There’s a slogan used in the U.S. National Parks that “half the Park is after dark.” It is certainly true at Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta.
Last Friday night, March 29, I spent the evening at one of my favourite nightscape sites, Dinosaur Provincial Park, about an hour’s drive east of my home. It was one of those magical nights – clear, mild, dry, and no mosquitoes! Yet!
I wanted to shoot Orion and the photogenic winter sky setting into the evening twilight over the Badlands landscape. This was the last moonless weekend to do so.
I shot some individual images (such as above) and also multi-panel panoramas, created by shooting a series of overlapping images at equal spacings, then stitching them later at the computer.
There’s a narrow window of time between twilight and full darkness when the Milky Way shows up well but the western sky still has a lingering blue glow. This window occurs after the normal “blue hour” favoured by photographers.
The panorama above shows the arch of the winter Milky Way but also the towering band of the Zodiacal Light rising out of the twilight and distant yellow glow of Calgary. Zodiacal Light is sunlight scattering off meteoric and cometary dust orbiting in the inner solar system, so this is a phenomenon in space not in our atmosphere. However, the narrow streak is an aircraft contrail.
Later that night, when the sky was fully dark I shot this complete panorama showing not only the Milky Way and Zodiacal Light to the west, but also the faint arc of the Zodiacal Band continuing on from the pyramid-shaped Zodiacal Light over into the east, where it brightens into the subtle glow of Gegenschein. This is caused by sunlight reflecting off interplanetary dust particles in the direction opposite the Sun.
Both the Band and Gegenschein were visible to the naked eye, but only if you knew what to look for, and have a very dark sky.
A closeup shows the Zodiacal Light in the west as the subtle blue glow tapering toward the top as it meets the Milky Way.
It takes a dark site to see these subtle glows. Dinosaur Park is not an official Dark Sky Preserve but certainly deserves to be. Now if we could only get Calgary, Brooks and Bassano to turn down and shield their lights!
A closeup facing the other way, to the east, shows the area of sky opposite the Milky Way, in the spring sky. The familiar Big Dipper, now high our spring sky, is at top with its handle pointing down to Arcturus and Spica (just rising above the horizon) – remember to “arc to Arcturus, and speed on to Spica.”
Leo is at right of centre, flanked by the Beehive and Coma Berenices star clusters.
Polaris is at left — however, the distortion introduced by the panorama stitching at high altitudes stretches out the sky at the top of the frame, so the Dipper’s Pointer stars do not point in a straight line to Polaris.
The faint Zodiacal Band is visible at right, brightening toward the horizon in the Gegenschein.
I shoot images like these for use as illustrations in future eBook projects about stargazing and the wonders of the night sky. Several are in the works!
For two magical nights I was able to capture the Rockies by moonlight, with the brilliant stars of winter setting behind the mountains.
I’ve been waiting for nights like these for many years! I consider this my “25-Year Challenge!”
Back during my early years of shooting nightscapes I was able to capture the scene of Orion setting over Lake Louise and the peaks of the Continental Divide, with the landscape lit by the Moon.
Such a scene is possible only in late winter, before Orion sets out of sight and, in March, with a waxing gibbous Moon to the east to light the scene but not appear in the scene. There are only a few nights each year the photograph is possible. Most are clouded out!
Above is the scene in March 1995, in one of my favourite captures on film. What a night that was!
But it has taken 24 years for my schedule, the weather, and the Moon phase to all align to allow me to repeat the shoot in the digital age. Thus the Challenge.
Here’s the result.
Unlike with film, digital images make it so much easier to stitch multiple photos into a panorama.
In the film days I often shot long single exposures to produce star trails, though the correct exposure was an educated guess factoring in variables like film reciprocity failure and strength of the moonlight.
Below is an example from that same shoot in March 1995. Again, one of my favourite film images.
This year, time didn’t allow me to shoot enough images for a star trail. In the digital age, we generally shoot lots of short exposures to stack them for a trail.
Instead, I shot this single image of Orion setting over Mt. Temple.
Plus I shot the panorama below, both taken at Morant’s Curve, a viewpoint named for the famed CPR photographer Nicholas Morant who often shot from here with large format film cameras. Kevin Keefe of Trains magazine wrote a nice blog about Morant.
I was shooting multi-segment panoramas when a whistle in the distance to the west alerted me to the oncoming train. I started the panorama segment shooting at the left, and just by good luck the train was in front of me at centre when I hit the central segment. I continued to the right to catch the blurred rest of the train snaking around Morant’s Curve. I was very pleased with the result.
