My name is Richard Tatti and my passion is Astrophotography, and more specifically creating awe inspiring Nightscape Images. I've spent many years photographing the stars and perfecting the craft of light painting and blending of images. If you're passionate about shooting the milky way and creating unique and inspiring images then I'm here to help you learn how to do that. I am based in Central Victoria in the amazing country of Australia. I spend a lot of the year conducting night photography workshops and never tire of spending time with like minded people out under the amazing milky way.
Peter Zelinka is a nomadic nature photographer originally from Northeast Ohio. As an avid hiker and backpacker, Peter spent most his free time exploring the forests of Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. After spending countless hours hiking with a point-and-shoot camera, Peter eventually became more interested in photography. In June 2014 he purchased his first DSLR - a Nikon D7100. He spent the next few years practicing macro, wildlife, astro, and long exposure photography.
Peter graduated Summa Cum Laude from Youngstown State University in 2014 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Applied Science. After graduation, he began working as an Information Systems Specialist at The Vindicator in Youngstown Ohio.
In June 2016, Peter quit his full-time IT job to pursue photography. He spent the next 4 months living out of his car, traveling across the country on a 15,000-mile roadtrip. Upon returning home, he began teaching photography lessons.
Peter has now spent over 1 year living out of his car! In April 2019 he began his latest adventure - teaching people all across America how to take amazing images of the night sky.
The Dark Sky project is a significant undertaking by the Lough Gur group to secure International Dark Sky Association status for Lough Gur. But more important than being able to claim international status is the import task of preserving, not just the physical sites around Lough Gur, but the night skies overhead which has been available to man, woman and child at Lough Gur for over 6000 years.
As such we have embarked on a scientific measurement of how dark our skies are throughout the year and making that information readily available to you our visitors to Lough Gur.
Lough Gur is home to an array of species from insects, to small mammals, fish, birds and bats. We are acutely aware that changes to our ecosystem will have a significant impact on our broad ecosystems. Equally lighting changes will have a direct impact on the insect population and in turn the fish and bats and so forth. As the grounds are managed by Limerick council we are also fortunate to have access and support of our park ranger.
Dark Skies are our Connection with a 6000 Years of History
While no-one fully understands the purpose of the great stone circle, we can only image how our 6000-year-old ancestors pondered on the night sky and how it impacted their belief systems and annual cycles of life. A culture which we believe had at it heart the seasonal movements of sun, moon and stars. We want future generations to be in a position to look up and appreciate those same skies, it’s one of our few links to the past.
Spirit of Place
Visitors to Lough Gur are not only invited to enjoy its mystical presence but are invited to immerse themselves into human spirit and wellness. As part of our annual calendar, we run a “Spirit of Place” event promoting human wellness.
Increasingly critical to our own well-being is understanding the impact of blue light & light pollution on the human body. There is scientific evidence that suggests that for our own wellbeing, humans can greatly benefit from managed lighting and dark spaces.
A Historical Treasure we are passing to the future
Dark Sky certification for Lough Gur is not a point in time exercise. Our Dark Skies have been observed by generations of people over 6000 years, We want to play our part to ensure the skies remain as an inspiration for others over the coming 6000 years. Lough Gur is fortunate to have the backing of Limerick Council and local community in building sustainable model for dark sky preservation We invite you to explore our Dark Sky image above, clicking through to the various aspects of our Dark Sky project and related areas. Lough Gur Science Group.
Dark Sky & Science Education
What can I learn?
The “Dark Sky Project” segment of our website is an educational tool which we are happy to make freely available to everyone, which can be accessed directly by students or as an inspirational teaching guide for the classroom. Our project extends well beyond the stars to numerous disciplines including:
Understanding Lunar & Solar orbits.
Learning about the seasons
Ecology and Impact of Light on Flora & Fauna
Using our Data & Ideas for Students
We welcome you to use our interactive online analytics tools from Tableau Public. Or indeed download our data for your own analysis with your tools of choice. Here are some ideas for class room projects when using our data:
Finding the pattern & impact of Lunar Orbits
Look for the impact of the Earth’s spins and orbit around the sun.
Comparing seasonal numbers by day, month or quarter.
Select a single day and see if you can determine what is happening that day.
Understanding the impact of city lighting, the moon, clouds and sun on our light readings.
How does our data support what we know about our planet?
We encourage you to explore, play and find new answers in our data.
Dark Sky & The
Ancients Look to the Skies
As our ancestors looked to the sky, it presumably took several generations to identify and map the patterns which existed. We can only speculate that these patterns acted as seasonal indicators to Bronze Age families. 6,000 years ago, in the absence of city lights, our dark sky at Lough Gur would have been even more impressive than it is today, with artefacts like the Milkyway clearly visible.
2017 Archaeoastronomical Report by Dr Frank Prendergast FSCSI FRICS
In July of 2017, the management of Lough Gur commissioned Dr. Prendergast to carry out a review of the Great Stone Cricle (Circle B) at Grange, In the report Dr. Prendergast explores various aspect of how the stone circle would have been of immense social and astronomical significance to the inhabitants of Lough Gur at that time. The following is an extract from that report.
Throughout prehistory, humans would have perpetually gazed at and interpreted the sky – by day and by night – and been acutely aware of their perceived universe. There is little doubt that such practices in the past were an integral part of their cosmology. Mainstream archaeology, with archaeoastronomy, now factors these broader perspectives into understanding ancient societies in terms of everyday life and belief systems in the prehistoric past. Justifiably, an appreciation of the symbolic sky as the natural extension of landscape studies is essential, warranted and rapidly growing in importance. Circle (B) is the logical and appropriate place in which to inspire visitors of all ages by connecting to our distant ancestors. Recognisable astronomical alignments cannot be identified at the site but, nonetheless, it is justifiable to presume that its builders readily understood the passage of time and the seasons and how these were linked to the apparent movement of celestial bodies, planting and harvesting cycles. Additionally, the rituals of death and burial would have been synonymous with the darker months of the year and perhaps marked there. Being located in Circle (B) at the shortest days of the year when the sun’s passage was lowest and shortest would have arguably carried added symbolism as well as deep levels of fear and awe. Modern humans have largely disconnected from their natural world and now exist in a very different environment.
mpact of the Moon on Dark Skies
Even through Lough Gur is fortunate to be located in an area with such wonderful dark skies, the data from our light meter had periodic drops in darkness. Regardless of the weather, seasonal or any other influences these periodic spikes in brightness are attributed to lunar phases – the full moon. On focusing on any given night you do not seem a smooth transition of brightness to dark. On nights of a full moon, cloud cover will darken the skies marginally. Interestingly on a dark night, the overhead cloud has the impact of bouncing ground lighting back to earth and our light meter.
The Moon takes 29.53 days to go from new Moon to new Moon. The Earth travels 72.4 million kilometers around the Sun during the time it takes the moon to orbit the earth. This Nasa Goddard 4K visualization shows the Moon’s phase and libration at hourly intervals throughout 2016, as viewed from the northern hemisphere. Each frame represents one hour. In addition, this visualization shows the Moon’s orbit position, sub-Earth and subsolar points, distance from the Earth at true scale, and labels of craters near the terminator.
5 Reasons to Stargaze at Lough Gur
Proximity to Limerick & Surrounding Towns
Ever got in your car to drive for hours to reach a dark sky site, such as the Burren, to discover when you get there the weather has turned and rain/cloud-cover has put an end to your observations? At only 21km from Limerick city, you can glance to the sky and be at Lough Gur in 30 minutes. And if the weather does turn, you can be back in the comfort of your home 30 minutes later.
Still Air Over the Lake
The water volume of the lake acts as a natural temperature control for surrounding air. As such the air is still and your observations are less likely to suffer from the effect of air movement or changing air temperature. The lakefront provides an ideal location to observe the southerly and westerly skies.
Ample Parking & Safe Environment
As a managed park Lough Gur offers ample parking. Ideal for groups or club meetings. Keep an eye on the Shannonside Astronomy Club who use Lough Gur are an observation location.
A Protected Environment
Lough Gur is protected in many ways. At a government level, the area is a restricted zone for planning permission, guaranteeing we protect our dark sky from needless light pollution. The unique of Lough Gur, while at an elevated altitude, it is further protected from light pollution by surrounding hills which act as a natural barrier to city & local town light.
SQM Readings in Excess of 21
Our Sky Quality Meter measures our sky in excess of 21, with a maximum reading of 22.29 during the past year. The data supports the anecdotal evidence from locals that the skies over Lough Gur are truly unique.
Not many of us will get the opportunity to observe the Milky Way in its full glory. But when the weather conditions are right at Lough Gur you can do just that. The following photo was taken by local photographer Brian Lavelle and featured in the 2017 Lough Gur Calendar. On the night in question, the lake was so still that the stars were reflected in the water. The lake front is open to the public 24x7x365. With accessible parking within walking distance, come along, setup your equipment to capture the wonders of the night sky. When looking at such an amazing sight, it is easy to see what may have inspired our ancestors to build the Great Stone circle.
Enjoy the Kerry Dark Sky Reserve with us
We want you have an enjoyable rewarding experience so we arrange our star gazing experiences at easy accessible locations within the reserve. We can also arrange pick up at your location by our local transport partners at reasonable cost.
As sunset comes later in the summer, we time our tours so that you can enjoy dinner and join us as darkness falls (and still make it back to the pub if you wish!)
Star Gazing Experience
Our Stars experience has been developed to inform, entertain and share our enthusiasm for the Dark Sky with visitors to Kerry. Our guides will explain Moon’s phases and how they affect us on Earth .We will tell you what planets you may see and where. We even alert you to the passage of visible satellites. Most of all we will teach you a little of the stories and legends of the stars and constellations.
We limit the number of people on each experience to ensure that everybody gets to see some special sights through our telescopes. Sessions normally last about an hour however our guides enjoy their stars and are flexible when visitors have more questions. See HERE for more detailed information or book HERE
We offer complete flexibility to clients who wish to arrange a private stargazing experience and are happy to discuss your requirements. We can come to your location and add an extra dimension to your dinner party or barbeque with a post dinner tour of the stars. Call or email tru our Contact page or ask your Hotel or Guest House host to call us.
The Kerry International Dark-Sky Reserve is located in the South West coast of Ireland in what is called an ISTHMUS – a narrow strip of land connecting two larger land areas, usually with water on either side. The Reserve is protected by the Kerry Mountains and Hills on one side and the Atlantic ocean on the other, is approx. 700 sq km in size and offers dark un-lightpolluted skies, inhabited villages, helpful locals, remote wilderness, long sandy beaches, and numerous lakes, islands and rivers.
Protection of the Kerry International Dark-Sky Reserve is about protecting the day-time and nocturnal Wildlife in ALL its forms on land, river, lake and sea. As well as protecting and promoting the Heritage of numerous monuments of pre-historic stone, rock art etc that festoon the region, and protecting the quality of the dark night-time sky to witness them as our ancestors once did.
So, what is a Dark Sky Reserve?
An IDA (www.darksky.org) Dark Sky Reserve has a core/buffer structure, similar to the design of UNESCO Biosphere Reserves. The darkest night skies of such Reserves and Parks are in the Core Zone. The Buffer Zone, which usually includes more populated areas, protects the cores dark skies through the enacting of responsible outdoor light policies by municipal councils and private individuals. In the case of the Kerry International Dark-Sky Reserve there are actually dark-sky areas in the Buffer Zone with equal star-viewing as can be found in the Core Zone.
What is a Core Zone?
The Core Zone is an area in which there is little or no critical light pollution. These are the area’s in which on clear moonless nights one can fully see the sky in all its glory – just as our ancestors did. This region is most suited to astro-photography, research and naked eye star gazing.
What is the Buffer Zone?
The Buffer Zone protects the Core Zone by ensuring that light pollution is kept under control in the Buffer Zone. If the Buffer Zone began to increase its outdoor public street lights (for instance) this would impact on the Core Zone.
The Reserve holds many natural assets including The Skellig Islands UNESCO World Heritage site, tracks of 350 million year old creatures, towering cliffs, sandy blue-flag beaches, windswept hills, rare flora and fauna and traditional wildlife such as foxes, badgers, hares, rabbits as well as endangered species like bats, frogs, toads etc. The Atlantic Ocean bordering one side of the Reserve is also the protected home to many sea creatures and plants. Many island bird sanctuaries surround the reserve with no visitors allowed except under strict guidance and permission. It is not unusual to see Dolphins playing out in the Derrynane, Kells, Ballinskelligs or Waterville Bay area, so keep a sharp eye out for them. The Reserve is unique because is is an inhabited ‘living’ Reserve, there is a school, a playground, a church, a pub even a small chocolate factory in the Core Zone. You can rent a house, stay in a Hostel or book into a B&B in the Core Zone area.
Protection of this Kerry Dark-Sky wonder is very important, hence the application to receive Dark-Sky Reserve recognition from the International Dark-Sky Association. To correctly map our evolution into this more technologically based society we need to remember, cherish and protect the starting-off point in human development, globally agreed to be humankind’s wonder at the heavens providing the first spark into the creation of what we now call science.
Studying as a Graphic Designer lead to my love of photography. After first learning camera operation and darkroom processes in college, my passion for digital photography has progressed over the years. I am self-taught from countless hours studying books, practicing online tutorials and learning from the best. Over recent years I have accomplished accreditation with the Irish Photography Federation and gained acceptances and awards for my work in International Photography Salons under patronage from the International Federation of Photographic Art.
