Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) continues to put on a stellar show for skywatchers in the northern hemisphere. Over the past week, the comet has moved into the evening sky, making a trip out to see it somewhat more palatable than it was when I first highlighted the comet 11 days ago. Last week, I had the pleasure of viewing the comet twice in one night while camping on the east flank of Mt. St. Helens. High clouds prevented a great view at sunset, but had mostly cleared just four hours later when the comet rose again in the northeast. Just below and to the left of the comet was the distant cone of Mt. Rainier. Low clouds in the river valleys below us made for a spectacular view:
Unfortunately, the comet has dimmed noticeably over the past few evenings. While we still have a few days until its closest approach to Earth, the comet has receded from the Sun enough that its activity is likely beginning to wane. The next few nights will likely provide the final chance to see this comet and its tail with the unaided eye (until it returns ~6,800 years from now that is!) The waxing moon will begin to interfere by later this week and by the time the moon leaves the evening sky a few weeks from now, the comet will likely have faded from naked eye visibility. To see it, look northwest 1-2 hours after sunset. The comet will appear a little below the bowl of the Big Dipper, and is far enough north now that viewing is significantly better from more northerly locations. More details on spotting the comet can be found here: https://earthsky.org/space/how-to-see-comet-c2020-f3-neowise
Sunset, nighttime, and sunrise are probably the three most exciting times for photography, and I got to hit all three on a quick trip to Bryce Canyon National Park this past weekend. I experienced a brilliant sunset, hiked into the Bryce amphitheater by moonlight, joined the masses for sunrise, and was back in my own home less than 24 hours after walking out the front door. I feel incredibly lucky to live close enough to such wonders that trips like this are possible. This impromptu trip was facilitated by the unseasonable heat wave currently gripping Southern Utah. On Sunday night, the overnight low at Bryce barely dropped below freezing (about 15 degrees above average for this time of year) making a quick camping trip a reasonable proposition.
This was actually my first trip to Bryce Canyon in the winter months. While snow has made itself scarce in Southern Utah the last few weeks, and most of the snow had melted away from the hoodoos, there was still quite a bit of the white stuff left on the north facing slopes, making for a gorgeous complement to the ruddy hoodoo hues.
Before hitting the trail for sunset, I took time to drive out to some of the overlooks at the south end of the park. Bryce Canyon may be known for hoodoo hiking, but south of the main amphitheater lie some truly mind-blowing views of the Grand Staircase and Colorado Plateau. The Paunsaugunt Plateau on which Bryce Canyon sits rises to elevations of more than 9,000 feet, allowing commanding views of the surrounding terrain. I truly believe that the view from Yovimpa Point is one of the best on the planet (albeit difficult to photograph), with a viewshed stretching from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, to Navajo Mountain and Lake Powell near Page, to the 11,000 monolith of Powell Point and the Aquarius Plateau.
As the sun dropped lower, I headed out on the trail to Tower Bridge. In hindsight I should have taken a picture of the mud, but I guess I was too preoccupied trying not to lose a boot to the bright orange morass. With winter freeze/thaw cycles still in full swing, the trails were all littered with fragments of rock fallen from the cliffs and hoodoos above, a good reminder of the primary process responsible for creating this unique landscape.
My visit happened to coincide with a full moon so Milky Way photographs were out of the question. The light made it quite easy to navigate the trails looking for interesting photo opportunities. In several hours of wandering around the amphitheater, I don’t think I turned my headlamp on once. It was seriously bright out there.
With the photo above, I was hoping for longer star trails but after just half an hour, my camera battery died. After scrambling to replace it, I discovered that someone (who shall remain unnamed…) had forgotten to charge their spare camera battery. With only enough power on the spare for a few dozen more exposures, I decided to pack it in for the evening rather than continuing with the star trials, and save my remaining juice for sunrise…which turned out to be a good call.
While Bryce is beautiful at any time of day, sunrise is truly the golden hour. Because most of the amphitheater faces east, sunlight creates so many interesting light patterns among the hoodoos that one almost can’t decide where to look. This was the 2nd morning since the switch to daylight savings, and the crowds reflected the fact that sunrise was now at a quite palatable 7:30 AM.