The night before I was at another favourite spot, Two Jack Lake near Banff, to again shoot panoramas of the moonlit scene below the bright stars of the winter sky.
A run up to the end of the Vermilion Lakes road at the end of that night allowed me to capture Orion and Siris reflected in the open water of the upper lake.
Unlike in the film days, today we also have some wonderful digital planning tools to help us pick the right sites and times to capture the scene as we envision it.
This is a screen shot of the PhotoPills app in its “augmented reality” mode, taken by day during a scouting session at Two Jack, but showing where the Milky Way will be later that night in relation to the real “live” scene shot with the phone’s camera.
The app I like for planning before the trip is The Photographer’s Ephemeris. This is a shot of the plan for the Lake Louise shoot. The yellow lines are the sunrise and sunset points. The thin blue line at lower right is the angle toward the gibbous Moon at about 10 p.m. on March 19.
Even better than TPE is its companion program TPE 3D, which allows you to preview the scene with the mountain peaks, sky, and illumination all accurately simulated for your chosen location. I am impressed!
Compare the simulation above to the real thing below, in a wide 180° panorama.
These sort of moonlit nightscapes are what I started with 25 years ago, as they were what film could do well.
These days, everyone chases after dark sky scenes with the Milky Way, and they do look wonderful, beyond anything film could do. I shoot many myself. And I include an entire chapter in my ebook above about shooting the Milky Way.
But … there’s still a beauty in a contrasty moonlit scene with a deep blue sky from moonlight, especially with the winter sky and its population of bright stars and constellations.
I’m glad the weather and Moon finally cooperated at the right time to allow me to capture these magical moonlit panoramas.
I present a tour of the deep-sky wonders of the winter sky.
While some might think the Milky Way is only a summer sight, the winter Milky Way is well worth a look!
In January and February we are looking outward from our location in the Milky Way, toward the Orion Spur, the minor spiral arm we live in. In it, and in the major Perseus Arm that lies beyond, lie hotbeds of star formation.
These star forming areas create a panorama of star clusters and glowing nebulas along the winter Milky Way and surrounding the constellation of Orion. The montage above shows the best of the deep-sky sights at this time or year.
(And yes, for southern hemisphere viewers I know this is your summer sky! But for us northerners, Orion is forever associated with frosty winter nights.)
The closeups below are all with a 200mm telephoto lens providing a field of view similar to that of binoculars. However, most of these nebulas are photographic targets only.
The Belt and Sword of Orion
This is the heart of the star formation activity, in the centre of Orion.
The bright Orion Nebula (or Messier 42 and 43) at bottom in Orion’s Sword is obvious in binoculars and glorious in a small telescope.
The Horsehead Nebula above centre and just below Orion’s Belt is famous but is a tough target to see through even a large telescope.
Barnard’s Loop at left is a wave of nebulosity being blown out of the Orion area by strong stellar winds. Any sighting of this object by eye is considered a feat of observing skill!
The Rosette Nebula and Area
The small cluster of hot young stars inside the Rosette Nebula is blowing a hole in the nebula giving it its Rosette name. Above is a loose star cluster called the Christmas Tree, surrounded by more faint nebulosity that includes the tiny Cone Nebula.
Gemini Clusters and Nebulas
This field of clusters and nebulosity is above Orion in Gemini, with Messier 35 the main open star cluster here at top. Below M35 is the tiny star cluster NGC 2158. The nebulosity at left between Mu and Eta Geminorum is IC 443, a remnant of a supernova explosion, and is aka the Jellyfish Nebula. The nebula at bottom is IC 2174, just over the border in Orion and aka the Monkeyhead Nebula.
Auriga Clusters and Nebulas
Above Gemini and Orion lies Auriga, with its rich field of clusters and nebulosity, with — from left to right — Messier 37, Messier 36, and Messier 38, as the main open star clusters here. Below M38 is NGC 1907. The nebulosity at right is IC 410 and IC 405, the Flaming Star Nebula.
In between them is the colourful asterism known as the Little Fish. Messier 38 is also known as the Starfish Cluster while Messier 36 is called the Pinwheel Cluster. The bright red nebula at top is Sharpless 2-235. The little nebulas at centre are NGC 1931 and IC 417.
The California Nebula
Now we enter Perseus, more an autumn constellation but well up through most of the winter months. It contains the aptly named California Nebula, NGC 1499, at top left, with the bright star Zeta Persei. at bottom A small region of reflection nebulosity, IC 348, surrounds the star Atik, or Omicron Persei, at bottom right. The star just below NGC 1499 is Menkib, or Xi Persei, and is likely energizing the nebula.
