The August 2015 Perseid Meteor Shower and Milky Way – Astrophotography Over Rural San Luis Obispo County, California
For night sky enthusiasts and photographers alike, the August appearance of the prolific Perseid meteor shower is a highly anticipated event. The Perseids are associated with the comet Swift–Tuttle and are named for the constellation Perseus, the point in the heavens from which they appear to radiate. The Perseid cloud is a debris stream that spreads out along the orbit of Swift–Tuttle, consisting of particles thousands of years old, jettisoned by the comet as it travels on its 133-year orbit.
The Perseids are visible beginning in mid-July each year, peaking in activity from August 9–14, depending on the location of the debris stream. During the peak, these streaking meteors – or so-called shooting stars – can reach a rate of 60 or more per hour. This year, in August 2015, a photographic trifecta occurred, as the meteor shower peak nearly coincided with a new moon, ensuring dark skies for perfect viewing conditions. In addition, the Milky Way was highly visible in the sky during the same time. So the environment was ripe for sky watching and astrophotography.
On Wednesday evening 8/12 into the early morning hours of Thursday 8/13, I went out with two photographer friends to shoot the Perseids and Milky Way. After some careful planning with photo apps such as Photo Pills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris, we chose a location off Shell Creek Road in rural east San Luis Obispo County, CA, a popular area for photographing wildflowers in the Spring. This area is approximately 30 minutes east of Paso Robles and is known for its oak-studded rolling hills. With no city lights nearby to contaminate views of the night sky, the darkness seemed to cloak everything but the heavens. Thankfully the skies were clear and the weather perfect, something a photographer can never count on when doing night photography.
The Milky Way was predicted to arc over the area in a northeast to southwesterly direction, and it did not disappoint. The Milky Way was simply brilliant and stunning. The constellation Perseus rose in the northeast, and the sky show was spectacular. We thoroughly enjoyed seeing the many meteors whiz by. Some were dark orange like fireballs, while others were bright white or bluish. The meteors came from all directions, but were difficult to capture on camera, necessitating many exposures over several hours. The combination of the Milky Way and Perseids dancing across the heavens was a sight to behold. Mother Nature at her best.
In the first image at the top of the post, It Came From Above, I was lucky to catch three meteors, which can be seen in the middle of the photograph surrounding the Milky Way. In addition, if you look closely at the lower left portion of the big oak tree where one of the branches seems to touch the hillside, you can see part of an orangish meteor. In the second image above, Another World, I caught two meteors, which can be seen on the left side, right above the hill. For this image, a small amount of light painting was applied to the foreground area.
In the third image above, 10,000 Light Years From Home, I turned the camera around in the opposite direction and pointed it straight north toward Polaris – the North Star – in order to capture circular star trails. A bit of light painting was applied to the foreground area. This image was a single long exposure of around 15 minutes at ISO 200. Had we not been so pooped out, I would have taken an even longer exposure to get more intense star trails. Or I would have taken a set of shorter exposures and then stacked them together to get the star trails.
The images were taken with my Nikon D800 and Tokina Pro FX 16-28mm f2.8 lens mounted on a tripod, using a Nikon cable release/intervalometer. All the images were processed in Adobe Lightroom.
A few summers ago, I took an excursion to one of my favorite locations in California: the spectacular Eastern Sierras. Driving along Highway 395 in any direction leads to a plethora of photographic opportunities, including famous locations such as Death Valley, the Alabama Hills, Manzanar, the Owens Valley near Bishop, the Bristlecone Pine Forest, Mammoth Lakes, Mono Lake, and the old ghost mining town of Bodie, to name just a few. Just south of Bishop lies the Owens Valley Radio Observatory, which is operated by Caltech, the academic home of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a wonderful place to photograph in the evening hours.
The cloud formations that evening were incredible, due in part to the massive wildfires that were burning in Santa Barbara that summer. The sunset was just gorgeous. There are many of these radio dishes scattered around the observatory, which make for fantastic photographs, especially at night. These images were taken just after sunset and are bracketed HDR sequences. They were processed in Photomatix 4, Lightroom 3, Photoshop CS5, and with onOne’s PhotoTools 2.6.