sharpening applied as Smart Filters.

I know this won’t explain all the processing steps but I hope it provides some idea of what goes into a nightscape.

All this and much more will be explained in an upcoming half-day “Photoshop for Astronomy” Workshop I’m presenting Saturday, May 9. If you are in the Calgary, Alberta area, consider joining us. For details and to register, see the All-Star Telescope web page

Also, my ebook featured below has all the details on shooting and processing images like these.

Clear skies and happy shooting!

— Alan, January 29, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

Sagittarius Setting over the City of Rocks


Moonlight on City of Rocks #3

Sagittarius, with Mars, set behind the granite pillars of City of Rocks State Park.

From home in Canada the summer constellation of Sagittarius is long gone by November. But here, from a latitude of 32° north, Sagittarius, now with Mars shining amid its “teapot” shape of stars, still shines in the southwest.

This was the scene last night in the early evening, as the Full Moon lit the rock formations at New Mexico’s City of Rocks State Park. Sagittarius is above the rocks at left. Some bright bits of the Milky Way just manage to appear in the clear, bright sky lit blue by moonlight.

Moonlight on City of Rocks #2

This view looks northwest, with the stars of the Big Dipper just clearing the rocks at right.

In two weeks, with the Moon gone from the sky, the local astronomy club hosts one of its monthly star parties at the Park, making use of the public observatory in the Park, near the “Orion” group campground area – all the campsites are named for constellations and stars.

This is a very sky-friendly Park.

– Alan, November 7, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

Stars on Ice – The Columbia Icefields by Moonlight


Star Trails over Columbia Icefields

The stars trail over the glaciers of the Columbia Icefields.

What an amazing night this was! You rarely get pristine cloudless skies over the Icefields. Some cloud is almost always blowing off the ice. But last Saturday in Jasper National Park was as clear as it gets.

The Moon was bright, as a waxing gibbous just off frame at left. It lit the landscape like it was day.

I shot with two cameras, one doing a time-lapse motion control sequence panning across the scene. The other was a fixed camera shooting 20-second exposures at 1-second intervals. The resulting frames from the fixed camera, 270 in this case, are multi-purpose:

– I stacked about 100 of them to make the star trail composite above. Two frames supplied the stars at the beginning and end of the trails. Another single frame supplied the ground, to avoid the shadows being blurred by the Moon’s motion if you used the ground composited from all 100 frames.

– I can also take the full set of 270 frames and sequence them into a time-lapse movie of the stars moving over the landscape.

Stars over the Columbia Icefields Panorama

Before beginning the time-lapse sequences I shot this 180° panorama, made of 5 segments stitched in PTGui software. It extends from the southwest at left, where the Milky Way is barely visible, to the north at right, with the Big Dipper over the Icefields Parkway.

Click on it for a bigger view.

Shooting at the Icefields

This is the camera setup, with the camera on the right taking the star trail image I feature at top.

The Athabasca Glacier is at left, the Stutfield Glacier at right.

Icefields Parking Lot at Night

Midnight under moonlight is when to see the Icefields! This is the lower parking lot, at the start of the trail up to Athabasca Glacier. This is packed with cars, RVs and buses by day, but at night I was the only one there.

– Alan, Sept, 8, 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

 

 

Big Dipper over Pyramid Mountain


Big Dipper over Pyramid Mountain

The Big Dipper shines through clouds over Pyramid Mountain in Jasper National Park.

This week I am in Jasper National Park for a shoot of moonlit nightscapes, weather permitting.

It barely permitted last night, as clouds cleared briefly to the north. I visited a favourite spot on the shore of Patricia Lake, with Pyramid Mountain as a backdrop to the north.

The sky was still lit by the setting Moon, and by some faint aurora. The landscape is lit by starlight.

With luck I’ll get more images of Jasper by night this week, in one of Canada’s largest Dark Sky Preserves.

– Alan, September 2, 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

 

 

Moonbow at Bow Falls


Star Trails & Moonbow over Bow Falls

A small moonbow forms in the light of the full “super moon” at Bow Falls in Banff.

This was Sunday night, August 10, on the night of the bright “super moon” that lit the landscape. In this case, I was at Bow Falls, a popular tourist spot in the townsite of Banff below the Banff Springs Hotel.

However, by night only a handful of people appeared, including two who stayed still long enough to record on one frame, above.