The Pleiades, or Seven Sisters
Obvious to the eye and central to the sky lore of many cultures is the Pleiades, aka the Seven Sisters, in Taurus the bull. It is also called Messier 45.
This is a newly formed cluster of hundreds of stars, passing through a dusty region of the Milky Way, which adds the fuzzy glows around the stars — an example of a reflection nebula, glowing blue as it reflects the blue light of the young stars.
Below the Pleiades in Taurus lies the larger Hyades star cluster. The V-shaped cluster stars are all moving together and lie about 150 light years away. Bright yellow Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, is an intruder and lies at only half that distance, so is not a member of Hyades but is a more nearby star. The smaller, more distant star cluster NGC 1647 appears at left.
Low in my northern winter sky is the brightest star in the sky of any season, Sirius. Just above and to the east of Sirius lies the Seagull Nebula (at top left), also called IC 2177, on the Canis Major-Monoceros border. Like many of these nebulas. the Seagull is too faint to easily see even with a telescope, but shows up well in photographs.
Lambda Orionis Nebula
This is the head of Orion, with the red supergiant star Betelgeuse at bottom left and the blue giant star Bellatrix right at bottom right. The brightest star at top is Meissa or Lambda Orionis, and is surrounded by a large and very faint area of hydrogen nebulosity. The open cluster around Meissa is catalogued as Collinder 69.
While the winter Milky Way might not look as bright and spectacular as the summer Milky Way of Sagittarius and Scorpius, it does contains a wealth of wonders that are treats for the eye and telescope … and for the camera.
PS.: The techniques for taking and processing images like these form the content of our new Deep Sky with Your DSLR video course now being promoted on KickStarter until the end of February, and available for purchase once it is published later this spring.
On a very clear night, Orion shines over the skyline of Calgary.
As I live in the country, it’s not often I shoot the stars from urban sites, and certainly not from downtown Calgary. But the combination of a clear night and a speaking commitment in Calgary provided a chance to see what was possible under ideal conditions.
The lead image is real – I did not paste an image of the sky taken at some other time or place over the skyline image.
However, the sky image is a longer exposure (10 seconds) than the ground (3 seconds) in order to bring out the stars better, while keeping the city lights under control with no overexposure. So it is sort of a high dynamic range blend.
The other factor that helped reveal stars as faint as shown here (fainter than what the naked eye can see) is the use of a light pollution reduction filter (a NISI Natural Night filter) to penetrate the yellow sky glow and provide a more pleasing colour to the sky.
Earlier in the night, during twilight when urban light pollution is not so much of an issue, I shot the waxing crescent Moon setting over the skyline.
This is a panorama image made from high dynamic range blends of various exposures, to again accommodate the large range in brightness in the scene. But I did not use the NISI filter here.
These images demonstrate how you can get fine astronomy images even from urban sites, with planning and timing.
To that end, I used my favourite app, The Photographer’s Ephemeris, to determine where the sky elements would be as seen from a couple of viewpoints over the city that I’ve used in the past.
The blue spheres in the left image of TPE in its Night mode represent the Milky Way. That chart also shows the direction toward Orion over the city core.
The right image of TPE in its Day mode shows the position of the Moon at 6 pm that evening, again showing it to the left of the urban core.
Other apps are capable of providing the same information, but I like TPE for its ease of use.
Meteors were raining down the sky on the peak night of the Geminid meteor shower.
Back in August, when I wrote my column for the November-December issue of our Canadian magazine SkyNews, I noticed how good the circumstances were this year for the annual Geminid meteor shower. Normally one of the best showers of the year, if not the best, the Geminids were really going to perform in 2017.
The Moon was near new so its light would not interfere. For western North America, the peak of the shower was also timed for midnight on the night of December 13/14, just when the radiant of the shower was high in the sky.
So in August when I saw the favourable combination of circumstances, I decided a meteor chase was in order. While the shower would be visible from home, Geminid peak night in December is often bitterly cold or cloudy at home in Alberta.
So I planned a trek to Arizona, for the shower and the winter sky.
While skies at home proved decent after all, it was still a chase worth making, with the shower visible under the perfectly clear and dry skies of southeast Arizona.
My chosen site was the Quailway Cottagenear the Arizona Sky Village, the chosen dark sky site for many amateur astronomers, and at the foot of the Chiricahua Mountains. Skies are dark!
