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!

December Dark Sky Events

Saturn and Jupiter in the evening sky over Pagosa Springs, Dec 5, 2020 © Andy Butler

As we move towards the shortest day of the year, it’s a good time to think of night photography. There are a couple of significant events coming up that could be of interest to both photographers and stargazers. 

First, the Geminid meteor shower, one of the most reliable meteor showers of the year, will reach it’s peak on the night of Dec. 13-14. With the new moon on Dec 14, skies should be dark enough to see quite a few meteors. However, you should be able to see meteors any night beginning this weekend (Dec. 4).The Geminids appear to radiate from the constellation Gemini, which conveniently is above the horizon before midnight in December. The maximum activity should be after midnight in the early morning of December 14, with up to 75 meteors per hour visible. The Geminids are one of only a couple of major showers derived from an asteroid, 3200 Phaeton, rather than a comet. Look to the east for this shower. 

For best viewing of the Geminids or other meteor showers, find a relatively dark site. If you want to photograph a meteor shower, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, the number of meteors “visible” includes the entire sky, while even a very wide-angle lens is not likely to cover more than 1/3 of the night sky. So you are unlikely to capture more than one shooting star even in a minute-long exposure. Second, if you want to keep the stars as points of light, rather than streaks, you will need to limit your exposure time. A rule of thumb is to limit exposure times to 500 divided by your lens focal length (in full-frame equivalent). So, if you have a 16 mm lens (full frame) then 500/16 is roughly 30 seconds. If you think you will be making large prints from your photos, you should be more conservative, maybe using 20 seconds in this example. A good starting point is to set your aperture to f/2.8, shutter speed 30 seconds, and ISO 6400; basically the same as you would use for Milky Way photos. To increase your chances of getting one or more photos that contain a shooting star, set up your camera to automatically take these 30 second exposures for several hours during the night. To do this, either use your camera’s built in intervalometer, or an external cable release with intervalometer. If you have chosen an interesting foreground subject in the landscape (you should!), it would be good to either take a longer exposure of it, or to take a separate photo of the landscape using light-painting or low level lighting. Back home, check all the photos to find the ones with meteors streaking through the sky. For a dramatic image, you can composite these with your landscape image using Photoshop or another editor. For a very thorough discussion of photographing and processing meteor showers, see: 

Another event coming up will be a Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on Dec. 21. Jupiter and Saturn have been appearing closer and closer to one another this fall. Shortly after sunset, around 5:24 PM on the Dec. 21, these gas giants will be visible about 17° above the horizon in the Southwest. They will be within 0.1° of each other, or about 1/5 the apparent diameter of the moon. This is considered to be a “Great Conjunction”, as it happens only about once every 20 years. And in 2020 these planets will appear closer together than they have for about 800 years. The best viewing will be just at the end of civil twilight, so lighting should be good. You can observe these planets near one another on any clear night in December, as they appear closer and closer.  In fact, a few days before the conjunction, on December 16 or 17, you should also be able to see the new Moon very close to the two planets. For information, and some inspirational photos, see .

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