© Eugene Louie

Nightscape: Looking for Peace in Darkness

Milky Way Landscape Photography, Arches National Park and Meteor Streak

By Eugene Louie

            This was my first attempt photographing The Milky Way galaxy so I drove to Arches National Park, one of the darkest night skies in the country, to capture the galaxy hovering above dramatic Broken Arch. The arch provides a reference point that even the most amazing Hubble Telescope pictures do not. I wanted to inspire my audience by creating a scene setter, which gives the viewer a feeling this scene could exist on another planet. Utahs stark Moab desert was the perfect backdrop.

            Capturing this Perseid meteor streaking down behind The Broken Rock Arch was made with a Canon 5D Mark 3, a new generation of digital cameras allowing photographers to use much higher ISO settings, with less noise. The Perseids is the most famous, dependable annual meteor showers producing on average between 60 to 90 meteors per hour at peak observation time. The prime viewing dates this year: Aug. 11-12, beginning around 1:00 a.m., after moonset making the sky the darkest possible for optimum viewing. The viewing period lasts for about three hours, with the most meteors appearing in the very early morning hours closer to sunrise.

            The number of meteors that show up vary, but astronomers predict 2016 may become a spectacular year because the influence of Jupiter according to Sky and Telescope magazine. Visibility will be best for folks living in the mid Northern Hemisphere. All you need do is find the darkest spot possible, as far away from city light pollution, set up a comfy folding chair with an adjustable back and watch the show.

            Look between the radiant (or origin), where the meteors appear to be coming from. In this case the galaxy Perseid located in the upper left portion of the constellation Perseus. The Perseid shooting stars are bits of space debris made of pieces of the Comet Swift-Tuttle. Each piece ranges in size from a piece of dust to about 10 meters. They are called meteoroids when traveling in outer space. They become meteors upon entering earths atmosphere, and if the meteor strikes the earth intact it is called a meteorite. If these pieces of comet are larger than 10 meters they are called asteroids. The Comet Swift-Tuttle was discovered in 1862 and takes 133 years to make one trip around the sun.

            To locate the Perseus Constellation iPhone users can download Sky Guide, a free app available through the Apple Store and Android phone owners can use Photo Pills, which cost $10. Both are excellent and easy to use to locate The Milky Way, constellations, stars, planets and more. I prefer Sky Guide because if you touch an object on the screen an information box pops open explaining what the object is and provides both scientific and mythological stories.

             The newest camera technology allows photographers to use higher ISO settings in combination with exposures 30 seconds or less, just long enough to record points of starlight before the stars begin to leave light trails. If you enlarge the photo you can see stars, located in the upper corner of the frame, begin to leave evidence of light trails as they move across the sky even with a 17 mm wide-angle lens.

            Technical Details: 15  35 mm f/2.8 Canon zoom lens with the focal length set at 16 mm, ISO was 16,000, exposure 12 seconds long with the aperture set at f/2.8. Color temperature manually set to 3900 degrees kelvin. I prefer a bluer night sky and through trial and error discovered that 3900 degrees kelvin is a sweet spot to begin photographing. As the Milky Way moves, I bracket my color temperature and usually go as high as 6400 degrees kelvin produces a much warmer sky. The color temperature is all personal preference so experiment to determine what color sky woks for you. The camera was mounted on a carbon fiber Gitzo tripod with a Really Right Stuff ball head. At the bottom of the tripods center I installed a metal hook and hang my backpack on it to steady the camera during exposure.

I stood behind my tripod making exposure after exposure. By luck I watched a bright streak of light appear above me while the camera shutter was open and was delighted to find the meteor trail recorded on the preview screen. My initial intention was to capture our Milky Way galaxy but I got the bonus meteor because the picture was made during the prolific Perseid Meteor Shower in August, 2015. a most prolific and dependable meteor watching night.

I forgot to bring a cable release. Instead I used my finger to gently trip the shutter with the cameras self-timer set for a two-second delay to eliminate mirror slap. Capturing a 40,000-mile per hour streaking meteor across the heavens is honestly a game of chance. Many Milky Way photographers will use an intervalometer attaching it o a digital camera like a cable release and allows the camera to be placed on autopilot. The intervalometer will open and close your cameras shutter automatically as well as start the next exposure, according to the parameters you decide. To ask questions about this blog please send an email in the email form below. I will respond as quickly as possible.

Canon and Nikon manufacture their own brand of intervalometer but are expensive. A less expensive work around I used is the Vello brand, a third party timer, which works very well and less expensive.