Like millions of other people, I braved the crowds and traffic jams to catch the Great American Eclipse on Monday. I didn’t quite get the shots I wanted, since I don’t have the kind of long lens necessary to magnify the sun and moon’s discs, which have only a half-degree of angular diameter. (That’s the width of a pencil held at arm’s length.) At the wide end of the scale, when I upgraded to my new Canon, I gave away my T-5 Rebel and my 10-22mm wide angle lens, which would have allowed me to get more of a landscape view with people and structures in the foreground. My new lens—which in other ways is orders of magnitude better—couldn’t do what I wanted. Worse, we were viewing the eclipse in the South, which means the sun was high up and at 24mm I didn’t have the span to get anything but leaves and branches. But that’s where I started, bracketing down from 1/4000th down to the mutli-second exposures. I’m happy that I live-view focused properly. Everything was sharp.
After getting ten or so wide-angle shots, I took a break to just enjoy what I was seeing. My son was with me, and we had endured a long drive and many misadventures to find ourselves in this little park in eastern Tennessee. Given all of that, fiddling with a camera the entire time felt wrong. But I only had two and a half minutes to work with, so it was time to get a few more exposures in. I zoomed in to 105mm, but the whole thing was still pretty small. I might have had a shot at getting something interesting along the limb of the sun—Bailey’s Beads, prominences, etc.—but by the time I was shooting zoomed in, my exposures were still too long. I was at 1/100th or something when the moon slid out of the way. There was an unbelievably bright flare in my eyes and on my last image, then a cheer from everyone in the park. The big event was over.
I have taught astronomy, written about it, read about it, obsessed about it. I know how an eclipse works. In fact, it’s rather boring: one thing blocks the light from another thing, coincidentally the first thing is small but the bigger thing is far away, etc. But I was not prepared for how it would feel to see a total solar eclipse with my own eyes. For two and a half minutes, I stood at the toe of some benevolent giant, one who could have stepped on me and everyone at that park and kept on walking. Instead, he looked down at us, gave a friendly wink, and wandered off.
Museum visitors and Willamette Meteorite, American Museum of Natural History, New York, August 2017
Museum visitors viewing astronomy movie, American Museum of Natural History, New York, N.Y.
Allosaurus skeleton, New York, N.Y.
Barosaurus skeleton, American Museum of Natural History, New York, N.Y.
Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, American Museum of Natural History, New York, N.Y.
I’ve wanted to visit the American Museum of Natural History in New York since I was 8 years old and could name for you not only the dinosaurs, but all of the periods of the Mesozoic Era and probably a few from the Paleozoic, too.
After finally getting to check it out, I learned that 1) an afternoon wasn’t enough, and 2) they need to update the astronomy exhibit. I ditched dinos for space the day after seeing Star Wars for the first time, and I’m a little disappointed that my newer love wasn’t well represented. The dinosaur skeletons were amazing. Meanwhile, the exhibits in the Hayden Planetarium look like they were last updated in the early 1990’s—relativistic jets emerging from quasars, for example, aren’t attributed to supermassive black holes, they way we now know they should be.
That’s right, Neil Degrasse Tyson, I’m calling you out! (I’m kidding! Ha ha! You’re smarter and tougher than I’ll ever be please don’t kill me.)
A few years ago, I spent about $100 to be able to mount my Canon DSLR to my telescope. I’ve since discovered that shooting anything other than the moon is pretty much impossible. Focusing on something that small (though bright) through a cheap telescope and 100 km of turbulent atmosphere is not something my camera likes to do. The object is never sharp enough to see in a photo. My telescope doesn’t track, either, so there goes photographing any deep sky stuff.
Fortunately, the Canon comes with a video camera option. With Saturn lurking just over the southern horizon, I made this little clip:
1. Yeah, taking pictures of the moon is cool through a telescope, I guess. But the photos aren’t that great. They’re dark and grimy looking no matter what, and even if you’re live-view focusing, they’re never very sharp. You can do just as well with any decent zoom lens and some cropping. If you want to look at the moon, you’re better off just peeking through the eyepiece, where the view is much prettier for some reason—tack sharp and well lit.↩
Leo is “my” constellation. Even though astrology is a bunch hooey and applesauce, I’m glad to have Leo as “my”sign. The crouching lion is one of the few constellations that actually looks like the thing it represents.
