Snowbirding 2017: Astrophotography

Practice makes perfect. I’m practicing.

I have more than the average amount of free time in my life and I like to put it to good use doing and learning things. Last September, I took an astrophotography class at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. You can read about the class and see some of the photos I took during our field trip in this blog post.

What I learned about shooting the night sky is that it’s very easy to do if you have the right equipment. Fortunately, I do: a DSLR with full manual mode, a very wide angle (10mm) lens, and a sturdy tripod. The hardest thing to do is to find skies dark enough to see enough stars to make the effort worthwhile.

We had dark enough skies in the North Cascades, despite ambient light from the nearby dam and occasional passing car. I don’t have dark enough skies at home, though — the glow from Wenatchee is surprisingly (and disappointingly) bright. And although I camped at more than a few places that should have been dark enough for night sky photography, most weren’t.

Or if I found a place that should have dark enough skies, the sky was overcast while I was there. Or the moon was in the sky, illuminating it so only the brightest stars showed.

I like this shot of my RV parked on the levee along the Colorado River. I had to crop it square to get rid of the light from the town of Cibola, which is still in the shot.

I did have some success back in January when I camped out along the Colorado River near the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Arizona. I shared one of those photos in a blog post about the campsites I’ve been finding.

The one I didn’t share was a bit more challenging and I’m not sure if I successfully pulled it off. (Maybe you can tell me?) The bright point of light in the sky is Venus. I wanted to catch its reflection in the Colorado River, which I did. Unfortunately, although it was long past sunset, there was still a bit of a glow to the west. I think it’s from towns and homes off in the distance, but who knows?

Venus Reflected
It’s nearly impossible to include the horizon in a night photography shot without some sort of glow from terrestrial lighting.

I got a chance to practice again in Death Valley National Park, on my third night in the park. The first two nights were too cloudy and the moon was nearly full anyway. But the third night offered a window of opportunity between the end of twilight and before the waning gibbous moon came up. I was parked in Greenwater Valley with some mountains behind the camper. It was very dark outside and the sky was full of stars. I took eight shots. I think these two are the best.

Death Valley Night Sky
This was my first shot of the evening with the camera pointed pretty much straight up. It features the Milky Way with the Pleiades near the center and Orion’s Belt almost cropped off the top.

Death Valley Night Sky
In this shot, I pointed the camera up above the mountains behind the camper. You can see the big dipper just above the horizon. Once again, there’s the glow from something out there; it’s not the sun because I was pointed east.

I think photos are more interesting with something in the foreground. The one with my camper works for me. So does the one with Venus and its reflection. I guess the challenge is going someplace with something interesting to frame in the foreground and possibly “light paint” it with a lantern or something. It wouldn’t take much. The only light in my camper in the above shot was from a single tea light candle burning on the dining table inside. It looks as if I have multiple lights on!

I enjoy doing this, although I admit I’d likely enjoy it more with companions on the same sort of mission. Because my remote shutter release doesn’t work — I think it needs a new battery (again) — I have to use the camera’s self-timer as a shutter release. That adds 10 seconds to a 30 second exposure with about 30 seconds of processing time before an image finally appears. A lot of time standing around by myself in the dark. The field trip I took at the North Cascades class was a bit more of a crowd than I like, but at least it kept things interesting.

I hope to get at least one more chance to experiment with this kind of photography on my trip, but I’m not sure when. Most of my remaining destinations are not well known for their dark skies. I’ll see how I do.

Dawn Time

When first light is first light.

For the past 20 or years, I’ve lived in a place where I could see the horizon and watch the sun rise and set. This wasn’t the case when I lived in New Jersey or New York, in places surrounded by either tall trees or other buildings. It’s nice to see the horizon, to greet the sun when it makes its first appearance for the day, to see the way first light touches the landscape around me, to watch weather move through, to see last light and watch the sun dip below the horizon at the end of the day.

The sun, in a way, is my clock. Not having a scheduled life, I let it tell me when to get up in the morning and, during long summer days, often go to sleep not long after it sets.

I live at the base of some tall cliffs on a hillside overlooking the Wenatchee Valley and Columbia River. The cliffs are to the south of me — the view from my home is about 180°, basically from east to to north to west. To the east, the cliffs rise up from the east to their full height due south.

Pre-Dawn Horizon
The horizon, as shot from my front deck before dawn this morning. The E marks the point that is approximately due east.