Loving nature and the outdoors, I mainly travel towards coastline to capture the majority of my images. I venture further to mountains and other suitable locations when I can but the South East of Ireland, in particular my home County Wexford is my base for my preferred genres of Landscape and Seascape. When the many conditions required are right I also try to capture the sky at night. There is something quite unique and awe inspiring about capturing the night sky and with modern camera sensor improvements, this has become all the easier. Since 2016, I have tried my hand at creating some modern architecture images as I enjoy both the precise nature of the composition and the new styles of experimenting with light and shadow.
“You don’t take a photograph, you make it- Ansel Adams”
Having practiced with many photographic genres and styles over the years I have come to love the long exposure as my main technique. I am always fascinated by the resulting image from capturing a scene over a period of time.
Whether it be the tides in motion, clouds passing, rivers flowing or stars rotating across the night sky, I endeavor to portray motion and time in a constant Changing Light.
Brian McDonald LIPF AFIAP Cover page of Astronomy Ireland Magazine
An absolute honour to have my Milky Way and Mars image at Kilmichael Point, Gorey, Co. Wexford chosen for the September issue cover page and gallery of the world's most popular astronomy club. The image is titled “Watching the Universe go by” and features the Milky core rising near vertically over one of Ireland’s world war lookout posts which are located at strategic locations around the coast.
Also, the planet Mars shining a bright reflection on the sea. Mars reached it’s closest point (Opposition) to the earth in July 2018. More on Mars here https://mars.nasa.gov/all-about-mars/night-sky/opposition/
And also in the image, a passing satellite which Astronomy ireland’s David Moore identifed as the rocket use to launch military Lacrosse 4 Satellite in 2000.
This cover page feature was my photography highlight of 2018 for sure.
by Tony Curado
I still remember the first time I saw the Milky Way and the feeling of awe that I got from seeing all those stars. It was a beautiful summer night at Lake George, NY and my brother and I decided to head down to the docks a little while after dinner. As our eyes adjusted, the night sky just kept getting better and better. Even though all we saw that night was a small band of the Milky Way, it was a night that stuck with me for many years to come. Since I was born and raised in New Jersey, it would be almost 3 years before I saw a sky that dark again.
When I began photographing the Milky Way, I was living in Durango, Colorado. It’s an amazing small town in the San Juan Mountain Range, - with minimal light pollution and clean mountain air. The night sky is so dark in Durango that I could see the Milky Way from my apartment. If I drove an hour north or south of Durango, -the skies exploded with stars, planets, and the occasional meteor.
My first summer in Durango, some friends and I walked less than a mile from our apartment to view the Perseid Meteor Shower, I remember being in such awe of where I was living that I could barely take any photos. That night would begin a long, passionate journey of learning all about Milky Way photography. That journey has changed my life. I’ve seen beautiful dark sky locations in Moab, Utah; Sedona, Arizona; San Francisco, California and Silverton, Colorado, a small town north of Durango, all in order to capture the stars. Silverton was where I took my first true Milky Way Nightscape, on a camping trip to Animas Forks, one of the largest remaining ghost towns in Colorado.
In preparing for the new moon, I rented a wide angle lens, Sigma 15mm f/2.8 EX DG Diagonal Fisheye Lens for Canon, and set out with no idea about Milky Way positioning, except to look to the south. I had my Canon 6D, my $25 intervalometer, and a really cool place to shoot. I photographed all night, exploring every different angle of the old mill among the ruins. Call it beginners luck, but my first picture of the core came when we finally found it sinking behind one of the mountains.
It was perfectly aligned with the old mill below. I set everything up and started shooting my stacks, and as my friend and I sat there a huge green fireball appeared in the sky! I couldn’t believe it, I had never seen anything like that and as a bonus I was able to photograph it! It was an amazing feeling!!
When it came time for me to leave Durango and return to NJ, I was bummed at the idea of not being able to shoot the Milky Way anymore. Afterall, the east coast was known for its high population density, which resulted in large amounts of light pollution. Thankfully, with a little research I realized it would take some effort, but I was only a few hours away from plenty of places to shoot. I was inspired by the idea that leaving Colorado didn’t mean I had to leave behind my new passion for shooting nightscapes. I think that is one of the things that surprised me the most about the east coast skies.. Yes, when you look at a light pollution map, you can see that the bad reputation is well deserved. But there are plenty of places you can see the Milky Way along the eastern coast, and the chances are it's closer than you think.
That realization got me thinking and my project to photograph the Milky Way in every state of the United States was born.
G50, officially launched in the summer of 2016. I’d wanted to take a cross country road trip for a while, and when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped at the chance. What better way could there be to kick off my project? I knew that I needed to photograph the Milky Way in every state of the United States of America. I knew this was not going to be an easy task, and I knew it would take years. My trip across the country would be a great way to get it started and cross off a bunch of states.
I visited 23 states during my cross country trips. Iowa, Nevada, Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, Minnesota, just to name a few,and traveled over 15,876 miles! The highlights of the trip were a crystal clear night in Michigan, where I was able to photograph the Milky Way over Lake Michigan, an amazing view at Crater Lake in Oregon, and an overnight hike to a glacier lake in Idaho. In the end, I crossed off 12 states for the G50 project and I visited some of the greatest national parks America has to offer. If you would like to read more or see all the photos from this trip you can visit truevisionphotos.com for photos from the trip.
As much as this project was about discovering dark skies and seeing my beautiful country, it was also about growing my skills as a photographer. I like the quote “a minute to learn, a lifetime to master” when it comes to photography. That is extremely true for photographing the Milky Way. The more you learn about photographing the stars, the more you realize how much you didn’t know. Adapt and overcome became my motto for this project and it would never prove more true than in 2017. At the beginning of 2017 I was struggling with my health, constantly being tired with aching joints, and sore muscles. Doctor after doctor told me there was nothing wrong, but thankfully I found someone who was able to crack the code. I was bitten by a tick on my cross country adventure the summer before and I had been infected with Anaplasma. It was a tick borne disease that mimics Lyme Disease. Thankfully, Anaplasma does not carry the same long term effects that Lyme does, so with some treatment I was soon back on my feet. However, during my recovery, I found long nights out in nature, hiking, camping, and photographing to be very draining. But I was determined to keep the project alive, so I planned short trips that were relatively close to home.
Among those short trips was 3 different stops in Connecticut, a trip down south to photograph the eclipse, and an amazing night on the coast of Rhode Island. Although the stars were beautiful, it was the great people I met and the friends that joined me on so many of my trips that I am most grateful for.
I’ve learned that they enrich the journey for me. For example, a local Connecticut photographer friend of mine coaxed me out of bed after we gave up shooting that night thanks to a rainstorm. On her way home she noticed a clearing in the clouds and convinced me go back out. It was that same friend that joined me for one of the best nights of 2017 at a lighthouse on the coast of Rhode Island. That trip still holds up as one of my best nights photographing the Milky Way. Strangely, my favorite Milky Way adventure of 2017 had nothing to do with the Milky Way. That summer, most of America got to see at least a partial solar eclipse, with a narrow band across the country being able to see a total solar eclipse. Determined to see the eclipse in totality, I met-up with a friend in South Carolina. Of course while there we were able to find some dark skies and get a great Milky Way photo. By the end of the year I added 4 states to my G50 count. While it didn’t touch my 12 states from the year before, it was progress. With how I started the year, it was progress I was happy about.
2018 would begin with a bang. A vacation out to Hawaii in February was going to help me get the year started off right. We were going during the new moon, but we were also going during the end of the rainy season and as our trip drew closer, the weather looked like it wasn’t going to cooperate. I might only get one shot at it the whole week I was there and of course, that was our first night there. I’m not sure if the jet lag helped or hurt in this situation, but I was able to drive from Honolulu to the other side of the island for some great shots of the Milky Way. Despite some clouds, I was happy with my results that night and 2018 was off to a great start! Or so I thought. In reality, 2018 would be the most difficult year I’d dealt with so far in regards to weather. It seemed like it would only rain during a new moon and that clouds were now a permanent fixture on the eastern U.S. coast. With my project being mostly self funded, and a lot of the states close to home completed, my trips were getting farther and farther away and it was becoming harder to take a chance on weather. Unfortunately, 2018 ended with me only adding Hawaii and Vermont to the completed list, bringing my total to 18.
With 2018 being so much of a disappointment, I made a promise to myself that 2019 would be different. There were a few times in 2018 when I didn’t go on a trip during the new moon because of the weather forecast and ended up regretting it after seeing or hearing from some friends that the weather cleared up. So in 2019, regardless of the weather forecast, I am planning to go out during every new moon or the weeks surrounding it. I intend to make the best of whatever I encounter, as sometimes, clouds are a welcome addition to nightscapes. As in Connecticut, on my first visit to a western, bortle class 5 region, I wasn’t expecting much but I was able to get an interesting shot with the moving clouds. I returned 3 times to this location and due to light pollution and bad weather I never got anything better than the original image with the clouds in it. However, for this project where I plan on showcasing 50 different photos of the Milky Way a little something different is not bad.
With my new mindset and determination to not let the weather beat me, 2019 started off with a two week road trip down the coast of the eastern seaboard. On the potential hit list were Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. The trip started off great and was highlighted by an amazing two night stay on Jekyll Island, Georgia. As my first trip out in 2019, I was a little rusty and rain in North Carolina and Florida put a little damper on the trip. But my spirits were lifted by a great night out in Georgia. Even though the wind kept me from really getting any usable images, seeing the great big core back in the sky revitalized my desire to get out and shoot the night sky as much as possible in 2019.
With only Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire left in the Northeast, my goal is to finish shooting New England this year. After my road trip down south, I once again met up with some New England photographers in York, Maine. I’ve had a shot from that location on my bucket list ever since I visited the state during the second year of my project. In York, Maine there is a lighthouse that, during the beginning of the Milky Way season, the core arches right over. Although I had previously visited this location 2 times, I never walked away with the photo I envisioned and was seriously hoping the 3rd time would be a charm. Unfortunately, when we showed up at the lighthouse around 2 a.m., we faced two challenges. First, the sky starting to get very cloudy. Second, the lighthouse was lit up a very bright blue for autism awareness month. We quickly called an audible and headed up to a mountain about 20 minutes away in the hopes that we would get a better view from there. Thankfully, that night worked out great and I was able to get a shot I had been longing for.
Now with Maine off the list, I am down to only 2 states left in the Northeast and only a few states away from hitting the halfway mark of this epic project. However, the northeast is not the only target on my list for 2019. I will be taking another 2 week road trip out to Colorado to visit some friends and we plan to go to New Mexico, Arizona, the Animas Forks ghost town where it all began, and even a few nights in Moab. On my way back I will be tracking weather and hoping to hit a few more states. All in all, for 2019 the goal is to reach that halfway point and start planning for next season where I will attack the southern United States.
I started this project for a few different reasons. Aside from my new obsession with night photography, it was a way to keep me out in nature and exploring my country. Being out west, I fell in love with nature. In returning to NJ, I didn’t want to forget about that. But as this project moves along it has taken on so much more. The experience’s, the places, the people and even some struggles have been far greater than I could have ever imagined.
There have been many frustrations along the way, but if it were easy it really wouldn’t be worth doing, in my eyes. Weather has been one of the biggest issues I have faced along this journey, but light pollution has also been a big part of this. Out west, in a true dark sky portion of the country, seeing the Milky Way is a lot easier and can happen for a longer period of time. On the east coast, due to light pollution, that period shrinks. Couple that with the unpredictable east coast weather patterns and the challenge of this project gets kicked up a notch, from what I originally thought. This project has tested my patience, determination, and will, at different times and sometimes all at once. But, I move forward because every night I have a successful clear night under the sky I’m once again reminded why I started it in the first place. Awe is truly the only word that keeps coming to my mind, because no matter how many times I see a sky lit up with stars it takes my breath away.
In 2018, I was washed out almost every trip out and I really started to think the Northeast could be the end of this project. So with a big storm on the way I could have easily cancelled my trip in August to Vermont for the Perseid Meteor Storm.
Instead, I went and was once again reminded that perseverance in life and in photography does payoff. My first night out I just remember sitting there under the clear sky and feeling the entire weight of the project just slip away. At that moment whatever state I was in simply didn’t matter, at that moment all I felt was pure joy. Once again in awe of where I was and the sheer beauty of the universe laid out before me.
To sum up, I never thought it was going to be easy, maybe I didn’t think it was going to be as hard. There were moments I contemplating deleting all traces of the project and just forget about it. However, there is no way after everything I have gone through that I could stop now. I will “adapt and overcome” because the feeling of a clear dark sky is one I never hope to forget. On a final note, I hope you have enjoyed reading about my adventure and that you enjoy the pictures. It should be mentioned, that the majority of my pictures are composites. I do this for a few reasons, but the main reason being is creating a nice clean artistic image that can be printed. Single captures of the Milky Way Core definitely have there place and is where I started in my journey learning to photograph the Milky Way. But as I progressed in this project a few things became clear to me. The first was that in order to get a clear printable foreground, that is up to printable standards, compositing the image with blue hour foregrounds was the best way for me to achieve that. Also, as you probably already know, using a star tracker leaves you with having to composite in a foreground anyway.