Colorado is a great place for those of you who, like me, are perpetually torn between looking up and looking down. Colorado’s spectacular geologic landscapes keep me occupied during the day, but at night a whole different world opens up overhead. Colorado is a great place to look at and photograph the night sky for several reasons:
- It’s relatively dark. With the exception of the Front Range megalopolis (where I now live), there are few egregious sources of light pollution, especially when compared to just about every state east of here.
- It has the highest average elevation of any state. This is important because looking through the Earth’s atmosphere at the stars is like looking through a glass of water at a friend sitting next to you. The higher you go, the thinner the atmosphere becomes, and the better and steadier your view of the night sky.
- It has good weather. Clear skies can be found regularly throughout the year, unlike in the black hole of astronomy known as the Pacific Northwest.
- It has lots of public land where you can theoretically spend all night outside taking photos without fear of getting shot.
I spent a good chunk of this past summer honing my astrophotography skills and if you’ve never tried your hand at it, I encourage you to give it a try. It has certainly made me a better all-around photographer. First and foremost, astrophotography is an exercise in patience, both at the camera itself and then in front of the computer afterwards, and patience is a valuable virtue in all aspects of photography. Ironically, as comfortable as I am outside under the stars, astrophotography actually pushes out of my comfort zone photographically. Apart from minor brightness or contrast adjustments and cropping, I tend to eschew significant post-processing of my photos. When photographing the night sky though, some quality alone time with Photoshop and Lightroom is pretty much a necessity in order to get something that looks good.
I’m not here to give you a step-by-step guide to night sky photography, that’s been done before (try here, here, or here), but simply to encourage you to try it. All you really need to get started is a DSLR, a tripod, some patience, and somewhere dark. Like ACTUALLY dark. Sadly, light pollution has gotten so bad that most people reading this will have never seen a truly pristine night sky. Driving to the suburbs does not qualify as “dark”. Here in the Denver/Boulder/Fort Collins light pollution-opolis, even after driving two hours up to 12,000 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park, you’ll still only see roughly HALF as many stars as can be seen with the naked eye from a truly dark location. To see if there are any pristine night skies near you, check out this nifty site, which is basically Google Maps with an overlay of light pollution severity. You’re looking for areas with the darkest black color and as you’ll see, they are becoming few and far between.
What’s great is how many different ways there are to incorporate the night sky into your photos. With wide-field astrophotography, the entire night sky is the star of the show (pun intended). Accomplished by using fast, wide-angle lenses combined with relatively short exposures (30 seconds or less, unless you have a motorized mount), this method can reveal spectacular detail in the night sky unseen by the human eye, such as the spectacular interstellar dust lanes in the Milky Way. If you pair the Milky Way with a terrestrial landscape illuminated by moonlight, the possibilities for composing spectacular nightscapes become nearly infinite.
Longer exposures (or lots of short ones “stacked” together) document the motion of the stars across the night sky. I have a soft spot for star trails because they are a beautiful reminder that the world we live in is in constant motion; the dramatic and graceful arcs traced out by the stars are due to OUR rotation, not the stars. Star trails centered around the North Star (Polaris) can be especially striking since the north star is almost exactly above the rotational axis of the Earth, and thus moves very little throughout the night.
Probably the most challenging type of astrophotography, and really the only one that requires specialized (often expensive) equipment, is telescopic imaging. My experience in this category is limited, given the aforementioned factors (donations always happily accepted!), but I’ve tried it on a handful of occasions by using friend’s equipment or telescopes at observatories I have worked at. Telescopic astrophotography allows detailed images of galaxies, star clusters, and nebulae, many of which are not even visible to the naked eye. While good images can be obtained by fitting a DSLR to a telescope (below, center and right), the best images are obtained using stand-alone CCD cameras optimized for astrophotography (below, left).
Some objects, like the Moon, are big and bright enough that a telescope is not needed to get decent images. I got this photo of last month’s total lunar eclipse with a standard 55-200mm zoom lens, and even had enough light gathering ability to capture the planet Uranus less than a degree away from the Moon!
Beyond the technical challenge, what ultimately thrills me most about astrophotography is being able to capture photons that have been en route towards us across the vast universe for dozens, hundreds, or even millions of years. After that long of a journey, it feels like our duty to ensure that at least some of those photons have the honor of being recorded in some state of permanence. Give it a try and it won’t be long before you find yourself in the middle of nowhere waiting for your camera to finish a 1-hour exposure. A perfect change to sit back and ponder the vastness of the universe looming over your head.