Starry night

My dad requested this one. Love you, pop!

This story begins with the birth of my son, Oscar. When he was newborn, my spouse joined a Postpartum Education for Parents (PEP) program in Santa Barbara. I’m sure they learned tons of useful stuff in those meetings, but the real impact has been the friends she made there. The group initially included over 100 40 women; they grouped folks by due date, I think. So this was a collection of women whose only common interests were the babies that happened to them all in the same 5 or 6 week period.

Anyway, once the classes were all done, the women started meeting to socialize, and the group immediately fragmented. For my spouse, this meant finding a subgroup of working mothers. Most of the women, turns out, were stay-at-home-mothers… is that the accepted term, these days? Anyway, my spouse couldn’t attend get-togethers Tuesdays at 11am, as she was in the classroom (or maybe she was in the lactation room, pumping milk). So she started meeting with 6 or 8 women who had similar schedules. These women have been together ever since. A few have dropped away, others have joined in later, but the core group has met almost every week for the last ten years.

After about year 3, this switched from “highs and lows” support sessions to “moms’ night out” and finally became whole family mega parties. That is to say, the fathers joined in, as well as siblings that arrived later. These people have become the nucleus of our social life; in fact, sometimes they are the beginning and end of our social life. With 6 or 7 birthdays in November, as well as holiday and new year’s parties, camping trips, vacations, sleepovers, the calendar gets quite full. Which is fantastic, because, somehow, they are all – mothers, spouses, children – really wonderful, interesting individuals. We all have lots of fun together.

We have a sort of standing camping trip with those families in June, to a place called Ocean Mesa, just north of Santa Barbara. Fellow backpackers, campers, wilderness enthusiasts, don’t hate: I own that Ocean Mesa is not a place to find nature… it has full hookups, hot showers, a pool, free coffee, and a movie-night. All that stuff is important to the PEP family, and it’s not oversubscribed like El Capitan State Park just down the road. But it’s a place for this group to meet and stay connected.

Here, finally, is where night-sky photography comes in. During a night of Ocean Mesa insomnia 3 years ago, I left the tent and walked up a nearby hill with my camera and tripod. It was a new moon, and the Milky Way was burning low in the sky, diving into the ocean in the south. I thought, I can capture that, and with no planning or education in long-exposure photography, I tried. I knew I had a decent camera. A 6D with really good low-light sensitivity. I was shooting with a 17mm lens, so pretty wide angle, and I manually re-oriented the camera several times to capture the whole milky way. Exposure time was 30 seconds, the longest I could use without a remote, which I didn’t have at the time. I used Photoshop’s photomerge tool to tie them together. Must be a really easy problem for the algorithm, since the stars provide such clear fixed points. And because of the low angle of the milky way, there’s not terrible distortion of the horizon. You can see all the lights from the RV area of the campground. Nice.


Ocean Mesa

Anyway, it’s a pretty bad picture as these things go. The milky way doesn’t pop and the foreground is distracting instead of interesting. Nevertheless, I was terribly excited by this outcome, and started to hunger for more. I went out and rented a 24mm prime lens. The rental was cheap, but the deposit hurt (it was real, with $1500 exiting my bank account for over a week). And I drove further afield to the Winchester Canyon Gun Club, in the hills about 30 minutes north of Santa Barbara. Much of the sky is quite dark there, but of course with Santa Barbara at the head of the Southern California sprawl, there’s still plenty of light pollution. In any case, I got a nice lens, and drove to the closest dark spot to shoot. Here’s an example of a nice part of the milky way, near Sagittarius. Really interesting dust lanes.

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Winchester Canyon Gun Club

I could say so much here, because once you dive into these pictures, beyond simply gazing at the Milky Way in wonder, there’s lots of astronomy to learn! The easiest way to think about the Milky Way is that we’re looking at the galaxy edge on. A couple hundred billion stars all clustering in the plane of this hundred-thousand light years-wide disc. And in fact, when we’re looking at this particular region of the Milky Way, we’re looking right down into the heart of the galaxy, at Sgr A*, a supermassive black hole that sits at the center of our galaxy like the axis of a colossal vortex.

Of course, you can’t see it, because of all the interstellar dust between us and it.* But that very problem gives us a nice sense of the scale of our universe. The dust lanes that give the Milky Way its character are nearby; the cloud just to the north of Sagittarius – called the Great Rift and – is only 300 light years away. At 1% of the distance from us to galactic central point, the Great Rift is the grownup that sits in front of your 8 year old at the anthropomorphic cartoon animal movie, blocking her view of the screen 50 feet away. That’s about the right scale, too… that is, if the thing you were trying see on the screen was the size of a water molecule. Anyway, the point is that the dust lanes are right up in our celestial grill. The Milky Way’s clouds, while composed of stars and other stuff before and beyond the dust lanes, is really a function of our neighborhood boundaries, with the rest of the cosmos waiting beyond the walls of dust. To be sure, the Great Rift isn’t the only dust lane. They are the part of the conspicuous gyring arms of our spiral galaxy.

