Bridalveil Falls

The stars follow their gradual southern arcs parallel to the terrain during this 90 minute exposure.  The water is unusually high this season, catching and reflecting starlight during its freefall down to the valley floor, the long exposure creating a flowing river of mist not possible to capture during the bright daylight hours.

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Yosemite National Park, CA
April 2004
Pentax 67 w 55mm lens at f/4
90 minute exposure on Provia 400


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9.7 An Astrophotographer in the Dark

Mike eventually left me to the finicky procedure of finding the focus. It took another thirty minutes by the time I was satisfied. I had several targets I wanted to shoot this night, and the first one was M80 and M81, a pair of galaxies that could fit in a single view, faint swirls of light framed by the foreground stars of the Big Dipper. I attached the camera back, connected the cable release, started my timer, held my breath, and tripped the shutter. It was midnight, and I was catching my first photons!

I now had a moment to break from my equipment-demanded trance. From my position at the top of the boat ramp, I had a great view of the lake, its island silhouetted in the surround of the mirrored sky. At the shore I could make out my fixed camera tripods, a small indicator light showing the nearby battery packs powering the dew heaters that kept the lens clear from condensation. All of my film was now open to the sky, each exposed frame collecting the faint trickle of photons gathered by lenses and mirrors.

There was nothing for me to do! I gazed across the lake in a state of unexpected idleness. I wondered what my cameras at the lake were recording. I had intended to leave them open all night, but now that the lake surface was so calm, should I start over? I started to mentally compose other shots. I could reposition the cameras. Should I? Or should I do something else, like change the lens aperture? Or should I just re-shoot the scene with the exact same settings, trying to build insurance that one of the frames will turn out?

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Windy Night

Windy Night
Maui HI, 3 April 2001
Pentax 67 w 55mm lens at f/8
15 minute exposure on Provia-F pushed 2 stops

Not an ideal night for star pictures! The moon is full, clouds and haze fill the sky, and nearby lights conspire to wash out the darkness. Even so, the pattern of the Big Dipper constellation behind the palm trees is enchanting.

In most star trail pictures a fixed camera records a static landscape and the only motion is from the clocklike rotation of the stars. In this case the palm trees are turned into flowers waving in the wind, even as the star trails keep their sharp focus. The rising full moon and the lights of this Hawaiian island color the clouds, furthering the dreamlike quality in this picture.

1 Beginnings of a Journey

The curse of beginner’s luck. I had taken this beautiful picture of the Andromeda Galaxy and then spent the next years trying to take more such images, but discovered all the ways that astrophotography can go wrong. If only I had some more time to practice this craft.

1.1 The Windfall

A windfall is a sudden, usually unexpected, influx of wealth. Winning-the-lottery windfalls are rare.  Smaller, but still welcome, are an employee bonus, an inheritance, or a lucky run at the casino. People react in different ways to the experience of unexpected wealth or “found money”.  It tells something about a person:  the easy-come, easy-go gambler versus the frugal saver who salts it away for an indefinite future.

I have experienced a windfall not of money, but of time. A new company benefit designed to attract and keep employees in a climate of dot-com employment frenzy was announced. It seemed like an inexpensive benefit to advertise: employees of five years or more could take a one-time additional 3-week period, a sabbatical, of “disconnect time-off”.  Combined with conventional vacation time, one could be absent for six weeks!  But it would never happen. What high-tech California company had employees that stayed long enough to collect such a benefit?

But I wasn’t a California employee. I had held on for over twelve years in stoic Scandinavian style at a small Minnesota company, a company whose flicker of success first caught the attention of, and then was acquired by a Silicon Valley company desperate for people to help it grow, and eager to retain them. It was an unexpected gift, and I now had the dilemma of how to spend it.

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Orion Rising

Orion Rising
Kinnikinnik Lake, AZ, 14 Nov 1998
24mm Olympus lens at f/2.8, 1 hour exposure on Fuji 800 Superia

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.

Kinnikinnik

Kinnikinnik
Kinnikinnik Lake near Flagstaff AZ, 14 Nov 1998
24mm Olympus lens at f/4, 2 hours on Fuji 800 Superia

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 back.

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!

Northern Six-Hour Exposure

Northern Six-Hour Exposure
Boundary Waters Canoe Area, MN, 23 Oct 1998
24mm Olympus lens at f/8, 6 hour exposure on Fuji 800 Superia
Photo by John Walsh

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.

Beaver Trails

Beaver Trails
Swamp Lake, north of Mille Lacs MN, 21 Oct 1998
20mm Nikon lens at f/8, 6 hour exposure on Fuji Super-G

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.

Four-Hour Lodgepoles

Four-Hour Lodgepoles
Lake Louise Campground, Banff Park, Alberta Canada, 12:00am 19 Aug 1998
20mm Nikon lens at f/8, 4 hour exposure on E200 Ektachrome processed +2 stops (ISO 800)

Think about lying on your back as a child watching clouds drifting past. This is the nighttime equivalent. The stars etch a trail on the film as they follow their course through the night.  The different temperatures of stars show as different colors, the cooler stars glow a warm orange, the hottest stars are a bright blue.

Banff Poles

Banff Poles 
Tunnel Mountain Campground, Banff Park, Alberta Canada, 17 Aug 1998 10:40pm
20mm f/4 Nikon lens, 1 hour exposure on E200 Ektachrome processed +2 stops (ISO 800)

While camping trips make great venues for photographing the sky, sometimes it is difficult to get a full view of it. But here is an opening in the canopy, the lodgepole pines framing the pole star. The camera was aimed at Polaris, and the shutter opened for an hour. The flickering campfires and lamps illuminated the boughs of the trees. 

A startrail picture like this is a powerful illustration of the Earth’s motion. The pole star shows almost no motion. The others show longer arcs the further away, but all of them make an equal arc: a one-hour exposure cuts 1/24th of a full circle.