Alone with the Night Sky – Astrophotography

I was sitting at work on Wednesday, December 13th 2017 when I came across an article on how to photograph the upcoming Geminid meteor shower. Apparently it was going to be the most visible the night of the 13th. As I thought about it, I couldn’t really think of a good reason not to try getting a photograph of this event – other than the fact that it was peaking at 02:00! Last year the Geminids were a wash-out, literally, when there was a corresponding bright moon outshining them. The rumors are that the amount of Geminids are increasing every year and this was the year to see up to 2 per minute. All the articles I read indicated that they would peak around 02:00 local time. It wasn’t until I got home that I found an article mentioning a much earlier 22:00 peak time. It turns out that I’ve captured a Geminid before. Back in December 2014 I captured the Milky Way and a Geminid from camp at the Bighorn Campground in Ya Ha Tinda before our scramble of Maze Peak. On hindsight I should have read this trip report before going out this year, as it is hiding a few important details that might have helped me capture a few more meteors and get home a bit earlier.

If scenes like this don’t make you feel small than you’re not seeing the ‘big’ picture! A Geminid Meteor splits the night sky above the Bighorn Campground near Ya Ha Tinda.

I have a bit of a thing for meteors for some reason, and I’ve tried capturing photos of them before. The last time I made any real effort was a bit of a bust. I lugged camping gear to the top of Vents Ridge back in May of 2014 to attempt to capture a purported 1,000 meteors per hour from the rare Camelopardalid meteor shower. While my daughter and I certainly saw a few meteors, thanks to light pollution from the nearby town of Brag Creek and even the city of Calgary, and cloud cover, it was nowhere near the 1,000 per hour we were promised. I’ve seen and attempted to capture the Perseids as well. The Perseids are nice because they occur in August when the weather is warm and I’m usually out climbing something or another anyway. One issue with the Perseids is that they have a pretty slow rate so I’ve only captured a few them on camera. On Phil and my scramble of Molar Mountain I managed to capture a pretty good Perseid. The best Perseid I’ve seen was a fireball splitting the night sky over hwy 93 while I was driving to meet Ben for our one day ascent of Mount Cline.

A Perseid Meteor flares out at left with Molar at center.

After deciding that I would indeed be going out that night, I started a last minute plan of what I would need. Thanks to a new camera, a used Sony A9, I only had 1 battery. The first rule of astrophotography, especially in winter, is to have lots of backup power. I picked up a new battery, but when I got home I realized my first one wasn’t charged! With no time to spare I only managed to get one charged, but hoped the other would suffice in an emergency situation. effectively only having one battery kept me hesitant to open my shutter more than I did and certainly cost me many captures. I also needed winter boots and ended up leaving YYC around 19:30 with a fresh cup of Tim’s to keep me awake on my drive to the Kananaskis Lakes area. Why Kananaskis Lakes and not somewhere much closer like Barrier or Wedge Pond? Simply put, I wanted a landscape with my meteors. As gorgeous as a shot of the night sky is, I personally prefer my night shots to include mountains and / or lakes if possible. Another reason I chose Kananaskis Lakes is that I figured most other people wouldn’t bother driving all the way out there – especially on a weeknight. As I drove the familiar hwy 40 past Kananaskis Village the stresses of life started to fade away and as I pulled up to my chosen outlook along the curving road to the Kananaskis Lakes I was feeling pretty darn good about my decision to be out here. My plan was to photograph the first hour or two from the outlook and as the Geminids moved further south I would move to the lakes.

As soon as I stepped out of the truck I saw two or three meteors! It was nuts. As the engine of the truck ticked and cooled in the winter air behind me, I leaned back against the door and gazed upward at the incredible night sky. No light pollution out here! After seeing at least 20 meteors flash through the sky above me I reluctantly started getting my camera gear sorted out. I decided to use my Zeiss Batis 18mm f/2.8 lens as opposed to the Zeiss Batis 25mm f/2. While the 25mm lens is faster by a full stop, the amount of exposure time was more important to me that the ISO. A wider lens allows a longer exposure time before stars start to show movement. The 25mm lens is better for capturing the landscape along with the sky because it’s not so wide that it makes mountains look like tiny hills. There’s always compromises in photography just like everything else. As I set up my tripod I made my first mistake of the night. I assumed, since the Geminids originate near Pollux, Castor and Orion’s Belt that I should point my lens in that direction. Big mistake. Because the meteors originate there doesn’t mean much. They streak across the sky, so it’s actually much better to be aligned either in the opposite direction or looking perpendicular to them.

A Geminid meteor flashes through the Kananaskis night sky with the Andromeda galaxy underneath.

