A clear day on Easter Eve allowed me to photograph the setting Full Moon in the morning and the rising Full Moon in the evening.
This was another of the year’s special Full Moons, and this time for a valid historical reason.
This was the “paschal” Full Moon, the one used to determine the date of Easter. It was the first Full Moon after the vernal equinox. The first Sunday after that Full Moon is Easter. This year, the Moon was full about an hour before sunrise on the morning of Saturday, March 31. Easter was the next day, Sunday, April 1.
Below is the view of the Full Moon not long after it was officially Full, as it was setting into the west as the first rays of sunlight lit the foreground at dawn on March 31.
To be precise, the actual paschal Full Moon is a fictional or calculated Moon that occurs 14 days into the lunar cycle, and isn’t an observed Moon. But this year, we really did have a Full Moon just before Easter Sunday, and on the first day of Passover, from which we get the term “paschal.”
Later on March 31, after sunset, the Moon was now half a day past Full, causing it to rise a good half hour after sunset. However, the lighting and sky colour was still good enough to place a reddened Moon rising into a deep blue sky for a wonderful colour contrast.
This was also touted as a “blue Moon,” as it was the second Full Moon in March, and it was also the second blue Moon of 2018. (January had one, too.) But as you can see the Moon was hardly “blue!” It was a fine pink Moon.
The above image is a little fun with Photoshop, and stacks hundreds of images of the rising Moon to create a “Moon trail,” showing the change in colour of the Moon as it rose.
This short HD movie includes two versions of the full time-lapse sequence:
• One showing the Moon rising normally, though the sky and ground come from the first image in the sequence.
• The second is another bit of Photoshop fun, with the Moon leaving disks behind it as it rose.
For the technically minded, I created both movies using Photoshop’s video editing capabilities to layer in various still images on top of the base video file. The stills are layered with a Lighten blend mode to superimpose them onto the background sky and video.
While Easter is a spring holiday, it hardly seems spring here in Alberta. The coldest Easter weekend in decades and lots of snow on the ground made this a winter scene.
With luck, spring will arrive here well before the next Full Moon.
New Year’s Day proved to be a busy one for sky sights from home in southern Alberta.
Clear skies and warming temperatures allowed me to capture a trio of sights on January 1: Mercury in the morning, a unique mirage called the Fata Morgana in the afternoon, and the rising Full Moon in the evening.
On January 1 elusive Mercury was at its greatest elongation away from the Sun in the morning sky. This placed it as high as it can get above the horizon, though that’s not high at all at the best of times.
I captured Mercury before dawn as a bright star in the colourful twilight, using a telephoto lens to frame the scene more closely.
At this time the temperature outside was still about -24° C, as a cold snap that had plunged the prairies into frigid air for the last week still held its grip.
But by the afternoon, warmer air was drifting in from the west, in a Chinook flow from the Rockies.
As evidence of the change, the air exhibited a form of mirage called the Fata Morgana, named after the sorceress Morgan le Fay of Arthurian legend. The illusion of castles in the air was thought to be a spell cast by her to lure sailors to their doom.
The mirage produced the illusion of bodies of water in the distance, plus distorted, elongated forms of wind turbines and farm buildings on the horizon. The cause is the refraction of light by layers of warm air aloft, above cold air near the ground.
By evening the mirage effect was still in place, producing a wonderful moonrise with the Full Moon writhing and rippling as it rose through the temperature inversion.
As the lead image at top shows, at moments the top of the disk had a green rim (almost a distinct green flash), while the bottom was tinted red.
Here’s a short time-lapse video of the scene, shot through a small telescope. The lead image above and below is a composite of four of the frames from this movie.
This was also the largest and closest Full Moon of the year, what has become popularly called a “supermoon,” but more correctly called a perigean Full Moon.
A lunar cycle from now, at the next Full Moon, the Moon undergoes a total eclipse in the dawn hours of January 31 for western North America. This will be another misnamed Moon, a “blue Moon,” the label for the second Full Moon in a calendar month.
And some will also be calling it a “supermoon,” as it also occurs close to perigee – the closest point of the Moon to Earth in its monthly orbit – but not as close a perigee as it was at on January 1.
So it will be less than super, but it will nevertheless be spectacular as the Full “blue” Moon turns red as it travels through Earth’s shadow.
The Northern Lights dance in the solstice sky over a prairie lake.