The sky, however, is made of many frames, exposed over an hour to add the star trails. But the landscape is from one exposure, and includes a short arc of a moonbow, a rainbow created from moonlight.

Big Dipper Star Trails over Bow Falls

In an alternative version, sans moonbow, I shot one short and several long exposures to capture the stars of the Big Dipper streaking over the falls.

These are two more examples of how magical the mountains are by moonlight. And how quiet the usually busy tourist spots are!

– Alan, August 15, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

Mount Kobau Nightscapes


Big Dipper Down the Road

The pines and sagebrush landscape of the summit of Mount Kobau are illuminated by the light of just the stars and Milky Way.

This collection of images from Monday night, July 28, captures the night sky above and the land below in classic “nightscapes.”

I took all of these with a camera on a static tripod, with no tracking system involved here. All are about 40-second exposures at ISO 3200 to 6400 with a fast 24mm lens at f/2.5 on a Canon 6D.

However, for the image above I composited two exposures: a shorter 40 second shot for the sky and a longer 1 minute 40 second shot for the ground. I used Photoshop’s Quick Selection tool to make a rough selection of the ground, then the Refine Mask and Smart Radius tool to refine the edge to precisely mask the sky separately from the ground, for individual processing.

The top image shows the Big Dipper and a well-timed meteor, at the end of the summit road on Mt. Kobau, near Osoyoos, BC.

Big Dipper & Arcturus from Mt Kobau

This image takes in the Big Dipper at right pointing down to Arcturus at left. I used Photoshop’s Content Aware Fill to neatly eliminate a power pole and wires.

Sagebrush and Stars

Looking southwest reveals the Milky Way above the sagebrush and pine trees. This is a single exposure, with the ground processed with Shadow detail recovery to bring out the starlit ground.

Pleiades Rising Down the Road

This image, taken about 2 a.m., records the Pleiades star cluster rising down the end of the summit road, with Capella at left. It is a dual-exposure composite: 40 seconds for the sky and 1m40s for the ground.

I gave a talk at this year’s Mt. Kobau Star Party on how to shoot these kinds of nightscapes, illustrated with some of these images shot on site the night before. Very nice!

– Alan, July 30, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

The Clouds of Solstice Twilight Are Here!


Noctilucent Clouds Panorama #1 (June 21-22, 2014)

Look north in June and July from the Canadian Prairies and you are likely to see iridescent clouds shimmering in the mid-summer twilight. 

It’s been a good couple of nights for sighting noctilucent clouds – literally “night shining” clouds, or NLCs. These are odd water vapour clouds that form at the edge of space 80 km up where no self-respecting cloud has a right to exist.

But there they are. Existing and moving in waves in a near vacuum.

We see them because at solstice time the Sun’s light pours over the pole (where the midnight Sun is shining) and lights up the clouds that hang over the Canadian Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

Noctilucent Clouds and Big Dipper

From the Prairies we see them far in the distance to the north, as here, shining low on the horizon amid the deep blues and reds of a perpetual twilight that never ends on our short summer nights.

The top photo, taken Saturday night, is a 5-section panorama with a short telephoto lens. The bottom image, taken early this morning, is just the opposite – a very wide angle shot showing the clouds in context, with the Big and Little Dippers at top left and centre.

Some images and movies from last year’s NLC season are in my blog post from June 27, 2013.

– Alan, June 23, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Comet Lovejoy Beside the Big Dipper


Comet Lovejoy & Big Dipper (Nov 27, 2013)

The handle of the Big Dipper seems to point down to Comet Lovejoy, low in the northern sky.

While the astronomy world waits and watches as Comet ISON rounds the Sun in the next day, another comet is appearing in the evening sky.

This is Comet Lovejoy, aka C/2013 R1, captured in a set of exposures I took about 6:30 pm on Wednesday evening, November 27, when the comet shone off the handle of the Big Dipper. It was not visible to the naked eye but was easy in binoculars. The photo shows Comet Lovejoy as cyan-tinted star at left with a spiky tail pointed away from the Sun.

From my latitude of 51° N Comet Lovejoy sits far enough north to be circumpolar, though just barely. However, as it heads south it will become just a morning sky object, especially for those at more southerly latitudes. In the coming days it will join Comet ISON (or what’s left of it) in the December dawn.

