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.
Holy moly great balls of fire! In November, members of the San Luis Obispo (California) Camera Club were treated to another excellent night and low light photography workshop put on by Howard Ignatius and Pat Brown. An initial night photography shoot was done after the lecture at the very popular Spooner’s Cove beach in Montana de Oro State Park, located just south of the tiny sea hamlets of Los Osos and Morro Bay. Naturally we were all so excited by the shoot that when weather conditions and the tide once again became favorable a few nights later, an impromptu group of photographers met in the same location to practice taking shots of stars, star trails, the Milky Way, and faintly (but purposefully) lit objects/people on the beach.
Howard Ignatius is truly an expert night photographer who also excels at the fine art and science of light painting. In the above image, you can see Howard standing in the middle of the ball of light located in the lower left corner. He is also magically inside the second ball of light. Due to the long exposure time, Howard was able to move around the beach, positioning himself like a whirling dervish! He was very gracious in assisting all of us in light painting the rocks, beach, and other objects. But the dancing balls of light were simply spectacular!
He was graciously assisted by Jerry Kirkhart for both shoots, who had to endure many togs shouting and screaming while trying to figure out proper camera settings for ISO, aperture, shutter speeds, and more. Do we use long exposure noise reduction or not? How about high ISO noise reduction? What color temperature (white balance setting) do we use in degrees Kelvin? Mirror-lockup mode? What about exposure delay mode? Could the tourists with the dogs please get the hell out of our way? After all, when a large group of enthusiastic photographers are present, the beaches naturally belong to them, just like surfers in their sacred spots. And so on. Poor Jerry and Howard. What was that you told us to set on our cameras? I couldn’t hear you over the pounding surf. And could someone please remember to turn off their annoying red headlamp? It is shining into my lens! Rats. One more ruined shot courtesy of joyful photographers.
What a ball (of light) we literally had. These images were taken with my Nikon D800 equipped with a 24mm lens. They are both comprised of single RAW shots processed entirely in Lightroom 4. The first image at the top (of the dancing balls) was shot at ISO 3200 at f4 for about one minute (using a tripod and cable release, of course). At this length of time, the star points have begun turning into star trails, due to the rotation of the earth. Some ambient light contamination can be seen in the middle right side above the rock. This is from the city of Morro Bay. There were also meteor showers present that evening, which you can see in the middle right of the image. It looks as if they are dive bombing into the rocks on the beach. The image directly above of the lit pup tent was shot at ISO 1600 at f3.5 for 30 seconds. The Milky Way is highly visible in this image. I took many photos both evenings and will post more as I process them. Yep, I am very behind. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy viewing these as much as I did taking the images. I have much, much more to learn about night photography and am excited at all the creative possibilities!
If you are interested in learning how to photograph the night sky, I highly recommend the wonderful eBook Shooting Stars: How to Photograph the Moon and Stars with your DSLR by Phil Hart, winner of the 2012 David Malin Astrophotography Award. Shooting Stars, a 129-page eBook with a printable field guide, will show you how to shoot your own stunning images of the moon and the stars with just your digital SLR and a tripod.