In pursuit of optimal dune lighting in Death Valley.
Can a landscape photography benefit from anticipating optimum sun angles? From the looks of this sand dune shot that we anticipated and pursued, it sure seems so!
Is a landscape photography workshop compatible with night photography? In the short days of winter, when sunrise is 6:48 am and your dark sky night photography starts at 6:30 pm, the work particularly well together!
So we treated the daytime hours like a landscape photography workshop, and being able to pursue comet, meteor, star trails and meteor shower composites and time-lapse video was a nice bonus! Leaving cameras out shooting for a few hours, here’s a look at a Geminid meteor shower composite:
Here’s a wide angle night image with blue-green Comet 46P/Wirtanen visible in the sky above:
The blue-green spot in the sky is Comet 46P/Wirtanen (2018) over Harmony Borax Works in Death Valley.
The astronomical events were’t the only air show in the Park last week. During the day as we were touring the park, one of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada put on a show for us. He flew below us in a canyon, then performed a roll upon exiting! It appears to be #8 Maj. Branden Felker.
US Air Force Thunderbirds #8 in Death Valley National Park (page 130).
Our October 4-6 workshop that ends in Bodie night access can go here as well (photo Oct 7, 2010).
Bodie: I received late confirmation for October 6, so I’ve opened up enrollment for October 4 – 6 – Eastern Sierra & Bodie Milky Way Night Photography $895
We’ll start with fall colors in the Bishop area, then move to Mono Lake and the high sierra around Tioga Pass, then end with a night in Bodie. It can get chilly in October, but it’s fully dark by 8pm, so bundle up to enjoy our night session with the most dark hours of our season in Bodie. I’ve collected albums of sample photos of relevant Bodie night shots in an album on Facebook.
Death Valley – Milky Way: Last year I had customers ask for a couple of nights in Death Valley in October, and full darkness by 8 pm creates early evening Milky Way opportunities that few photographers are taking advantage of. I’m adding a new workshop for the nights of September 30 – October 2 to pursue as many compositions as we can get, then I’d like offer a longer workshop next year. I’ve shot Death Valley dozens of times over the past dozen years and my normal rate for 3 days/nights is $795, but I’ll discount this one to $495 as I fine tune locations, compositions and itinerary specifically for October Milky Way. I have nice some compositions in mind, and the first photographer or two to enroll gets to provide input on the order we pursue them in the itinerary. Death Valley often involves a fair amount of driving, and this more adventurous visit may include some remote locations, could involve flat tires, and is likely to involve some moderately strenuous walking in sand, and perhaps some camping under the stars.3 days/nights $795 $495
In October we can shoot the Milky Way at 8 pm instead of 3 am in March!
Eastern Sierra & Bodie: I’m also adding a new 3-day Bodie and Eastern Sierra workshop the nights of October 4 – 6. This will be similar to the ones in June and July with two practice nights before our Bodie night access, but we’ll start with fall colors in the Bishop area, then move to Mono Lake and the high sierra around Tioga Pass, then end with a night in Bodie. It can get chilly in October, but it’s fully dark by 8pm, so bundle up to enjoy our night session with the most dark hours of our season in Bodie. We were originally told in February that Bodie workshops would not happen this year. While that decision was eventually reversed, I want to get in as many Bodie dates as possible this season, while we still can! 3 days/nights $895
Eastern Sierra Fall Colors: We’ll meet in Big Pine for an evening and night shoot in the bristlecone pines, then move to the Lee Vining area for three days of fall colors and night photography. October 10 – 14, 4 days/nights $995
Eastern Sierra fall colors October 12, 2017.
Yosemite – moon – night: Yosemite fall colors are particularly good to pursue at night, and shooting around the full moon date makes night photography well lit for low noise and saturated colors. Although the timing for this can conceivably work any time in late October through November (my best shots in 2012 were November 25-26), for the last two years fall colors were particularly early in Yosemite Valley, so this year I’ve selected October 22 – 26 as the main fall Yosemite workshop. 4 days/nights $995
Yosemite fall colors night photography.