This was a surprise display. Forecasts called for a chance of Lights on Saturday, June 24, but I wasn’t expecting much.
Nevertheless, I headed to a nearby lake (Crawling Lake) to shoot north over the water, not of the Lights, but of noctilucent clouds, a phenomenon unique to the summer solstice sky and our latitudes here on the Canadian prairies.
But as the night darkened (quite late at solstice time) the aurora began to appear in the deepening twilight.
I started shooting and kept shooting over the next four hours. I took a break from the time-lapses to shoot some panoramas, such as the headline image at top, capturing the sweep of the auroral oval over the lake waters.
Just on the horizon you can see some noctilucent clouds (NLCs) as well – clouds so high they are lit by the Sun all night long. NLCs sit at the same height as the bottom of the auroral curtains. But they appear here lower and much farther away, which they likely were, sitting farther north than the auroral band.
I also shot this 360° panorama (above) capturing the arc of the aurora and of the Milky Way. This is a stitch of 8 segments with a 14mm lens mounted in portrait mode.
I’ve assembled the several time-lapse sequences I shot into a short music video. Check it out on Vimeo here. Click through to the Vimeo page for more technical information on the video sequences.
As always click HD, and relax and enjoy the dancing lights over the calm waters of a prairie lake on a summer evening.
The Full Moon of June rose into a twilight sky over a prairie pond.
On June 9, the clouds cleared to present an ideal sky for capturing the rising of the so-called “Strawberry Moon,” the popular name for the Full Moon of June.
The lead image is a composite of 15 frames, taken at roughly 2.5-minute intervals and stacked in Photoshop with the Lighten blend mode.
The image below is a single frame.
I set up beside a small local prairie pond, to shoot the moonrise over the water. Ducks enjoyed the view and a muskrat swam by at one point.
I shot over 1100 frames, at two-second intervals to create a time-lapse of the rising Moon, as it brightened and turned from yellow-orange (not quite strawberry pink) to a bright white.
Here’s the time-lapse vignette.
Click on HD for the best view.
While the Harvest Moon gets lots of PR, as this sequence shows any Full Moon can provide a fine sight, and look yellow, due to absorption of the blue wavelengths by the atmosphere as the Moon rises, or as it sets.
However, the timing can vary from Full Moon to Full Moon. This one was ideal, with it rising right at sunset. If the Moon comes up too late, the sky might have already darkened, producing too great a difference in brightness between the Moon and background sky to be photogenic.
But what of these Moon names? How authentic are they?
Who called this the Strawberry Moon? Native Americans? No. Or at best only one or two nations.
The names like “Strawberry Moon” that are popularized in the media today come from the American Farmers Almanac, and everyone – science writers and bloggers – ends up copying and pasting the same wrong, or at best misleading, information from the Almanac.
Search for “Strawberry Moon” or “Moon names” and you’ll find the same explanation repeated verbatim and unquestioned by many writers. Alas, the Almanac is not an authoritative source – after all, they were the source of a misleading definition of Blue Moon decades ago.
The solar winds blew some fine auroras our way this past week.
Oh, that I had been in the North last week, where the sky erupted with jaw-dropping displays. I could only watch those vicariously via webcams, such as the Explore.org Northern Lights Cam at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.
But here in southern Alberta we were still treated to some fine displays across our northern sky. The image below is from March 1, from my rural backyard.
The Sun wasn’t particularly active and there were no coronal mass ejections per se. But a hole in the corona let a wind of solar particles through to buffet our magnetosphere, stirring up geomagnetic storms of Level 4 to 5 scale. That’s good enough to light our skies in western Canada.
Above is the display from March 2, taken over a frozen pond near home. I like how the Lights reflect in the ice.
This night, for about 30 minutes, an odd auroral form appeared that we see from time to time at our latitudes. A wider panorama shows this isolated arc well south of the main auroral oval and forming a thin arc stretching across the sky from west to east.
The panorama above shows just the western and eastern portion of the arc. Overhead (image below) it looked like this briefly.
Visually, it appeared colourless. But the camera picks up this isolated arc’s usual pink color, with a fringe of white and sometimes (here very briefly) a “picket-fence” effect of green rays.
This is the view of the isolated arc to the west. Erroneously called “proton arcs,” these are not caused by incoming protons. Those produce a very diffuse, usually sub-visual glow. But the exact nature of these isolated arcs remains a mystery.
