Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West


Capturing Cosmic Dust with a Camera: the Zodiacal Light

Cameras can be strange machines. We tend to think of cameras as devices that faithfully record the nature of the landscape around us, which they do…at least most of the time. When this paradigm does break down, it is usually because the camera has failed to record something important, something that made a moment or an experience worth remembering. Oftentimes when this happens, we become disappointed. How many times have you been scrolling through vacation photos and lamented at how poorly they turned out? Sometimes we even realize the limitations of the camera in the moment itself. Perhaps you’ve experienced something akin to standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon at sunset and becoming so resigned to the fact that no photograph will ever satisfactorily capture the grandeur in front of you that you begin to ponder the option of chucking your camera into the great chasm below.

On rare occasions though, the camera delights us by managing to capture even MORE than meets the eye. After returning from a recent camping trip to the San Juan Islands in northwest Washington, I was surprised to find an unexpected apparition in some of the long-exposure photographs I took from our campsite on the west coast of San Juan Island.

Getting to the San Juans is no easy task; it took me about 5 hours to get there, even though “there” is just 35 miles by air from my front doorstep. As a result, the islands can feel remote and isolated, but standing along the coast at night is a not so gentle reminder that you’re actually only about eight miles across the Haro Strait from Victoria, a metro area of more than 300,000 people. Taking advantage of a somewhat rare, perfectly clear Pacific Northwest evening, I took a series of 15 second exposures looking west across the strait which I composted into this 180 degree panorama:


Click photo to embiggen!

The first thing you notice is the egregious light pollution from Victoria. Even the skyglow from Vancouver, five times further away but seven times more populous, is visible through the tress. Amongst all of the artificial light sources though, some natural ones still manage to shine through. The faint tendrils of the winter Milky Way just barely register on the camera’s sensor but the bright winter constellations of Orion, Canis Major, and Taurus forcefully punch their way through. If you look really closely, you’ll see a faint, slightly elongated, pale blue glow hiding in-between the lights of Victoria and Sidney. This is a phenomenon known as the zodiacal light, and it’s what took me by surprise when I started putting these images together. Here’s an annotated version to help you out:


See it? It’s a slightly different color than the light domes and isn’t as round and symmetrical as the light radiating from the cities, but rather looks squished and creeps upward into the sky at an angle. What really betrays the nature of this mysterious glow is its location: it coincides almost perfectly with the ecliptic, the plane of our solar system which is also the apparent path that the Sun, Moon, and planets follow as they move across the night sky.

What does this have to do with the zodiacal light? Well, it turns out that the plane of our solar system is home to lots and lots of dust. Not the dust made of dead skin cells and carpet fuzz you find around your house, but rather interplanetary dust particles made mostly of carbon, silicon, and oxygen. These dust particles are really small, on the order of 10 micrometers in diameter, about the size of a mold spore. The exact source of this dust is controversial; most of it is thought to be the result of collisions between comets and asteroids although some may be leftover from the formation of the solar system itself, tiny pieces of debris that never got incorporated into a planet. Regardless of where it cam from, the dust is really good at reflecting sunlight. Just after sunset (or just prior to sunrise), the angle between the Sun, dust, and Earth is such that the light reflected of the surfaces of the innumerable dust particles reaches our eyes (or cameras) here on Earth, giving rise to the zodiacal light.

When you consider how small the dust is (and that the dust particles are on average more than 2 miles apart from one another!), it’s not hard to understand why the zodiacal light is so faint and difficult to spot. Due to a quirk of celestial geometry, spring is a great time to observe it from the northern hemisphere, but even then spotting it with the naked eye requires extremely dark skies. The conditions in the San Juans, while darker than many spots in Western Washington, are far too light polluted. However, digital cameras are MUCH more sensitive to faint sources of light than the human eye. It’s actually rather common for a camera to detect things in the night sky that aren’t visible otherwise. On the night I saw the aurora borealis for the first time about a year and a half ago, its presence was first betrayed to me as a faint green glow hugging the horizon on my camera’s LCD screen, hours before it became bright enough to see with the naked eye. If not for my camera’s ability to detect it, I would have been fast asleep instead of standing in a marshy field near the Canadian border when the aurora dramatically brightened a few hours later and streamers began appearing all over the sky.

Have you ever captured anything on camera that you found surprising? Share your thoughts or stories in the comments below.

Mt. Shuksan in High Resolution

Introducing Mt. Shuksan:


This image strip is just a small part of a 45 shot, 550 megapixel panorama I recently took of Mt. Shuksan from the Mt. Baker Ski Area. Since WordPress doesn’t offer me a way to display a picture of this size at full resolution, I’ve uploaded a (nearly) full resolution version of the image to GigaPan.com and included a link below (just click on the photo).  There are lots of cool features that you can see if you play around with the image and zoom in;  such as the terminus of the aptly named Hanging Glacier just below the summit peak, lots of cornices along the summit ridge, innumerable avalanche tracks, some really interesting linear and polygonal features in the snow (developing avalanche scarps?) and even some waterfalls and the entrance to an ice cave!

This was the first time I had made a panorama of this size and resolution. Photoshop’s Photomerge feature (which I n0rmally use for panoramas) had trouble handling so many images so I ended up using a free program called Microsoft Image Composite Editor to stitch and blend the images together. While this program doesn’t allow for editing of the final panorama, I was able to easily export the composite image and make minor adjustments to contrast and brightness in Photoshop.  The individual frames were shot in RAW mode using a ball-head tripod and a 200mm zoom lens on a Nikon D90. Exposure settings were set manually and kept mostly constant in order to facilitate seamless integration of all 45 images.

Click the image below to explore the GigaPan:


The Golden Gate (Bridge)



San Francisco.