Death Valley – meteor shower: Given that this is the last major meteor shower until 2021 without moon interference, the Geminid meteor shower I’ll be pursuing December 10-14 is even more of a priority than I had anticipated! I’ve been chasing just about every available meteor shower since 2009 (without clouds or moon). If you’re interested in learning or practicing meteor shower photography before 2021, this is your chance to practice it. We’ll have three nights to practice before the peak night of the shower.
4 days/nights: $995
Catch Geminid meteors in Death Valley National Park.
Mono Lake Moon Rise: Winter is the season for sunset reflections on Mono Lake, and why not add a sunset moon rise and possibly snow to the mix? New release: December 21 – 23. (Details coming soon.)
Lunar astrophotography meets landscape photography at Mono Lake, California
On the evening of March 28, Uranus will be very close to Venus, appearing to be less than 1/10th moon width apart (which makes my photo above of the moon in total eclipse next to Uranus unexpectedly relevant). Venus will be visible first, bright in the sky after sunset. The much less bright Uranus may require a telephoto lens, binoculars or telescope to see.
Literal heads-up: On March 28 Venus and Uranus will be VERY close together in the sky. Good reason to break out the telescope! Look west just after sunset. Venus is very bright but you’ll need at least binocs to see Uranus. https://t.co/rAX9NmXiwepic.twitter.com/9AeROPI56F
Then on March 30 the moon will rise shortly before sunset, and be about six degrees above the horizon at sunset. That’s about how far it needs to be in elevation when it’s starting to be visible through less of our polluted atmosphere, so viewing it is clearer. You can use smartphone apps including The Photographers Ephemeris (“TPE”) and PhotoPills to anticipate where the moon will come up, so you can position yourself to have the best possible composition with the moon next to or above a landmark in the distance.
Then somewhere around April 1, give or take a day or two, the 9.4-ton Chinese space station Tiangong-1 will fall to earth. No doubt it will put on quite a spectacle as it breaks up!
China CZ-7 rocket stage 2 falls to earth, July 27, 2016.
For updates on the likely expected descent time and location as the space station’s orbit decays, follow Jonathan McDowell’s latest posts on Twitter:
Tiangong-1 now 199 x 218 km orbit; down 4 km since yesterday. Still looks like Apr 1 to 2 is the best bet, but plus or minus a couple days
The planning started weeks in advance, looking at the timing of the eclipse, the direction of the moon, and at prior shots like the moon set above from 2010 that seemed like a good concept to re-shoot with a moon in some phase of eclipse. I decided to try to place the moon on top of the South Tower of the bridge, worked out the geometry to estimate the moon’s elevation, looked in an app to determine its compass direction at that time, and where I should stand.
So after you decide to shoot an early morning lunar eclipse, what’s the next logical thing to do? Pick a spot for the prior sunset of course. Marin County’s Rodeo Beach fit the bill nicely for a relaxing sunset.
A trip to Japan Center for sushi later, and it’s too early for sleep, so a little night photography along the San Francisco waterfront helps put a few more travel images on the card and burn off a few dinner calories.
Wake up at 3am, and go get a nice moon shot from the Crissy Field area:
This image was exposed for 15 seconds at f/8, ISO 200 on a Canon EOS 70D with a lens at 381mm using a Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS L Series lens plus EF 2X III teleconverter. After the APS-C crop factor, the equivalent focal length was 610mm! The camera setup was on an iOptron SkyTracker, so the longest exposures in the sequences I was shooting could easily be 15 to 20 seconds at ISO 200.
What next? You’ve chosen the spot anticipating the moon approaching the Golden Gate Bridge, so when it’s close enough you can include the bridge in compositions:
But the real alignment you’ve calculated from the height of the bridge, the distance to the bridge, and the compass direction is the moon passing the top of the South Tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. But you forgot to subtract out the elevation of your shooting position from the height of the bridge, so the moon is about 1/2 moon width, about 0.25 degrees, too high. So you move about a dozen feet to your left, compose over the shoulders of a couple of photographers, and get the composition that you envisioned weeks earlier:
The recent weather and the forecast called for partly cloudy conditions, and at times there was definitely a thin haze that the moon was shining through, but there was also a challenge that I don’t usually have to deal with back home in the high desert: condensation! For a while I had to wipe my lens every few shots to remove it. Astrophotographers sometimes use heaters on their telescopes, photographers shooting on a dewy morning can improvise using gaffer’s tape and hand warmers.