It was around 22:00 when I started taking photos. It’s amazing how quickly time passes when you’re out photographing at night by yourself. The darkness settled in like a therapy blanket around me and the sounds of night creatures echoed through the forests under my feet. The everyday stresses of life in the concrete jungle melted away until it was just me and my camera and a cup of hot coffee. As I took photos I remembered all the little things that make astrophotography interesting, but finicky;

  1. Battery life – mine started draining quickly which led me to taking long breaks and missing quite a few meteors. I was waiting for 01:30 to catch the peak of the shower, so I was too paranoid about this.
  2. Focusing at night – with only an electronic viewfinder (EVF), cameras like the Sony ‘A’ series can be very tricky to manually focus in pitch darkness. Making things more tricky was using the Zeiss Batis lenses, which are all focus-by-wire (i.e. not mechanical). I quickly found out that focusing to infinity on the Batis lenses isn’t enough. I had to back-focus from there to just before getting off infinity, something that’s a bit annoying to be honest.
  3. Freezing my butt off – astrophotography in winter requires really, really warm clothing or it’s no fun at all. I wore my expedition down jacket and insulated pants and still only lasted about an hour at a time in -8 degree temps.
  4. Long exposure times – most cameras by default do this thing where they take just as long to process a long exposure as take the shot. For example a 25 second exposure actually takes about a minute. 25 seconds to take the shot, another 25 seconds for the “dark frame exposure” and then a few seconds for me to realize it’s done, check the shot and take the next. I should have turned this feature off on hindsight. I would have taken at least 1/3 more shots and with the cool temperatures my sensor wouldn’t have overheated anyway – which is the primary reason for developing hot pixels.
  5. Alignment and composition – taking photos in the dark and having them turn out is an interesting, but frustrating, experience. Often it takes multiple shots to figure out the right composition and by then your target may have moved slightly (the night sky turns surprisingly quickly).
  6. Airplanes – there’s nothing more annoying than finally getting the perfect exposure, focus and composition only to have WestJet fly through your shot!
  7. Night creatures – taking photos in pitch darkness by yourself can be intimidating. There’s lots of noises coming out of the bushes at night and more than once I’ve yelled and turned around only to see a pack rat or other rodent sneaking up on me. You’ve been warned.

As time passed, I counted dozens of meteors but couldn’t capture any of them. They seemed to be happening in my periphery more than the originating constellations and I started wondering if my alignment was off. To test my theory, I stood on the opposite side of the truck and gazed up to the northwest along the visible band of the Milky Way. Sure enough! Within a few minutes I’d seen enough meteors to move the tripod onto my truck bed and realign with the Milky Way. It took 5 minutes and I got the shot of the night. A blazing blue ball of spacefire ripped through the night sky as my 47th visible meteor of the night! I was whooping and hollering like a crazy person as I waited for the exposure to finish. I was worried that it was out-of-frame but as the photo displayed on the back of the camera I could clearly see that I’d caught it. I was ecstatic. Remember – at this point I still thought the peak was coming 2.5 hours further along. As I stood there in the silent night I reflected how lucky I was to enjoy time like this. I also wondered what all the loud, echoing booming noises were! Every 30 seconds or so, I’d hear what sounded like a huge avalanche or something coming from the Kananaskis Lakes area. It was strange, but I shrugged it off and kept looking for more meteors.

As the night progressed, I starting seeing more and more meteors in the direction of the Kananaskis Lakes (more southerly) and decided to move over there. 3 or 4 vehicles had driven away from the area around 23:00 so I didn’t think there’d be too many others left there. I was right. There was nobody. I set up my gear with the Upper Kananaskis Lake in the foreground and Mount Lyautey across the lake – with lots of night sky of course. As I stood there I realized what the booming sound was. The ice on the two lakes was cracking and settling in the cooling night air and was producing some pretty unique atmosphere. A loud crack would be followed by echoing booms and rippling cracks all around my location between the lakes. It was pretty cool.

A Geminid meteor flashes through the Kananaskis night sky with the Andromeda galaxy underneath.

I witnessed some incredible meteors flashing overhead as I stood there – probably around a dozen or so fireballs but always out of my frame. My goal was to capture a large meteor over Lyautey. As I stood there around 01:00 another vehicle pulled up next to my truck and I was joined by Neil from Cochrane. Neil and I hit it off pretty good and shared stories as we opened shutters and exclaimed over the meteors coming down above us. I was a bit miffed (all in good fun) when he managed to capture 2 bright meteors over Lyautey within 10 minutes of setting up his camera, while my camera was still processing previous shots! This is why I now realize I should have turned off long exposure noise reduction (NR) – it cost me a lot of meteors including these two. Neil’s camera (Nikon D810) allowed him to process NR much quicker than mine.

As we stood there, we both commented that the shower seemed to be slowing rather than increasing as 02:00 approached. On hindsight I now realize that in the Calgary area, our Geminids are at peak much early than 02:00 – closer to 22:00 or 23:00. I saw over 100 before midnight and only around 50 afterwards. Being photographers is like fishing – there’s always “just one more cast”. As 02:00 passed by and the shower was obviously fading out, I stubbornly hung on for one more big meteor and only admitted defeat at around 03:30. I bid Neil a goodbye and started the long drive home, arriving at 05:00 and collapsing into bed to snag a few hours before work. Needless to say the next day was rough. As I reflected on my time alone under the night sky, I realized how incredibly lucky I am to do things like this. There’s not many places in the world where you can drive to a pristine mountain environment after work and catch a few hours of peaceful nighttime photography all alone and peaceful like I did. I’ve spent many nights under the stars in the Rockies and they all hold a very special place in my memory. Now when’s the next meteor event?

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