Lastly, I wanted my images to be the best possible artistic representation of the state I was in as well as the universe we live in and for me, again, compositing was the best way I could see to do that. So, I set up some guidelines for my project to ensure it would remain legitimate. They are simple and to the point, every night sky must be taken in the state that it is claimed to have been taken from, and my foreground and night sky must match the time I was there. I have a deep respect for the scientific end of photographing our night sky and I completely understand the importance of accuracy in that world. But, I also believe that just saying I’m creating art and not scientific photos is a crutch that some photographers use. So using apps like Photopills, I am able to pinpoint where the Milky Way will be and line up my foreground before it appears. So while I am creating artistic nightscape imagery, I still try and show a true representation of the scene for the time that I am there. In the end I have one purpose, and that is to try and deliver the sense of awe I had the first time I saw the Milky Way.
by Alan Dyer of amazingsky.net
I test out a fast and very wide lens designed specifically for Sony mirrorless cameras.
In a test on my blog at www.amazingsky.net published May 31, 2018 I presented results on how well the Sony a7III mirrorless camera performs for nightscape and deep-sky photography. It works very well indeed.
But what about lenses for the Sony? Here’s one ideal for astrophotography.
Made for Sony e-mount cameras, the Venus Optics 15mm f/2 Laowa provides excellent on- and off-axis performance in a fast and compact lens ideal for nightscape, time-lapse, and wide-field tracked astrophotography with Sony mirrorless cameras. (Sorry, Canon and Nikon users, it is not available for other lens mounts.)
I use it a lot and highly recommend it.
Size and Weight
While I often use the a7III with my Canon lenses by way of a Metabones adapter, the Sony really comes into its own when matched to a “native” lens made for the Sony e-mount. The selection of fast, wide lenses from Sony itself is limited, with the new Sony 24mm G-Master a popular favourite (I have yet to try it).
However, for much of my nightscape shooting, and certainly for auroras, I prefer lenses even wider than 24mm, and the faster the better.
The Laowa 15mm f/2 from Venus Optics fills the bill very nicely, providing excellent speed in a compact lens. While wide, the Laowa is a rectilinear lens providing straight horizons even when aimed up, as shown above. This is not a fish-eye lens.
The Venus Optics 15mm realizes the potential of mirrorless cameras and their short flange distance that allows the design of fast, wide lenses without massive bulk.
For me, the Sony-Laowa combination is my first choice for a lightweight travel camera for overseas aurora trips.
However, this is a no-frills manual focus lens. Nor does it even transfer aperture data to the camera, which is a pity. There are no electrical connections between the lens and camera.
However, for nightscape work where all settings are adjusted manually, the Venus Optics 15mm works just fine. The key factor is how good are the optics. I’m happy to report that they are very good indeed.
Testing Under the Stars
To test the Venus Optics lens I shot “same night” images, all tracked, with the Sigma 14mm f/1.8 Art lens, at left, and the Rokinon 14mm SP (labeled as being f/2.4, at right). Both are much larger lenses, made for DSLRs, with bulbous front elements not able to accept filters. But they are both superb lenses. See my test report on these lenses published in 2018.
The next images show blow-ups of the same scene (the nightscape shown in full below, taken at Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta), and all taken on a tracker.
I used the Rokinon on the Sony a7III using the Metabones adapter which, unlike some brands of lens adapters, does not compromise the optical quality of the lens by shifting its focal position. But lacking a lens adapter for Nikon-to-Sony at the time of testing, I used the Nikon-mount Sigma lens on a Nikon D750, a DSLR camera with nearly identical sensor specs to the Sony.
A tracked image with the Venus Optics Laowa 15mm at f/2.
Above is a tracked image (so the stars are not trailed, which would make it hard to tell aberrations from trails), taken wide open at f/2. No lens correction has been applied so the vignetting (the darkening of the frame corners) is as the lens provides.
As shown bottom right, when used wide open at f/2 vignetting is significant, but not much more so than with competitive lenses with much larger lenses, as I compare below.
And the vignetting is correctable in processing. Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom have this lens in their lens profile database. That’s not the case with current versions (as of April 2019) of other raw developers such as DxO PhotoLab, ON1 Photo RAW, and Raw Therapee where vignetting corrections have to be dialled in manually by eye.
When stopped down to f/2.8 the Laowa “flattens” out a lot for vignetting and uniformity of frame illumination. Corner aberrations also improve but are still present. I show those in close-up detail below.
Opposite page bottom right, , I compare the vignetting of the three lenses, both wide open and when stopped down. Wide open, all the lenses, even the Sigma and Rokinon despite their large front elements, show quite a bit of drop off in illumination at the corners.
The Rokinon SP actually seems to be the worst of the trio, showing some residual vignetting even at f/2.8, while it is reduced significantly in the Laowa and Sigma lenses. Oddly, the Rokinon SP, even though it is labeled as f/2.4, seemed to open to f/2.2, at least as indicated by the aperture metadata.
Above I show lens sharpness on-axis, both wide open and stopped down, to check for spherical and chromatic aberrations with the bright blue star Vega centered. The red box in the Navigator window at top right indicates what portion of the frame I am showing, at 200% magnification in Photoshop.
On-axis, the Venus Optics 15mm shows stars just as sharply as the premium Sigma and Rokinon lenses, with no sign of blurring spherical aberration nor coloured haloes from chromatic aberration.
Focusing is precise and easy to achieve with the Sony on Live View. My unit reaches sharpest focus on stars with the lens set just shy of the middle of the infinity symbol. This is consistent and allows me to preset focus just by dialing the focus ring, handy for shooting auroras at -35° C, when I prefer to minimize fussing with camera settings, thank you very much!
The Laowa and Sigma lenses show similar levels of off-axis coma and astigmatism, with the Laowa exhibiting slightly more lateral chromatic aberration than the Sigma. Both improve a lot when stopped down one stop, but aberrations are still present though to a lesser degree.
However, I find that the Laowa 15mm performs as well as the Sigma 14mm Art for star quality on- and off-axis. And that’s a high standard to match.
The Rokinon SP is the worst of the trio, showing significant elongation of off-axis star images (they look like lines aimed at the frame centre), likely due to astigmatism. With the 14mm SP, this aberration was still present at f/2.8, and was worse at the upper right corner than at the upper left corner, an indication to me that even the premium Rokinon SP lens exhibits slight lens de-centering, an issue users have often found with other Rokinon lenses.
Real-World Examples – The Milky Way
The fast speed of the Laowa 15mm is ideal for shooting tracked wide-field images of the Milky Way, and untracked camera-on-tripod nightscapes and time-lapses of the Milky Way.
Image aberrations are very acceptable at f/2, a speed that allows shutter speed and ISO to be kept lower for minimal star trailing and noise while ensuring a well-exposed frame.
The fast speed of the Laowa 15mm is ideal for shooting tracked wide-field images of the Milky Way, and untracked camera-on-tripod nightscapes and time-lapses of the Milky Way.
Image aberrations are very acceptable at f/2, a speed that allows shutter speed and ISO to be kept lower for minimal star trailing and noise while ensuring a well-exposed frame.
The Atacama Desert in Northern Chile
The Atacama Desert (Spanish: Desierto de Atacama) is a plateau in South America, covering a 1,000-kilometre (600 mi) strip of land on the Pacific coast, west of the Andes mountains. According to estimates the Atacama Desert proper occupies 105,000 square kilometres (41,000 sq mi), or 128,000 square kilometres (49,000 sq mi) if the barren lower slopes of the Andes are included. Most of the desert is composed of stony terrain, salt lakes (salares), sand, and felsic lava that flows towards the Andes. Below, we are sharing 10 Fun Facts about the Atacama Desert.
1. Driest Desert in the World – Studies conducted by NASA have concluded that this desert located in northern Chile is in fact the driest desert in the world. Some weather stations in the Atacama have never received rain. Periods of up to four years have been registered with no rainfall in the central sector, delimited by the cities of Antofagasta, Calama and Copiapó, in Chile. Evidence suggests that the Atacama Desert may not have had any significant rainfall from 1570 to 1971.
2. Rainless (or just about) – Average rain- fall in this region is about 1 mm per year.
Some locations within the desert have never had any rainfall what- soever. Some locations, such as Arica and Iquique, receive 1 to 3 mm (0.04 to 0.12 in) in a year.
Geographically, the aridity of the Atacama is explained by it being situated between two mountain chains (the Andes and the Chilean Coast Range) of sufficient height to prevent moisture advection from either the Pacific or the Atlantic Oceans, a two-sided rain shadow.
3. Sterile Ground – Both the Andes Mountains and the Chilean Costal Range, which surround this desert, create a blockage of moisture, making the Atacama Desert a kind of death zone for vegetation, depriving the land of water and nutrients.
4. Largest Supply of Sodium Nitrate in the World – This region is the largest natural supply of Sodium Nitrate, which can be used for producing fertilizers and explosives. amongst other things. Mining of this mineral, also called Chile saltpeter, was at a boom in the 1940s and many abandoned mining towns may be spotted and visited in the desert.
5. Extra Terrestrial Soil – Soil samples from this region are very similar to samples from Mars; for this reason, NASA uses this desert for testing instruments for missions to the red planet. The Atacama is also a testing site for the NASA-funded Earth-Mars Cave Detection Program. The Atacama has also been used as a location for filming Mars scenes, most notably in the television series Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets.
6. Land Dispute – In the late 1800s, Chile and Bolivia disputed this land in the Guerra del Pacífico (War of the Pacific) because both countries claimed to be rightful owners of this region that, as was said above, had a huge mining potential. At the end of the war Chile took control of the entire region.
7. Extreme Temperatures – During the day, temperatures in the desert can reach around 40º C (104º F), and in the night these temperatures can fall to 5º C (41º F). The climate is magnificent throughout the year, with more than 90% of the days being radiant. For 10 to 12 nights each month there is an astonishing moon and you can enjoy the darkness of the night with its fresh air and lack of clouds, which makes the stars shine as in no other place on earth.
8. Chinchorro Mummies – The oldest artificially mummified human remains have been found in the Atacama Desert. These mummies predate the Egyptian mummies by thousands of years, and the extreme lack of moisture helps in the preservation of these samples. To put this into perspective, the earliest mummy that has been found in Egypt dated around 3000 BC, while the oldest mummy recovered from the Atacama Desert is dated around 7020 BC.
9. Presence of Snow – Despite this being the driest desert in the world and the high temperatures during the day, the high peaks present are topped with snow. This is possible due to the altitude, which does not allow temperatures in these points to increase much.
10. Astronomy – The Atacama Desert is one of few locations on the globe with 300+ days with clear skies in a year, along with no light pollution and its high altitude, making it perhaps the best place in the world for observatories. In more recent years, the desert has become the home of the largest ground telescope in the world, ALMA, where studies of the formation of stars are conducted with the help of the images captured by the 66 radio telescopes.
I’m a SQL analyst and developer by profession, living in Dorset, United Kingdom, which is an amazing place for people who love outdoor activities. I love mountain biking which has taken me to stunning locations, and there are miles of breath-taking walks with lots of nature and history around – every corner has a surprise, it’s like living in a fantasy, at least that’s how I see it.
Since I was a child, I’ve always had a fascination for the stars. I had the opportunity to visit places near the equator with true dark skies, where the Milky Way core is visible up in the sky – unlike in the UK where the core is barely visible on the horizon. It’s of unbelievable beauty. I spent most of my childhood visiting locations in the rain forest, flat lands and my favourite – the mountains, especially over 4000 meters.
My fascination for the night sky has always been with me and I have always wanted to capture their beauty. One day, I saw images from Michael Shainblum and he then became my main influence and inspiration. I’ve never looked to replicate his style or the others, it was just that I loved how his images made me feel so immersed. It inspired me to do the same with my photos, to capture an image that would put the viewer under the stars.
As I did last year, I went again to the same place for my first Milky Way, Peveril Point, Swanage, Dorset UK. For my previous attempt, I used a Sigma Art lens 20mm F1.4. The idea was to capture more detailed foregrounds. The lens proved to be excellent for low light but it has four major downsides: first, photos of the night sky taken with this lens were extremely difficult to edit. Second, it is not very good for panoramas, despite I used a nodal head. Third, the autofocus is the worst of any lens that I have ever owned, it is very difficult to capture a sharp photo even with the best light conditions. And fourth, the lens profile in Lightroom is terrible, it makes the images worse. I was not bothered by the astigmatism distortion of the corners which virtually disappeared in panoramas. Overall, I was not happy with the lens, I felt I wasted my last year trying to use it. So I went back to my trustworthy Samyang lens 14mm F2,8. Coupled with the Canon 6D, still my preferred choice. I have not tested the Sigma 14mm F2 yet, but given the price, I will stick with my Samyang.
The image to the rights is the process used to create it. It is a panorama of 7 photos, Canon 6d and Samyang 14mm F2.8, ISO between 4000 and 5000. Each photo is 25 secs. Stitched in Adobe Lightroom.
The moon rise was spectacular, one of the most beautiful rises from the sea, it was also so dim that allowed to capture the Milky Way up to the last minute before the astronomical dawn. Again, I thank you the nature for this beautiful experience.
All images have been captured with a Canon 6D Mk1. And most of the images were captured with a Samyang 14mm F2.8 Lens, my more recent work is being captured with the amazing Samyang 14mm F2.4 XP
Image by jasty78
Durdle Door (sometimes written Durdle Dor) is a natural limestone arch on the Jurassic Coast near Lulworth in Dorset, England.
It is privately owned by the Welds, a family who owns 12,000 acres (50 km2) in Dorset in the name of the Lulworth Estate. It is open to the public. The name Durdle is derived from the Old English word ‘thirl' meaning bore or drill.