During the winter, when the sun is low in the sky and rises more to the south — remember, I’m in Washington State at about 47° latitude — there’s a 6-week period when the sun doesn’t even clear the cliffs at my place (although it does shine down in the valley). I call that the Shadow Time and blogged about it here.

As the days get longer, the sun shifts north, eventually, at the spring equinox, rising due east. As long as it rises behind the cliffs, I don’t get direct sun until after it clears the tops of the cliffs. But this week, about 3 weeks after the first day of spring, the sun began rising far enough north that it appears at what I think of as the true horizon — the place where the horizon isn’t blocked by nearby hills or cliffs. From that point on, I see the sun when it makes its first appearance of the day — and will continue to see sunrise until about three weeks before the autumn equinox.

If all this is meaningless to you, you should explore some of the excellent articles on the web that explain the sun’s movement in the sky and seasons. Here are a few links to get started:

Astronomy is a lot more than stars and constellations. Just saying.

Since I have a name for the time when there’s no direct sun (Shadow Time), I thought I needed a name for the time when I can see the sun rise out of the far horizon. I’ve decided to call it Dawn Time.

If there’s a corresponding Sunset Time — the time I can watch the sun set into the far horizon — that would probably be a bit before the spring equinox. I can see due west from my home — the snow covered peaks of the Enchantment Range out beyond Leavenworth — and that’s where the sun’s setting these days.

Western Horizon
I shot this photo at first light from my side deck a few weeks ago. The sun touches the mountaintops to the west before it rises high enough to shine into the valley. This is probably my favorite part of sunrise.

But for some reason, I’m more interested in sunrise, the start of the day, than sunset. I’m a morning person, through and through and get my best work done before noon. By 5 or 6 PM, I’m pretty much spent. That’s when it’s nice to sit out on the deck with a glass of wine and watch the sun set — and the light show that often goes with it.

The Return of the Sun

The one drawback of having those magnificent basalt cliffs out behind my home is the Shadow Time.

I live on a shelf of land at the base of some 1000+ feet tall basalt cliffs. My home faces the big views to the north, toward East Wenatchee, the Columbia River, and the Wenatchee Valley. My entrance faces my driveway, which comes up from the east. Those cliffs are to the south and begin less than 1/4 mile from my home.

The cliffs are beautiful, with layers of tall basalt columns, tumbled rock making up talus slopes, and ponderosa pine trees. On summer mornings and late afternoons, the brown rock glows with warm golden hour light. Bighorn sheep jump from rock to rock up there and I can often hear the tiny landslides of rocks they set tumbling down the cliffs. Once in a while, they’ll come down as far as my neighbor’s yard to graze in his grass. I haven’t seen them across the road at my place. Yet.

Here’s a shot of the cliffs behind my home, taken last summer from my driveway. The talus slopes go almost all the way down to my neighbors’ homes on that side of the road. In fact, my neighbors’ lots actually include the cliff faces. (Not exactly usable land.)

Lay of the Land
I threw together this hybrid topo/satellite map to show the lay of the land. The odd shaped red box is my 10 acre parcel; the south property line follows the road — hence the odd shape. The X is my homesite. If you know how to read topo maps, you know that closely spaced lines indicate steep hills. In this case, the cliffs behind my home rise in two steep steps about 1,000 feet above me.

Of course, living so far north means that the angle of the sun is low during the winter months. While the whole area has long nights and short days, the folks on my road have another winter issue to contend with: living in the shadows. You see, for a period ranging from weeks (in my case) to months (in some neighbors’ cases) straddling the winter solstice, the sun does not rise high enough above the cliffs to clear them and shine on our homes.

I call this the Shadow Time.

I knew this was going to be an issue when I bought my place. It had me so concerned that in the winter of 2013, when I was still living in Arizona, I took a week-long trip up to Washington state to see for myself. It had been a very long time since I’d lived in a four-season place with a snowy winter. I wanted to experience it firsthand so I knew what I was getting into by buying here. Every day during that week, I drove the rental car — a minivan — up into the hills to look at my place. I wanted to see what the light was like. I wanted to see how much shadow there was.

That was my first exposure to January’s fog, which engulfs the valley 25% to 50% of the time — my place can be above, below, or in it. And the snowy roads. And the shadow.

