Tag Archives: meteors

Where to Go for Dark Skies?

No matter where you live on earth you have a chance to witness the incredible experience of watching bits of space debris streak through our atmosphere and create cosmic fireworks. In an older column I described How to Photograph Meteors – it is a daunting and luck laden process. Here I want to give some useful hints about WHERE to go to get the best view. These same hints may also help you find a location to view the Milky Way.

What I am not planning to tell you is where *I* would go because many of you are reading from all over the world and it would be little help to you for me to mention Yosemite, or Windy Hill Open Space Preserve.  Instead, what I want to do is to give you the insight to figure out where the best place is for YOU.  Here are the parameters to weigh:

  1. Goals
  2. Weather
  3. Accessibility
  4. Distance
  5. Darkness

Goals

It might seem strange, but I pick different locations depending on what it is I want. If I just want to watch meteors then I will pick a place that may compromise the other factors.  Assuming my goal is to photograph meteors, I have a second important decision: Do I want meteors, or do I want meteors in the context of a landscape?  For me the answer is almost always in the context of a landscape for the reasons I illuminated in this article.  In my opinion a shot of a meteor might be interesting, but a shot of a meteor over a lovely mountain, lake or landmark is WAY more interesting. For example compare the two photos below. The first shot is an Iridium flare (not a meteor, though it looks like one). The second is definitely a meteor. Which one is the most interesting? Yeah, the second one!

Meteor or Iridium Flare? [5_028205-dk] Star Man and Perseus [C_059960-1]

The next part of the goal is to figure out WHICH direction the landmark needs to be.  For example the Geminid Meteor shower is one of the few showers where the “radiant point” is visible all night long. But that also means that it may be best to shoot East after sunset, or West before sunrise and around midnight you’ll want to point south when the constellation will be high in the sky.  Of course meteors appear anywhere in the sky, but I like to keep a part of the radiant in my shots.

Once I’ve figured out which direction I’d like to face, only then can I start including and excluding locations. Of course an ideal place would allow me to face ANY direction, but the truth is not many ideal places are left in the world.

Weather

Now that I know which direction I’d like to face, I have to decide how much I am worried about bad weather.  Out here on the US West Coast a drive of 4 hours will get me to a mountain – the Sierras, 5 to 7 hours can take me to a desert area where it will generally be clear – but often windy, and a shorter drive will get me to a coastal area that may be fog plagued in some seasons.  In short, I would like to be as certain as I can about the weather conditions and thus will always have a plan B.  I have previously discussed the tools I use to track and plan for the weather.

Accessibility

While I would love to pass the time at a High Sierra location watching a meteor shower (awesome!), it might be really impractical or impossible for me to get there with my equipment in the dead of winter – even if the weather itself is not the problem. Road closures, park closures, etc. may interfere.  If I want to take friends or clients I need to restrict the amount of schlepping and walking required.  Some areas, like state, county and local parks which might be ideal are usually CLOSED, locked and gated at night.  National Parks and BLM designated land are generally open at night so rank high on my favorite places list.

Not only should my desired location be easy to get to by car but I would prefer a short walk to a safe location, and preferably in an area that has little or no car travel at night to ruin my night vision or my night shots.  Sometimes little intangibles like the direction and slope of any nearby roads makes a big difference. If a location is the top of the hill but a road points directly at it means I probably want to be on the other side of that hill to prevent the intrusion of headlights.  The arch shot above is an example of that hazard – a bend in the road causes cars to sweep their headlights across the landscape at that location.

It’s also unwise to attempt to use private land without permission. Being an unwelcome guest could result in embarrassment, hassle or hazard!

Distance

I have already touched upon this, but by distance I really mean time, effort and cost to reach the location. Since meteor showers occur annually, I am less inclined to make a huge effort if the circumstances do not look like they will be ideal.  On the other hand, I had no problem driving 1,000 miles roundtrip to put myself in the path of the Transit of Venus – an event that will not happen again in my lifetime (or yours).

Darkness

The one commodity that we are perhaps in the least supply of is darkness. So many cities, so much light pollution. But I do not need TOTAL darkness. If I have decided the best view is to the south, I just need to make sure no major cities lie south of my location. If my intended view is east, then I want mountains or distance to insulate me from the glow of light pollution to my east.  Unfortunately darkness is also a function of weather.  Humidity, clouds, water vapor and air particulates can turn a generally dark location into an awful mess through the effect of human-made light sources. A place that is clear and dark during most of the winter might be horrible in the balmy summer.

Prior experience is often the best indicator of where deepest darkness is found. Sometimes the easiest way to find a dark place is to simply look at a map – making note of the terrain and where the cities are in relation to your desired direction of view.  There is a dark sky locator that may help as well.  And you can do your part by joining the International Dark Sky Association and being an advocate for responsible lighting ordinances. I am a member.