The form of the coastline around Durdle Door is controlled by its geology—both by the contrasting hardnesses of the rocks, and by the local patterns of faults and folds. The arch has formed on a concordant coastline where bands of rock run parallel to the shoreline. The rock strata are almost vertical, and the bands of rock are quite narrow. Originally a band of resistant Portland limestone ran along the shore, the same band that appears one mile along the coast forming the narrow entrance to Lulworth Cove. Behind this is a 120-metre (390 ft) band of weaker, easily eroded rocks, and behind this is a stronger and much thicker band of chalk, which forms the Purbeck Hills. These steeply dipping rocks are part of the Lulworth crumple, itself part of the broader Purbeck Monocline, produced by the building of the Alps during the mid-Cenozoic.
The limestone and chalk are in closer proximity at Durdle Door than at Swanage, 10 miles (16 km) to the east, where the distance is over 2 miles (3 km). Around this part of the coast nearly all of the limestone has been removed by sea erosion, whilst the remainder forms the small headland which includes the arch. Erosion at the western end of the limestone band has resulted in the arch formation.
UNESCO teams monitor the condition of both the arch and adjacent beach.
The 120-metre (390 ft) isthmus which joins the limestone to the chalk is made of a 50-metre (160 ft) band of Portland limestone, a narrow and compressed band of Cretaceous Wealden clays and sands, and then narrow bands of greensand and sandstone.
In Man O' War Bay, the small bay immediately east of Durdle Door, the band of Portland and Purbeck limestone has not been entirely eroded away, and is visible above the waves as Man O'War Rocks. Similarly, offshore to the west, the eroded limestone outcrop forms a line of small rocky islets called (from east to west) The Bull, The Blind Cow, The Cow, and The Calf.
As the coastline in this area is generally an eroding landscape, the cliffs are subject to occasional rockfalls and landslides; a particularly large slide occurred just to the east of Durdle Door in April 2013, resulting in destruction of part of the South West Coast Path.
There is a dearth of early written records about the arch, though it has kept a name given to it probably over a thousand years ago. In the late eighteenth century there is a description of the "magnificent arch of Durdle-rock Door", and early nineteenth-century maps called it 'Duddledoor' and 'Durdle' or 'Dudde Door'. In 1811 the first Ordnance Survey map of the area named it as 'Dirdale Door'. 'Durdle' is derived from the Old English 'thirl', meaning to pierce, bore or drill which in turn derives from 'thyrel', meaning hole. Similar names in the region include Durlston Bay and Durlston Head further east, where a oastal stack suggests the existence of an earlier arch, and the Thurlestone, an arched rock in the neighbouring county of Devon to the west. The 'Door' part of the name probably maintains its modern meaning, referring to the arched shape of the rock; in the late nineteenth century there is reference to it being called the "Barn-door", and is described as being "sufficiently high for a good-sized sailing boat to pass through it."
Music videos have been filmed at Durdle Door, including parts of Tears for Fears' "Shout", Billy Ocean's "Loverboy", and Cliff Richard's "Saviour's Day"
The landscape around Durdle Door has been used in scenes in several films, including Wilde (1997) starring Stephen Fry, Nanny McPhee starring Emma Thompson,
the 1967 production of Far From The Madding Crowd (the latter also filmed around nearby Scratchy Bottom), and the Bollywood film Housefull 3.
Ron Dawson's children's story Scary Bones meets the Dinosaurs of the Jurassic Coast creates a myth of how Durdle Door came to be, as an 'undiscovered' dinosaur called Durdle Doorus is magically transformed into rock.
Dorset-born Arthur Moule, a friend of Thomas Hardy and missionary to China, wrote these lines about Durdle Door for his 1879 book of poetry Songs of heaven and home, written in a foreign land:
To achieve International Dark Sky Reserve status all those responsible for lighting (local authorities, highway departments, businesses and individual residents) are required to ensure that light pollution (light escaping sideways and upwards) is reduced to a minimum.
LEDs are now beginning to appear above our streets and main roads in very large numbers. Sadly, far too many LEDs are very bright, and their excess light reflects from the ground into the sky.
AONB Position Statement & Good Practice Note
The AONB position statements set out its current position on a variety of topics. These include light pollution, and the Cranborne Chase and West Wiltshire Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty derives much of its beauty from its qualities of tranquillity, remoteness and cultural heritage. Light pollution has the potential to erode and destroy that tranquillity and sense of remoteness.
It is, therefore, considered appropriate that all artificial external lighting within its borders, or within the setting of the AONB, should be muted, screened, and the minimum required.
Position Statement 1 - Light Pollution (PDF, 75Kb)
Position Statement 7a - Recommendations for Dark-Sky compliant lighting on new builds & refurbishments - a Developers' Guide (PDF 500kb)
Terms used in describing good lighting, and waste light not directed to the area to be lit.
Task or Useful light – light that fulfils the task for which the lamp was installed.
Obtrusive light – light causing a problem of some kind through misdirection.
Spill light - falls outside the area where it is needed.
Upward reflected light - unwanted light bouncing off the ground.
Direct upward light - wasted light shining above a light fitting (not necessarily vertically upwards – it may be escaping just one degree above the horizontal but will eventually end up in the sky).
Light intrusion – over-bright and poorly directed light, often going in windows and/or causing glare and discomfort on other premises. Sometimes called light trespass, but this term is normally to be avoided as, in law, trespass is deliberate intrusion and the intrusive light is usually the result of ignorance rather than malice.
Compact LED light directed downwards. This and similar types are recommended for domestic, commercial, farmyard and similar uses: preferably with sensors to switch off when not needed.
A halogen floodlight, correctly angled, can light a large area.
Photo: Martin Morgan-Taylor
An LED floodlight that, even if tilted down, will shine above the horizontal
An LED floodlight on a hospital shining into ward windows: its wiring and short fitting bar mean that it cannot be tilted far enough downwards to illuminate the area to be lit. It will always emit upwards as well as down.
Photo: Bob Mizon
It is recommended that Local Planning Authorities specify the following environmental zones for exterior lighting control within their Development Plans.
ZoneSurroundingLighting EnvironmentExamplesE0ProtectedDarkUNESCO Starlight Reserves, IDA Dark Sky ParksE1NaturalIntrinsically darkNational Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty etcE2RuralLow district brightnessVillage or relatively dark outer suburban locationsE3SuburbanMedium district brightnessSmall town centres or suburban locationsE4UrbanHigh district brightnessTown/city centres with high levels of night-time activitySource: Guidance Notes for the Reduction of Obtrusive Light GN01:2011
Where an area to be lit lies on the boundary of two zones the obtrusive light limitation values used should be those applicable to the most rigorous zone.
NB: Zone E0 must always be surrounded by an E1 Zone.
Lighting Types, qualities and Impacts - Bob Mizon Commission for Dark Skies (CfDS) - March 2016
This paper by Bob Mizon looks at best practice relating to external lighting - Different types of lighting through the years, terminology guide, threats to the environment from blue-rich white lighting, putting light where it is needed, part-night switch-offs and common misconceptions met when discussing quality lighting and good practice...
Download Lighting: types, qualities and impacts (PDF - 1.2Mb)
Institute of Lighting Professionals
The Institution of Lighting Professionals (ILP) is the UK and Ireland's largest and most influential professional lighting association, dedicated solely to excellence in lighting.
The key purpose of the ILP is to promote excellence in all forms of lighting. This includes interior, exterior, sports, road, flood, emergency, tunnel, security and festive lighting as well as design and consultancy services.
Their website contains a wealth of information and advice, and we would recommend the two links below - the first one being a PDF, and the second link taking you to the free resources page on their website:
More Links to useful resources
Universe Today - LEDs: Light Pollution Solution or Night Sky Nemesis? - Article by Bob King
Edison Tech Centre - Find out about the evolution of the Electric Light.
International working group (PDF) - Regional Government of Andalusia - Declaration on the use of blue-rich white light sources for nighttime lighting
Understanding & choosing colour temperature in LED lights (YouTube Video) - David Geldart of Lumicrest Lighting Solutions
Blue-rich LED Lighting — Bright New Future? - The Commission for Dark Skies
Switchoffs - Most UK councils are adopting environmental and economic lights-out policies - The Commission for Dark Skies
You can also check out the NEED-LESS interactive night sky simulator to find the darkest places in the AONB and discover what to expect when you're looking upwards.
1. King Alfred’s Tower
Kingsettle Hill, South Brewham, Bruton, Somerset BA10 0LB
King Alfred’s Tower is a striking 160ft (49m) folly, built in 1772 for Henry Hoare II, known as Henry the Magnificent, the designer of the iconic Stourhead gardens. It is believed to mark the site where King Alfred the Great rallied his troops in 878. The tower commemorates the accession of George III to the throne in 1760 and the end of the Seven Years War. Henry would surely have appreciated the majesty of the night sky as much as his own creations and this site provides a perfect spot from which to admire the beauty above.
2. Dinton Park
St Mary's Road, Dinton, Wiltshire SP3 5HH
Perfectly described by the National Trust as “far-reaching rolling parkland with tranquil views in the grounds of a Neo-Grecian house”. Please note that car parking for Dinton Park is located on St Mary's Road immediately south of St Mary's Church. There is no visitor car parking at Philipps House itself. This park is one of Wiltshire’s best kept secrets and boasts substantial views - even Salisbury Cathedral can be seen from the highest point. Just like the night sky, the house is strikingly simple, deliberately conservative and grand, making it a fantastic backdrop for your night time photography.
3. Fontmell and Melbury Downs
Spreadeagle Hill, Melbury Abbas, Dorset SP7 0DT
At 263m, the summit of Melbury Hill is one of the highest points in Dorset. An Armada beacon sited here in 1588 formed part of the chain of signal beacons stretching between London and Plymouth. What better place to witness the other navigational tools used by sea farers worldwide – the mystical constellations. This site offers superb panoramic views which, apart from Win Green, are unparalleled in the AONB.
Grid reference: ST886187
Eastings: 388608 Northings: 118715
Latitude: 50.967740 Longitude: -2.1636066
Facilities: Car park, nearby café at Compton Abbas Airfield.
Owner: The National Trust
4. Martin Down Nature Reserve
This 336ha reserve is home to an exceptional collection of plants and animals associated with chalk downland and scrub habitats, including a number of rare or threatened species. It also offers an exceptional view of our night skies. Savour this ancient landscape where our prehistoric ancestors would have relied heavily on the night sky for navigation, planning their year and for their religion and associated rituals.
5. Win Green
Donhead Hollow, Near Ludwell, Wiltshire SP7 0ES
One of the best known and most iconic sites in the Cranborne Chase AONB, Win Green is its highest point as well as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It contains chalk grassland, a habitat that has been seriously eroded in the UK and offers extensive views, with Bournemouth, the Isle of Wight, Salisbury, Glastonbury Tor, the Mendips, the Quantocks and Milk Hill all visible when clear.
Knowlton, Wimborne, Dorset BH21 5AE
Many people report a strange sensation when standing at the centre of Church Henge, among the ruins of the medieval church. This is perhaps because it is at the heart of a major pagan ceremonial site, once taken over by Christian worship, but now returned to nature. Surrounding the site is the largest concentration of pre-historic barrows and henges found anywhere in the UK. Read up on the constellation myths created by our ancestors that tell of gods and monsters, heroes and villains and other legends using only the stars in the night sky and then witness the incredible theatrical display for yourself. The backdrop of the stunning church also makes for fantastic astrophotography.
7. Badbury Rings
B3082, near Wimborne, Dorset BH21 4DZ
Badbury Rings is an Iron Age hill fort in the territory of the Durotriges. In the Roman era, soldiers built a temple nearby which was used by the people of Vindocladia, a small local settlement. Back then there was little light pollution and our ancestors would have visited Badbury Rings and witnessed the full majestic view of our galaxy and beyond.
8. Cley Hill
Corsley, Warminster, Wiltshire BA12 7QU
Although a bracing walk to the top of this ancient hillfort, once you’ve reached the summit you’ll be on top of one of the UK’s UFO hotspots. For almost 40 years this site has drawn UFO spotters who are keen to see if the talk of lights, flying objects and other unidentifiable oddities are true. Warminster has a designated National Reporting Centre for UFOs - so you won’t have to go far to record your sightings. The site offers 360 degree views of the surrounding hills and while the lights of Warminster may reduce the quality of the darkness, you may well enjoy an out of this world experience.
9. Sutton Veny playing fields
This small picturesque village not far from Warminster is home to the Starquest Astronomy Club, a successful group made up of novices and more experienced astronomers. They meet once a month for talks and training in all things astronomy and also set up their telescopes on Sutton Veny playing fields for observation sessions. If you’re looking to find out more about the AONB’s night skies and astronomy, this club is probably for you. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org; tel: 01985 840093.
10. Ox Drove
Middle Down, north of Alvediston
Retrace the steps of our ancestors as they drove their cattle along this ancient track and take a journey of your own exploring the night sky. While you will not see the same brightness of starry night skies as they once boasted, you will still be one of the lucky 10% living in this country who are able to witness pristine skies. Park in the lay-by next to the Ox Drove.
Grid reference: ST964250
Eastings: 396469 Northings: 125041
Latitude: 51.024727 Longitude: -2.0517156
Facilities: Car parking in lay-by
Why do our dark skies need protecting?
The night sky makes up half of our visual environment and yet, unlike historic housing, ancient settlements, resident wildlife and our fantastic landscapes, the night sky has no protection, which explains why in just six years light pollution has increased by 24%.
