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 spent a wonderful week touring the star-filled nightscapes of southwest Saskatchewan.
On their license plates Saskatchewan is billed as the Land of Living Skies. I like the moniker that Saskatchewan singer-songwriter Connie Kaldor gives it – the sky with nothing to get in the way.
Grasslands National Park should be a mecca for all stargazers. It is a Dark Sky Preserve. You can be at sites in the Park and not see a light anywhere, even in the far distance on the horizon, and barely any sky glows from manmade sources.
The lead image shows the potential for camping in the Park under an amazing sky, an attraction that is drawing more and more tourists to sites like Grasslands.
This is a multi- panel panorama of the Milky Way over the historic 76 Ranch Corral in the Frenchman River Valley, once part of the largest cattle ranch in Canada. Mars shines brightly to the east of the galactic core.
Mars and the Milky Way over the tipis at Two Trees area in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan on August 6, 2018. Some light cloud added the haze and glows to the planets and stars. Illumination is by starlight. No light painting was employed here. This is a stack of 8 exposures for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise, and a single untracked exposure for the sky, all 30 seconds at f/2.8 with the Sigma 20mm lens, and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400 with LENR on.
Mars (at left) and the Milky Way (at right) over a single tipi (with another under construction at back) at the Two Trees site at Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan, August 6, 2018. I placed a low-level warm LED light inside the tipi for the illumination. This is a stack of 6 exposures, mean combined to smooth noise, for the ground, and one untracked exposure for the sky, all 30 seconds at f/2.2 with the 20mm Sigma lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200.
The Big Dipper and Arcturus (at left) over a single tipi at the Two Trees site at Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan, August 6, 2018. This is a stack of 10 exposures, mean combined to smooth noise, for the ground, and one untracked exposure for the sky, all 30 seconds at f/2.8 with the 20mm Sigma lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400. Light cloud passing through added the natural star glows, enlarging the stars and making the pattern stand out. No soft focus filter was employed, and illumination is from starlight. No light painting was employed. Some airglow and aurora colour the sky. A Glow filter from ON1 Photo Raw applied to the sky to further soften the sky.
At the Two Trees site visitors can stay in the tipis and enjoy the night sky. No one was there the night I was shooting. The night was warm, windless, and bug-less. It was a perfect summer evening.
From Grasslands I headed west to the Cypress Hills along scenic backroads. The main Meadows Campground in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, another Dark Sky Preserve, is home every year to the Saskatchewan Summer Star Party. About 350 stargazers and lovers of the night gather to revel in starlight.
The Perseid meteor shower over the Saskatchewan Summer Star Party, on August 10, 2018, with an aurora as a bonus. The view is looking north with Polaris at top centre, and the Big Dipper at lower left. The radiant point in Perseus is at upper right. The sky also has bands of green airglow, which was more prominent in images taken earlier before the short-lived aurora kicked up. The aurora was not obvious to the naked eye. However, the northern sky was bright all night with the airglow and faint aurora. This is a composite of 10 images, one for the base sky with the aurora and two faint Perseids, and 9 other images, each with Perseids taken over a 3.3 hour period, being the best 9 frames with meteors out of 360. Each exposure was 30 seconds at f/2 with the 15mm Laoawa lens and Sony a7III at ISO 4000. I rotated all the additional meteor image frames around Polaris to align the frames to the base sky image, so that the added meteors appear in the sky in the correct place with respect to the background stars, retaining the proper perspective of the radiant point.
A Perseid meteor streaks down the Milky Way over the Saskatchewan Summer Star Party in the Cypress Hills of southwest Saskatchewan, at Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, a Dark Sky Preserve. The Milky Way shines to the south. About 350 stargazers attend the SSSP every year. Observers enjoy their views of the sky at left while an astrophotographer attends to his camera control computer at right. This is a single exposure, 25 seconds, with the Laowa 15mm lens at f/2 and Sony a7III camera at ISO 3200.
This year coincided with the annual Perseid meteor shower and we saw lots!
Most nights were clear, and warmer than usual, allowing shirt-sleeve observing. It was a little bit of Arizona in Canada. Everyone enjoyed the experience. I know I did!
SSSP and Cypress Hills are stargazing heaven in Canada.
From Cypress Hills I drove due north to finally, after years of thinking about it, visit the Great Sandhills near Leader, Saskatchewan. Above is a panorama from the “Boot Hill” ridge at the main viewing area.
The Sandhills is not a provincial park but is a protected eco zone, though used by local ranchers for grazing. However, much of the land remains uniquely prairie but with exposed sand dunes among the rolling hills.
There are farm lights in the distance but the sky above is dark and, in the panorama above, colored by twilight and bands of red and green airglow visible to the camera. It’s dark!
In the twilight, from the top of one of the accessible sand dunes, I shot a panorama of the array of four planets currently across the sky, from Venus in the southwest to Mars in the southeast.
This is the kind of celestial scene you can see only where the sky has nothing to get in the way.
If you are looking for a stellar experience under their “living skies,” I recommend Saskatchewan.
Solstice nights have been filled with twilights, planets, and noctilucent clouds.
Astronomers tend to curse the short nights and late sunsets of summer solstice. But the bright nights do offer unique sights.
Over the last few nights I’ve set up at what I call “Solstice Pond,” a prairie slough near home ideal for shooting the aurora to the north and, at this time of year, the glow of twilight and noctilucent clouds.