As we head into solar minimum in the nest few years, displays of Northern Lights at lower latitudes will become less frequent. But even without major solar activity, last week’s displays demonstrated we can still get good shows.
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.
The early part of the evening was lit by moonlight, which lent itself to some nice nightscapes scenes but fewer meteors.
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!
The 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.
The sky presented a pyrotechnic display of light and colour in the sunset sky.
What a show tonight, July 18, as a thunderstorm lit the sky with bolts of lightning. As the storm retreated, the Sun broke through, ideal lighting for a rainbow. In this case I was able to capture the rainbow pierced by bolts of lightning. See below for tech details.
A little later, the sunlight got stronger and the rainbow grew to span the sky, in a beautiful display of a double rainbow lit by the red light of the setting Sun.
As the beams of sunlight lit the clouds, it looked like the rainbow was on fire.
It has been a stormy start to summer in Alberta, but at times the sky has put on a stunning show. That was certainly the case tonight.
Technical on the Lightning and Rainbow shot at top:
This is a stack of 35 consecutive video frames taken with HD (1920 x 1080) resolution at 30 frames per second with the Canon 6D, and extracted as an image sequence with Photoshop, then processed in Adobe Camera Raw, then stacked with Russell Brown’s Stack-A-Matic into a smart object with maximum stack mode, to accumulate the frames taken over about 1 second into one still frame.
So I could have got this with a single 1-second exposure with the lens stopped way down and a ND filter, but my timing would have had to have been very, very lucky!
I am pleased to present my latest music video featuring Alberta Skies in motion, set to the music of Ian Tyson.
My 5-minute video features time-lapse imagery shot over the last three years in the plains, badlands, and mountains of Alberta.
Do click through to Vimeo and view in HD for the best quality.
The footage is set to the music of Alberta singer/songwriter Ian Tyson, and his superb rendition of Home on the Range. It is used by kind permission of Ian Tyson and Stony Plain Records. Thanks!
It was hearing Ian’s version of this song on CBC one day in 1992 when his album And Stood There Amazed came out that inspired me to move back to Alberta and the great landscapes of the west that I knew I wanted to capture.
Little did I know at the time how it was going to be possible in the 2000s to do it in time-lapse.
A bright display of noctilucent clouds last night prompts me to remind northerners to look north at this prime season for night shining clouds.
Noctilucent clouds (NLCs) can be seen only in summer and are best in the few weeks before and after (mostly after) summer solstice. I shot all these images in the middle of the night. Indeed, the two images above and just below are from 3 am on the morning of June 27.
NLCs are high altitude clouds at the edge of space some 80 kilometres above the Earth, far above any normal weather clouds. Their height allows sunlight streaming over the pole to illuminate them all night long.
Their cause is a mystery. They may form by water vapour condensing on meteoric dust particles.
They look luminescent, as if glowing on their own. But these are not auroras. They shine only by reflected sunlight.
And they have complex structures, with intricate waves and ripples.
And they move very slowly, as this time-lapse from June 17 shows.
Readers living at a latitude between 45° and 55° are best situated to see “NLCs.” From farther south the clouds will be below the horizon. From farther north the sky may be too bright with twilight and the angle of illumination wrong for optimum viewing.
Unlike auroras, there is no predicting when they might appear. Some nights when it is clear where you are, no NLCs appear. Perhaps that’s because of cloud much farther north blocking the path of light from the Sun on the other side of the planet to the clouds on our side of the Earth.
But by the end of July NLC season is coming to an end as the Sun drops farther below the northern horizon at night, and the nights get darker.
So over the next four weeks, look low in the north for night shining clouds.
This was the trio of planets at their best in the morning sky.
On the morning of October 28, Mars, Venus and Jupiter formed a neat isosceles triangle in the twilight. Venus, the brightest, was in the middle, with Mars below and Jupiter above. The grouping shone amid the stars of Leo, with its brightest star, Regulus, above the windmill in the lead image above. The rest of Leo lies above the planets.
To capture the scene I drove west at 5 am to a farmstead I had shot at before, in June, to capture Venus and Jupiter, also then in Leo near Regulus, but in the evening sky looking west. Click here for that blog post from mid-June.
This morning, the Moon, just past full as the annual Hunter’s Moon, shone in the west off camera lighting the landscape.
