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.
As many of my friends know, near and dear to my heart is the otherworldly, spectacular Death Valley National Park here in California. Death Valley is truly a wondrous, bewitching location – a dream spot for photographers and desert lovers alike – rife with a diverse array of simply out-of-this-world photographic opportunities. Visiting Death Valley gives you the sensation of being on another planet entirely. In fact, movies from Star Wars to Robinson Crusoe on Mars were filmed in Death Valley. The amazing colorful geology, wide open spaces, clean air, incredible cloud formations, dark night skies and sometimes deafening silence are only some of the reasons why I love this place.
With diverse geologic and topographic features, Death Valley is a land of extremes, ranging from the nation’s lowest point, Badwater Basin, at –282 feet below sea level, to the snow-capped Panamint Mountains which crest 11,000 feet above the valley floor. Death Valley is the hottest place in the world and the driest and lowest spot in all of North America. From sand dunes and salt pans to snow-covered mountain peaks, badlands bursting in colors, rugged canyons, old ghost towns and mines, a millionaire’s private castle in a desert oasis, and playas with sailing stones, Death Valley has it all.
During a trip last year with a photographer friend, we took a late afternoon excursion through the seeming alien outpost that is Twenty Mule Team Canyon. In continuing my series on Death Valley National Park, this post focuses on this amazing canyon, a less visited but must-see companion to its more well-known neighbor, Zabriskie Point.
Like Zabriskie Point, Twenty Mule Team Canyon is known for its otherworldly erosional landscapes, colorful sediments, and badlands formations. Here you can finally get truly close-up views of fantastical alienscapes not possible from Zabriskie Point. In addition, there are many wonderful places to hike deep into Twenty Mule Team Canyon.
Located directly off Highway 190 just a few miles southeast of Zabriskie Point, this one-way (mostly north to south) scenic loop drive winds it way through an alien world for 2.7 glorious miles. The drive mostly consists of an unpaved wash, but is easily accessible in dry weather to most standard automobiles and SUVs. RVs, trailers and buses are not recommended due to the sometimes steep, narrow and curving terrain towards the end of the drive. This canyon should be avoided when rain falls, as the surface of the wash quickly turns claylike, becoming a real hazard.
At first the drive is rather straight and flat as it heads south, with ample pull-outs from where you can begin hikes into ravines and badlands in a multitude of directions. Near the end, there is a winding, steep climb and then abrupt drop off as you veer east and approach the exit to Highway 190. The colorful sediments are simply fantastic, similar to Artist’s Palette Drive. Due to the rich mineral deposits, the bright hues change throughout the day. The soil is very dry and alkaline, thus there is little vegetation in the canyon.
Just how did Twenty Mule Team Canyon get its name? Twenty-mule teams were hardworking teams of eighteen mules and two horses attached to large wagons that ferried borax out of Death Valley from 1883 to 1889. They traveled from mines across the Mojave Desert to the nearest railroad spur, 165 miles away in Mojave, California. The wagons were amongst the largest ever pulled by draft animals, designed to carry 9 metric tons of borax ore at a time. Although the canyon is named after the famed twenty mule teams, it is believed that those teams did not operate in the canyon named in their honor.
And just what is borax and how is it used? If you grew up in the 1960s or earlier, you may remember the popular laundry product 20 Mule Team Borax, a detergent booster which is still sold today. Borax is well known as an ingredient in high efficiency laundry detergents, but its most important modern use is in the production of fiberglass and borosilicate glass. The chemical element Boron has powerful abilities to strengthen, toughen and make fire-resistant glasses, metals, wood and fibers. It is used in approximately three hundred high-tech products.
If you visit Death Valley National Park, I highly recommend a trip into the otherworldly Twenty Mule Team Canyon. The scenic loop drive and hikes are a delight. Below is a Google Earth map showing the Twenty Mule Team Canyon loop drive off Highway 190 and its proximity to Zabriskie Point. Please visit this link for a more detailed map on Google.
All images were taken with my Nikon D800 full-frame DSLR and are Camera RAW shots processed mainly in Lightroom and Photoshop – some with onOne Software’s Perfect Photo Suite and Nik (now Google) Software. A few of the images are HDR (high dynamic range) photographs comprised of bracketed Camera RAW shots additionally processed in Photomatix Pro. For more information on Death Valley and The Racetrack Playa, as well as the nearby Rhyolite Ghost Town, please see my prior posts.