Nightscape Photography

Star trails over Bullet Canyon

The June meeting of the Pagosa Springs Photography Club will be held on Wednesday, June 8, 6:30 p.m., at the Community United Methodist Church, 434 Lewis Street in Pagosa Springs. Our program this month is Nightscape Photography, presented by Andy Butler. This will be a hybrid meeting, also available on Zoom. The Zoom link will be emailed to members; others who wish to attend may request the link by email to . If attending in person, feel free to arrive any time after 6 p.m.; the meeting and presentation will begin at 6:30 p.m., MST. 

It’s hard not to feel a sense of awe when you look at the stars on a clear, dark night. Modern digital cameras are able to produce high quality images from long exposures of weak starlight. This allows photographers to extend landscape photography into the night, producing stunning “nightscape” images, in which both the land and the sky are important compositional elements. In this presentation, Andy will discuss planning and taking nightscape photos featuring the Moon, Milky Way, star trails, and other features of the night sky. Topics will include planning for nightscape photos, discussion of camera and lens choices, focusing and exposure considerations, and use of both natural and artificial light to illuminate the foreground.  

The Pagosa Springs Photography Club promotes educational, social and fun interactions between all who enjoy making and viewing great photography.  The club sponsors educational programs and outings to help photographers hone their skills.  The Photography Club’s membership year begins in January. For new members, dues are at $25 per year ($35 family). For more information about the club, and to download a membership application, visit our website at .

March Night Sky

March is a transition month. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, the long dark nights of Winter are quickly giving way to longer days. Night sky photographers can look forward to the reappearance of the Milky Way core in March. But there are other potential events worthy of photographing, or just viewing, in the early Spring night sky. 

The Milky Way arching over the South San Juan Mountains (May, 2017). The pink glow on the left is from the town of Pagosa Springs, Co. Stitched panorama from 12 individual photos.

First though, the Milky Way. While our home galaxy is visible year round, beginning in March, the Galactic Center, the Milky Way “core” will be visible. This is perhaps the most dramatic and photogenic portion of our galaxy. The first prerequisite for good Milky Way viewing is a relatively dark sky, so we will need to wait until the recent Full Snow Moon wanes. Starting March 8, there will be periods in which the Galactic Center will be above the horizon with no moon interference in the early morning hours. Best viewing should be from March 9 through the 23rd, when the core will be visible in the hours before dawn. On the night of the new moon, March 13, the viewing time will be from about 2:39 until 4:54 AM (the beginning of astronomical dawn). After the switch to daylight savings time on the 14th, this window moves to 3:35 to 5:53 AM, which somehow seems a bit less onerous. The reward for early risers in Pagosa Springs will be a view of the Milky Way arching over the South San Juan Mountains. Spring is the best time of the year to see the full arc of the Milky Way, and in early spring it will be lower in the sky, allowing for better images of the landscape beneath the arc. 

There are other opportunities among the planets, and the stars. In the predawn hours of March 6 (and a few days before and after) is a good opportunity to see Mercury as it will reach its greatest western elongation from the sun. At about 5:25, Mercury will rise in the east and reach about 12° above the horizon before fading in the brightening sky. But it gets better, as Mercury will be within about a degree of the gas giant, Jupiter, and nicely aligned with Saturn as well. By March 9, Mercury will be much closer to the horizon (and more difficult to find), but Jupiter and Saturn will be joined by a young crescent moon. These will be close enough to the horizon to afford good nightscape opportunities. 

Jupiter and Saturn at their great conjunction on December 21, 2020. Also visible are Jupiter’s four Galilean moons. Exposure was at 1 second, f/2.8, 150 mm using an Olympus OMD EM1-Mk II (300 mm full frame field of view)

Meanwhile, Mars will be much higher in the sky, but will be quite close to the Pleiades open cluster in the evening sky. 

As winter turns to spring, so the winter constellations will gradually disappear. But in the late evenings of March, you can still find Orion and other familiar winter constellations. Look to the west a little before midnight, and Orion, and the bright star Sirius of Canis Major, will be low enough over the horizon to the west-southwest for nightscape photography. You might also look for the Winter Hexagon, featuring Sirius, Rigel , the Hyades, Capella, Pollux and Procyon in Canis Minor. 

Orion and the Winter Hexagon, as would be seen looking West-Southwest on March 15, around 11:40 PM, from Pagosa Springs. Screen capture from Sky Guide.

Finally, moonless evenings in early spring are the best time of the year to see zodiacal light in the Northern Hemisphere. Zodiacal light looks like a hazy triangle in the west, as darkness falls. Look for it along the path of the ecliptic. Find out more about zodiacal light at . By the way, I recommend EarthSky as a great website to keep up with heavenly happenings. To predict the locations of stars and planets, there are several great programs, including the free Stellarium, or apps such as Star Walk or Sky Guide for smart phones.  

