If we were on the moon during a lunar eclipse, the Earth would be backlit, and everywhere along its edge is at either sunset or at sunrise. The sky there is familiar to us: red and orange, the colors refracted slightly around the Earth’s edge by the air. It is this reddish-orange light source that illuminates the moon when the sun no longer hits it directly.
This picture was taken during the midpoint of the eclipse when the moon was deepest in shadow. The “bottom” of the moon is brighter. This means that the moon didn’t pass through the dead center of the Earth’s shadow, but toward one side. The visual appearance was a dim grayish brown, but a long enough exposure on film shows the red component to its color.
I have seen a total lunar eclipse before, but it was by accident, and I was unable to successfully photograph it. This time I knew it was coming and the skies were clear, but the brutally cold temperatures caused me to find excuses to stay indoors. I was goaded into it however by my son, who pointed out that I had acquired considerable cold weather gear, equipment, and specialized clothing for my peculiar hobby. If not now, when would I ever put them to use?
Of course to maintain any sense of pride, I quietly took his point and proceeded to set up in the neighborhood open area. It is directly under a streetlight which exposed my activities to the neighbors, whose curiosity was not deterred by the temperature. By the time the edge of the moon started to dim, a small group of kids and their hardy parents had assembled to see what would happen.
Our informal eclipse party would last for the next few hours, with people cycling through neighboring houses, returning with hot chocolate, warmed-up feet, and more participants. My own schedule called for taking an exposure every ten minutes, not quite enough time to leave my post.
It was enough time to explain what was happening and to show views though the telescope as the edge of the Earth’s shadow crossed the face of the moon. I like to explain that if we were on the moon, the Earth would be backlit, and that everywhere along its edge is at either sunset or at sunrise. The sky there is familiar to us: red and orange, the colors refracted slightly around the Earth’s edge by the air. It is this reddish-orange light source that illuminates the moon when the sun no longer hits it directly.
It is interesting that the edge of the shadow shows a bit of brownish cast. As the last bit of direct sunlight hits the very edge of the moon, the orange-brown shadow details emerge. It has been there all along, but our eyes can now adapt to this much dimmer light level.
These views are quite similar to the visual experience. At full totality however, the moon seemed to be a grayish brown color. The deep red in the photo is not artificial; the film sees it better than we do.
The Andromeda Galaxy spans a portion of the sky that is larger than the full moon! But a full moon would wash out the sky, making the galaxy hard to see, even with binoculars. When the sky is dark it can be seen as a hazy smudge, making it the most distant object (more than two million light years away) that we can see with the naked eye.
In the eyepiece of a telescope the smudge becomes larger, but to detect the wonderful spiral structure and faint blue outer arms of this galaxy requires the light-accumulating power of a piece of film placed at the telescope’s focal point. The stars in this picture are in the foreground, artifacts from our own galaxy, which we must look through to see into our neighbor’s part of the universe.
The skies continued to hold clear, the temperature dropped, and the moon set by midnight, allowing me to compose a view of Polaris directly above the summit of this ancient volcano.
There are a number of interesting light sources in this picture. The startrail arcs are made by a one-hour sweep of the Earth beneath the North Star. The green glow of distant Seattle shows to the northwest, the amber of closer but much smaller towns are northeast, and the sky itself illuminates the snowfields on the mountain. An additional light source can also be found within the snowfields.
As I started this exposure, I could sense a faint glow that seemed to come from the slope of the mountain itself. Training a telescope on the area, I found what might be unseen hikers bearing flashlights searching through the snow. I was impressed that a flashlight could be seen at these distances. Camp Muir, where climbers rest on their way to the summit, was four miles away!
I learned the next day that what I had seen was not just a couple of hikers resetting their tent stakes. They had started their ascent to the summit! In order to reach the top and get back down before the snow gets dangerously soft, they must strike out at about 1:00 A.M. This photo captures their first hour of progress on a beautifully clear and starlit night (click to see full size image).
I am told it is unusual to see the top of Mount Rainier. The generally overcast skies of the region and the immensity of the mountain usually guarantee that clouds will somewhere get in the way of the view. On this day however, the sky had been clear. It stayed clear while the sun set, and as the glow of twilight was replaced by the feeble illumination of a young moon, I worked my way up the mountain’s shoulder to this site, aptly named Reflection Lake.
My daytime explorations had found this lake, but the surface had been broken everywhere by wind ripples. Now the air stilled and the water became stable enough even for a time exposure of the mountain’s reflection. I wanted to include some startrail features in this picture, but it is an awkward choice: if the shutter is open too long, the moon would wash out the sky and the trails would be lost. Too short, and the stars do not make sufficiently long marks. This was my guess, 30 minutes, a balance between starlight and skylight.
This picture also answers the question, “what color is the sky at night?” Maybe nocturnal creatures can see in color at night, but we don’t. The moon lights up the world, including the sky, with reflected sunlight. The same physics applies, just at lower levels of illumination, and so the sky is blue!