The dawn sky colours and the moonlit red barn made for a fine colour contrast.
After today, the planet configuration breaks up, as Venus descends to meet Mars on November 2 and 3, while Jupiter climbs higher. But another great morning sight awaits on November 7 when the waning crescent Moon will shine near the Venus-Mars pairing, with Jupiter above.
On the way home I stopped at fog-bound Lake MacGregor to capture the planets in a brightening dawn sky over the misty waters.
This morning the three planets lay just 4.5 degrees apart, close enough to frame in high-power binoculars.
We won’t see these three planets this close to each other in a darkened sky — as opposed to being so close to the Sun we really can’t see them — until November 21, 2111.
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.
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.
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.
Here’s the view looking east, with a green aurora fringed with red lighting the northern sky.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
The Milky Way shines behind the rustic corral of the 76 Ranch in Grasslands National Park.
It’s not a gunfight at the OK Corral, but starlight at the 76 Ranch Corral. I shot this Tuesday night in the Frenchman River valley in Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park.
The scene captures the summer Milky Way, some green bands of airglow, and the old corral lit by starlight and some aurora beginning to brighten to the north.
Some occasional flashes of distant spotlights from down the valley also provide foreground illumination. The lights came from ferret spotters out at night checking on the nocturnal black-footed ferret.
The corral once belonged to the 76 Ranch, one of the largest in Canada in its day and owned by Sir John Lister-Kaye, one of many upper class Brits who came to Canada in the 1880s to make their fortune in the newly opened range lands — until drought and hard winters of the southern Prairies forced them to sell out and break up their once huge land holdings.
This image is a composite, but of five frames all shot at the same place in quick succession. I did not fake the sky into a foreground shot at some other time and place.
Four shots are tracked, to follow the sky for pinpoint stars. I used the new Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer tracker.
For one shot at the end of the sequence I turned the tracker’s drive off to take a single sharp image of the foreground.
Using masking in Photoshop I removed the blurry foreground from the sky images and the blurry trailed sky from the ground image.
Each was a 3-minute exposure at ISO 1600 with the 24mm lens at f/2.5.
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.
What a spectacular sunset tonight. The Sun is just going down in a blaze of red, while the waxing Moon shines in the deep blue twilight.
I grabbed the camera fast when I saw this happening out my front window, and raced out to the ripening wheat field across the road.
The top image is a 360° panorama of the sky, with the Sun at right and the Moon left of centre. The zenith is along the top of the image.
I used a 14mm lens in portrait mode to cover the scene from below the horizon to the zenith, taking 7 segments to sweep around the scene.
You can see the darkening of the sky at centre, 90° away from the Sun, due to natural polarization of the skylight.
I shot this sunset image a little earlier, when the Sun was higher but still deep red in the smoky haze that has marked the sky of late. It certainly gives the scene a divine appearance!
This is a 5-exposure high-dynamic-range composite to capture the tonal range from bright sky to darker ground, the wheat field. I increased the contrast to bring out the cloud shadows – crepuscular rays.
I boosted colour vibrancy but didn’t alter the actual colours – it was a superb sky.
I used PTGui v10 to stitch the panorama at top and Photomatix Pro to stack and tone the HDR set. While Photoshop is wonderful it did not work for assembling either of these images.
It was windy day out on the wind farm, with some wonderful cloudscapes blowing by.
Shooting time-lapse movies by day is so much easier than shooting at night! Yesterday, to try out some new gear and grab footage for some demo videos, I drove to the nearby Wintering Hills Wind Farm, site of some previous images and movies I’ve posted. It’s a wonderful place for nightscapes, but in this case I shot cloudscapes by day.
The movie compiles five time-lapse clips into a short demo of cloudscapes and time-lapse techniques: using fixed cameras and using cameras on motorized devices that move the camera a little between each time-lapse frame – what’s called “motion control.”
It might take a moment to load and play through. But do expand it to full screen.
For two clips in the movie I used a Dynamic Perception Stage Zero dolly rail, a unit I bought two years ago and have used a lot for time-lapse shooting.
Here I show it on the new pair of Induro tripods, a much more stable arrangement than the single large tripod I had been using up to now. What’s also new is the Stage R panning unit, now attached to the dolly platform, here on the left (the controller is on the right).