I’ve always thought that it would be one of the few large cities where I could actually stand to live. Never mind the fact that my current and projected foreseeable future income levels will not permit me to live in any of the parts of the city to which the above statement applies. Or the fact that the next major rupture of the San Andreas or Hayward faults is going to make things look…shall we say…”less attractive”. Ignore those minor details for now. All I mean to say is that it seems like a nice place to live, which is a thought that perplexes me, given that in general, the idea of living in the same metropolitan area as several million other human beings makes me want to look up job listings for “hermit” and run away into the hills screaming. San Francisco though seems to have a charm and a combination of positive attributes though that most other cities do not.

For starters it is located in one of the most scenic environs of any city in the country. Rolling grassy hills, redwood groves, long stretches of sandy and rocky beaches, rugged coastline, appealing architecture, fortified islands, all within an hours drive of the city center. Hard to match that. Seattle comes close (the view of Mt. Rainier on a clear day? ahhhhhhh) but it gets marked down because it gets, on average, 14 more inches of rain each year. Salt Lake City has gorgeous mountains but it is covered in snow for part of the year and tends to get smothered by thick layers of pollution that get rammed up against the western flanks of the Wasatch. And all cities east of the Rockies are automatically disqualified because they’re east of the Rockies. To some Phoenix might seem sort of scenic, what with the 50 foot high cacti and mountains and all, until you realize that in reality it is a sizzling hell hole with literally no sustainable water source and is totally unfit for large quantities of human habitation. At least San Francisco has Yosemite just a few hundred miles away that it can poach water from. Also, it sort of seems like everything in San Francisco is painted either white or a nice bright pastel color. Painting everything white does wonders for a city; it makes it feel larger, cleaner, less claustrophobic, and lends a nice airy, ethereal quality to everything.

San Francisco also has what in my opinion is one of the few man-made creations that actually contributes to the beauty of a place rather than besmirching it: the Golden Gate Bridge. In case you’re not familiar with the bridge, it is one of the few things in San Francisco not painted white or pastel, but rather a bright burnt orange (actually “international orange” for those of you who want to go out to your local Home Depot and pick up a gallon). The “Golden Gate” for which the bridge is named (and not vice-versa) is a narrow strait that connects the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco Bay. In a somewhat eery coincidence, U.S. Army Captain and explorer extraordinaire John C. Fremont bestowed the now famous name upon the strait in 1846, two years BEFORE the strait was used as the point of arrival for millions of millionaire wannabees seeking riches in the newly discovered gold fields east of Sacramento. Fremont had given it the name Golden Gate because he recognized the area’s potential importance in opening up trade with the Orient, completely unaware (obviously) that the discovery of real gold in California is what would cause the population of the city just to the south of the strait, San Francisco, to multiply by 18,000% in just six years, and make the Golden Gate known worldwide. In the 1920s, fed up with the 20 minute ferry ride across the strait, some folks decided it would be a bright idea to build a bridge across it, apparently thinking that sitting in traffic for more than 20 minutes waiting to cross the strait while constantly having to yell at the driver in front of you to stop futzing with their iPhone and drive would somehow be more pleasant than the leisurely ferry crossing.


Yang Ming container ship is greeted by the Golden Gate Bridge

An unique perspective on the 1.7 mile-long suspension bridge can be obtained by going beneath it. If you don’t have a boat, fear not, in another stunning coincidence, the U.S. Army conveniently constructed a masonry fortification, Fort Point, on the point right beneath the south end of the bridge in 1853*:

Under the Bridge: the remains of Fort Point, built in 1853 to secure San Francisco Bay from enemy attack.

Under the Bridge: the remains of Fort Point, built in 1853 to secure San Francisco Bay from enemy attack.

*Actually the Army did no such thing. You know, seeming as how the technology to build a massive metal suspension bridge across a deep, windy, 1.3 kilometer wide strait didn’t exactly exist in 1853. The engineers in charge of building the bridge eighty-odd years later did however build the bridge directly above the fort (they wanted to remove the Fort entirely but cooler heads prevailed), and so the Fort, being the rather inanimate object that it is, remains there to this day, providing a nice spot to stand and look out over the bay while holding on to your hat and listening to rush-hour traffic crawl past on the bridge high over your head.

Arguably the best, although not most unique, views of the bridge can be found north of town, just off of Highway 101 in the Marin Headlands where a number of overlooks along Conzelman Road provide spectacular vantage points from which to observe or photograph the bridge.  These overlooks aren’t a secret though, the ones closest to Highway 101 are predictably packed with people and it can be impossible to find a parking spot. However, the bridge is also partially obscured here, head further and higher up the road for more expansive views that, while still busy, become less so the further from the highway you get. and. The number of tripods also increases steadily as you get further and further from the interstate which I interpreted as a good sign since one of my goals was to get some photos of the bridge at sunset. As you can see in the picture at the top of the page, these overlooks are often slightly above the fog that socks in the coast from time to time.

Most people seem to stop and turn around at the one-way-road/18% grade sign that appears along Conzelman Road just before it begins to wind its way back down through the headlands to the coast. If you proceed onwards though, you will be rewarded by getting to shift your car into low gear, and also by a plethora of quieter and more secluded, albeit more distant, views of the bridge. The road ultimately deposits one at the trail leading to the Point Bonita Lighthouse, located at the northern entrance to the Golden Gate. The lighthouse was built in 1853, and yet several hundred ships still managed to wreck themselves in this area during the influx associated with the California Gold Rush, a testament to the ability of the area’s trademark thick fog to obscure any sign of the coast until its too late.

Point Bonita Lighthouse

Point Bonita Lighthouse, Marin County, California

More pictures of the local flora and fauna hopefully coming soon, including the biggest group o’ Grebes you’ve ever seen in one photograph.