PHOTO TIP #11 (Shooting Stars)

Dark Skies & Star Parties Over Page

Page has always been in essence a dark sky kind of town, situated astride the Arizona-Utah border on the southern edge of Lake Powell, far from the light wastrels of Las Vegas and Phoenix. Many times I’ve camped by the great desert lake and watched the constellations and Milky Way cycle overhead on calm moonless nights. Recently Page has taken its rightful place in the Grand Spiral Route, joining Flagstaff, Sedona, Grand Canyon, the Verde Valley and Winslow in a new initiative to recognize and value what dark skies mean to humanity.
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Just now I’m more interested in what dark skies mean to photographers, and where you can set up either your celestial telescope or camera to view and shoot the wonders of the night sky around Page. Recently I was invited to experience a Star Party by the Astro Night Rangers of the National Park Service, at the Wahweap swim beach parking lot. There they set up six large viewing telescopes so anyone can walk up and view the planets and nebulae, free of charge. NPS Dark Sky Coordinator Cindy Stafford arrived in late afternoon with her cool astronomy trailer, setting up an info table while clearly conveying her love of the cosmos, and how the loss of truly dark nights diminishes our world culture.
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I peer into an eyepiece and clearly see Andromeda, galaxy M-31, through a Celestron telescope, ably located by Barry Sherman. I’m beyond thrilled to see planetary details and galactic clouds, which are in truth a host of stars. I even recorded M-31 with my 300mm lens and an AstroTracker, built into my DSLR. The Milky Way was clearly visible on this early September evening, but some drifting monsoon clouds made it hard to capture a clean image. No matter, I’ll be back again on the next new moon to try again.
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To capture quality images of the Milky Way you’ll need a late model DSLR camera with a quality sensor, and preferably a fast (F1.4-2.8) lens, plus a solid tripod and lastly, an electronic cable release. A very wide lens (10-15mm) will take in a greater expanse of the arc of the Milky Way. I suggest a starting exposure of 15 seconds at F4, using an ISO setting of 3200. Make adjustments after your first test image. Your histogram detail will be far to the left, which is normal when recording the stars against a jet-black sky.

Unless you desire star trails, learn about the ‘Rule of 500’, to enable recording of the stars as sharp points of light, without the trailing effect. Simply divide 500 by the millimeter of your lens and you’ll get a number that equates to seconds. So, 500 divided by 16 (mm) = 35.6 seconds. As most cameras have a longest possible timed shutter speed of 30 seconds, you can expose up to 30 seconds with that focal length of lens and theoretically record the stars without movement. In truth, always cheat a bit towards a faster shutter speed to really dial in that desired sharpness, and remember, the wider the lens, the longer the exposure can be without creating a star trail.

To create images where the stars are long streaks of varicolored hues, choose the lowest ISO possible (100 or less), set your aperture to F8 or F11, set the camera on Bulb and expose for 10-60 minutes. To more easily capture much longer star trails, choose a longer lens, 100-200mm. You must start with a fully charged battery and it’s really best to get an accurate Infinity Focus when you start, hopefully in early twilight. All lenses have an Infinity Focus setting but it rarely works on the night sky, so once you identify that lens setting, don’t forget to turn off Auto-Focus and don’t accidentally touch the focusing ring!

To join the Astro Night Rangers of the Glen Canyon NRA, check out their site:
Astro Night Rangers of the Glen Canyon NRA Site

New dates are posted throughout the year.

On those dark nights when the Astro Rangers aren’t available you can also set up your tripod along Page’s scenic Rim Trail, or the parking lot of Horseshoe Bend, and shoot Mars and the Milky Way in relative solitude. Just choose either a new moon (no moon) night, or a night with a late rising moon, and also one with low humidity and little to no breeze. Once you find your sweet spot of exposure settings and master the post-processing details, you’ll be hooked on shooting starlight, star-bright, dark night image explorations of the cosmos. Don’t blame me for lack of sleep!

GCrivertripStars 1746 AZ
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