This is not just bad news for people who can no longer be enthralled by the night sky. The amount of money squandered by ‘wasted’ light is staggering, plus the cost to human and wildlife health is significant. Making just a small low-cost difference to our lighting could bring about massive changes for the better.
Pollution is just that – light that is wasted and not used to light the things that people need. We all need light and certainly don’t want to make the AONB a light-free zone. All we want to do is ensure that we have the right lights in the right place at the right time.
The impacts of light pollution are significant, but small changes can make a big difference.
Is light pollution really that bad?
Even though it doesn’t smell bad, and if you’re used to it, it doesn’t look that bad, light pollution has been proved by experts to be just as bad as air and environmental pollution – it’s just not as obvious.
Here are some facts to get you started….
Total of 830,000 tonnes of CO2 pollution is produced from the energy wasted by streetlights alone.
The estimated cost of wasted light (that which isn’t shining on the things we need to illuminate) is a staggering £1 billion.
Light pollution is directly linked to a decrease in robin, songbird and owl populations.
Insects are the basis of many food chains, but one street light can kill up to 150 each night.
Lighting at night disrupts our circadian rhythm which has been proved to increase your risk of stress by 52%. It is linked to more serious health issues too.
Let’s look at this more positively…
There is increasing interest, wonder and amazement at the incredible array of stars above us. Stargazing is a fabulous educational activity for all and by keeping our dark skies you’ll be one of the lucky 10% of people in this country to enjoy this spectacular show.
Dark skies make the Cranborne Chase AONB unique, encouraging people to visit from polluted areas to escape to our pocket of tranquillity. That means more income for businesses through people arriving and staying longer.
Saving money. Substantial savings can be made by local authorities, businesses and individuals by turning off or dimming down unnecessary lighting. That means more money for the things that matter.
Saving energy. There is no point shining a light into the sky. Energy wastage can easily be considerably reduced – which is so much better for the environment.
All of the above is wasted light.
Easy ways to protect and enhance our dark skies… and banish the pollution
It is often said that if we all do a little, collectively we can make a big impact. In one small area of Wales, angling lights to illuminate the ground and turning off lights when they were not needed reduced light pollution by 10%.
Do you have concerns about street lighting or obtrusive lighting from another property? Let us know. We will not divulge your details but will work with others to install lighting which is a win win for everyone.
If you are interested in finding out more about light pollution, its impacts and some solutions, visit the websites below, both of which have some great resources on this subject:
Home of Outstanding Dark Night Skies as well as Natural Beauty.
Cranborne Chase can celebrate the fact that more than 50% of the 380 square miles of the AONB still has the lowest levels of light pollution in England - and the rest of the Chase is not far behind.
In fact, the Chase is one of the best places to stargaze in England. Our aim is to help you enjoy this aspect of our AONB as much as our multitude of other ground-based treasures. The great thing is that whether you work, live or visit the Cranborne Chase AONB there is something to see 24 hours a day.
There are currently only two other. areas in England that have been formally recognised for their low levels of light namely Exmoor Dark Sky Reserve and Northumberland Dark Sky Park. With your help Cranborne Chase AONB could be the third.
This important designation will not only put us on the map, but allow us to protect and enhance our night sky for generations to come.
How can you help?
Visit Survey monkey to sign our pledge. We would love your support. Please sign our pledge to show your love for our dark skies and our bid to get them protected. We would also love to know what you think of your own local dark skies. Please send us your photos, poems and stargazing adventures.
Do you have an iPhone? We are looking for volunteers to help us take measurements of the night sky. No experience is necessary and it’s as easy as downloading an app, standing outside and pressing a button – and hey presto and we have another piece of evidence to show how amazing our skies are.
DIY SOS (save our skies)
Why not give your home a low cost dark sky makeover? You would be amazed how easy it can be to make a few small changes that will transform your night view.
Here is an easy guide, but if you need help just let us know. Once you have done it please tell us – it all helps towards gaining Dark Sky Reserve status.
We are looking for volunteers too to work with us to show the accreditors we are serious about protecting our dark skies. Could you help by working with us to reduce light pollution in your community or business? We promise lots of publicity, plus plenty of support along the way.
Can you feel it? The start of Milky Way Galaxy season is less than 6 weeks away! This is the time of year when the core of the Milky Way Galaxy is up at night. It starts being visible in the predawn hours in late February and goes into September. If you shoot with a DLSR with an APS-C (DX) sensor Tokina has an amazing fast apertured super-wide angle zoom that is perfect for shooting the Milky Way Galaxy or any other astrophotography application.
Ladies and Gentlemen, if you don’t know it already please allow me to introduce the Tokina AT-X 14-20mm f/2 PRO DX lens. Not a misprint, its a constant f/2, not 2.8.
At the time of writing the constant f/2.0 is the fastest super-wide angle zoom lens available for APS-C sized DSLRs. F/2.0 is nearly a full stop faster than f/2.8 which equates to almost twice as much light entering the camera. More light entering the camera has several advantages; First, it allows the camera to focus in lower light situations. Second, it allows for more light to hit the sensor when doing long exposures at night, the faint light from more distant stars will be recorded making it perfect for astrophotography. More light gathering can also translate into shorter exposure times or lower ISO settings for sharper astro photos with less noise.
Next, the f/2.0 aperture yields a shallower depth of field than f/2.8 or slower lens. This last point allows you to isolate your subject more for a dramatic perspective. In another review I will be doing an in depth comparison of the the AT-X 14-20mm f/2 PRO DX vs the slower AT-X 12-28mm f/4 PRO DX lens so stay tuned to my blog fort that.
Handling and Ergonomics
The Tokina 14-20mm is a weighty lens for its size weighing 735g (25.9 oz.). It feels solid, well made and balances well on PRO APS-C bodies like the Nikon 7500 or Canon 7D mkII. It will feel a little front heavy on smaller, lighter APS-C bodies like the Nikon 5600 or any of the Canon digital Rebel cameras but not too much. The reason for the weight is the amount of glass needed to accommodate the bright f/2.0 aperture and the fact that Tokina uses more metal than other manufactures in the internal barrels of the lens making them heavier but more durable.
The lens has common 82mm filter thread so there are a wide variety of filters available for image enhancement and creative possibilities.
Like all other Tokina AT-X PRO lenses, the 14-20mm has a Tokina’s exclusive One-Touch Focus Clutch mechanism for switching between auto focus and manual focus. Just pull the manual focusing ring back toward the base of the lens, the ring will snap back to engage the manual focus and then push it forward to engage auto focus again.
The lenses barrel design makes it very intuitive to handle on location in the dark. The rings are large enough and set far enough apart that I don’t get them confused in the dark or move one ring accidentally while turning the other, even while wearing gloves.
Auto focusing on the Tokina 14-20m is fast and smooth, it won’t break any speed records but its accurate. The lens does emit a little motor noise if you rack the AF between a very close subject and something far away. It’s not enough for anyone standing around you to notice but it might be heard on video using the built in mic so I would recommend using it in manual focus for video. The lens has had no problems acquiring and locking focus in a wide variety of lighting situations.
At night under the stars you will need to focus manual but that goes for any lens. A trick for getting infinity focus at night. If you have a high-power flashlight point it at something you know to be at a greater distance than the infinity scale. With a super-wide lens like the 14-20 something more than 5 meters (more than 15 feet) away, put your AF point on what you are lighting up and AF on it. Then carefully pull the manual focus light back into MF and you should be focused at infinity for the stars. After that, take a test shot and use the camera’s screen to zoom in on the stars to make sure they are in focus. If its not, start by moving the focus ring just a little to the left or right and take another test shot and check it to see if the starts are more or less focused. Repeat until the starts are sharp.
Here’s a tip; painters tape or other adhesive tape that is designed to be temporary and removable. Once you have the lens focused at infinity use a 3-4 cm (1.5 inches) long piece of painters tape to tape down the manual focus ring. That way it wont move accidentally if you move the camera to recompose your shot.
Simply put, this lens is sharp, even wide open the lens is sharp. Other than the fast aperture sharpness is where this lens shines. DXO Mark gave the Tokina AT-X 14-20m f/2 PRO DX lens an over-all score of 26 which is higher than either the AT-X 11-20mm or the old 11-16mm lenses. That has been my experience with the lens as well, its the sharpest of the lenses in this class. The lens does not disappoint and you will be able to make large prints if you are using a camera with a 24+ megapixels sensor.
As with any lens, it is sharper when stopped down and the lens’s critical aperture setting is f/4.5 - f/5.0, I could not see any sharpness difference between these aperture settings and stopping down to f/5.6 did not improve sharpness over f/4.5-5.0. But sharpness wide open is still very good which is necessary for low light photography.
Astrophotography is where this lens is really at home. The Tokina 11-20mm may have a wider angle of view but the f/2 of the 14-20mm allows more light gathering and that means more stars captured and more flexibility to change exposure time or ISO.
Coma is not bad at all and Chromatic Aberrations (CA) are well corrected. In some high contrast situations you will see a just a little purple fringing but it is easy removed in post.
The Tokina AT-X 14-20mm f/2 PRO DX lens is at the top of its class in both fast aperture and sharpness. The constant f/2 aperture is the fastest available in a super-wide zoom lens for APS-C lenses at this time. That coupled with amazing optics makes this lens a natural for low-light photography and a lens that anyone interested in astrophotography should seriously consider.
by Joe Gilker
TRACKING THE SKY
For the last 3 years, my lightweight portable tracker consisted of an iOptron SkyTracker. It was my primary photography tool through the winters when hauling my scope outside wasn’t always feasible, and through the summer served me well for long exposure Milky Way photography and time lapse sequences.
But while this fine little tracker served me well and provided me with some really great shots of the sky, it left me disappointed about a month back when without warning, it decided to give up the ghost on me as chronicled in this blog post. [EDIT: it has since been repaired] Winter is rapidly approaching and I needed to get a replacement stat! Enter the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer!
Why the Star Adventurer?
At first, I had considered replacing my SkyTracker with the new SkyTracker Pro. But looking into the different trackers a bit more in-depth, I realized the SkyTracker had several advantages over the SkyTracker series.
It’s a true German equatorial mount vs a tracking platform whereas the SkyTracker series and Vixen Polarie are tracking platforms. While both provide the same function, the ability to have a counterweight to help keep tracking accurate under heavier loads was a big factor. The counterweight option is available on the SkyTracker Pro, but the Star Adventurer has a maximum payload of a full 2kg more. It seemed a better option, as I do have a couple of rather heavy lenses.
The Star Adventurer comes equipped at an ST4 guide port to use with an auto-guider. This may be helpful down the road as I plan on getting a standalone autoguide (vs my current guide camera / laptop setup)
It’s a multipurpose mount with pan effects for any type of time lapse photography. I’ve been getting more into time lapse photography since last summer so I figured this could be a useful tool for this purpose. I particularly look forward to using in this manner the next time I’m out shooting the Aurora Borealis.
The Star Adventurer is available in 3 different bundles at 3 different price points.
The first includes only the mount. While the price looks attractive, you need to provide all the extras needed to use the mount. On its own, there’s not a lot you can do with just the mount. You can attach the mount to a normal tilt-pan head and properly align it, it’s not as easy or accurate as with the equatorial wedge designed for it.
The second, the Photography Bundle, includes the equatorial wedge and ball head adapter. To me, unless you positively have everything else you need, this is the minimum bundle I would recommend buying. You just supply the camera, a ball head and a tripod, and you’re in business.
The 3rd, the Astro Bundle, comes with everything in the previous bundle, but also includes an extra mounting bracket with a counterweight for mounting heavier loads or small telescopes. This is the package I opted to buy.
In the Box
With the Astro Bundle, you get everything you need except a ball mount and tripod. Included are:
Star Adventurer mount
3/8″ ball head adaptor
Fine-tuning mounting assembly
Counterweight and bar
Polar scope illuminator
1/4″ to 3/8″ thread adapter
DSLR shutter release cable
The mount body itself is a solid metal unit that feels hefty and looks to be very well built. It has very simple, easy to understand controls. On the outside is the mode control knob, a direction switch, 2 multi-function buttons, a USB port (for firmware updates and power in the field), an ST4 guide port, and a DSLR shutter control port. Other notable features are a great right ascension clutch system that positively locks the right ascension axis, and that the unit accommodates standard Vixen-style doveplates. Built into the body is a polar scope covered by a plastic end cap. The unit is powered by 4AA batteries or via the USB port.
While everything looked incredible and solid, 2 things stood out to me as being a little flimsy. The plastic cap that covers the polar scope is of a very stiff, but light plastic. The 2 prongs that attach it into place don’t seem very solid to me. I fear that this plastic will be terribly brittle in the cold and could potentially break easily. A softer plastic cap or an aluminium cap that screws on would in my opinion be a better choice. It would increase the cost of the unit a bit, but would be worth it.
The cover to the battery compartment is also made of this same plastic. To me, it feels cheap when comparing it to the solid aluminium the rest of the unit is made of. It seems to work and fits well. I don’t think it would fall out. But it just looks odd to have something feeling so flimsy on such a solid unit.
The equatorial wedge attaches to the bottom of the mount with a standard 3/8″ connector like most camera equipment. It also has a good weight and is built of solid materials to ensure there is no flex. It has standard locking altitude and azimuth controls with fine-tuning screws that make polar alignment very easy. Anyone who’s used an equatorial mount with a telescope will be immediately familiar with this setup.
Also included is an illuminator for the polar scope. It attaches to the front of the mount and provides a red light to illuminate the polar scope during alignment.