– Alan, November 27, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

 

Waterton Lakes by Night


Waterton-Lakes-Panorama-(Aug-29,-2013)

The Milky Way shines over the peaks of Waterton Lakes National Park on a clear summer night.

This was the view last night, August 29, under very clear skies, on the Red Rock Canyon Road in Waterton Lakes National Park, a UN World Heritage Site and a beautiful place for day and nighttime photography.

This is a 7-frame panorama sweeping over about 180° from the southeast at left and into the northwest at right, taking in the autumn constellations rising at left, over to the Milky Way in the south and to the Big Dipper skimming across the northwest horizon at right. Each frame was a 30-second exposure at f/2.2 and ISO 1600.

The green glow at left is from airglow, while the yellow and magenta colours at right are from low-level aurora and from the lights of Pincher Creek and the Crowsnest Pass communities. The bright light at left of centre is from the lights adorning the Prince of Wales Hotel, set amid the general glow of streetlights from the townsite of Waterton Lakes.

The foreground is lit only by starlight.

– Alan, August 30, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Big Dipper Over Castle Mountain


Big Dipper over Castle Mountain, Banff (Aug 24, 2013)

The famous stars of the Big Dipper dip behind the moonlit crags of Castle Mountain.

I just got back from four days in Banff, always a great place to be, even if it is cloudy. And it was!

I lost one night to forest fire smoke and another to rain clouds. On Saturday and Sunday nights I managed to seek out some clearer skies for nighttime shooting. This is a shot from Saturday, from a favourite photo stop on the Bow Valley Parkway overlooking the cliffs of Castle Mountain.

Despite the dew from rains earlier in the day I managed to shoot a time-lapse here. These two shots are frames from the movie which pans slowly across the scene.

Iridium Flare over Castle Mountain

This frame catches an Iridium satellite flare above the Dipper.

Light from the waning gibbous Moon, which was in and out of clouds itself, illuminates the scene and nicely cross-lights the Castle cliffs.

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

 

Canola Field Stars


Circumpolar Star Trails over Canola Field (July 26, 2013)

Stars in a blue sky wheel above a ripening field of yellow canola.

It’s been a couple of fine nights of nightscape shooting under the light of the waning Moon and clear skies.

I’ve been shooting from no more exotic location than my local rural neighbourhood, travelling for 5 minutes to spots near one of the many canola fields growing nearby. I wanted to grab some nightscapes over the  fields before they lose their yellow flowers and turn green.

The feature image above looking north is from a time-lapse sequence and stacks several images with the “comet trail” effect, to show the northern stars turning about the North Star.

Big Dipper over Canola Field #2 (July 26, 2013)

This image, also a frame from another time lapse with a longer lens, shows the Big Dipper above that same field but in an exposure short enough to prevent the stars from trailing. You can now make out the familiar Dipper pattern.

This is a very Canadian scene, with the Big Dipper high in a northern latitude sky, and with the foreground crop a Canadian one – Canola was developed in the 1970s at the University of Manitoba. The “can” in canola stands for Canada. Pity there was no aurora.

– Alan, July 28, 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

A Galaxy Floating in the Void


M109 in Ursa Major (130mm 60Da)

A galaxy 80 million light years away floats in the blackness of space near a star in the Big Dipper.

This is Messier 109, a bright spiral galaxy in Ursa Major, and within an eyepiece and camera field of the bright naked eye star Gamma Ursa Majoris. That’s the “bottom left” star in the bowl of the Big Dipper, so this is an easy galaxy to find with a telescope in the current spring sky.

Technically, this galaxy is classed as a barred spiral because of the way its spiral arms emerge from an elongated bar at the core of the galaxy. It is the brightest member of the Ursa Major Cluster of some 80 galaxies.

Springtime is galaxy time, no matter what hemisphere you live in. But for us in the northern half of the planet that means April and May. When we look up at this time of year into the evening sky we are looking out of the plane of our Milky Way galaxy and seeing into the depths of intergalactic space, populated by thousands of other galaxies. Most of the bright ones, like M109, are 20 to 100 million light years away. At its distance of 80 million light years, M109 lies a million times farther away from us than Gamma Ursa Majoris, a nearby blue star “just” 80 light years away and in our Galaxy.

I shot this last weekend though my 5-inch refractor with the Canon 60Da camera. Even with the telescope’s 800mm focal length it isn’t enough to really do justice to the intricate detail in galaxies like this. But the view does set the galaxy into its context, floating in the blackness of space.

