During daylight hours, a look up in the sky might yield nothing but blue, the white of the clouds, and the brightness of the sun. Mixed in, yet invisible to our eyes is the original light show – the Perseids. Our worlds pass each other once a year during the summer, and on a clear night that’s away from available light and away from the moon, streaks of wonder fly by night.
It all began on a whim, the idea of photographing at night, the stars, and flashes of burning out comet debris sounded like a perfect combination. Under a canopy of stars looking down, our lenses point upwards trying to catch the contrast of Earth’s nature – trees and mountains, and the cosmos. Just one year ago during the first trip up the 5 freeway equipped with an iPhone for directions, we pulled over on the side of the highway at an elevation of around 3000 feet and began shooting aimlessly. The stars were huge and plentiful, and craning our necks and freezing at the same time, we were dwarfed.
The “astronography” gives us something to do. Some might think it’s like seeing ping ponging of light, but it’s much slower. Undoubtedly there are hundreds happening at once, but visible to us might be a one a minute. They cluster and at times it’s three, and then it’s silence. Another one or two, then more silence. It becomes a marathon of gazing and waiting for the powerful streak that lights up the sky. At times, there’s a color to them. It’s not just white. Sometimes, they’re bluish or more yellow. It happens once or twice a night and concludes in a split second and imprints a vapor trail in our minds. A camera capturing it makes it all better, especially for the “working man,” who can’t fathom the 40 degree cold and almost overnight hours.
(the top photo is a portion of the Milky Way Galaxy)
(Two faint streaks – I lightened the photo a bit so you can see it better)
The exposures are about 20 seconds, 2.8 aperture at 1600 ASA for those of you who care. You can stretch it a bit to 30 seconds, but make sure the image is in focus. Some lenses don’t have the infinity at the very end of the focus ring, and in pitch dark, you can’t see a thing. The miracle of it all is that the camera eye captures more than you can see including streaks that you missed.
Each visit has a venue change, we often start low and move to another spot. The higher the altitude, the better the clearing and conditions. A pitch black arena and the peak night of meteors can make an amazing show. Mt Pinos in the Los Padres Forest about 50 miles away from Los Angeles has a peak of 8000 feet and is considered by many to be one of the best locations in Southern California. In 2010, we found it almost by accident. Spinning randomly through the valleys we began an ascent that seemed to never end. We passed small towns and picked a clearing and watched and shot from there. We noticed cars driving down the hill as the star watchers night started to become day. We realized later, we were almost at the spot. We told ourselves that in 2011, we’d get to the top.
The Geminids, perhaps the second best show of the year took place in December. We made the trek, but found that at 4000 feet, ice and snow blanketed the area. It would have to wait. August 12 the peak of the Perseids was soon coming, but a full moon would ruin the night. Dates approaching meant a larger and larger moon, so we made the journey as early as prescribed. Mt Pinos parking lot was empty sans a few cars and an abandoned film set. The caravan of campers and visitors may not happen in 2011.
The space is wide and dark, perhaps half of a football field. The mountains peak is close by and must not be too much more elevated since it wasn’t obvious as to where it was. Staring straight up, you’ll get a view of the sky with the edges of your sight moated by trees. In the summer, the milky way galaxy, our home, is obvious and looks like a stripe of cloud bisecting everything up. In the winter, it’s gone south showing off on the other side of the world. Even off peak, we begin see streaks. It’s a great sign and that’s when our cameras come out. It’s not a science to shoot, but it’s about patience and persistence. While you point in one direction, a great flash happens in the other. You move to the other, and then it happens elsewhere, but you let it pass and hope for the next.
We’re below amateur level in astronomy and the weather. We suffer to see the streaks – with the wind, it’s freezing cold. You’re never warm enough. Yet getting out two or three times a year is becoming a tradition even with the promise of seeing very little. Meanwhile, among the backdrop of the stars, we do recognize the “hits” like Orion’s Belt and the Dippers which almost blend in with the rest of the planets, suns, and galaxies. We use an iPhone app that maps outs the constellations. The brightest single star turned out to be Jupiter who along with four of its moons is also an August highlight. I recall last year, we were sure it was The North Star. Our pilgrimage of watching stars just added an extra piece of trivia. It’s not a bad night when you see both Jupiter and a collection of shooting stars, and next year, perhaps will be a moonless Perseids peak night and we will actually meet others who are like us.