What this motorized unit does is allow the camera to slowly turn in azimuth as it is running down the rail, to keep the camera aimed at a foreground subject, or to pan along the horizon, as I do in one of the clips in the movie.
This is a brand new piece of kit, purchased last month through Dynamic Perception’s Kickstarter campaign. I got one of the first batch of units shipped out. It works very well but takes a little practice to get the speeds set right. I’m still working on that!
I hope you enjoy the little demo movie. It shows that even cloudy skies can be photogenic at times!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
May ends with a thin waxing Moon returning to the evening sky.
This was the scene on a fine Friday evening, May 30, as the two-day-old Moon returned to the western sky.
Mercury was not far away, and is in this frame but at far upper right. I wasn’t really framing the shot with Mercury in mind, but the Moon and clouds.
This frame is one of 440 I shot for a time-lapse sequence of the setting Moon and moving clouds. This is the result, nicely deflickered with LRTimelapse software, an essential tool for time-lapse processing.
How many times have I tried to shoot the Moon or Mercury low in the west and been foiled by cloud near the horizon? Notice the rain falling from the western cloud. Some place near Calgary was getting wet!
The thin waning Moon sits in the red clouds of sunrise on a winter morning.
This was the scene this morning, February 27, just before sunrise when I was able to catch the thin crescent Moon – a waning Moon – amid the sunrise clouds. The Moon just happened to appear in a clearer hole in the clouds, in a blue patch above the pinks and oranges of the clouds. They contrast with the cold blue snow below.
A solar halo and sundogs surround the Sun on a cold winter day in Alberta.
I’m back home amid the snow and cold. The one celestial treat to such a clear but cold winter day is the appearance of sundogs and solar halos around the cold Sun.
This was this morning, with the low winter Sun above my snow-covered backyard, and the air filled with tiny ice crystals. You can see them as sparkly “stars” in the sky and in the foreground. Those crystals are refracting the sunlight and making the coloured “rainbows” on either side of the Sun called “parhelia” or sundogs. A faint halo encircles the Sun, topped by an upper tangent arc.
You can read more about halos and their origin at Les Cowley’s AtmosphericOptics website.
Here’s another view with a wider-angle lens. I’ve punched up the vibrance to bring out the fact that the shadows on such a day are not black or grey but blue, coloured by the intense blue light streaming down from the sky.
With these winter scenes, I wish all my blog fans and followers a very Merry Christmas, happy holidays and a very happy New Year. Clear skies to all in 2014!
The ghostly glow of comet dust brightens an October dawn.
This is the zodiacal light, as it appeared two mornings ago in the pre-dawn sky from my backyard in southern Alberta. This tapering glow angled up from the horizon is best spotted in the eastern sky on clear and moonless autumn mornings, like this one.
What you are seeing is sunlight reflected off dust left by passing comets in the inner solar system. So while this glow looks like it might originate in our atmosphere it really comes from dust out in interplanetary space.
This subtle glow, often called the “false dawn,” appears in the hour or so before the true dawn begins to brighten the sky too much (its purple light is just starting to light the horizon here).
Also visible here: Sirius at far right, Jupiter above centre, the Beehive star cluster below Jupiter, and Leo rising embedded in the zodiacal light, with Mars just above Regulus, Leo’s brightest star. The planets lie along the zodiacal light because the dust that causes it also lies in the same plane as the orbits of the planets, the ecliptic plane.
I shot this with a 14mm lens for a stack of four 2-minute tracked exposures, but with the horizon coming from just one of the exposures to minimize blurring from the moving camera slowly following the sky.
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.
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.
The waning Moon shines below Mars and beside the star Regulus in the dawn twilight.
This was the scene before sunrise this morning with the waning crescent Moon near Mars (above the Moon) and the star Regulus (left of the Moon) in Leo. Mars is getting the attention this week as Comet ISON flies near the planet and also appears near Mars in our earthly sky.
However, the comet is still very faint and needs a large telescope to see from Earth. It will be interesting to see if any of the Mars probes are able to image it, as ISON is still fainter than predicted and might be beyond their reach to detect. But if they do, they could help determine just how big ISON is and that in turn will tell us if it might survive its November 28 passage round the Sun to become a fine dawn object in December.
The Big Dipper swings behind the Hoodoos in the Red Deer River badlands on a moonlit night.
