(Cerro Gordo Perseid meteor composite ©2016 MLJ)
On August 12, 2016 I drove back up to Cerro Gordo ghost town to attempt to photograph the Perseid meteor shower. It was the day after the Perseids peaked, but my research showed that there should still be plenty of activity in the skies. I phoned Robert, the caretaker, in advance which is a good idea as the town is private property.
Of the many challenges in getting ready for this kind of shoot, I try to anticipate the shot before I get there. What’s going to be in the foreground? If orienting the camera towards Perseus, what can I get in the shot? Is there a mountain in the way? Google Earth can be really helpful for this and I also try and prepare using apps like Stellarium, but there’s no substitute for having your feet on the ground, though in this location don’t expect your phone to work. Your GPS star tracking apps might work there. I’ve previously had a great experience at Cerro Gordo which resulted in the star circles picture with the church in the foreground. The church was perfectly located for getting it in the foreground with Polaris, the center of the star circles as the earth rotates, in the frame. I lighted the stained glass window with a flashlight dimmed by a piece of a plastic water jug I’d cut off with a knife and taped on. It was still too bright, so I bounced it off the back wall. It fell repeatedly, the batteries died, and on it went, but I got the effect I’d hoped for.
As a side note, I brought Robert a nice 17/22 print of the star circles photograph. He was delighted and said it would go in the museum, which made me very happy. That got me thinking I should and will do that more often for people kind enough to let me photograph them or from their property.
(Cerro Gordo star circles ©2017 mlj )
When I got to Cerro Gordo this time, I learned that I had misgauged how far east of Perseus would be from Polaris from the comfort of my home, and there was a large hill in the way of the shot I’d envisioned. Things seldom go as planned, so I ended up settling on an old car with a few buildings in the background as the foreground for my first attempt at meteor shots. The other difficulty was that there was a half-moon which didn’t set until nearly 1:30 a.m. I got the best angle for the shot I could I wanted at dusk, with my tripod as low as it would go, set my camera to shoot 20 second shots at 16mm/f2.8/ISO 1600, and hoped for the best. I used a cable release that I can lock so it keeps taking pictures until I turn it off. I took a few pictures of the foreground at dusk and in the moonlight for possible blending later. I also, for a second in one shot, lighted my flashlight in the cabin of the old truck just to add some possible effect.
Over the course of the night, my camera shot about 600 photos. I trudged down the mountain early the next morning and headed home, not knowing if I’d gotten any good pictures or not, but comfortable in the philosophy that it’s like fly fishing. The Zen is in being out there, in a place so remote, quiet and dark. Sublime.
Once home, I loaded them into Lightroom and I found that I had 30 or so decent photos that contained meteors.
The next challenge was how to prepare a composite photograph of the meteors that looked good. As the world turns, the sky appears to turn, so to simply stack the photos containing meteors made the stars look like a mess and it was difficult to see the meteors. I dug into the web and found a lot of good advice. The photographic community is fabulous about sharing knowledge. I came across David Kingham’s site (http://www.davidkingham.com/), and found a video he’d made which was very instructive and useful. (Kingham Youtube video). He also explains his methodology here. David chose a static sky shot, and then set up all his meteor shots in layers, using Photoshop to isolate only the meteors in each later. He set Polaris as his center point in his static sky shot and rotated each meteor shot to more accurately portray the meteors coming from Perseus, as they were. I didn’t have Polaris in my shots, it was just off to the left, and I wrote David. He kindly wrote back quickly and suggested using any consistent stars, the Big Dipper, for example as an axis point to rotate and align the pictures.
My Photoshop skills being somewhat nascent, a good friend and neighbor came by to help. She suggested a slightly different approach. After sorting out the foreground and static sky layers, rather than rotating the pictures to align them, she isolated each meteor in each layer and later I moved them using Photoshop’s Free Transform tool. I had already accepted that this was abstract to begin with as I can’t imagine seeing this many meteors at once. So I don’t purport that this photograph is astrologically correct. You may also notice the vertical lens distortion in the car and buildings. When I tried to correct that, I had to do a major crop and lose too much of each image. Again, this is abstract anyway, so I left it as it was.
Whether you want to take pictures or just take in some solitude or new sights, I can’t encourage you strongly enough to leave your comfort zone and get out to the wilderness once in awhile. We city dwellers have little relationship with real silence or darkness, both of which are great to experience. As dark as the skies are at Cerro Gordo, the moon (when it’s out) and the stars are bright enough to cast shadows. The stars glisten there like nowhere I’ve ever been. And if you’re heading into the wilderness to take pictures or just take in the solitude, there are plenty of great sites on the web which offer advice on preparation. It’s worth it to take the time to make sure you’ve got what you need for your trip. Perhaps I’ll do another blog post on that one day and share my mistakes and lessons on that subject. But this is probably quite enough for now!
Cheers for now,