Beyond the beginnings of “Milky Way season”, March skies have a lot to offer. Good viewing to you!

April Dark Skies

Spring in the northern hemisphere is the beginning of Milky Way season, when the Galactic Center is above the horizon at night. Although the Milky Way can be photographed anytime of the year when the sky is dark enough, the region around the Galactic Center contains the most detail and so is more photogenic. Spring is also the time when the Milky Way can be seen as a full arch, low enough in the horizon to photograph with some landscape visible. Fortunately, many of us in the Pagosa Springs area live where skies are dark enough that we can photograph the Milky Way without traveling, so it could be a good subject while we are “staying at home”.

In April 2020, opportunities to photograph the Milky Way from Pagosa Springs, without interference from the Moon, begin on the 14th and last into the first couple of days of May. The new moon will be April 22, so the best dark sky conditions and longest time for viewing the Milky Way would be a couple of days on either side of the 22nd. During this period, you could photograph the Milky Way from around 1 a.m. until shortly before dawn, about 4:45 a.m.. For details, see any of a number of apps, such as PhotoPills, Sun Surveyor, or The Photographer’s Ephemeris, desktop programs such as Stellarium. 

Night sky photography isn’t just about the Milky Way. A classic method of photographing the night sky is to make very long exposures which show the motion of the stars as star trails. As with any night scape photography, the best images will also have a strong foreground, perhaps illuminated by the waning moon, low level LED light panels, or by light painting with a flashlight. For tips and references on start trail photography, see this post. 

Also coming up next week is the Lyrid meteor shower, which should be active beginning April 19, and  peak in the predawn hours of April 22 this year. However, you should be able to see some activity of the Lyrid any dark night from April 10 through 23, with up to 10-15 meteors per hour. The Lyrid shower occurs every spring, and if the skies are dark and clear, it can be one of the best meteor showers of the year. Fortunately, with the new moon on the 22nd, there should be excellent viewing of the Lyrids this year. To photograph the Lyrids, all you need is a clear, dark sky, wide angle lens, camera and intervalometer (built in or external) and lots of patience. For an excellent introduction to techniques for photographing meteor showers, see this article by Glenn Randall.

If you are sheltering in place, don’t live in a dark sky area, or just are not into going outside to photograph the Milky Way in the wee hours, here is an indoor activity.  The week of April 19 to 26 has been designated as International Dark Sky Week by the International Dark Sky Association, with the goal of reconnecting people around the world with our night sky. On their website, , you can find a variety of virtual presentations that you can watch each day of that week. Topics include the relationship between humans and the night sky through history, basic astronomy, and art and conservation. Some of the presentations are stories about the night sky, appropriate for kids. You can also follow these and other presentations of the IDSA on their Youtube channel.

Happy star gazing!

Processing Milky Way Images, Sept 11 PSPC Topic

Great Sand Dunes Milky Way, by Doug Coombs

The September 11 Pagosa Springs Photography Club program, Milky Way Processing With Sequator, Photoshop and Lightroom, will be presented by Doug Coombs,  at The Community United Methodist Church, 434 Lewis Street.

Join us for socializing at 6 PM, followed by a brief business meeting and presentation at 6:30 PM. Anyone interested in improving their photography is invited to attend, whether a novice or experienced photographer.  Club members are encouraged to bring up to 10 photos on a thumb drive to share with the group after the presentation, if time permits.

Club members who are submitting photos for our 2019 Digital Photography Contest take note, the entry deadline is at our meeting on Sept 11. For details, see the post 2019 Digital Photo Contest.

Doug Coombs is a nature and landscape photographer who lives part time in Los Alamos, part time in Pagosa, and part time at numerous great photographic sites throughout the West. He is retired from his job as software engineer/developer at LANL. While not working, taking photos, or processing photos, Doug was President of the Los Alamos Photography Club for over 10 years and is currently president of the Los Alamos Adobe Users Group.

In order to reduce noise, Doug will show how to stack multiple exposures of a Milky Way photo using an open source tool for Windows called Sequator. In a previous presentation, he demonstrated this in Photoshop. After the stacked photo is created, he will demonstrate how he processes the photo in both Photoshop and Lightroom. In Photoshop he we be selecting the sky and the foreground separately to create adjustment layers. He will use RGB curves to change the sky to a blue tone.

The Pagosa Springs Photography Club promotes educational, social and fun interactions between all who enjoy making and viewing great photography.  Membership is just $25/calendar year for individuals and $35 for families. To join or renew, fill in the member application form and mail it with a check for your dues to the address shown on the form, or bring it to one of our meetings.

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