The Rock with Wings

Blending all the frames of the time lapse reveals the star trails above Shiprock (click for full size)

Many of my photographic ventures are purely serendipitous.  Yes, it is important to be at the right place, or the right time, and sometimes both, but there are so many things that can go wrong and prevent the shot that you were planning.  But there are also many things that can happen that are unexpectedly magnificent.  If you have a camera ready and waiting – even for something else—you can capture the unexpected event.

This describes my attitude when setting up a camera for a long nighttime shoot.  Lately, I have been exploring timelapse photography, making exposures every few seconds and then creating a motion picture (mp4 video) from them.  When traveling alone with no fixed plans, I like to head to photogenic landscapes where the skies are clear.  But a joint road trip itinerary with lodging reservations does not permit this flexibility, and I often encounter overcast skies.  I accept this as just one of those challenges to the practitioners of this arcane hobby.

And so, when our homeward-bound trip from a Thanksgiving in Los Angeles took us through New Mexico, and the day’s route ended near Shiprock, a city named for the nearby geologic feature that the Navaho call the “Rock with Wings”, our plans shifted to take advantage of the unexpectedly clear skies.  Although exhausted from a long day on the road, I left the comfort of a cozy Airbnb apartment to go set up cameras in the desert and wait in the cold for hours, hoping to capture something interesting.

Continue reading

Texas Road Trip: Lunar Eclipse

My cameras at work!

I started to set up for the lunar eclipse; it would occur tonight (this was not a drill)!  But by the time I had the tripods and mount in place, I realized that I had left a critical piece of equipment behind—my camp chair.  I left the stuff for a 10-minute trip back to the campsite to retrieve it.

On return, I found the other guy who had obtained a pass for the overlook (required if we wanted to stay past 10:00 pm).  He was an interesting person who was ok with my being focused on setting up rather than chatting. 

A few other visitors dropped by, including one who was on foot with some portable camera gear.  After a while he decided he wanted a different viewpoint and so he hiked away, disappearing below the crest. 

I was ready at moonrise.  This time I could see the moon as it appeared on the horizon.  I centered it in the cameras, started the tracking and started taking pictures.  The moon rose in a light orange color, brightening to white and then about one-half hour later, the eclipse began.

Continue reading

Manitoba Nights

Aurora in the fog. Photo by Eric Persson.

I recently spent a week In our neighbor to the north, specifically the Canadian province of Manitoba.  We had booked a trip with friends to a remote lodge nearly a year prior, and we were finally there!  The travel brochures promised spectacular scenery and wildlife, interesting geology, world class fishing, and northern lights.  I wasn’t all that interested in fishing, but I’m always interested in the other items on that list. (And the fishing turned out to be a highlight!)

Continue reading


One of the attractions of the Salmonberry tour in Fairbanks was the opportunity to see the northern lights.  Fairbanks is well-positioned with respect to the auroral oval so that on most evenings, if the sky is clear, one can see them.  And we were there at the vernal equinox– spring:  the weather was moderating, meaning that the daytime temps were approaching melting and at night they kept mostly above zero.  At this high latitude however, the days are lengthening rapidly, and in a few more weeks, there won’t be much night left to see northern lights.

It was nice that the tour was focused on aurora viewing.  There is always uncertainty: the aurora is not active every night, and clouds frequently obscure them when they are.  To maximize the chance that we would see some northern lights sometime during the tour, three nights were scheduled for such viewing.  Each took us to a viewing site away from the lights of Fairbanks and accommodated the needs of aurora viewers:  a warming house, coffee and snacks, and alternate activities in the event of poor viewing.  Oh, and a wifi connection so we could monitor the online real-time aurora activity reports being fed by satellites and observers on the ground. 

Continue reading

“Coffee Table Nightscapes” goes to print!

I finally caught up with my blog postings of past nightscape photos to reach the ones I made this last year. And I have now completed their assembly into a printed photo book.

I didn’t realize when I started this project that the pictures would span 25 years, and that they happened to straddle the transition from film photography to digital. The chronological order reveals the change in technology as I pursued my various night sky targets.