Last night I headed north to the Red Deer River valley to shoot a time-lapse over the river with the badland hills lit by the rising waning Moon. After finishing that I stopped at the popular Hoodoos tourist attraction on Highway 10 east of Drumheller. I had the place to myself at midnight, and the photo ops around the moonlit hoodoos were many.
These formations form when harder capstone rock prevents the soft lower layers from eroding in the rain.
The Big Dipper was nicely positioned above the hills as it swings low across the northern horizon in autumn.
Here I aimed back toward the Moon, with its glare muted by high cloud, and backlighting the hoodoos. The stars of Perseus are rising at left. Unlike normal astrophotography, with nightscape work, and certainly time-lapse shooting, clouds can be a benefit.
This was a great spot to end an evening of nightscape shooting.
The Harvest Moon rises into the dark arc of the Earth’s shadow.
What a perfect night this was. The Full Moon rose into a crystal clear sky, tinted with the dark blue shadow of our planet arching across the eastern sky.
The main image above is a 7-section panorama sweeping from northeast to southeast, but centred on the rising Harvest Moon rising almost due east.
The Moon came up just before the Sun set. The panorama below shows that scene. It’s a crop of a full 360°, 45,000-pixel-wide panorama, taken just as the Sun was setting almost due west and the Moon was rising 180° away in the east.
I took both panoramas with a Canon 5D MkII and 50mm Sigma lens, with the segments at a 30° spacing. That way I take 12 segments to cover a full 360°, a habit leftover from the days of shooting photo pans for planetarium projection systems consisting of 12 Kodak slide projectors.
My previous post showed some still frames from a time-lapse movie of the rising Harvest Moon. The final movie is above, assembled from 670 frames taken at 2-second intervals with the Canon 60Da and 200mm lens. I’ve shot this subject a few times now, but this was my best capture of the rising Full Moon at harvest time, always the most photogenic Moon it seems.
The Harvest Moon rises with pink hues into the deep blue twilight over prairie fields.
This was the scene tonight, September 19, as the Full Moon rose into a clear eastern sky. The view was perfect, with a cloudless horizon (for a change!) and the Moon prominent and pink as it rose into the twilight sky.
The main image is from a few minutes after moonrise. The bottom image, with a dimmer Moon, is from just after moonrise.
In neither case did I punch up the Moon in contrast or colour separately from the sky to make it stand out more than it did in real life. And I certainly did not paste a telephoto lens shot of the Moon into a wide-angle scene. That’s faking it. This is real.
Both frames are from a 670-frame time-lapse sequence, from the Moon first peaking above the horizon to when it rose out of frame at top right. That’s still in processing!
The Harvest Full Moon sets into a prairie scene lit by the rising Sun.
This was the scene this morning, September 19, as the Full Moon set just after sunrise on a perfectly clear morning.
Clear, of course, but for the only clouds in the sky just where I wanted to shoot. However, in this case they did help make the scene, adding more colours to the western sky at dawn.
This was the true Harvest Moon, as moonset occurred only a couple of hours after the official moment of Full Moon. However, the setting moons of Wednesday night, September 18 and Thursday night, September 19 can both claim to also be the Harvest Moon, the Full Moon closest to the autumnal equinox.
I plan to shoot the Moon coming up again, 12 hours after it set for this photo, and right at sunset tonight.
The Pleiades rises beyond the old farm gate on a moonlit prairie night.
It’s been a wonderful few nights for nightscape photography, with a bright gibbous Moon lighting the golden prairie landscape. Skies have been clear and the nights warm, ideal for 3-hour shoots of old farmsteads and prairie scenes.
I’ve spent the last few nights at the abandoned farm near home, shooting time-lapses. This is from Monday night, and is one frame from a 360-frame dolly-motion time-lapse.
The Pleiades star cluster rises in the east over the old barn and farm gate. A car travels through the coulee, leaving a streak of headlights.
I hope the weather continues, so I can harvest some more images, making time-lapse “hay” while the Moon shines!
A vast blue sky and summer storm clouds arch over a prairie landscape.
This is a place where you are out on the vast open plains, looking much as they would have appeared hundreds of years ago. This is big sky country, in southwest Saskatchewan. I shot this 360° panorama last Sunday, on a road I get to take every few years that is one of the great drives in western Canada.
Some years it is too wet and impassable. Other years it is too dry and closed because of the fire hazard.