The next 2 items are the mounting options. The first is a small ball head adapter used for tracking with just a camera. It attaches to any standard ball head with a standard 3/8″ connector. On this underside of this adapter are Vixen dovetail plate rails that allow it to be locked securely into the Star Adventurer. This option is used when you’re just tracking with a lighter-weight camera and lens combo.
The second is a Vixen dovetail plate with a “Fine Tuning Mounting Assembly” on one end. This is used for mounting heavier loads like cameras with heavy lenses or small telescopes. On one end of the plate is the fine tuning mount. It has a 1/4″ screw to attach it to a camera or small telescope. A 3/8″ adapter is also included for attaching to other equipment. This acts as the declination axis of the equatorial mount. Its clutch system is similar to the main RA clutch on the Star Adventurer and very solid. It also includes a knob that acts as a slow motion control on the dec axis to make framing your target even more convenient. At the other end of the dovetail is a threaded hole into which the counterweight bar is screwed to balance out the load.
The package also includes a DSLR shutter control cable to allow the Star Adventurer to control your camera’s shutter. Cables are available to cover most of the popular camera models from Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus and so on.
What’s Not Included
While you get a great set of accessories with the 2 higher bundles, it doesn’t include everything you need to get started. You’ll need to supply:
a sturdy tripod
a sturdy ball head
a 3-way tilt-pan head if you only bought the basic unit
4x AA batteries or an external USB power supply
The Star Adventurer has very simple controls for basic operation. A mode dial allows you to switch from 7 different tracking rates. You get Celestial (1x sidereal), solar, lunar, 0.5x, 2x, 6x and 12x tracking rates. The first 3 are for their intended purposes, whereas the other 4 tracking rates can be used for time lapse photography. Adjusting the wedge at 90º, the tracker can be used as an azimuth panner for landscape time lapse photography. The N/S direction switch controls the direction.
Although I didn’t use it, the onboard camera shutter control is a nice touch for someone traveling light. For deep sky tracking, it can be set for 50 or 100 second exposures in the northern hemisphere, but only 100 second in the south. I didn’t find the onboard shutter control terribly useful with only 2 selectable shutter times for celestial photography, but that’s more of a matter of personal preference. I prefer the programmability of my intervalometer and would rather use that instead. Switching the mode dial to alternate tracking rates change the shutter modes. These different rates and panning patterns are fully explained in the manual if you need more information on the subject.
It’s to be noted that only basic panning and shutter function is available with the stock firmware. By installing the advanced firmware, it’s possible to adjust different panning angles, shutter lengths, etc. This can be quite useful for some really creative motion time lapse.
As noted, the unit comes with an ST4 guide port allowing you to use the unit with an autoguider scope and camera. It will accept single axis RA guiding corrections from any guide camera / computer combo or standalone auto guiding unit. which makes this mount a potential deep sky monster that could potentially allow you to tracks 15+ minute exposures without any drift.
But of course, all this is nice to have on paper. It means nothing if the mount doesn’t perform as expected in the field. And that’s where the true test is.
In The Field
After a quick scan of the manual, I knew everything I needed to know about how to set it up and use it for basic operation and was ready to take it for a test drive. I drove out to one of my favourite spots at Camden Lake near Moscow, Ontario, and set up my gear. I mounted the Star Adventurer on my trusty Manfrotto 055PROB mount, which is a pretty solid tripod. It should be noted that if you have a lightweight, wobbly tripod, you likely won’t get good results. Even without a camera, the SkyTracker is fairly hefty. Add the counterweight and fine-tuning mount, and you add even more weight before the camera is even added. I could trust my lighter duty Manfrotto 190PROB with my iOptron SkyTracker, but I would consider my 055PROB to be the minimum I could get away with using the Star Adventurer. A lightweight tripod won’t cut it. If you plan on buying any tracker, invest in a solid tripod first.
The alignment was fairly simple, but not as smooth as I hoped it would be. I had assumed the larger teeth and controls on the wedge would perform better than the SkyTracker. The azimuth controls work flawlessly, but I found that locking the altitude axis will cause the mount to shift a bit from polar alignment. I had to fiddle with it a bit to get it perfect. It takes a bit of over or under adjustment at times so that Polaris will be at the right position after the axis is locked. The effect is less pronounced than it was on my SkyTracker, but it exists here as well. I was hoping that a mount that was way more solid wouldn’t have this type of loose tolerance in the wedge. It’s not a show stopper, and once locked into place, it’s solid. But it is an annoyance when aligning.
Another sore point I had during the alignment process was the polar scope illuminator. It’s a removable part that clips into the top of the mount when you align. And in terms of providing light, it works well. Its design, however, is rather cheap and not well thought out. There’s no power switch. Switching it off requires unscrewing the battery cover. You have to unscrew it almost 100% of the way out in order to turn the light off. This means the cap can easily fall off and be lost. Failing to unscrew it enough means the illuminator battery will be dead the next time you use it. Why Sky-Watcher thought this was a good idea as opposed to a small power switch boggles my mind. In my opinion, it wouldn’t have been hard to illuminate the mount internally, which would have done away with this nuisance of a part and been far useful.
A minor gripe I have with the polar scope and alignment is that you align the mount without a load, which can cause a slight shift after you mount your equipment. When using the fine-tuning mount and counterweight, you can still look through the polar scope to check for alignment, albeit without the illuminator (I used a red flashlight for the job). When using the ball head adapter, the polar scope is completely obscured. But despite this, within a few minutes, I was aligned, my camera was attached, and I was ready to start shooting.
Beyond this, operation of the Star Adventurer was simple and effortless. There’s nothing really really more to say here. If you’ve done your alignment properly, you’ll have accurate tracking for exposures up to several minutes, depending on the focal length of your lens.
As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. While I wasn’t able to shoot under ideal conditions, the results posted above do show that tracking is accurate and the mount performs as advertised for night sky photography. As with any equatorial tracking mount, good polar alignment is key. Once you’re aligned, the Star Adventurer is a solid mount capable of tracking the sky accurately. And that’s what really matters.
solid build quality
impressive maximum payload of 5kg (11lbs)
ease of use
onboard control for camera shutter
I’ll preface this list by stating that these points aren’t anything necessarily wrong with the mount, but rather things that could have been done better.
the wedge could be made to better tolerances so that tightening the lock doesn’t cause the mount to shift position
plastic scope cover feels cheap and weak
plastic battery cover seems to cheapen the overall feel of the unit
the polar illuminator is utter rubbish in build and design. Yes, it works, but it’s an inconvenience in so many ways I would rather not use it.
If you’re looking for a a solid equatorial tracking mount for your camera, then the Star Adventurer will provide everything you need. It’s an easy to use system that will have you up and running in minutes. It has some impressive features and modes for night sky photography, and even more to offer for other forms of motion time lapse photography. That’s even truer if you install the advanced firmware.
If you’re looking for a solid tracking mount for you camera, the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer should be one of the top contenders on your list.
Of all the night sky phenomena to watch and photograph, a meteor shower is among the most exciting. The anticipation and surprise of those tiny bits of cosmic dust streaking
across the sky is thrilling. To capture them in camera is even more amazing. This article gives the photographer, whether beginner or advanced, the tools necessary to take amazing meteor shower images. We will also provide ideas on how to incorporate meteors into compelling compositions.
WHAT IS A METEOR SHOWER?
When earth’s orbit takes it through streams of cosmic debris from a disintegrating comet or asteroid (in case of Geminids or Quadrantids), we have a meteor shower.
These showers occur the same time each year as our earth revolves around the sun. When the earth passes through the greatest debris field of a given shower, it is called the Peak. Some showers are better seen in the Northern hemisphere; others in the Southern hemisphere; and some worldwide.
A following table lists the major meteor showers for 2019. Not all meteors come from the annual meteor showers. They can show up randomly at any time. For purposes of this article, we will focus on photographing the major, annual showers.
Meteors often appear to be coming from a single point in the sky, called the radiant point. Meteor showers are generally named after the constellation they appear to come from.
(Perseids from constellation Perseus; Geminids from constellation Gemini, etc.) Most meteors are smaller than a grain of sand, throwing off intense streaks of light as they burn
up in the earth’s atmosphere. Meteors enter the earth’s atmosphere at speeds ranging from 25,000 to 160,000 mph. That’s fast!
HOW DOES A CAMERA CAPTURE A METEOR
In order to capture those flying bits of cosmic dust, the settings in our cameras must be optimized to ensure success. This means the optimum sensitivity to light: Wide enough
aperture (small F-stop) to allow the most light onto the sensor as possible; Enough sensitivity (ISO) to record the meteor streak in its entirety, but not blow it out either; and
sufficient time (shutter/exposure) to capture the complete streak without clipping it.
These settings will be discussed in detail under Camera Settings.
Another factor for success in capturing meteors is to have the meteor pass within the camera’s field of view! That is why using a wide-angle lens is also recommended. It is unfortunately a very common refrain to hear, ’’Oh, if only my camera was pointed in the other direction.“
Camera related equipment.
• DSLR or Mirrorless Camera that allows for interchangeable lenses. Since most meteors are fairly faint, ISO settings of 3200-6400 are common. For best results, you need a camera body that can shoot at those ISO values with manageable noise levels. Since you want to cover as much sky as possible to increase your chances of capturing meteors, you also want a wide field of view. Full-frame cameras are often best for both their ISO capabilities as well as their field of view with any given lens, but many fantastic images have been captured with crop-sensors.
• Sturdy tripod – The tripod should be sturdy enough to hold your camera and not shake in a breeze or light wind. If conditions are very windy, a heavy bag – like your camera bag – is useful to weigh it down.
• Wide, fast lens (2.8 or faster) – A 14 mm lens allows for a nice wide field of view, which increases the probability of more meteors in your frame. While one can go wider, know that the meteor streaks will be smaller relative to the
size of the frame. Faster (wider aperture) lenses allow for more light to reach the sensor. If shooting with a longer lens, say a 24mm, then the wider the aperture should be, to allow for more light and pinpoint stars. (see camera settings discussion)
• Intervalometer / Remote Timer – This device will allow for setting the exposure time and to continuously fire one exposure after another at intervals of 1 second (to allow the camera to write to the memory card). This ensures the probability that most meteors that fly in front camera will be captured.
• Large memory card - Meteor showers at Peak can last for more than a couple of hours. In fact, daylight often terminates the ability to see the meteors and that’s when to call it quits. Make sure to start with a cleanly formatted, empty
memory card that will hold several hour’s worth of exposures for your particular camera.
• Spare batteries or battery pack – The colder the temperature is, the quicker the batteries run down. This is particularly true for the Sony cameras. In colder temperatures, keeping batteries in a warm pocket next to your body will extend their life a little more. Even better is a battery pack, which will allow for longer uninterrupted exposures (more meteor capture potential). Speaking from experience, usually the biggest meteors fly past when one is changing the battery.
The battery pack becomes even more important if one is planning to compile images into a timelapse, where gaps are problematic.
• Headlamp / red light – A headlamp is a good way of keeping hands free for camera settings, foreground focus or safely wandering off to the bushes for some private time. A red light is recommended so that night vision is kept intact. However, please, please be courteous with your light so as not to destroy fellow photographers’ night vision or image capture. Try to ask if light is ok before turning it on.
• Planisphere or Apps (TPE, Photopills, Stellarium) These tools are very helpful to guide and familiarize the photographer with the night sky. The Planisphere is a round wheel with the map of the stars in the night sky. It can be adjusted
by month, date and time to show the stars at that time. The beauty of the Planisphere is that it is accurate and does not need batteries. I keep one in my car at all times. That said, there are many apps for desktop and mobile devices that assist in planning for meteor captures or any astro landscape
photography for that matter. These are particularly helpful if one cannot scout the location before hand. The more you learn to recognize the stars and constellations the easier it becomes to make last minute on-site adjustments. This recognition comes the more one looks at the stars.
• Calendar – The most important item on the planning checklist is the Meteor Calendar. When do the major meteor showers occur and when is the peak (when the earth passes through the heaviest part of the debris field). This is when most of the meteors are likely to occur and is measured in meteors/hour. Most meteor showers are best seen after midnight, when the radiant point of the shower is high in the sky. When planning the best night to go out, be aware that some sites give the date as the “night of” the peak, and others show the actual date of the peak, which is typically after midnight: ie. the next morning.
A list of the major meteor events is listed below (showing the night of the peak):
• Moon phase – No matter how dark the skies, if the moon is up, the skies will be too bright to see all but the brightest of the meteors. The light from the moon can be mitigated somewhat by photographing at a site where there is a large hill or mountain between you and the moon.
• Dark skies – The darker the skies are, the better chance your camera has of capturing a meteor. There are mobile device apps and websites that will let you know about light pollution and how dark the skies are at or near the area you wish to photograph (see Handy Links at the end of this article) . Clear Dark Sky (www.cleardarksky.com) is a desktop web page I use all the time for forecasts regarding weather and seeing.
They have maps showing many astronomy sites. I bring up their maps and click on the site closest to where I
want to photograph to obtain information about seeing (how clear the sky is based on moisture, light pollution, etc.) Another mobile app, I just started using is called Astrospheric (www.astrospheric.com), which combines the Clear Dark Sky info with satellite maps showing cloud cover and forecasted
movement of those clouds. Dark Site Finder (www.darksitefinder.com) has good maps showing light pollution.