For completeness, I posted the preface and introduction as blog entries, but their real place is in the leading pages of the printed book where all the photos are collected under one cover. I was pleased to be able to give copies of it to my family and close friends this holiday season. Not all of them have coffee tables, but I hope they find a place for it.

Although this marks the end of this particular project, I doubt that I am really done. As mentioned in the epilogue, the capabilities of cameras just keep improving and so I am now excited to start the next 25 years of taking pictures of the night sky!

Milky Way Sails the Playa

Racetrack Playa is a dry lakebed in Death Valley.  It is a vast expanse, miles by miles, of dried mud cracks.  It is flat and nearly level, the north end merely inches higher than the south.  The occasional stone can be found on the playa, delivered by erosion forces on the surrounding mountains, falling down and rolling out onto the lakebed.  They are stones, not boulders, maybe a foot or two across, heavier than is convenient to carry away, but not heavy enough to protect them from magic seekers.

And the magic they seek is that many of the stones are found at the end of a long, physically engraved trail, recording their traversal of the ancient lakebed.  How could these stones have moved across the dry playa?  It has been a mystery to geologists for years.  Various theories have been proposed, and some have been tested, but it is a difficult research project.  The stones lie inert for years, and then, when next inspected, they have moved.  With new trails marking their path!  This is the magic that the stone thieves are after.

Continue reading

Polaris on the Playa

One of the active topics in modern photography is the distinction between “blends” (combining multiple exposures from a single camera viewpoint), and “composites” (which combine unrelated images into a synthetic scene).  Both are valid uses of photography, but I prefer to limit my efforts to the former, hoping to reveal some scientific beauty in the result.

In this case the relative motion of the stars is “stacked” (added) from 2,335 10-second exposures.  Each frame looks like a normal picture of the sky, but when accumulated creates the star trail effect.  The frames were selected from the period after “astronomical twilight” when the sun is more than 18-degrees below the horizon.  On this date, official night lasted over six hours, and the star trails cover more than 1/4 of a full circle (and even Polaris shows that it is not exactly on the north celestial pole).

Although it was “night”, it was not completely dark.  The moon was up and illuminated the scene until it set around midnight.  This allows the foreground to show, including the “sailing stone” with its path on the dry lakebed trailing behind it, a contrast of time scales against the motion of the sky.

A final detail to explain:  the streaks below and to the left are the result of trains of Starlink satellites moving across the sky.  Dozens of satellites follow each other into and out of the sunlight at their altitude, reflecting it down to our observing position on the playa and creating its own trail on this image.

For more of the backstory on making this image and the next, see “A Night on the Playa – Part 2“.

View full size.

19 May 2021
Racetrack Playa
Death Valley National Park CA
Canon EOS Ra with EFS 10-22mm
2335 exposures, 8 sec @ f/4, ISO 3200 (6-1/2 hours)

previous | nightscapes index | next

Wupatki Startrails

“The Citadel” remains the focus for this startrail image.  The moon dominates the scene, and this blend of exposures shows its path among the stars.

The cloud persisted above the monument over the course of the exposure, growing and shrinking, but never moving away or evaporating.

View full size.

15 May 2021
Wupatki National Monument
Flagstaff AZ
Canon EOS 6D with Sigma 14mm f/1.8
458 exposures, 8 sec @ f/2, ISO 3200 (76 minutes)

previous | nightscapes index | next

Wupatki Moon

“The Citadel”, one of the structures built by indigenous people who lived here from 500-1200 CE, provides a focus for a nighttime exposure.  The Arizona skies are clear except for a cloud condensed by the contrasting air flows over the monument. 

View full size.

15 May 2021
Wupatki National Monument
Flagstaff AZ
Canon EOS 6D with Sigma 14mm f/1.82 sec @ f/2, ISO 3200

previous | nightscapes index | next


I had another camera in the sunflower field.  This one faced south and caught the arcs of stars and planets near the ecliptic.  Eventually the full moon entered the scene.

View full size.

2 September 2020
Otsego MN
Canon EOS 6D with EF 17-40mm(@17mm)
Blended 10 sec intervals  at f/4, ISO 800, 1/2 hour elapsed

previous | nightscapes index | next