This is the Gap Road, a mud track at times between the Saskatchewan and Alberta units of Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park. The road crosses private rangeland but the cattle are the only giveaway that this is a modern scene and not one from the 19th century.
In 1872 the British explorer and adventurer William Francis Butler crossed the prairies and northern plains in the last days of the buffalo culture, before the cattle and ranchers arrived. He called it then The Great Lone Land. You feel that sense in a place like this, out on the open treeless plains. 150 years ago great herds of bison roamed here. And it was here that the North West Mounted Police set up their first outpost in the area, at Fort Walsh, to stop the incursions of the American “wolfers.”
The sky dominates the scene. I spent an hour here, shooting a time-lapse of the approaching thunderstorm, at right, coming toward me from miles away, until it filled the sky and threatened to turn the road back into mud.
It was a wonderful day spent crossing the prairies, and traveling back in time.
The waxing Moon shines above a ripening field of wheat on a prairie August evening.
A track winds off through the wheat field toward the western twilight sky, while a waxing Moon shines in the south.
This was the scene tonight just down the county road where I live, on a warm August night on the Canadian Prairies.
For this shot, I assembled a high dynamic range set from eight exposures taken over a range of 8 f-stops, to compress the wide range of brightness into the one photo. Even so, the Moon remains overexposed. But I like shooting these scenes in deep twilight for more saturated colours and for some stars in the sky.
The play of light and shadow in the open air create wonderful effects by night and day.
The Moon and Sun have each created some wonderful sky scenes of late, aided by clouds casting shadows and sunbeams across the sky.
Above, the rising waning Moon on Saturday night shone its warm light across the prairies. Clouds cast dark shadows diverging away from the Moon.
By day, clouds created the opposite effect. Holes in the clouds let through beams of sunlight, creating rays descending from the sky dancing across the land.
Both effects are technically known as crepuscular rays. You can read much more about the phenomenon at the wonderful Atmospheric Optics website. Clouds aren’t always the evil presence in the sky astronomers take them for. They can produce stunning effects. Just look up!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Sun rises into a pastel palette of sky and earth tones.
I woke up early, just at sunrise, looked outside and wow!
I grabbed the camera and telephoto and got another nice shot right from my back deck. The canola field next to my yard is proving to be a photogenic foreground now that it’s in full bloom, just in the last couple of weeks.
There was enough haze and humidity in the air to dull the Sun to a fiery orange. The range of shades in earth and sky was wonderful. It was a classic prairie scene worth getting up for.
Being able to see the horizon is why I live on the plains and not in the foothills or mountains. And certainly not in the city!
The Milky Way arches over a field of yellow canola on a dark summer night.
The night was beautifully clear and moonless with a glow to the north of perpetual twilight still lingering. The Milky Way was obvious so I hiked to the middle of the canola field next to my house, visible here lit by the red lights at left.
To shoot this panorama I used the same technique as in the The Colour of Dark panorama image from last month which has proved quite popular: I shot eight exposures at 45° spacings using the 8mm fish eye lens. Each was a 60 second exposure at ISO 4000 and f/3.5. I assembled the panorama using PTGui software, from images processed in Adobe Camera Raw.
The sky was well exposed but the ground was still dark, lit only by starlight. It took some processing in Camera Raw (Shadow Detail) and Photoshop (Shadows and Highlights) to bring out the yellow field of canola in the foreground.
While the sky looked neutral grey to the eye, I’ve punched up the colours a lot to reveal the blue twilight, green and magenta aurora to the north, bands of greenish airglow across the sky, and yellow glows of light pollution.
The odd streaks of light on the canola are reflections of the horizon lights in the soaking wet dew on the canola. It was a very damp night after a day of rain.
A thunderstorm rolls across the northern horizon with the stars of Cassiopeia and Andromeda rising.
This was a perfect night for storm shooting. The storm was far enough away to not engulf me in rain and wind, but close enough to show detail and reveal its bolts of lightning. A waning gibbous Moon shone in the south lighting up the storm clouds to the north and turning the sky blue.
Meanwhile the stars of Cassiopeia, Perseus and Andromeda were rising behind the storm clouds, a nice contrast of Earth and sky.
I’ve been after a confluence of circumstances like this for a few years. An aurora to the northeast would have been nice as well. But you can’t have everything!
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.