Putting it All Together

You’ve probably already figured out that finding a combination of an interesting foreground that is easily accessible but a not too distant place with reliable weather is no small feat.  Some people think that if you go where astronomers like to go you’ll get all the right stuff. But that’s not true. Astronomers do care about almost all of these things, but the one thing that matters little to an astronomer is the landscape.  Astronomers are looking at the sky so a featureless high plateau is just fine. Oh, and if you want to light paint your foreground, you will really tick off astronomers!

So now you may have also surmised why I do not freely share my hard found locations. BUT if you join me on a workshop or webinar you will find out!

 

Coaxing a Meteor into Smiling for your Camera

Nothing is quite as exhilarating – to me at least – as watching the sky explode with “falling stars” or meteors as they are more properly called. Major meteor showers occur through out the year but the most spectacular and reliable showers are the Perseids in August, the Lyrids in April, and the Geminids in December. Other notable showers include the unpredictable Leonids in November. In fact, in November there are quite a few minor meteor showers including the Northern and Southern Taurids, and the Aquarids.

An absolutely brilliant example of well captured meteors can be found in Gary Randall‘s work.

Perseid Meteor Shower over Mount Hood

Photo 1: by Gary Randall. Gary captured 26 meteors over a 3 hour period and realigned them to show their path through the starry sky. 30 second captures f/2.8 ISO 1600 at 11mm on a Nikon D90.

Capturing meteors is much harder than it may seem, however and getting results Like Gary’s is far from a “done deal”. Let’s investigate why and figure out how to successfully capture them.

If you’ve been reading this column for a while you’ve probably already successfully captured a star filled sky. Your camera settings were likely something like this:

ISO 200, f/4, 30 seconds, Focal length 24mm.

There are two components to meteors that make them difficult to capture.

  1. Meteors do not appear in a predictable location in the sky. Indeed all meteors from a particular shower appear to radiate from a single point in the sky, but the meteors streaks may appear anywhere.
  2. Meteors are fast. Very fast. And even though they may be bright their speed makes them more difficult to capture because their light does not linger over pixels in the sensor like stars or stationary objects do.

Since meteors may appear anywhere in the sky a common strategy is to use the widest possible lens you can and “fire the shotgun” at the sky. This strategy can work however use of a wider angle lens means the sensor area that will be struck by the light from a meteor is diminished.

Most important, however is the effective exposure. A short exposure with a wide open aperture at the highest acceptable ISO setting will catch the most meteors against a still sky. In other words ISO 2000, f/1.8, 20-30 seconds at 50mm focal length will capture a streak more effectively.  If you can stomach it, ISO 6400 will capture even more – and it may not matter that the image is noisy because you may end up using only the “streak” not the whole frame. It may seem tempting to just expose for say 10 minutes but unless the sky is very dark, that strategy will not work well.  Skyglow will overwhelm the area through which the meteor passes and thus reduce the contrast.

The second problem is where to point the camera.  If you use a wide angle lens or a fisheye lens you can point it almost anywhere you like. But it is helpful to know where the radiant point is. I like to be sure that the radiant point is in the picture. There is a downside to shooting near the radiant point: the closer the meteor is to the radiant point, the more “straight on” the meteor will be and the shorter the trail will be.  However pointing the camera somewhere away from the radiant point means your chances of catching a meteor go down exponentially – but what you do capture may have a longer streak.

It took me nearly 1200 attempts to get this one meteor in my back yard in San Jose, California. The camera was a Canon 50D at f/5.6 and ISO 1600. It is much noticeably grainier than a more recent capture on my 5D Mk II from Maui.

Below the Belt [5_020853]

Photo 2: One in 1600 shots that caught (almost all) of a meteor glancing through Orion’s belt. Settings: f/5.6, ISO 1600, 30 seconds, 23mm.

Half of a Brilliant Perseid [C_006711]

Canon 5D Mk II at ISO 2000, f/2.8

Here is an interesting thing to note: the radiant point of the Perseid Meteor is not far from the north celestial pole – that is, where Polaris the north star is. The radiant point of Leo, however is near the celestial equator. Why would that matter? It matters because in 3 hours the Leonid radiant point will have moved a fourth of the way across the sky while the Perseid radiant point will be probably still be in your frame.  In fact, David Kingham has written an excellent article about how to point your camera specifically for the Perseid Meteor Shower.

Back to Gary’s work for a moment. The meteors did not all come at once… no sir. The earth was busy rotating and the meteors shown in the photo were captured over 3 hours time! Had they all occurred at once they might have looked like the Photo 1 above.  Placing each meteor where it fell in the frame shows a different story – still compelling, but a bit more chaotic.

My thanks to Gary Randall for allowing me to show his excellent work. I heartily suggest you purchase a poster of his work to inspire you. I am doing so!

For more information about meteor showers and how to view them, there are many sites on the internet.  EarthSky.org is a great resource, for example.