I like Jupiter being there, too. The high clouds smeared its light a bit, making it actually look like the giant planet’s disk is visible. It’ll be interesting to track Jupiter over the next few weeks to see how it moves against the background stars.
Orion sets a little earlier every night and by April he’ll be gone until the fall. The seeing tonight wasn’t great, with a high, thin layer of clouds. The good news is, the slight smear gave objects a bit more size. Betelgeuse’s reddish hue is easily visible.
My favorite thing about Orion is that most of the bright stars in this photo will someday blow up. The one on the upper right, Bellatrix, won’t, but Betelgeuse, Saiph (lower left), and Rigel (lower right) will definitely go boom within a few million years. The three bright stars in Orion’s belt are all Class O stars, super hot and massive. They definitely aren’t long for this universe.
I invited some kids from my school out to see the eclipse with me, which put me in teacher mode and not so much in photographer mode. I didn’t get the shots I could have gotten had I been a bit more focused on getting them. That’s probably fine. The world needs more teachers and fewer photographers, anyway.
On my Facebook page, I made a borderline snarky post about the “Supermoon” hype, which I’m thoroughly sick of. There have been at least 10 of these super-close full moons since I first heard of them. The moon doesn’t appear any larger to the naked eye, at least unless someone points it out. Now we had the “Supermoon eclipse.”
But I have to admit, the moon did look bigger, especially when it was low on the horizon. It had the horizon effect—which is an illusion—plus the supermoon thing, which isn’t. Both conspired to create a memorable moonrise this weekend.
I tried this shot last fall, my first at this school. My focusing then was terrible (and didn’t get much better for this one), but the biggest problem was the pair of lights in the vestibule. I just couldn’t find the switches to turn them off. For the 30 second exposure necessary to get the stars in the background, the lights overwhelmed just about everything.
With the beautiful weather of the past few weeks, I wanted this shot again. I asked one of the custodians where the light switch was, and he informed me that there aren’t any. He said I could unscrew the little jars covering the bulbs, then unscrew the bulbs themselves as long as I put them back when I was done. I asked, “Can I do that?” He shrugged and said, “Sure, you’re the principal.”
I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that.
Anyway, the red streak is the exposed lights on a Qatar Airways flight from JFK (about 300 miles south west of us) to Doha. The plane had taken off in the past hour and was just settling in for a 10-hour voyage to the Middle East. So we have the school, 30 feet away; the plane, 30,000 feet away; and a little farther back, the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, 1.4×1017 feet away.
Ventured out tonight, because it was clear and warm. Got one okay shot of the Milky Way. Focusing in wide angle remains a problem. I also should have used my hat to cover the lens at the beginning and end of the exposure.
Seriously. They call it that. It’s dodgy even in summer, but the view at the turnout (looking the other way) is pretty nifty.
Unfortunately, not only was it cloudy looking south, the trees have grown in so there’s not much to see for another couple of months when the foliage thins out.
I’m still trying to work on my wide angle focusing for shots like this. Stars are either in focus or they aren’t. I did so-so tonight. I like that a few late-night travelers were heading toward Gorham or points north, east, or west. I notice that one of the cars’ brake lights is flickering. Maybe all taillights do that, and it takes a long exposure to see the pattern that our eyes miss.
My favorite part of a north-facing summer sky shot is the Andromeda Galaxy, shown here above and a little to the right of the mountain peak. Stars in the frame are anywhere from, I don’t know, 20 to 1,000 light years away; after they trail off, there’s another 2.3 million light years of empty space before we run into Andromeda, itself about 150,000 light years across.