That’s not the end of the fun, as sunset light paints the sky while the moon dropped into the bridge. Fortunately the atmospheric haze also cleared up significantly.
Sunrise approaches as the partially-eclipsed moon sets behind the Golden Gate Bridge.
As it descends further, while shooting the lunar eclipse through San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, for a matter of seconds I decided to try to silhouette a vehicle against the setting, partially-eclipsed moon. A large delivery truck fit the bill nicely. I was shooting at 400mm, so I had to anticipate the movement of the vehicle enough ahead of time to leave mirror lock-up on!
Note the rough edge to the moon. At this high degree of telephoto, on the moon in the lower couple of degrees of elevation when our view of it is through a lot of turbulent air, the view of the moon is visibly distorted. No doubt there will be many faked shots from this eclipse as usual, and a recent article on FStoppers discusses some of the ways you can spot them.
So to summarize, anticipating an interesting place to capture the mono alongside earth-bound features using apps like PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) enables the capture of many compositions beyond “Just another lunar eclipse shot”… not that there’s anything wrong with that!
So once the eclipse is “in the can” (like a reel of exposed movie film), what next? Think of something to shoot while you’re in the are, or on your way home! A quick detour to the California Coast, the Mendocino area in this case, fit the bill nicely.
Astronomical events aren’t just opportunities for astrophotography, they are a great excuse to get out. travel, and shoot! The weather can be surprisingly warm along the California Coast in the winter given the heat sink effect of the water and the lower winds compared to summer. Temperatures in the high 50s by noon and walking down Main Street Mendocino, I had to take off and carry my jacket as I became too hot to wear it.
2018 has already gotten off to a great start, as I enjoyed a great sunset at Mono Lake on New years Eve, then the “supermoon” moon rise at Mono Lake on New Years Day. The angles and timing of the moon rise vs. the sunset seemed to work out well for Mono Lake for both dates. On the first evening, the clouds interfered with the moon rise, but clearer skies to the west let the sun’s light through, for a great sunrise.
The second night, the moon was a little bright relative to the landscape as it rose, but the view of it was uninterrupted, so I was able to capture a nice sequence of moon rise shots as the moon rose over Mono Lake’s interesting “tufa” calcium carbonate rock formations.
Mono Lake Super Moon Rise - Jan 1, 2018 - YouTube
One of the most fascinating details, particularly on the first night, was the ice forming on the surface of the lake. Temperatures were close to freezing, but Mono Lake is nearly 3X saltier than the ocean, so ice would not normally form on the lake at that temperature. Mono Lake’s tufa rock formations form underwater, where springs deliver calcium-laden water. I noticed in places where fresh water was upwelling to the surface, spreading out and then freezing as it cooled. Apparently in the winter when there is little or no wind to encourage mixing, the fresh and salt water does not necessarily mix well and the less dense fresh water rises tot he top and can freeze. You never know what interesting things you’re going to see next as you spend time outdoors!
Mono Lake Icy Sunset Reflection
The other photos from the sunset weren’t too shabby either. I’m so fortunate to live surrounded by such great scenery and weather!
New Years Eve sunset reflection at Mono Lake, California.
A past conjunction: the moon, Mars and Venus setting over Mount Whitney
The planets in our solar system orbit the sun in a plane, the “ecliptic plane”. Seen from the side within that plane from here on earth, they appear to travel in a line in the sky. As the planets travel in different orbits at different speeds, they sometimes seem to pass one another along that imaginary ecliptic line in the sky, as seen from here on earth. From the United States, the pass will occur between the mornings of January 6 and 7, 2018. Mars and Jupiter will pass within 1/4 degree, 1/2 moon width, of each other.