• Weather – Of all the variables not under our control, the weather can quickly put a stop to all meteor photography. Even after you have chosen your meteor shower, found a dark enough sky site, the weather has to be constantly
monitored right up until you walk out the door to photograph. Anything that obscures the sky (clouds, fog, smoke) makes photographing meteors very difficult.
The easiest way to address these subjects is to walk through a real-life scenario in which we collaborated to photograph the 2018 Geminid Meteor Shower. Checking the meteor calendar for the year, the peak of the Geminid Shower was
predicted for the 12/14/2018. Both of us live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is pretty light polluted. To find darker skies, we would have to travel. A weather system
was incoming and clouds were predicted along the coast during the Peak of the Geminid shower.
This meant that we would have to turn our dark sky search eastward to try and get ahead of the weather system. According to Dark Sky Finder, Death Valley National
Park, a seven hour drive away seemed like a good spot. (See Figure 1) Checking weather, particularly for cloud cover, there was a window of a couple of hours for mostly clear skies during the time needed. The hourly weather report indicated that later in the morning the percentage of cloud cover would increase. This would have to be closely monitored for changes right up until we got ready to depart.
Next, we checked Stellarium for the radiant point or where the meteors would appear to come from. Both of us knew at the time of the peak, the radiant would be high (See Figure 2), nearly overhead. Since we both love astro landscape photography, we wanted a foreground in our images. This would be a challenge with the radiant point so high in the sky. We came up with the idea of using tree canopies as our foreground, similar to what Marsha had done previously with the Milky Way.
As luck would have it, Comet Wirtanen would be visible during the peak as well. Could we get the comet in the same field of view as the radiant point? Stellarium showed us
that we could. Figure 2 below shows the night sky and the field of view with a Rokinon 14 mm 2.8 lens. The Geminid Radiant and Comet Wirtanen, would easily fall within a 14
mm. frame (on a full frame camera). You can also see that the Radiant for the meteors would be nearly straight up at midnight!
Since the Radiant and Wirtanen were both going to be nearly straight up, we needed to find tall trees to get under to shoot up from. Now, where do you find trees in a desert, like
Death Valley National Park, where we wanted to shoot? The Mesquites are too bushy to see through and the Joshua Trees were too far away to travel to from our base ofoperations in Furnace Creek. Palm Trees would have to do, and they presented a nice silhouette.
This is where Google Maps is a useful tool. We turned on the satellite view and zoomed in looking for likely Palm tree groves. (See Figure 3) These groves, of course, would have to be investigated when we were actually on site.
We now had the beginnings of a plan of action for the 2018 Geminid Meteor Shower. I say beginnings, because, once on site, many variables, like fences, No Trespassing signs, dead trees, etc., would make adjustments necessary. If at all possible, it is very important to scout in the day time. In this case, the palm trees at this location were bathed in landscape lights and not ideal. Since we gave ourselves time to scout, however, we did manage to find some trees nearby that worked very well!
CAMERA SET UP RECOMMENDATIONS
A. Set camera to “RAW” for greatest flexibility in post processing.
B. Set ISO to 3200 or 6400 depending on how well your camera handles noise.
For cameras like the Sony A7S, you can even use ISO12,800.
C. Install a large, empty memory card. You need room for 120-180 images for
every hour of shooting.
D. Set the exposure mode to Bulb and connect your intervalometer (remote timer). If your caera has a built in intervalometer that will take back-to-back 20-30 second exposures for many hours, you can use that. Unfortunately, most cameras do not yet have built-in intervalometers capable of doing this. Test it before leaving home!
E. Use a wide angle lens to capture more of the sky. Focal lengths between 14-24mm (full frame equivalent) are recommended.
F. Set the Aperture to its widest setting; ideally f/1.4 - f/2.8 for capturing meteor streaks. You may want to stop down 1-2 stops for a sharper foreground image for blending in later, but shoot wide open for the meteors.
G. Intervalometer settings:
a. Delay: 2-5 seconds to give you time to secure the intervalometer. b. Exposure: 15-30 seconds to avoid clipping any meteors while not streaking the stars too much. We use the 400/Equiv Focal Length rule. Others use the 500/FL rule, which is a little looser: https:// shuttermuse.com/how-to-avoid-star-trails/ c. Interval: 1 second between shots. d. Number: Set to “- -“ which is below 1 and stands for infinity. The timer will continue until you stop it.
e. Beep: Off. Please don’t disturb others with the constant beeping.
H. Set the lens to Manual Focus and focus manually on the stars using Live View.
I. Set White Balance to something between 3500-4000K (or Incandescent) so the images will look natural when viewing on the LCD. When shooting RAW, it really doesn’t matter, but that is what we do.
J. Use the lens hood to reduce dew buildup on the front element and minimize impact from stray lights.
K. Make sure that LENR (Long Exposure Noise Reduction) is off.
L. Remove any lens filters to reduce stray light bouncing around.
M. Turn off Image Stabilization (IS, VR, OSS) since you are on a tripod.
N. If using a DSLR, turn off mirror lockup.
O. Install fresh battery or connect your extended battery pack for all-night shooting. If using batteries, have 1-2 spares warming up in your pocket.
As in most photography, composition is the most important aspect. Compose your scene with a strong, interesting foreground with as much sky as possible. While meteors can be
seen in all portions of the sky during a shower, most will originate from the radiant. If you want to create a composite image with several meteors aligned to the radiant (as in
the first image of the 2016 Perseid Meteor Shower), you will want to include the radiant in your composition. Since the radiant will appear to move during the night due to the
earth’s rotation, you will need to visualize where the radiant will arc through your chosen composition and make sure it stays in or near your field of view for most of the night.
There are many desktop and smart phone apps that can help you with this. Additionally, to help with aligning the meteors around the radiant in post-processing, try to include the
North Star (Polaris) in your composition if possible. The North Star will not move significantly during the night in the Northern Hemisphere. Your foreground, movement of
the radiant, and location of the North Star are important considerations when selecting the camera orientation if planning to do a radiant composite(See Time Shift Comparison). If
you plan to collect random meteors, the position of the radiant and the North Star is less important. Both vertical and horizontal orientations can be used.
Since the camera settings for meteors are very similar to those used to capture the Milky Way, you can combine the Milky Way with meteors very effectively. The Perseids, for
example, originate in the northern arm of the summer Milky Way. With a little luck, you might be able to capture a meteor with the Galactic Center of the Milky Way.
Once a composition has been determined, take a test shot at high ISO to confirm. Make sure your camera is level and the tripod stable. Focus on the brightest stars using 10X
LiveView, or set the focus manually on the lens at the pre-determined infinity or hyperfocal locations. Confirm sharp star focus on a test image. Zoom in and use a Hoodman or or magnifier if available.
With composition and focus set, we recommend you take a low-ISO, long exposure shot to have for possible future compositing in Photoshop. The stars will streak, of course, but
this will give you a low-noise, well lit foreground image to composite into your meteor shots in post-processing. This is especially effective if the moon is just setting or just
before twilight begins and the sky is still providing light on the foreground.
Confirm your camera settings for meteor capture (Bulb, high ISO, wide open aperture) and set your intervalometer to take an infinite (or very large) number of shots of 15-30 second duration (400 / FL rule) with 1 second between exposures. Put a fresh, full battery in the camera or hook up an external battery pack for all-night power. Insure that you have a large, empty memory card in your camera.
Start the intervalometer and insure that camera is functioning and taking successive images. Check the lens periodically for dew buildup and gently wipe it off if it appears. Periodically check your battery level and swap in fresh batteries as required. Lay back and enjoy the show!
After your sequence is done, it is always a good idea to take another low-ISO, long exposure image to use for blending in post-processing. This is especially true if your camera may have been bumped or if the moon has risen and provided some light on the foreground.
Post processing your meteor images breaks down into the following steps:
A. Import your images from the meteor shower into your favorite image processor (like Lightroom). Select one of the images from near the middle of the night and process it
like you would a Milky Way or star image (white balance, highlights, shadows, noise reduction, clarity, etc). Copy these settings to all of the other images in the series.
B. Review every image in the series and mark those that contain meteor streaks. You can use the Lightroom “star” system or any other system that allows you to separate the
images with meteors from all the others that do not contain meteors.
C. Export all the images with meteors into Photoshop as Layers. From Lightroom, this is done by selecting all the images that have meteors and going to Photo > Edit In >
Open as Layers in Photoshop...
D. Change the Blend Mode of all the layers to Lighten Mode. This will result in a very messy image, but one that shows all the meteors. This will start to give you an idea of
what your image might look like. The image is messy because the stars from each layer are showing through and since the stars moved from one exposure to the next, they appear over and over again in different spots. We will get rid of all but one of the star fields in the following steps.
E. Choose one of the layers to be the Base Layer. This can be the layer with the best meteor or a layer where the Radiant is in the best spot, etc. Try to pick a layer that
does not have any airplane trails for your Base Layer. It makes life easier. We recommend picking one from near the middle of the shoot if possible.
F. Change the Blend Mode of the Base Layer to Normal Mode and rename it to “Base Layer” so you don’t get confused. Move it to the bottom of the Layer stack.
G. Decide if you want to composite all the meteors as they occurred during the night or “time-shift” them so all of the meteors point back to the radiant of the Base Layer.
Time-shifting can create a more uniform image, but non time-shifted images will have more meteors (because some will get time-shifted out of the frame). Perform the timeshifting if desired (see section below for instructions).
H. Make all the Layers invisible (turn off the eye ball) except for the Base Layer and the first meteor layer you want to work on. Click the "Add Mask" icon or go to menu
Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal All. Get a small, medium edge brush, and using black "ink" paint over the meteor in this layer mask until it disappears. With the layer mask
still selected, do an Image > Adjustments > Invert (Shortcut Cntr/Cmd-I) to invert the layer mask to reveal only the meteor.
I. Correct for any halo that might show up around the meteor. Depending on what time of night, or what portion of sky the meteor came from, you may need to adjust it to get to blend into the Base Layer properly. The biggest problem is usually a bright halo around the meteor. To fix this, add a Curves Adjustment Layer as a Clipping Mask to the layer (go up to the Layer menu in the Menu Bar and choose New Adjustment Layer, select Curves, and check the box “use Previous Layer to Create Clipping Mask”). Then, adjust the black point on the curve until the halo disappears.
J. Repeat Steps H and I for all the other meteor layers. When complete, you should have only one star field (from the Base Layer) with all the meteors showing up from the
other layers. Take a good look at your image and decide if any of the meteors are distracting (like they cross each other) or are too close to the edge, etc. Try turning their layer visibility on and off to see if your image is helped or hurt by having it.
Leave the eyeball off if you don’t like it.
K. Once you are completely happy with your meteor composite, Flatten the image and Save it. An image with 30-50-meteor layers is too large to save without flattening it.
L. Blend in one of your lower ISO, longer exposure, images for a cleaner, brighter foreground if desired.
M. Finish processing the image by dodging, burning, cloning, and adding clarity, contrast, noise reduction, etc as desired in either Photoshop or Lightroom.
If your composition includes the North Star, locate it. This will be the reference for timeshifting all the other layers to match the Base Layer. If the North Star does not appear in your composition, estimate where it is and use that side or corner as a rough approximation. If you are comfortable with adding more canvas to your image, you can add enough canvas to include a "virtual" north star for reference and use that.
Turn off all of the layers except for the Base Layer and the first layer that you want to time-shift into place. With the first meteor layer highlighted in the Layer Palette, go to
menu Edit / Free Transform (shortcut Ctrl/Cmd-T). In the middle of the layer is a rotation mark. Move that mark to the North Star and drop it there. Now, when you rotate this layer, it will rotate around the North Star, similar to what happened during the meteor shower. Rotate the layer until the star pattern of this layer lines up with the star pattern of the Base Layer. It won't be exact due to lens distortion, but you should be able to get close. Double check by seeing that the meteor on the layer you are rotating points to the same area as the one on the Base Layer. When happy with the alignment, click the checkmark symbol near the top to complete the Transform. Now add a mask to that layer, use a black brush to paint over the meteor (make it disappear) and then invert that layer mask to make the meteor re-appear, but hide everything else from that layer. If there is a halo around the meteor, use a Curves Clipping Mask as detailed above.
Once satisfied with the first meteor, make the next meteor layer visible and repeat the Transform process to time-shift it into place. Mask out the meteor, invert the layer mask so that only the meteor shows, and use a Curves Clipping Mask to blend if necessary. Repeat for all the rest of the meteor layers.
It is not uncommon to have meteors that get time-shifted right off the edge or get placed on top of mountains and trees. Unfortunately, you will have to delete these layers and move on to the next one. If you find that you are throwing too many meteors away, you may want to start over and pick a new Base Layer to align all the other meteors to. This is the reason it usually works best to pick a middle image as your Base Layer if possible.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Marsha Kirschbaum is a San Francisco Bay Area fine art landscape and astro landscape photographer. She says about her night photography “The mystery and magic of night
photography is especially powerful for me. I would like to awaken the viewer through my night photography to its visual possibilities, the excitement and wonder of a meteor
shower, the joy of the sparkling stars reflecting in a mountain lake or the quiet serenity the night’s dark silence can bring. The natural world and its connection to the universe at
large fills me with wonder and gratitude. We have been given the gift of this amazing planet and through my photography, I hope to share its beauty, inspire a hike, or entice a relaxing moment gazing skyward at the stars.”