Wow. Really geeking out on space geography. The point was, I was trying to be smarter about my images. I went started too farther afield for good seeing, but I have much further to go. Not in this blog entry, don’t worry, that’s almost done.

That first trip up to the gun club was cool though, because it meant I could intersect with the local astronomy nerds, called the Astronomical Unit (an astronomical unit is the distance between earth and sun). Under their auspices, I gained access to a nice, flat, open space in the dark for imaging. It just so happened to be the peak of the Perseids, and while I did get an ok Milky Way panorama, I was really focused (haha) on trying to capture meteors. Which I did! I pointed my camera at Perseus, and snapped away. I don’t know, over a hundred 30 second exposures. 5 of which captured the telltale green streaks of ice and rock burning up as they dove into our atmosphere at 100,000 miles per hour. This montage I am pretty proud of, and I especially like to see Andromeda in the upper right corner. Talk about scales… so the Great Rift is practically a next door neighbor, while Andromeda – our nearest neighboring galaxy – is 100,000 times farther away.


Winchester Canyon Gun Club, Perseids 2015

But the panorama I got that night points to a photography problem I’m still learning to overcome. The real ‘great rift’ in this image is where the edges of individual photographs show imperfect exposure matching. These shots are all a f/4 ISO 1200, 30 seconds, so I think the mismatch is due to problems with white balance.


Winchester Canyon Gun Club


The same thing crops up (haha) in the last three panoramas I’ll talk about. First, the one I shot in Joshua Tree last spring, on a camping trip with, yes, PEP friends. What’re the problems? Incomplete imagery and failure to get individual exposures right, in addition to the white balance issue. So I need a better system for mapping my images during collection. Eyeballing it is not consistent enough. Still, the trip to Hidden Valley was beautiful, the cold stellar flowers of night giving way to a high desert super bloom during the cool days. And days filled with long lines of kids marching along through the crooked non-trees singing “I like to eat, eat, eat apples and bananas” at the tops of their little lungs.


Hidden Valley Campground, Jtree, Spring 2016

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Horseshoe Meadow, Sierra Nevada, July 2016

Now this one I shot last summer on a backpacking trip with the kids. I drove Oscar and Ines up to Horseshoe Meadow. We were in the walk-in campground, ready to start our for-reals trek the next day. After I’d read the kids to sleep, I got up and did my thing. This time, too, it was summer, new moon. Milky Way relatively low in the sky, so I got a nice horizon. Full of gigantic Ponderosas. And the galaxy is gorgeous, just glowing in the dark, dark skies of the Sierra Nevada’s west side. Even caught a stray meteor below the Cygnus Star Cloud! Still, though, somehow the exposure mapping is off. I always find the thing that’s wrong. Eeyore of the stars.


Campsite, Horseshoe Meadow

One other thing I hope to go back and fix in this montage is to build in the above image of our campsite. I think the real photographers out there would agree that, yeah, the Milky Way is nice and all, but it’s the foreground that makes the difference. Compared to the Jtree jumble of dark rocks, the Ponderosas are nice, but me thinking of the kids asleep in camp stands above all. As a detail, I should point out that Ines was not in the tent. When camping, especially backpacking, she prefers to sleep outside, under the stars, like her dad.



Zion Ponderosa Ranch, 2017

Ok, last one. The above is from just a couple of weeks ago, near Zion National Park, where we’d journeyed with the ubiquitous PEP team. We stayed at a resort just outside the park and it was DARK DARK DARK. I’m reasonably happy with this image, especially with Andromeda Galaxy glowing on the left, below the curve of the Way. I was using a remote shutter control, but there are still jiggles in some of the images. And 30 seconds worth of jet lights mar the upper left. Then there’s the white balance problem, still (haha). The biggest pain is that the horizon is so distorted. By the time all 8 kids were konked, and it was dark enough to shoot, the Milky Way was very high in the sky, essentially an arch leading from East to West directly overhead. That, I think, leads to the distortion in this panorama. And I do have one of just the Milky Way from that trip, no horizon. But it’s this one I like, because of the house. This is the big cabin that me and twenty of my best friends ate, played, and hung out together for a week in one of the darkest places in the country. Could the cabin lighting be better? Yes. Am I a hack photographer? Yes. But it’s the cabin that anchors the picture, and anchors my memory of the trip, of my friends and our time together.

Hope that helps, pop! I miss you! I wish we could go catch lightning bugs on Abuelita’s farm! That night 45 years ago under the pinpricked black of a Tennessee summer night, with the winking abdomens of the insects illuminating my room, I don’t have a photo of. But I don’t need one! xbg

*Can you see black holes?