This year’s Perseids Meteor show was said to peak on August 12th. In these parts the sky conditions on evening of the 11th and early morning of the 12th not ideal for sky watching, to say the least. I was to lead a workshop the evening of the 13th (early morning of 14th) in hopes of catching some of these elusive and brief glimpses of a few Perseids rocks lighting up our sky. The good news was the forecast was for clear skies for two nights running.
The night before our officially scheduled meteor workshop, and friend and I ventured out into some uncharted, or at least unfamiliar to us, areas of the Flint Hills. After much driving in search of a good location, we finally opted for a spot offering at least the potential for some dark skies. The coyotes were already beginning to howl so we figure we may as well stake out a spot. Soon after dark we actually spotted the Space Station lighted up and traveling across the night sky. Very interesting to watch as it moves and flickers across the sky. Then it quickly fades and disappears.
We settled on a location that was simply a gravel road, typical of this area of Kansas, which was oriented North/South. I set up in the center of the road facing north, thinking I would compose a somewhat symmetrical composition with the north star directly above the road trailing off into the distance. My thought was that even if I did not capture any meteors, I could stack enough images to create star trails above the road as it vanishes into the distance.
Any thought of Milky Way shots were quickly dashed as we had a bright 75% waxing gibbous moon and the Milky Way completely washed out as it followed the moon slowly across the night sky. So we set up facing North, realizing that Perseids meteors would likely come from the North East. While I did make several adjustments for exposure and composition, I finally settled on about an ISO of 1200 at 2.8 with my Rokinon 24mm f/1.4. The Rokinon is a great lens for night photography but it is strictly a manual lens. I had previously focused on the moon to ensure a lock on infinity and taped my focus ring down with gaffers tape to avoid accidentally moving it in the dark. I set my intervalometer for 2 sec intervals to minimize any gaps in star trails, and in order to keep my stars as points of light for a single image, I kept my exposures to no longer than 20 seconds, based on the 500 rule (500/focal length = max exposure for stars as points of light).
Very soon after getting set up Murphy dropped by. That is Murphy as in Murphy’s Law. My intervalometer quite working. Great! As it turned out the battery was dead. Should have checked it ahead of time. Good news…I had another intervalometer. You should always consider the possibility of our old nemesis Murphy arriving on scene. Preparation and equipment redundancy is always a good thing.
As the night wore on, we did see some meteors and were lucky enough to catch a few in our images. The image posted here is a composite showing a number of small meteors over a period of time. In order to complete this image I had to stack individual frames as layers in Photoshop. Then using Free Transform, slowly rotate each layer around Polaris as a reference and get the stars aligned because of the movement of the stars in the sky over time. After alignment, I would paint in only the meteor on the background image. This placed the meteor in a relatively accurate position in the sky. The whole process is not really that difficult but likely a subject of a future blog.
Now as the early morning hours approached and the moon began to set, it was possible to take advantage of the darkening sky to catch a Milky Way image. Usually this time of year in our area the brightest portion of the Milky Way rises above the horizon to the South. As the hours progress the view of the Milky Way moves toward the west. This day as the moon set the Milky Way became most visible toward the West. Using what I had to work with for foreground and some slight lighting assist I was able to catch a last image of the night, or morning, depending on how you viewed it.
On the second night, we had an excellent foreground element, the Lower Fox Creek School House at the Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills. Impacting our exposures, however, was a 82% waxing moon that would not set until after 3 am. It did nonetheless provide some natural light for the landscape and school house in our compositions. An occasional vehicle traveling along Hwy 177 would also throw a little light (sometimes a lot) into our compositions. We would also at times paint a little extra light on the schoolhouse, or shine lights through the windows on the opposite side to give the appearance the schoolhouse had interior illumination.
Below is a star trail animated time lapse of the school house. Hope you enjoy. Please tell me what you think in your comments below.
All-in-all I believe everyone came away with some nice images, albeit without much success in our quest for a Holy Grail, sky illuminating meteor. I speculate combined with the moonlight, and that we were probably 48hrs beyond the official peak, we had the odds stacked against us.
The Need for Preparation: Exploring an unfamiliar area an hour or so before sunset on night one is an example of what not to do. This was not a workshop night but it serves as an example of why it is important to do some pre-planning or scouting before you venture out, especially when you may not have a chance for a do-over. We ended up having to settle on a spot, not choose a location based on factor which might have increased the chances of some great images. Now it is true I was able to composite an okay image showing several meteors, but still not the best of circumstances. Aside from good old fashion pre-scouting, there are many apps available to assist in planning. The Photographer’s Ephemeris is one, but there are others to help in predicting moon/sun placement, tides if you are on the coast, moon phases, sky maps and more.
Use of Filters: For most night photography I would say not to use any filters. I often see photographers using UV filters over their lenses. When asked why, the best answer they can give is the camera store salesman suggested it for lens protection. I would often respond, “So, I guess that advice increased his/her sale, right?. Bottom line I am not a proponent of UV filters, or any filters, without a specific intended affect on the image being created, with only one exception. That is to protect from environmental issues such as rain, mist, blowing sand, etc. That shouldn’t be too much an issue during night photography, unless you are photographing a thunderstorm. I have used a Hoya cross star filter get a slight cross star effect on a couple of the brightest stars. Occasionally I might use a enhancing filter if I am photographing the Milky Way to bring out a bit of additional color in the Milky Way cluster. But most times it just naked glass.
Combating Dew: Everyone seemed to adhere to the advice of bringing along some hand warmer packets to wrap lenses to mitigate the inevitable dew formation. Some think that if there is a slight breeze you won’t have a problem with dew forming on your front lens element. This is not true. Unless maybe you are in the high desert with no humidity you are likely going to have to deal with this issue. Small towels also proved quite useful in protecting the camera itself from becoming wet with dew by simply draping it of the body while it clicked away exposures of the night sky. Regardless of precautions it is always good practice to check you lens occasionally. Last thing you want is half your shots, especially the one with the huge meteor, to be fuzzy because of a wet lens element, so have some microfiber cloth on the ready.
Equipment Familiarity: I always see this issue come up in workshops. Make sure you are familiar with the functions and menu’s of your camera and other devices. I guarantee you that good old Murphy will tap you on the shoulder just at the most unexpected time. It is very difficult to try to resolve problems in the dark when you cannot find the right menu, or otherwise try to troubleshoot a problem. And there will be problems.
Headlamps: Aside from what you might use as a light painting tool, a head lamp or some small flashlight is a must, if for no other reason than safety. However, your headlamp should have the red light option and you should wear it around your neck as opposed to on your head. The will prevent the inadvertent light activation from ruining someone’s shot or their night vision. The red light on low illumination preserves your night vision and can still provide sufficient illumination for safe movement. Another option is if you have a smart phone, you can use it’s screen as a low light illumination to allow you to see some camera settings and even for movement without disturbing other photographers around you.
A Place to Lay Your Head: The down side to doing night photography is you don’t get much sleep. If you camping in the back country, not a problem. If however you have traveled two hours to escape the city lights it’s nice to have someway to lay your head back and catch a snooze while your intervalometer is clicking away. I have finally located what I think may be a solution I intend to use on my next venture out. It’s a Kamp-Rite Tent Cot. It can also be used as a lounge chair simply to relax as you watch the night sky.
Will be posting upcoming workshop for star trails to include a post processing seminar for both night images and time lapse techniques. Contact me if Interested.
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