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Astronomy: Taking Photos of the Night Sky

5-20-11 Auriga KKW

For many years I have been wanting to take pictures of the night sky where you can actually see something in them other than the moon or a bright planet in the sun's fading glow. I know that there are really only two components necessary for night-sky scenery shots: a tripod and a camera that allows you to hold the shutter open. I've had the tripod for a very long time, but since the advent of digital cameras, I haven't had a camera that understands that I want to let all that light in.

I bought an SLR camera in November and had only tried taking it outside a couple nights since then. The weather has been too cold that my fingers become numb as I'm fumbling with the camera and trying to figure out the setting I need to get the shutter open. The camera was still trying to focus on something it couldn’t really see in the dark and not allowing me to depress the shutter button.

Wednesday night was finally a good night for observing. Fifty degrees feels pretty warm after a long, cold winter. I took out my new telescope and got in some quick observing of Saturn before the full moon rose above the horizon. The moon was beautiful and orange, rising in the direction of the airport and hiding in a crisscross pattern of contrails, so I thought it might be nice to grab a photo. I got my camera and took a couple shots, then tried for night sky pics, but again the camera was confused trying to focus in and out on what it couldn't see. That's when I had my epiphany.

My mother gave me a camera lens that she bought years ago for her Nikon camera. Soon after she bought it, digital cameras became in vogue and she gave up her old camera for a new one. The extra lens had been sitting around gathering dust so she let me take it because it fit on my digital SLR Nikon. I had tried the lens on a number of occasions but it didn't automatically focus and my eyesight is not the best, so when I thought something was focused through the lens, I would later find out that it was fuzzy when I uploaded the photos to my computer.

Because the camera with this lens on doesn't automatically focus, I thought maybe it would allow me to take pictures where the other lens did not. I attached the old lens, got out my tripod, manually set the focus to infinity, and set up to take some pictures. Lo and behold, it worked. I still don't know if I'd be able to correctly replicate my good fortunate again, but at least I had one night of success. (Especially because, in the dark, I thought I had set the camera to the no flash setting and when I got back in the house I discovered it was actually on the sport setting, which allows the shutter to fire off pictures more quickly, the exact opposite of what I expected to use.)

5-20-11 Big Dipper KKW
The Big Dipper.

I managed to capture the Big Dipper (which was right overhead by the roof of my house), Leo the Lion, Virgo with Saturn, Lyra, Auriga, and Gemini with Canis Minor. My favorite photos were those which included terrestrial scenery, but because the moon was coming up on the eastern horizon, it kind of limited the areas I could photograph in. The photos I'm sharing here are three of my favorites. In the photo of the Big Dipper, you can easily see the double star of Mizar and Alcor in the Dipper's handle. The photo of Auriga shows the bright star Capella and how it is truly a different color (orangish) compared to the other stars in the constellation (which almost forms a J shape). (Note also the streak of light in the distance, which is a farmer doing some spring plowing by the light of the full moon.)

5-20-11 Gemini KKW
Gemini. Photos by Kelly Kizer Whitt.

The last picture is of the western horizon where Gemini the Twins was setting. You can see the twin stars near the top: Pollux on the left and Castor on the right. Again, notice the color difference highlighted by an exposure that was merely a few seconds long. Pollux is a yellow-orange giant and Castor is a hot, bluish-white star. Pollux's body is easy to make out, looking just like a stick figure, and I imagine the two brothers as having their arms around each other's shoulders. At the bottom left of the image is Canis Minor, a dog formed by two stars, the bright Procyon and fainter Gomeisa. As you can see, the clouds were moving in from the west, and it was time to call it a night. I can't wait until the next clear night so that I can try it again.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

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