The Zodiacal Light was brilliant in the southwest sky for several hours after sunset. A tough sighting at this time of year from most sites, this glow was obvious in the Arizona sky. It is sunlight reflecting off cometary dust particles in the inner solar system.
On the peak night, the visual impression was of meteors appearing at a rate of at least one a minute, if not more frequently.
The images here are all composites of dozens of exposures taken over 2 to 5 hours, stacking many meteors on one frame. So they do provide an exaggerated record of the shower. Meteors weren’t filling the sky! But you certainly did not have to wait long for one to appear, making this one of the best meteor showers in many years.
Most of the Geminids were of average brightness. I didn’t see, nor did the camera catch many very bright “bolides,” the really brilliant meteors that light up the ground.
Nevertheless, this was a night to remember, and a fine way to end what has been a superlative year of stargazing, with a total solar eclipse, great auroras, and for me, a wonderful stay under southern skies on an April trip to Australia.
All the best of the season to you and your family and friends. Clear skies!
Here’s to 2018, which begins with a total eclipse of the Moon on January 31.
The clouds cleared to present a magical night under the Moon in the Badlands of southern Alberta.
At last, a break in the incessant clouds of November, to provide me with a fine night of photography at one of my favourite places, Dinosaur Provincial Park, declared a U.N. World Heritage Site for its deposits of late Cretaceous fossils.
I go there to shoot the night sky over the iconic hoodoos and bentonite clay hills.
November is a great time to capture the equally iconic constellation of Orion rising in the east in the early evening. The scene is even better if there’s a Moon to light the landscape.
November 27 presented the ideal combination of circumstances: clear skies (at least later at night), and a first quarter Moon to provide enough light without washing out the sky too much and positioned to the south and west away from the target of interest – Orion and the winter sky rising in the east.
Below is a slide show of some of the still images I shot, all with the Canon 6D MkII camera and fine Rokinon 14mm f/2.5 lens, used wide open. Most are 15-second exposures, untracked.
I kept another camera, the Nikon D750 and Sigma 24mm Art lens, busy all night shooting 1200 frames for a time-lapse of Orion rising, with clouds drifting through, then clearing.
Below is the resulting video, presented in two versions: first with the original but processed frames assembled into a movie, followed by a version where the movie frames show accumulating star trails to provide a better sense of sky motion.
To create the frames for this version I used the Photoshop actions Advanced Stacker Plus, from StarCircleAcademy. They can stack images then export a new set of frames each with the tapering trails, which you then assemble into a movie. I also used it to produce the lead image at top.
The techniques and steps are all outlined in my eBook, highlighted at top right.
The HD movie is just embedded here, and is not published on Vimeo or YouTube. Expand to fill your screen.
To help plan the shoot I used the astronomy software Starry Night, and the photo planning software The Photographer’s Ephemeris, or TPE. With it, you can place yourself at the exact spot to see how the Sun, Moon and stars will appear in sightlines to the horizon.
Here’s the example screen shot. The spheres across the sky represent the Milky Way.
Look east to see Orion now in the evening sky. Later this winter, Orion will be due south at nightfall.
This post shows that same area of sky (here at top) also setting into the west. But that’s the only area of sky familiar to northern hemisphere stargazers.
Everything below Orion and Sirius is new celestial territory for the northern astronomer. Welcome to the fabulous southern hemisphere sky.
And to the autumn sky – From home it is spring. From here in the southern hemisphere summer is giving way to cool nights of autumn.
Straight up, at centre, is the faint Milky Way area containing the constellations of Puppis and Vela, formerly in the constellation of Argo Navis.
Below, the Milky Way brightens in Carina and Crux, the Southern Cross, where dark lanes divide the Milky Way.
At right, the two patches of light are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, satellite galaxies of our Milky Way.
The bright object at left is Jupiter rising over the Tasman Sea.
I shot this 360° panorama on March 31, 2017 from Cape Conran on the Gippsland Coast of Victoria, Australia, at a latitude of 37° South.
I’ve turned the panorama so Orion appears as we’re used to seeing him, head up and feet below. But here in the southern hemisphere the image below despicts what he looks like, as he dives headfirst into the west in the evening twilight.
The bright object here is the waxing crescent Moon, here in Taurus. Taurus is below Orion, while Sirius (the bright star at top) and the stars of Canis Major are above Orion.
This view above takes in more of Canis Major. Note the Pleiades to the right of the Moon.
Visiting the southern hemisphere is a wonderful experience for any stargazer. The sky is disorienting, but filled with new wonders to see and old sights turned quite literally on their heads!