Marsha’s photography can be found at:
Rick Whitacre is also based in the San Francisco Bay Area and focuses on landscape, night, and astro landscape photography. Rick was drawn to night photography both for
the technical challenges it presents and the ability to photograph scenes that have been shot over and over again in the daytime, but become completely different at night. In
addition to shooting meteors, Rick has been known to chase solar and lunar eclipses and other amazing astronomy events.
Rick’s photography can be found at:
by by Ben Lawry
DSLR astrophotographers must strike a delicate balance between ISO sensitivity, aperture, focal length, and exposure time every time they take a shot. The greatest single factor influencing all of these variables is the rotation of the earth. The iOptron SkyTracker attempts to relax these variables by cancelling out Earth’s rotation. Is it worth the price?
The SkyTracker (v2) is a tripod-mounted accessory that allows a DSLR to track stars as the earth rotates about its axis. The rectangular body of the SkyTracker can be tilted from 0 to 70 degrees, allowing pretty much anyone not living near the equator to polar align it. The front side features a circular mounting plate with a 3/8″ bolt that allows most larger ball heads to be attached. The large hole in the corner is precision-machined for the insertion of a polar scope (included).
On the back side are several switches (on/off switch, Northern/Southern mode switch, and 1X or 0.5X sidereal tracking rate mode switch), as well as a battery cover plate. You can either run the SkyTracker using 4xAA batteries or a 9-12v DC adapter (sold separately). All in all, it’s a fairly simple design. One nice feature unique to the “v2” version of the SkyTracker is a locking azimuth adjustment wheel. The original SkyTracker does not come with this adjustment wheel, but is otherwise the same.
Made mostly of metal, the SkyTracker feels solid, coming in at 2.6 lbs without batteries. The components are reasonably high-quality. The polar scope is all metal on the outside. The glass provides a clear view of your polar alignment stars and includes etched alignment guides that glow red when the SkyTracker is turned on.
There’s very little play in the polar scope when attached and locked, and the camera mounting point is solid too, when properly tightened. The azimuth adjustment ring (in versions that include it) locks down solidly as well. The elevation adjustment is a little loose all on its own, but comes with a silver clamp that can be used to eliminate play here too. All in all, it’s a pretty solid piece of equipment if you remember to lock everything down.
Where the SkyTracker loses a couple stars is in the battery compartment and power switch. The battery box is made mostly of rigid plastic and the wires connecting it to the electronics inside are very short, which makes swapping batteries difficult. Another minor annoyance here is that the battery box can almost be re-inserted rotated 90 degrees from the way it was intended to be inserted. If you forget which way it’s supposed to go, there’s a good chance you’ll try to do it wrong at least once in the field. The only indication you have that you did it wrong is that the back cover will fit back on, but VERY tightly. I ended up breaking off one of its two teeth this way. Lesson learned.
The power switch is solid, but it can be turned on inadvertently even when the SkyTracker is packed away in its plush carrying case. On two occasions, I’ve arrived at a site only to find that the batteries had been completely drained before I got there because of this issue. You can avoid this by removing the batteries after each use, but because of the aforementioned battery box issues, it is kind of a pain
Despite my gripes about the power switch and battery box, the SkyTracker is still reasonably well-built. I really like the mostly-metal construction, and the whole thing feels reasonably solid.
Build quality verdict: 3 out of 5 stars.
The whole premise of the SkyTracker is pretty simple: keep the stars in the sky from trailing in your pictures. To do this well, you really only need to be able to polar align it and then track at at the sidereal rate.
Minimally, you could run this all on batteries and get away with a good illuminated polar scope and a solid elevation adjustment knob. The SkyTracker comes with a few extra bells and whistles beyond this minimal set of features that really come in handy:
AC/DC adapter compatibility
0.5x tracking rate mode (great for shooting nightscapes)
Azimuth adjustment wheel (v2-only)
Aside from the azimuth adjustment wheel, my favorite added feature is the 0.5x sidereal tracking rate option. For nightscapes with a lot of foreground detail, this option lets you expose the sky twice as long while still having an acceptable amount of star trailing. Shooting this way does impart trailing into your foreground, but if you’re careful, doubling your exposure time can really make your nightscapes pop.
The single biggest reason why I can’t give the SkyTracker’s feature list a five-star rating is because it lacks a level bubble. Unless you’re pushing the limits of the SkyTracker with a 200mm long lens, most of the time you can get away with just eyeballing it, but it still feels a little kludgey to work hard at getting good polar alignment without knowing whether the whole setup is really level or not. This won’t matter if your tripod comes with a level bubble, but neither of my moderately-expensive Manfrotto tripods came with one, and I’d just as soon sacrifice the built-in compass for a level bubble if I could.
Another feature common to telescope mounts not present in the SkyTracker is an autoguider port. Autoguiding is essential to long focal-length tracked imaging. The lack of such a port doesn’t affect the final score here because it’s frankly not something you’d ever need when imaging at the short focal lengths the SkyTracker was designed to be used with.
Features score: 4 out of 5 stars.
The SkyTracker is about as heavy and just a little larger than most of the lenses I bring to the kinds of shoots I use it on (100-135mm maximum focal length), so it doesn’t represent much of an increase in effort to bring it along.
Setup is fairly simple. You just put the SkyTracker on top of your tripod and then your ball-head or pan-head on top of the SkyTracker. After you’ve attached your camera body and lens, the polar alignment process is pretty simple. I use the free PolarFinder app from the Google Play Store, which has an iOptron-style reticle display that makes alignment very simple. A similar iOS app called Polar Scope Align is also available for free on the App Store.
Things that could be improved are the polar scope design and overall size of the main body of the SkyTracker. For some southern-facing targets (if you’re in the northern hemisphere), you will only have so long before the camera lens runs into the SkyTracker body. The polar scope can also get in the way of the camera, so it’s best to remove it before you start your imaging sessions. A final issue is that, if your pan-head or ball-head friction is set too high, it’s pretty easy to knock the SkyTracker out of polar alignment. For these reasons, I can’t give the SkyTracker a five-star rating.
Ease of Use score: 4 out of 5 stars.
Brand new (at the time of this writing), the SkyTracker goes for about $300. Oddly enough, the updated SkyTracker Pro,
which is better-designed, more compact, lighter, and comes with far more features, goes for $290. If you’re going to buy brand new, the Pro version is hands-down the better option.
However, used SkyTrackers can be found for $150, sometimes less. If you’re on a tight budget, knocking half the price off is definitely worth it, in my opinion.
Value score: 3 out of 5 stars, if buying used.
The iOptron SkyTracker was one of the first compact, affordable tripod-mounted trackers available to DSLR astrophotographers and continues to turn out good tracked images of the night sky. It probably isn’t the right choice for someone who has already invested in a tracking setup (look to the “SkyTracker Pro” or “SkyGuider” models if this applies to you), but if purchased used for the right price, the SkyTracker can still provide an excellent introduction to tracked astrophotography. If you’re still not convinced one way or another, take a look through the example images I’ve made with the SkyTracker below and decide for yourself!
Final score: 3.5 out of 5 stars.
Christopher V Sherman is a commercial and fine arts photographer. In February 2018 he put 99% of his belongings in storage in Austin, Texas in order to travel. He tries to post a photo a day on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. And when he has something more in depth to share you can find it here. More about Chris can be found on the about page.
Early one morning, while gazing at our amazing Milky Way galaxy, on a beach, on the shore the Tasman Sea in eastern Australia, I was swiftly and briefly beamed up and then returned. It was caught on camera in this epic photo. No, that’s not a drone with a light under it. And no, no alien probes were used during my brief captivity. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
…. Okay, yes, that is that is a drone. This was my first attempt at lighting a scene with a drone.
The image was shot with a Nikon D850 on a tripod with a Tamron 15-30mm lens.
The drone used was the DJI Mavic 2 Pro. The red lights are the Mavic’s rear lights. They’re red because I had less than 30% battery remaining at the time. Usually they’re green. The main beam is the Mavic’s landing/takeoff light.
I kept this simple, using the Mavic 2 Pro’s built-in landing/takoff light. The light goes on automatically in dusk or night situations, during takeoff and landing.
A light sea fog stretched along the beach, creating less than desirable astro shooting conditions. It wasn’t thick, but it was enough to significantly reduce sharpness in the stars. At the same time it gave off an interesting hazy glow with the white drone light on.
Since I wanted to capture this in a single image with the Milky Way in the background, I had to time the shutter with the drone so that the drone light was only lit for a fraction of a second while the shutter was open otherwise I’d blowout the entire beach.
At the time I didn’t know if these lights were controllable by the pilot or if they were automatic only. I’ve since discovered that they can indeed be turned on and off by the pilot in the DJI app.
Not knowing this at the time, I had to rely on the Mavic lights being automatically activated by the bottom sensors when it was near landing or take off. And with that in mind I had to time the drone’s climb or decent with the Mavic controls in one hand and the D850’s remote shutter trigger with the other. Not knowing exactly when the landing light would come on meant this took several takes before I got the timing right and an even exposure.
I would have liked to have taken the drone higher to light more of the beach but it would automatically shut off on it’s own at it’s predetermined altitude. Now that I know that the pilot can control these lights in the app, I look forward to additional experimenting as time permits.
by Murray Fox
The astro photography season is back for Australia! Actually it's been back for a while now but we simply haven't had any clear nights around home.
Finally, the predictions were looking good for a clear window. I met up with a very good friend Craig Bachmann and we had a hit list of subjects to photograph. The first subject for the night was an absolute ripper as well! This stunning 1978 Dodge D5N 600 series V8 Petrol truck. Over the years it has been used to cart various produce from spuds and onions to the Rocklea Markets in Brisbane, to watermelons and lucerne for local supply in the Lockyer Valley. You don't get fresher than that, and I couldn't think of a cooler way to transport the goods!
We had the truck perfectly positioned in front of the farmers current lucerne crop and starting out, we spent our time light painting the truck with our torches as we waited for the core of the milkyway rising behind to be in perfect position.
Finally after an hour of painting and tweaking the composition it was time to photograph the core, and OMG the result was simply amazing! Not a single puff of cloud in the night sky, the temperature was absolutely perfect, just at the point of chilly, but not cold enough for fog, mist or warm enough for haze. The clarity was the best I can remember ever seeing to be honest. When I finished editing this, I immediately sent this to Craig and said "SHOW YOUR DAD!!". Honestly, I was gob smacked myself.
This is without a doubt, the best astro photograph I've captured to date. Everything I wanted to achieve in this photograph I did. From the complete lack of noise, to amazing sharpness, detail and colour, absolutely perfect to me. I've never seen the dust lanes of the core like that! Blown away. However, the night was only just getting started and our second target was a beauty as well. This is a 270hp Case Optum. With 4 massive rear wheels on this sucker, it has no issues getting through the fields. The farmer grows Cauliflowers, sugerloaf, and red & green cabbage.
It was a little tricky to get the right framing on this. Ideally I wanted the tractor a little more front on but that wasn't to be this night. I ended up with my camera on top of pallets next to the shed, and had to be extremely careful not to bump anything, always fun when your doing long exposures. I do want to shoot this beast from head on as well, really emphasise those rear wheels, so we'll be back one night soon to go again.
A lot of work has gone into these photograph. There was the initial planning, going over google maps, checking the direction and timing of the milky way using apps like Photopills and the photographers ephemeris. Constant watching of weather apps to see what the clouds were doing. At home when I left to head out, it was cloudy, but on location, it was perfect, so don't trust what is out your window, do the wider research and checking and take the shot. Post processing time was lengthy as well. Blending the light panting photographs with the sky took time and then working through my finishing steps was the final step.
It's funny when I take a photograph like this. I work and learn my techniques. I visualise what result I can get. I shoot on location with that visualisation and my technical knowledge to ensure I have the best chance of getting a good result. But during post processing, it's not about editing to get that result. Instead I let the photograph take me on a journey. This photograph really led me along, each step was just bringing out the best of each part, making sure things were technically correct (for me) but not knowing where I was going to end up.
When I finally stopped and sat back, not a word of a lie, my jaw dropped. I couldn't quite believe I created this photograph. It's on the printer now, it's going on the wall, I don't care whether it gets a bazillion or no likes, this was about my art, my photography. I had a vision, and I exceeded it, and I'm simply ecstatic.
The gear used for these photographs, if purchased today, is is by no means expensive. Camera used is a Sony A7, easy to pick up for under $800 used these days. The lens is an old Minolta 45mm F2.8 medium format film lens (for the 645 series of film cameras) that can be picked up used on Ebay for around $200. With a cheap $20 adapter. This lens has an equivalent focal length of 28mm on a full frame camera like the A7. Not exactly super wide, but with a full frame camera, and the amazing sharpness of this lens, it really works for this kind of photograph.
Both photos are a panorama. Shot horizontally starting at the bottom I initially take a light painted exposure, focused on subject, settings around ISO 500, F5 (for depth of field) and 20 seconds. We run around with torches during the exposure painting the subject with light. Then I adjust my settings being very careful not to move the camera. Increased ISO to 6400, Shutter to 8 seconds (at 28mm this is as long as you can go without stars starting to blur from movement), aperture at F2.8 (wide open) and refocused on the stars. I take a photo, then move the camera up, taking 2 more photos panning the camera up each time. Total of 3 images to create the panorama. In post processing I blend the bottom two photos (stars and subject) together then stitch with the other star photos and begin my final post processing.
I get a lot of enjoyment out of seeing what comes out the end of all of this process. I grew up in the city, never really saw the stars much less farm equipment. Now, I actively seek out these subjects and locations, as they are truly amazing.