If you are unfamiliar with this continuing series, please start HERE first!
I have gone through a good amount of photographs requiring the “mind’s eye” style of editing over the past six months, despite my lack of posts in this fun series. The reason I haven’t written posts on any of them? They all fell along somewhat similar processing paths to established examples I have already written about (nevermind the plethora of schoolwork and non-artsy photo assignments, mind you). Before I posted again here I wanted to find something truly different that challenged not only my shooting style but my very way of editing in Lightroom 5.
Why not give astrophotography a try? Easy! I…
a) …do not have a full-frame camera with high sensitivity capabilities (looking at you, Sony A7s)
b) …still do not own any form of a fast wide-angle lens
c) …do not have any form of a tracking mount, including the cheap “barn-door” contraptions
d) …stay up late completing other assignments anyway!
All this said, I couldn’t resist jumping at the chance to create something truly unique and new. Though the following may be old news to many star-gazers out there, fresh trails from the comet 209P/LINEAR intersected with Earth’s orbit early in the morning hours of May 24, 2014 (2-4 a.m.). Originally, 100-400 meteor streaks per hour were forecast, but the actual turnout for many in the northeastern hemisphere was a disappointment at best.
That night I drove out to the most realistically remote location I could to look north in-between two towns for the best chance of reduced light pollution. The meteor shower was forecast to come from the north, but the 3-4 fireballs (yes, that’s right, only a few…) I did see with my own eyes came from all directions. Odd.
Regardless, I blindly set up my tripod and NEX-7 with the Zeiss 32mm to point at various spots on the horizon in the hopes of capturing not only a good landscape, but with luck some star trails and a meteor fireball. I must say that metering and focusing in complete darkness is a disaster for a camera with an EVF and a lens without a hard infinity focus stop. Once I locked in my settings, however, I was good to go.
The first couple shots both looking out at the horizon and the Milky Way turned out alright for photographs without a tracking mount, but I wanted to go for a long-exposure shot to give me the best chance at capturing a long meteor streak, as well as curving star trails. Looking in my manual, I learned that bulb mode on my camera goes as long as the camera’s battery lasts, so with a fresh battery I finally settled on a field with a pond enclosed by recognizable black wood fences, all set against the north sky.
The straight-out-of-camera shot was, as you could probably guess, pretty boring, flat, and seemingly useless:
As a matter of fact, I nearly tossed this photograph out while editing some other shots from that night. But oh, the saving graces of shooting in RAW! There are so many possibilities for non-destructive photo manipulation with even the flattest of files.
For this shot, I decreased the exposure by a stop, and applied two graduated filters to the sky to manage contrast and clarity. This boosted the appearances of the star trails against a darker sky. Since the foreground was then very underexposed, I worked with basic tonal adjustments in shadow and black recovery without affecting the sky. To get rid of vignetting and distortion, I applied LR’s own lens profile (very handy!), and fine-tuned the vignetting removal to get a more homogenous image. To recover lost detail in the far treeline, I applied a light shadow boost brush. For all my best efforts of shooting in a remote location, there is still obvious light pollution from a neighboring car manufacturing plant (despite being over 15 miles away). To mitigate this harsh contrast of colors from ground light to sky light, I subtly altered the individual saturation channels to avoid harsh gradations in color transitions. I also cooled the white balance to a more night-friendly 3500k. The final result? A photo I feel is much more suited to share rather than toss aside:
32mm, ISO 100, f/5.6, 3984 Seconds
*Ahem*, that’s not a typo on the duration the photo was made. I left my shutter open for well over 66 minutes to make this photograph. This much elapsed time, combined with the orientation of the camera around the north star, created the long and curving star trails you see above, in addition to the odd colored patches of hot pixels. And hey! If you look closely you can see that a single meteor crossed the top of the image during my exposure! I almost wrote this streak off as a passing jet plane when I began editing this photo. However, planes usually do not fly over this area at this time of night (photo made between 3-4 a.m.), at 100% view at 24 megapixels I cannot find any telltale flashing lights that indicate a plane’s identity, and surely only the brightness of a flaming meteor could have made this bright a streak during a 66-minute exposure! EDIT: Due to the uniformity of the streak, it may very well be a highly-reflective satellite, as a meteor streak this long should show changes in luminosity and color.
I could very well be wrong, but either way I can still dream! Speaking of which, I made the unfortunate mistake of falling asleep in my car while making this exposure, a funny accident that led to the exposure time (originally planned for only 30 minutes).
It’s a shame to read that this meteor shower was a one-off deal. Due to Jupiter’s gravity, the comet’s trail will be pulled out of Earth’s orbit to never be seen again. At the same time, it is awfully exciting to know I possibly captured one of the few witnessed meteors from a once-in-a-lifetime event.
All of this on the night before college graduation. At 9:30 a.m. Yep. That’s photography and I, all right.