A few cirrus clouds stream past in the distance, but they’re not enough to keep the brightest stars from showing. Four of them above and to the left of the mountain peak are the bowl of the Big Dipper, each bluish except for the brightest star in the constellation, Dubhe, a distinct orange color.
The moon set shortly after exposing this picture. Its low angle is apparent from the long shadows on the distant snowfields. My time in Rainier Park would end the next day, but this was a remarkable evening to finish my visit.
The subtle details of the night sky fade away with the dawn,
but the brightest remain: the planets Jupiter and Saturn rise above a windbreak
on a prairie farm. The sky will brighten
and they will eventually be lost (though if you know where to aim a telescope,
they can be found again in broad daylight)!
On this occasion, the clear skies held through the
night. The distant haze provided the
right conditions to spread the long rays from the sun. It’s an unusual transition of colors from
orange to blue, a combination not found in many other places in nature. The planets poke holes in the otherwise
I made an expedition to northern Arizona in November of
1998. It was partly to find out what is involved in transporting photo and
telescope guiding equipment to other parts of the world. Although cumbersome (I
shipped a 90 lb crate ahead to be available when I arrived), it worked.
On the first night I found a remote site in the high desert.
The map showed what looked like paved roads to a fishing lake. Evidently the
map notations are different in Arizona; at least there were ruts where earlier
vehicles had found their way.
The lake was remarkably calm and I marvelled at the darkness
of the sky as I watched Orion rise in the east. I could hear wildlife including
coyotes, owls, and yes, ducks. But they were far away and the water remained
like a mirror. The sky glow here is not from aurora, but instead from distant
Flagstaff, a city with an ordinance to use sodium vapor street lighting. The
color is strongly yellow, but easily filtered and removed by the astronomical
observatories that are hosted by the town. My film however captures all of it.
Although Orion is spread out into an unrecognizable form, he
can be identified by the bright orange star, Betelgeuse on the left, and bright
blue star Rigel on the right. The triad of belt stars makes a catscratch-like
trail, and you may notice a distinctly red star that is even more obviously red
in its reflection. This is the famous Orion nebula, a glowing region of gas and
dust where new stars are being born.
There is a progression of techniques in taking pictures of
the night sky. The simplest is to place your camera on a tripod and open the
shutter for a while. The stars form streaks on the film as the Earth rotates
under them, creating a startrail image. As I considered what I would need to
take more advanced astrophotos, I found that there is plenty to learn and much
opportunity for pleasing compositions even with this simple method.
I pondered how to capture that feeling I once shared with a
friend seeing the stars from zenith to horizon, then continuing beneath us as
we looked out over their reflections in an alpine lake. This became the
inspiration for my quest of the ultimate startrail picture: a full semicircle
of startrails reflected in the calm waters of a lake. I have not achieved this
goal, but the pictures in this series are some of the rewards along the way.
Kinnikinnik is the closest I came to making my target image!
The conditions were perfect: a clear dark sky, no aurora, a calm lake with no
creatures disturbing it, but my timing is off. This is my first and only time
at this site and I arrived late after a day of traveling. I was unprepared to
last the night, and after a few one and two hour trial exposures, I succumbed
to the cold and returned to my distant hotel room to recharge. I never made it
Although not successful that year, I am looking forward to
more adventures in future years. In a way, I hope I never quite find full
success in this project!
To find truly dark skies, go north. My friend John Walsh, an avid backpacker, headed to the northernmost part of our state for a fall weekend adventure. I convinced him to take my camera and film, explained how to attach chemical handwarmers to the lens to keep it from fogging over, and asked him to open the shutter for six hours when he got there. Among his other nice photos of aurora and bright stars, is this beautiful picture across a gently flowing stream, reflecting the night sky and the northern lights.
This night had brought together nearly all the elements for
my target picture: a lake far away from
city lights and radio towers, one with no cabins or roads on the north while I
had access from the south, a long night to contain a long exposure without the
lake being already frozen, a stagnant high pressure center stalling the winds
and keeping the lake surface at a mirror finish. And my schedule had allowed me to take a
night away to make the shot! All these
prerequisites had been met.
I set up my equipment and busied myself with other
activities while the camera recorded the motion of the sky. A loud KERSPLASH startled me. Who would be throwing boulders into the lake
in the middle of the night? I peered out
onto the lake to see dark shadows swimming back and forth directly in front of
my camera. Each traversal left a wake
breaking up the reflected starlight.
Occasionally a shadow would suddenly turn over end and dive, slapping
its tail onto the water surface to make the boulder-throwing sound.
I cursed the beavers.
They filled the night with constant gnawing sounds as they busied
themselves around me. About halfway
through the night I was startled again, this time by the sound of a tree
crashing to the forest floor next to me.
One more hazard to add to my list.
The picture I obtained was almost perfect, accented by the
glow of the northern lights, and the intermittent breaks in the reflected
trails as the beavers swam across the view, oblivious to my intent.