For the image above from the moon, Mars, Venus conjunction on February 20, 2015, I identified several locations to the conjunction as the moon and planets set over Mount Whitney, near Lone Pine, California. This time the planets will be about 3 times closer to each other.
Here are some actual photos of Jupiter and Mars approaching each other in the sky on recent nights:
Jupiter and Mars on December 30, approaching conjunction January 6/7 2017
Jupiter and Mars January 2, rising before dawn
On January 5 Jupiter and Mars continue their approach towards conjunction January 6
Here’s a time-lapse of the planets rising on the morning of January 2:
Jupiter Mars Conjunction Coming January 7, 2018 - Vimeo
The images and sample time-lapse were captured at a modest 200 mm focal length, the event will be more interesting when they are close enough to shoot at 300-400mm or more, their movement towards each other becomes even more obvious, and while the moons of Jupiter become even more apparent. The two planets will rise over the eastern horizon around 2:45 am on a zero degree horizon here in the Pacific time zone (at a compass angle of 112 degrees, a bit south of east), but I’ve been watching them past 6 am on recent mornings, so you can catch them from when they rise well into twilight. With my actual horizon being more than zero degrees, the planets will appear to rise closer to 3 am for me.
Here’s my result showing the progress of the planets, footage from the mornings of January 2, 3, 5, and 7:
Mars Jupiter conjunction January 2, 3, 5, 7, 2018 - Vimeo
Aside from the planets close together, what else might have been shot? With a long enough exposure and an interesting horizon, a time-lapse video of the planets rising could be interesting, somewhat like this prior shoot of a planetary conjunction setting:
Moon - Mars - Venus Conjunction Setting Over Mount Whitney - Vimeo
Geminid meteor shower at 14mm, with some foreground. Nikon D750 / 14 mm.
The Geminid meteor shower is generally acknowledged to be the most active meteor shower of the year with rates of about 120 meteors per hour. It was discovered in the 1800s, and rates seem to be increasing, with some attributing it with up to 180 meteors per hour! While the Geminids aren’t known for producing a lot of bright fireball meteors, the Chi Orionids are, and the radiant point isn’t all that far from the Geminids, so you still have decent odds of catching fireballs, even if they aren’t from the “correct” comet debris stream and apparent radiant point in the sky.
This composite brings the meteors from roughly 3 hours into one image:
3 hours of the Geminid meteor shower further back at 14mm, emphasizing the sky. Canon EOS 6D / 14 mm.
Night before peak, Geminid meteor shower 2017. Canon EOS 6D / 14 mm.
Moon rise the night before the peak of the Geminid meteor shower,a few nights ago, along with a quick collection of some of the meteors I caught on that night:
It was 8 degrees F when I arrived just after dark to shoot the meteor shower on this night. I don’t even want to know what temperature it was when i picked up the camera later in the night!
2014 Geminid meteors and a bright fireball, likely a Chi Orionid meteor.
As NASA notes about the Geminids:
“The Geminids are a meteor shower that occurs in December every year. The best night to see the shower is Dec. 13 into the early hours of Dec. 14. The Geminid meteor shower is caused by a stream of debris left by the asteroid, 3200 Phaethon. When the Earth passes through the trails of dust every December left by 3200 Phaethon, we see the Geminid meteor shower as the dust (meteoroids) burn up in Earth’s atmosphere creating meteors. Geminids travel through Earth’s atmosphere at 78,000 mph and burn up far above the surface.”
I shot with two cameras the night after peak as well, but they didn’t capture enough meteors to make processing the images a priority. I’ll get around to it at some point, but it’s pretty clear that the meteor rate on the night after peak is far, far below the rates on the peak night and on the nights leading up to it.
2010 Geminid Meteor Shower. Canon 5D Mark II / EF 16-35 mm lens at 16 mm focal length.
Our 2017 Geminid Meteor shower trip went so well, we’ll be doing it again in 2018! This time we’ll bring some clients December 10 -14, 2018. We’ll have several nights to practice as the meteor shower increases in intensity towards its December 13/14 peak.