Below is the view on the night before solstice, looking north toward the glow of “perpetual twilight” that lights the northern horizon at solstice time from my latitude of 50° north.
From farther north the twilight would be more prominent, while above the Arctic Circle at 66° N latitude, the twilight turns to full daylight as the Sun never sets.
The view looking south this night, with the Moon just off frame at right, includes the Milky Way at centre, with Saturn embedded, flanked by bright Jupiter at right and reddish Mars at left, both casting shimmering “glitter paths” on the still waters.
A few nights later (below), on June 24, the star of the solstice sky put in an appearance. Bright noctilucent clouds (NLCs) shone to the north, reflected in the pond.
These are water vapour clouds 80 kilometres high at the edge of the atmosphere – in the mesosphere – almost in space. They form over the Arctic in summer, and are high enough to remain sunlit even in the middle of the night as they catch the Sun shining over the pole.
Southern Western Canada – the Prairies where I live – is well-placed to see them, as we are far enough north to see them in our sky, but not so far north that our sky is too bright.
An even better display appeared two nights later, on June 26, brighter and with more structure.
The curving arc of the top of the display defines the most southerly edge where sunlight is able to reach. That edge drops lower through the first part of the night, as the Sun itself drops lower below the horizon. This causes less of the NLC display to be sunlit.
You can see this effect of the changing illumination of the clouds in this time-lapse compilation from June 26 (below).
Also notice the waving motion of the clouds. It is as if the NLC material is flowing over standing waves in the atmosphere – and it is! The waves are called “gravity waves,” and are bumps in the high atmosphere created by disturbances far below in the normal layers of the atmosphere, the stratosphere and troposphere.
The video includes two clips shot simultaneously: from a camera with a 24mm wide-angle lens, and from a camera with an 85mm moderate telephoto. Expand to view full screen in HD.
The motion, here over an hour or more, is hypnotic. The NLCs move right to left (east to west), while the dark normal weather clouds on the horizon are blowing left to right (west to east). The stars are also turning left to right. The water ripples in the wind, while ducks swim by.
“No ocean of water in the world can vie with its gorgeous sunsets; no solitude can equal the loneliness of a night-shadowed prairie.” – William Butler, 1873
In the 1870s, just before the coming of the railway and European settlement, English adventurer William Butler trekked the Canadian prairies, knowing what he called “The Great Lone Land” was soon to disappear as a remote and unsettled territory.
The quote from his book is on a plaque at the site where I took the lead image, Sunset Point at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.
The night was near perfect, with the Milky Way standing out down to the southern horizon and the Sweetgrass Hills of Montana. Below, the Milk River winds through the sandstone rock formations sacred to the Blackfoot First Nations.
The next night (last night, July 26, as I write this) I was at another unique site in southern Alberta, Red Rock Coulee Natural Area. The sky presented one of Butler’s unmatched prairie sunsets.
This is “big sky” country, and this week is putting on a great show with a succession of clear and mild nights under a heat wave.
The waxing crescent Moon adds to the western sky and the sunsets. But it sets early enough to leave the sky dark for the Milky Way to shine to the south.
This was the Milky Way on Wednesday night, July 27, over Red Rock Coulee. Sagittarius and the centre of the Galaxy lie above the horizon. At right, Saturn shines amid the dark lanes of the Dark Horse in the Milky Way.
I’m just halfway through my week-long photo tour of several favourite sites in this Great Lone Land. Next, is Cypress Hills and the Reesor Ranch.
The arch of the Milky Way mirrors the sweep of the Red Deer River on a magical night in the Alberta Badlands.
Images of the Milky Way arching across the sky are now iconic. They are almost always assembled from individual frames stitched together to make a seamless panorama.
From the northern hemisphere, spring is the best season to shoot such a panorama as the Milky Way then remains confined to the eastern sky.
Later in summer, when the Milky Way passes directly overhead, panoramas are still possible, but the Milky Way looks distorted. The process of mapping a round sky onto a rectangular image, as I show here, inevitably stretches out the Milky Way near the zenith.
Last Saturday, in search of the Milky Way during prime panorama season, I set up for the night at Orkney Viewpoint overlooking the Red Deer River in the Alberta Badlands north of Drumheller. There, the river performs a grand curve through the valley below.
Above, the Milky Way, often described as a river of stars, sweeps in mirror-image fashion above the earthly river.
The panorama above contains the reflection of stars – of the constellation of Delphinus in particular – in the smooth water on a windless night.
To the north at left, the Northern Lights put on a subtle show. While never spectacular to the eye, the camera records the aurora’s colour and forms that often elude the naked eye.
The display was brightest early in the evening – that’s 11 p.m. now in May at my latitude.
The display then faded in intensity before I shot the two panoramas about 1 a.m., but the last few frames of the time-lapse show a final burst of colour from a lone curtain reflected in the river.
This was a magical night indeed. And a rare one this spring with clouds more often the norm at night.
The next dark of the Moon coincides with summer solstice. So while the moonlight won’t interfere, critical for shooting the Milky Way, the glow of perpetual twilight at my latitude will. The Milky Way will be set in a deep blue sky.
By July’s dark of the Moon the Milky Way will be high overhead, making panorama arches tough to assemble. It looks like this might have been my one best night to capture such a scene this year. But it was a good one.
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!