Thursday, December 6, 2018

In Search of Foregrounds!

A Facebook friend of mine, Paul Schulz, posted a spectacular photo a few weeks ago - the Milky Way rising past an old windmill in the foreground. As any photographer will tell you, sometimes the foreground adds more to a composition than the subject, and in this case, makes a superb Milky Way shot even better. Shown at left, it is a single exposure with a fast, wide angle lens, exposure short enough that the stars don't show appreciable trailing as the earth rotates beneath. But to record decent detail, lens must be used wide open and at the risk of noise appearing with a very high camera ISO.

At my request he told me where he found it - in a canyon on the southeastern slopes of the Graham Mountains, about a 15 minute drive from his home in Safford, but a nearly 2 hour drive from Tucson! There might well be country windmills closer, but this one was proven to have NO light pollution in the area. My thought was to photograph the constellation Orion rising past the windmill - something everyone would recognize... So I drive out there, arriving about sunset and wouldn't you know, someone was camped beneath it! I figured it was a hunter as deer season had just started, but no, it was Kevin from Iowa, just camping for a few weeks. We had a nice long chat and I ended up taking a few photos anyway, even though he had a solar panel and electricity, lighting up the bottom half of the windmill like a Christmas tree - not suitable for dark-sky imaging!

But we had a great time, talking about our lives in Arizona and past lives in Iowa and once he figured out what I was doing, let the campfire die down and turned the lights on the windmill out as well.  I eventually took a few test shots, leaving any real effort on Orion for another time!  At left are the star clusters the Pleiades at center (Seven Sisters) and Hyades between Pleiades and tree below (Vee shaped) rising in the east.  Orion would be just below them an hour later...

I didn't wait that long - I needed to return to do some training with night staff at work, but before leaving, I noticed that the setting Summer Milky Way was making a nice "V" in the western sky with the Zodiacal Light! Shown at right, the Zodiacal Light is a cone-shaped white glow extending to the left behind the windmill, appearing in the western post-sunset sky December into February, and the eastern pre-dawn sky September into November. It is sunlight being reflected from meteoritic dust in the plane of our Solar System, mostly released from Comets and asteroidal collisions... It needs a dark sky to be really apparent, and in fact, many of my Midwestern amateur astronomer friends have never seen it! This is a single 40-second exposure with a fisheye lens - the one shot that didn't have a lot of airplane in it to edit out! That is Kevin being illuminated faintly by the embers of his campfire!

So yes, will likely return someday to so more shots similar to Paul's. It is a nice spot to camp out, in a little valley near a small stream - even now running likely from melting snow from higher elevations. Not a productive night, but they always turn out fun and interesting!

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