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

Big Dipper Over the Badlands


The Big Dipper swings low over the Badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, with an aurora added for good measure.

This another shot from my very productive night last Sunday out at Dinosaur Park, 100 km east of me. Here the curtains of aurora that made the news that evening shimmer below the iconic seven stars of the Big Dipper, now low in the northern sky on autumn evenings.

Light from the Full Moon provides the illumination. People wonder how we astrophotographers can take pictures of the stars in the daytime. We don’t. We take them at night, letting the Moon light the scene. Its light is just reflected sunlight, so a long enough exposure (and in this case it was only 8 seconds) records the landscape looking as if it were daytime, complete with blue sky, but with stars – and this night an aurora – in the sky.

– Alan, October 2, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Meteor and Windmill in the Moonlight


A rare bright meteor pierces the northern sky beside a spinning windmill in the moonlight.

I shot this Thursday night, August 30, as one frame of 300 or so shot for a time lapse sequence. Having a camera taking hundreds of frames at rapid interval, as you do for a time-lapse movie, is the only way to capture the chance and fleeting appearance of a bright meteor like this.

You can see the Big Dipper behind the machine and Polaris, the North Star, directly above the well-placed meteor.

I drove out to the new Wintering Hills Wind Farm now operating northeast of me and found a machine I could get close to. And they are huge! This is a sequence from a dolly shot I took. But the other camera was on a fixed tripod and I’ll stack those images into a long star trail scene, to get the circumpolar stars spinning alongside the windmill. But the machine was turning so fast that even 4 second exposures in bright moonlight blurred the blades more than I would have liked.

— Alan, August 31, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Little Schoolhouse Under Prairie Skies


There aren’t many left now. Here on a bare prairie hilltop near where I live stands one of the last of the one-room schoolhouses.

Located near the now-vanished town of Majorville, Alberta is the Liberty School, built in 1909. I tried to look up the history of this particular school but found only references to other similar schools in the area. The stories from teachers who worked in such schools were fascinating. Amy Corbiell, a relative of one of my neighbours, taught at a nearby school in the 1930s. Imagine the scene on the prairies back then:

“Some days when the dust blew I remember it got so dark the pupils couldn’t see to work. I would light our one little coal-oil lamp and read to them until I could safely send them home.”

The lone teacher would live either in the home of one of the students. Or she would be put up in what we would now call a shack – the teacherage – next to the school. She would attend to the students ages 6 to 16, keep the pot-bellied stove going, bring in water from the hand pump outside, perhaps play the piano (if there was one), and organize the big annual Christmas concert. There might be a barn nearby for the kids to shelter their horses. Yes, they really did ride to school each day. It was a hard life by today’s soft standards.

But as Helen Courtney, another teacher from the era, remarked in her reminiscences,

“The 1930s are remembered as the depression years, the years of crop failures, and blizzard-like dust storms. They were also the times when neighbours helped neighbours, people shared what they had, extended kindness and friendship and looked hopefully toward a better future.”

My photo, taken under bright moonlight on August 4, shows the Big Dipper over the little schoolhouse, and a summer thunderstorm rolling across the far horizon.

— Alan, August 15, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Stars over Cascade Mountain, Banff


Last Sunday night I was in Banff for a concert at the Banff Centre but ended the night with a round of nightscape shooting near the town.

I shot this from the Lake Minnewanka scenic loop road just north of the townsite. It captures the Big Dipper and Arcturus swinging down over Cascade Mountain, the iconic peak that stands as the background for so many photos of Banff. Moonlight provided ideal side-lighting.

I hope to head back to this area for next weekend’s Perseid meteor shower. The weather prospects look good!

— Alan, August 3, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

The Big Dipper Over Pyramid Mountain


 

Pyramid Mountain is Jasper’s iconic peak dominating the skyline of the mountain town in Alberta. The mountain and its foreground lakes are ideally placed for nightscapes of the northern sky.

I took this shot Saturday night, July 28, from the shore of Patricia Lake, one of several that dot the benchlands south of Pyramid Mountain. Small lakes like Patricia have the benefit of often being calm and reflective. Here the stars of the Big Dipper and Ursa Major swing over top of Pyramid Mountain, in the blue moonlit sky. A few well-placed clouds add a welcome perspective. This is one frame of 150 or so in a time-lapse sequence, and that will eventually become a star trail composite as well. But this single frame stands well all on its own.