I finally figured out how to focus my Canon while it’s attached to the telescope. Aimed at the moon and using live view, I hit the magnify button, just to see what it would do. Sure enough, the viewscreen showed a 10x image of some zoomed-in craters. (They were really bouncing around, since the table on our back deck is apparently made of Jello). I thought I’d take a photo of the craters once everything stopped moving. But when the shutter tripped, I got a regular ol’ view of the crescent moon. Certainly there had to be a reason for magnification on the live view. I Googled “Canon live view zoom in” on my phone and learned that the zoom feature is only for “ultra-tight focusing.”
Of course, then I realized how crappy my moon photos have been up to now: washed out and blurry. Shooting at a lower ISO (100 to 200) took care of the first problem, and now using the telescope’s focusing knob while in zoom mode took care of the second. When I started taking photos again, they were much, much better than they’d ever been.
In fact, let’s do a little side by side action. On the left is a gibbous moon that I shot a few years ago. Not the worst photo ever, and in fact, it’s the best one I’d ever shot out of hundreds up to tonight. On the right is tonight’s version:
Not the best comparisons, because they’re in different phases. And I’ll admit that the ones on the right could be a little brighter, but I’m happy to have figured this out.
Alas, even with “this one weird trick,” my tiny scope and limited DSLR camera couldn’t do much with Jupiter:
No cloud bands, no Great Red Spot. And because the exposure times are so different, no Galilean satellites. Thus, my basic equipment and I have managed to reduce Jupiter, king of planets, ruler of 60 moons and slayer of comets… to a ball of snot.
The iPhone 6 camera has its limits. In this case, though, that limit appears to be … the sky.
Anyway, the little white dot on the left is the planet Jupiter, 400 million or so miles away. Ten times closer is Venus, on the right. Nine hundred degrees, with an atmospheric pressure of 1200 pounds per square inch.
Thirty million times closer is my house, lower right. Pleasant temperatures, non-lethal pressure, oxygen atmosphere. Also, banana muffins.
I really wanted to enjoy shooting last night. I hadn’t done any shots of the sky in several weeks, but it was warm and clear. Knowing such days are literally numbered, I set up in the back yard and started taking exposures. I didn’t stay out for long.
As you can see from how blurry the tree is, the breeze was strong. It was strange: warm and unrelenting. The bright glow on the branches is misleading. To regular, non-time-exposure human eyes, it was pretty dark. The hiss of the breeze made me feel like someone was watching me. Twice I sensed something approaching, thinking it was the neighbor’s dog, and clapped really loudly. When I did that, I didn’t hear whatever it was stop moving—more like I heard it stop being silent.
I got five or six exposures, none of them very good, and finally gave up. I hurriedly collapsed the tripod with the camera still attached and got the hell out. I have to admit I walked a bit too quickly back to the porch. Just as I was walking up the back steps, I heard something heavy walking behind me. I turned around and yelled “Hey!” into the dark. There were two unmistakable sound of footfalls in the shadows by the garage, then whatever it was scampered away.
On that note, I saw my first bear this morning. I was driving to the nearby town of Milan for a meeting. About 200 yards ahead, I saw a black blob ambling across the road. It had disappeared into the brush by the time I reached that point.
New rule: No more going outside by myself in the dark.
Tonight was perfect—70 degrees and clear. The skies here are the darkest I’ve ever seen. Many of my images contained a satellite trail or two, including this one. If it weren’t for the streetlights across the highway, I’d be in heaven.
My first image of the Andromeda Galaxy (right and below center), 2.5 million light years away. To the center left is the “W” shape of the constellation Cassiopeia.
I like this photo because it has depth. We have the house, then, the stars in Cassiopeia, dozens of light years away, then the background stars of the Milky Way thousands of light years behind them. Then, farthest of all, Andromeda.
I used to shoot photos of the moon with my iPhone. I used a mail order bracket and my lousy old Sears refracting telescope. The quality wasn’t the best, but I like how it evokes the old Chesley Bonestell artwork from the 1950s. Years before the Apollo missions, we figured that the lunar maria were smooth, ringed with jagged peaks, based on how they looked through earthbound telescopes.
We found out later that the moon looks completely different when you actually visit. The maria are strewn with boulders and pocked with smaller craters, while meteorites have worn the mountains into rolling hills. I like Bonestell’s version better.