But I didn’t think it was so bad. Besides, I expected to travel during the winter each year and probably wouldn’t experience it at all. So I went forward with my plans and bought the place in July 2013. I don’t regret it one damn bit.

This is my first full winter living up here. It’s hard to tell with the variable weather we get here in the winter time — it’s mostly sunny most of the year — but it seems to me that the Shadow Time starts in the first week of December and ends in the second week of January. I marked my calendar with January 15 so I could remember to pay close attention.

But as this past week whizzed by, the weather was not cooperative. There’s that January fog to contend with. Even the sunny days had some clouds to the south or southwest. It might be blazing sun down in the valley with brightness up here. Was that the sun trying to get through the clouds? Or was it still back behind the cliffs?

Yesterday dawned bright and clear, with just a few clouds scattered about. It had snowed overnight and I measured 3 inches of fresh snow on my concrete driveway apron. A low fog settled over the river; it would clear once the sun hit it.

Low Fog
A low fog settled over the river and Wenatchee just as the sun was rising. This was shot from the deck outside my bedroom door; my elevation is about 800 feet above the river. If you look closely, you can see my Lookout Point bench.

I went about my day, watching the shadows get shorter and shorter, seeing how the direct sunlight came closer and closer to my shelf. The insulation guys were hard at work, stuffing the space between studs with brown batting. Downstairs, in one of my garage bays, the framing guy was boxing around my plumbing so the drywall work could meet building codes for fire safety requirements. I had ribs on the Traeger and, at about 2 PM, we all took a break upstairs for lunch.

And that’s when I noticed the sun shining on my Lookout Point bench. As we ate ribs and salad and chatted about the view and construction and other things, I watched the shadow retreat to the south. Then the sun was shining through my high windows and my west side bedroom window. Outside, I could see the shadow of my building and the tall pole with its multicolored wind streamers.

The sun was back. Shadow Time was over.

I bragged to my neighbor that the sun was back and I think she was envious.

I had at least an hour of direct sun yesterday — possibly more. It didn’t start until about 2 PM and it was still full on my place at about 2:40 PM when I drove away for a doctor’s appointment. I stopped to take a photo and texted my next door neighbor, whose home is higher up but tucked back closer into the hillside. Her response an hour later showed a bit of envy.

The Sun is Back!
I shot this photo from the road behind my home as I drove into town for an appointment. Those high windows really catch the winter sun.

I suspect that the Shadow Time really ended a few days ago but I couldn’t tell because of the cloudy weather. That’s okay. I’ll get more and more sun every day now — probably 15-30 minutes, depending on the sun’s arc in the sky and the shape of the cliffs it has to clear. The cliffs get lower and farther away to the southwest — that’s why I get afternoon sun first.

In about a month — or maybe sooner — I’ll start getting sun on the east side of my building as early as 10 or 11 AM. I’m hoping to have my front deck done by the time the dawn sun hits it so I can drink my coffee out there as each new day is born.

I’ll admit that I’m disappointed that I don’t get full sun all year like the folks farther north of the cliffs. But, at the same time, it was never my intention to live here year-round.

This year I have a job to do: finish my home. Next year I’ll go south, likely before Christmas or perhaps right after my annual Christmas ski trip. I’ll miss the January fog and much of the Shadow Time, returning in late February or early march to fully enjoy the orchard blooms and get my garden started.

For now, I’m just happy Shadow Time is over and look forward to more sunny winter days ahead.

Sunrise/Sunset Times for Photographers

Phoenix times now updated.

SunI’ve just updated my calendar of sunrise and sunset times for the Phoenix area. I’ll be keeping this up-to-date as a published calendar. Subscribe at webcal:// I know you can subscribe with this link using iCal, but I think you can also subscribe with other calendar formats such as Google Calendar.

If you’d prefer to download and import the files, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 are currently available.

If you’re a photographer or pilot, you know how helpful it can be to have this exact information. Every year for the past ten years or so, I’ve been updating iCal with this information so it’s always available on my computers and other electronic devices (think BlackBerry, iPad, etc.).

The last time I offered to create these files for photographers, I had a lot of folks ask for them but no one seemed willing to cough up a little dough for the time it takes me to create the files.

So here’s the deal: If you want sunrise/sunset times for 2011-2015 — that’s FIVE YEARS WORTH — in ics format, you’ll need to use this Paypal link to send me some coffee money. Be sure to include either the GPS coordinates for the place you want sunrise/sunset times for OR the Zip code. I’ll try to get the resulting files to you in e-mail within 72 hours. (Keep in mind that the more coffee you buy me, the more motivated (or caffeinated) I’ll be to send those files quickly.)

And no, I won’t add you to any e-mail list. I have way better things to do with my time than bother strangers who were kind enough to buy me coffee.

Sky Time-Lapse

The latest.

I set this one up on the spur of the moment yesterday afternoon. I happened to look up and see some small, low, wispy clouds moving and shaping themselves in the sky. I had no afternoon plans, so I set up the camera with the snapshot interval set at one shot every 10 seconds.

I let it run for about 3-1/2 hours. During that time, a storm came through, dumping water on the campsite. It was fortunate that I had the camera under the awning and odd that it was pointed away from the storm clouds. The only evidence of rain is some blurriness in a few shots; I wiped it away between exposures.

I assembled the 1700+ images at 15 frames per second. This is the result.

I’m going to repeat this exercise later in the week for a longer period of time with a larger image. Someone on Viddler said it would make a great screen saver; it would be neat to make a movie large enough to fill a screen.

It would also be neat to set this to some kind of new age music.

Quincy Clouds Time-lapse Movies

I draft my old G5 for time-lapse duty.

About two weeks ago, I got the bright idea that it was a complete waste of valuable camera resources to use my Nikon D80 for time-lapse photography when I had an older camera I could use. The other camera is my Canon PowerShot G5, which I bought back in 2003 for aerial photography work.

Buying the camera was a huge deal back then. Digital SLRs, if available back then, were too expensive to be an option. The G5 offered 5.0 megapixel (!) resolution — more than twice the resolution of any other digital camera we had. But it also included features we needed, including manual setting for focus and exposure.

Canon PowerShot G5Looking at the camera today, it’s amazingly big and clunky. But it takes a decent picture — certainly good enough for my time-lapse experiments. And frankly, I was having trouble getting my mind around leaving my Nikon outdoors, unattended, for hours at a time. It could be because the tripod got knocked over once and it was sheer luck that it fell toward a rail that caught it rather than toward the empty concrete behind it. I had no love for the G5; if it broke, well, that’s the way it goes. Ditto if it got stolen. In fact, I’d be more upset about losing my tripod or Pclix than the G5.

Oddly enough, the G5 has a built-in intervalometer — a fact I was unaware of. Unfortunately, the interval must be set in minutes (1 to 60) and it can only take 100 shots at a time. This simply wasn’t going to cut it for my needs. Besides, for some reason I still can’t understand, I can’t get the damn thing to work.

So I bought an optical cable for my Pclix. It arrived right before I left for Washington. I tried it for the first time on Friday.

For the optical cable to work, its end must be taped to the camera. The Pclix maker recommends electrical tape, so that’s what I used. Unfortunately, the heat of the day softened the tape. After about 2-1/2 hours, it shifted out of position. The camera stopped taking pictures. Here’s the result, with most of the beginning edited out (since there was really nothing going on):

Disappointing in so many ways. The sky was just getting interesting when the setup failed. And let’s face it — the view of the golf cart shed isn’t all that enticing.

So I tried again yesterday after recharging the camera’s battery overnight. I fixed up the camera differently and pointed it north instead of west. Same settings: one shot every minute, compiled into a movie at 10 frames per second. To prevent the camera battery from running out, I turned off the camera’s video screen. First shot at 9:13 AM; last shot at 7:33 PM. I left the camera outside all day long — even while I was out doing a helicopter ride. I never would have done that with my Nikon.

The result isn’t bad at all. I’m a little POed at myself for including the wires in the shot and it’s a little weird that some of the larger vehicles that drove by appeared in some shots — like the hay truck near the beginning! Again, I think I could have done better. But the clouds are so awesome in this movie. They build and move and swirl around. So cool. See for yourself:

I’ll keep working on this. Hopefully, I’ll get it right soon.

Sunrise Time-Lapse with a Bonus

I swear I’ll stop posting these. One day. Soon, maybe.

Nice colors and a bonus feature near the end.

The clouds were set up in the northeastern sky for an interesting sunrise when I woke up before dawn (again) this morning. So I set up my camera to record a time-lapse of the sunrise on the clouds. Settings: 1 shot every 10 seconds, made into a movie at 15 frames per second.

Caught an unexpected feature near the end.