Shooting from the Thumb

In my first post back its not so much about weather! But weather and space conditions were just right to capture a stunning sky from Caseville, MI (yes during the Cheeseburger Festival) this past weekend. With clear cool skies, a moonless night, and low light pollution I was lucky enough to capture not only the Milky Way, but also the dusty Andromeda Galaxy and a surprise visit by the Aurora!

We started out taking a few test shots from the yard as the evening sky dimmed. Stars were certainly eager to come out! With the leftover sunset light fading, my girlfriend and I went to the Saginaw Bay coastline to try shots along the beach. I had never shot over the water before. I was hopeful that if the water was calm enough, perhaps some shots could reflect the night stars and make something cool. Really didn’t know what to expect but was excited to experiment.

The Milky Way was very visible once eyes adjusted and I initially aimed my T2i with kit lens 18-55mm in that direction to see what we could find. I only brought the T2i on the beach run because it has Magic Lantern installed on the SD card, and thus has an automatic intervalometer on it. I set that up to take repetitive 15sec shots of the milky way as it paced the sky. Bumping the camera to 3200ISO, stars filled the shot, but a shot of the Milky Way at 18mm on a crop sensor camera isn’t too interesting, you need a subject! Cue the aurora borealis…

Aurora over Saginaw Bay

Canon T2i 18-55mm f/3.5 15″ ISO3200 (Click for larger)

Missed the stellar noise control of the 6D on the beach, but the T2i still holds its own with a little post cancellation. I initially didn’t recognize the aurora on the horizon. Dismissed it as fog rolling in off the water. Once I saw vertical pillars, I remembered what this meant. Mid shot of the Milky Way I pivoted the camera down to double check with the long exposure of the camera sensor, and sure enough that was the aurora! After awhile the aurora calmed down and I ached for the 6D back at our current residence. With no moon out and no clouds in sight, the stars were begging for an extended photo shoot. On the walk back I stopped on a back road and just did a sample shot. The scene reminded me of a shot in upstate New York two years ago. Bonus? The Milky Way darting through…

Above the Canopy

Canon 6D 24-105mm f/4 30″ ISO4000 (Click for larger)

As the night wore on, we got tired and pulled some blankets out to just lie in the back yard and keep shooting. Trees can really frame stars well! Looking northeast, the Milky Way pulled up and started to look vertical. Experimenting with some shots, I noticed a dusty ‘star’ which I would later look back in Stellarium and realize it is the Andromeda Galaxy! So many very interesting sights in the sky, and then the aurora cheering from the corner saying, “Look at me too!”

Galactic Gouge

Canon 6D 24-105mm f/4 30″ ISO4000 Andromeda Galaxy in the lower right. (Click for larger)

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Was a great opportunity to capture the night sky in central Michigan and spend the weekend with some great folks! Thanks go out to my girlfriend’s family and grandparents for hosting!

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The Aurora of July

It’s not exactly the weather I’m used to typing about, but Space Weather has gained a ton of momentum after Sun observing satellites have been launched in orbit in recent years.

Another way to gain momentum on a less talked about subject is to experience it for yourself, and learn upon it.

The weekend of July 13th I briefly heard about a sun flare up. I didn’t immediately act on it, it was mid morning, silly. Later I did hear that an Aurora may be visible Saturday and Sunday nights, and could be further south than the usual viewers. A ‘Class X1.4’ as specified. Here is a brief video found about the flare, along with a couple colorful charts that show a disruption in typical oscillation, by which you can tell is the flare occurring.

I’ve heard the whole, “may be visible in places as far south as ‘x’ and ‘y’!” So I was sceptical. Last time I was up at Mount Pleasant and caught faint red in the sky, but it was barely noticeable. Getting that shot didn’t make up for the early morning the next day, or the chilly temps:

NL over Mount Pleasant, MI

Some Northern Lights over Mount Pleasant back in October 11′.

The night started frustrating. First, its summer, and the sun takes forever to set and have the horizon light diminish. Second, there was the most irritating layer of high clouds messing around. They took their time moving out, but looked like false aurora at the time.

Throughout the night, I took a few test photos to size up a subtle foreground, and to see if the lights showed up. Curiosity kept me up past 1am and then 2am, and eventually spotted some on the horizon looking due north!

Add 1 Cup of Aurora

Very cool to see this pop up on the camera screen after the exposure. Your eye could not see it like this. At most, it was a faint blob , almost like a cloud. After I was satisfied with camera settings, I opted to get the camera going for a time-lapse. This would be a great opportunity to see the faint aurora in motion since it was so easy to miss by the naked eye. Settings were f/3.5, 60 second exposures, ISO 800, for 2 hours.

If stars are exposed, you can do some star trails! Perhaps a little too busy though, and the aurora looks like a blob of color. Cool none the less.
Northern Glow and Trails
This also was not the shot that came straight from the camera, we’ll head to the camera corner to discuss this a bit more.

One of the powerful factors of a digital photo is ‘white balance’. Essentially, what the camera ‘thinks’ is white. If it knows what tone value white is, it can adjust the other colors in the image based on that. Digital cameras typically have an Auto mode for this, as well as multiple presets for situations. These vary from Sunny, Shade, as well as some indoor lighting like Florescent and Tungsten lighting. Auto does a really good job, sometimes going to a preset will offer a little tinge that you find appealing. Selecting a preset is also great to ‘lock in’ a look to the photo. This is really important to remember when taking time lapses because you do not want colors changing every frame, like it may with Auto.

Post processing a photo can be quick, or it can be a painstakingly, nitpicky process. Lightroom gives you so many things to flip around and edit, you can get lost! Most of the time, you just want to process the photo how you saw it. The camera doesn’t get it right all the time, and you need to change a tone, crop this out, increase/decrease exposure, and realign the horizon. Well, here is a before and after of the still shot.

Where did that color come from!??!

You can see what I mean by just a faint blob on the horizon. Still, your eye could barely pick it up. All of the orange tone was using the preset of Sunny. This was consistent with the timelapse shots as well.

Had I been in Mount Pleasant, about 2 hours north, I imagine the show would have been closer. However, with this set up I’m thankful for what turned out. Down the road, we’ll have to go aurora chasing!