The last time I was here shooting this same scene I was using Ektachrome and Fujichrome film (each had its unique characteristics, though just what I can’t recall!). That was more than a decade ago. This digital shot with the Canon 7D looks far better than what I got back then.

— Alan, July 30, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Big Dipper over Num-Ti-Jah Lodge


“Around the fire tonight Jim Simpson said that for his money this campsite was the closest one could get to heaven on Earth. And I reckon he’s not far wrong.” — Bill Peyto at Bow Lake, July 11, 1902.

Peyto penned that description 110 years ago to the day. His friend always said he’d build a shack here one day. And he did. This is Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, a classic wood log building, hand-hewn and assembled by Jimmy Simpson and his family in the 1940s. They ran the lodge for many years.

I was there this past weekend, July 6 and 7, shooting nightscape photos under the waning Moon. This view looks due north, with the Big Dipper and Polaris over the lodge. To the right, in the northeast, glows a faint red aurora. To the northwest stands Mount Jimmy Simpson, named for the pioneer who built his dream lodge at his heaven-on-Earth campsite.

Heaven is not without its dangers however. Earlier in the evening a yearling grizzly bear was wandering around the lodge and had to be scared off by a Parks official. I’m glad he did! Meeting a bear in the dark is a hazard of shooting in the mountains I have yet to encounter, and don’t wish to.

— Alan, July 11, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Little Church on the Prairie


In honour of Canadian Thanksgiving, here’s a shot from last night of a classic little church on the Canadian Prairie.

This is the long abandoned Catholic church at the hamlet of Dorothy, Alberta. The church was built in 1944, but as the coal mines in the Drumheller valley shut down (blame the invention of Diesel trains and the discovery of natural gas in Alberta) the once bustling town of Dorothy decayed into a ghost town. A few people still live there, but its main attractions are its relics of the pioneer age — this church, and the United church next to it (behind the camera), a picturesque grain elevator, and an old store. The companion United church has been restored, but this little church on the prairie, abandoned since 1967, awaits restoration.

The scene is lit by the gibbous Moon, and by a couple of sodium vapour streetlights, ubiquitous even in a ghost town.

In the sky are the stars of the Big Dipper and Polaris above the church.

This is one frame of 300 I shot over three hours as part of a motion-controlled time-lapse movie.

Happy Thanksgiving!

— Alan, October 10, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

 

Big Dipper over Peyto Lake


 

After taking the twilight shots at Waterfowl Lakes on Sunday night (click back to the previous blog), I continued up the Icefields Parkway, ascending to Bow Summit and the viewpoint that overlooks one of the most famous scenes in the Canadian Rockies, Peyto Lake.

Named for legendary mountain man and guide Bill Peyto, the lake was a favourite place for him, to give him solitude away from the madding crowds of Banff.

As with so many of these places, by day this very spot swarms with tourists by the bus load. Peyto would have cringed. But at nightfall, I am the only one there, enjoying the stars coming out in the solitude of the darkening sky.

Here, we look north, to the Big Dipper and Arcturus over the lake in the valley below.

This is a single exposure of 30 seconds at ISO 800 with the Canon 7D and 10-22mm lens.

— Alan, September 5, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Stars Over Waterton Lakes II


When I’m doing time-lapse sequences I often run two cameras, one with a wide-angle lens for a frame-filling rectangular view for “normal” HD movies (that’s what’s in the previous blog post), and another camera with a fish-eye lens for a circular format “all-sky” view. These scenes are for projection in full-dome digital planetariums.

This still image is one frame of 470 that I took over four hours on the night of July 20/21, showing the stars and clouds moving in the sky over Waterton Lakes National Park and the stately Prince of Wales Hotel on the bluff across the bay. North is at the bottom of the frame in this shot.

I took this image about 11:30 pm when the sky still had some twilight glow in it and just before the waning Moon was about to rise at right. So the eastern sky has a glow from the impending moonrise. However, the sky is dark enough that the Milky Way shows up running across the sky and down toward the hotel.

You can also see the Big Dipper at left and Cassiopeia at right. The Summer Triangle stars are at top right, in the south. Polaris, the North Star, is dead centre.

— Alan, July 22, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer