The Best Laid Schemes

“o’ Mice an’ Men gang aft agley” is the rest of the quote. It was a perfect philosophy for last weekend’s astrophotography outing. Sunday I headed up to the Sands Basin Overlooks (my name) that is my preferred dark site for astrophotography. I had several goals in mind, including a host of Messier objects I was planning to just observe.

We left with plenty of time to get to the site since I wanted to shoot a panorama to create a landscape for use with Stellarium. I needed a minimum amount of shadows plus I wanted to do it well enough to be happy offering it to the Stellarium site for anyone to use. As I mentioned last post, I want to give a little back to the Stellarium community besides just the locations of a couple of cities and towns.

So, why the title based on Burns’ quote?

We had a beautiful day when we got there. Blue skies, obviously a bit of dust and smoke still in the air from all the fires. As soon as we arrived on site, I left the Tahoe on the dirt road and walked up to the location. I proceeded to set up the tripod, got it leveled, mounted the camera, and checked the panning to ensure that would stay level as well. Then I took the pictures for the panorama and moved the Tahoe to the area. So far so good.

As we sat there waiting for night to move in, we had some interesting and fun conversations. We talked people, science, photography, whatever came to mind. We drank cold water, ate my wife’s tuna wraps. Sat in the shade of the car and enjoyed the view. So far so good.

Sunset at Sands Basin Overlook, the sky, the clouds and the ground all a ruddy orange.

This just doesn’t do it justice. I should have done an HDR to truly reflect the gorgeous colors.

Finally the sun began setting behind the nearby hills. It was gorgeous, the entire sky was on fire. There was no way I could get all the pictures I wanted. The light was changing so fast, and even the brown ground and dried sagebrush were orange. Definitely the right place at the right time for this!

A little longer and finally, “There’s Mars! And that’s Saturn.” Ten degrees or so above the horizon. Soon I was getting pictures of those two in the twilight’s darkening. Sweet! And there, to the south…Scorpius is appearing…more pictures! And then, a few minutes “late” but heralded by her glow, Lady Moon rises in the east. A few pictures shot in a hurry, lens changes, camera settings changing, more pictures, and then the moment is gone.

The constellation Scorpius as seen from Sands Basin Overlook with sagebrush in the foreground.

The constellation Scorpius as seen from Sands Basin Overlook just before the clouds moved in to hide much of the constellation.. A little dark, best seen by clicking on it.

Get it yet? Just in case, here’s a clue: that gorgeous sunset, the sky on fire, the orange ground.

Yep, just before sunset clouds started moving in. How else will you get a sunset that takes up the whole world? My hoped for 160 degree dome of sky was gone. It was mostly cloud, with gaps here and there where stars could be seen.

Along with the GPS co-ordinates and the panorama, I’d hoped to get the Bortle value for the site. I believe, from past visits, it’s going to be at least a 3, quite possibly a 2. It just might be a 1, but I’m not confident enough to state it as such. I’ll just have to go again to get that Bortle rating. I’d also hoped to try and photograph several astronomical objects, starting with Mars and Saturn near the horizon, the moon, several Messier objects, and a few constellations.

With the cloud cover, everything other than what I’ve already mentioned as photographed was a wash. The night was not a loss, though. For any photographer that wants to improve, even when things go wrong he or she can learn a lot. In this case, that’s exactly what happened.

I have some moon shots that came out fairly good. However, trying to get shots of the moon in the narrow window of ground and cloud cover made me realize that although I got some okay shots, on the whole I still don’t have a proper grasp of the ideal camera settings for shooting the moon. I had been relying too much on the cheap memory and the ability to take a slew of shots and bracket and…. In other words, even though I know how to take pictures of constellations, the Milky Way, and things like that…I don’t have that same well-grounded knowledge base when it comes to the moon. I never learned to shoot the moon the same way I learned about shooting everything else. I’m not sure why that is, but there it is. So, the next few nights when Lady Moon is in the sky I am going to give her my full attention and learn how to take her portrait properly.

My landscape panorama for Stellarium is a bust. Here, again, at least I learned something. I have taken good panoramas before, and I know how to do it. However, this time I tried to make a 360 degree panorama using my fisheye because of the ground coverage I wanted. While everything stitched together quite nicely, it is very arched as a whole. Instead of shooting at 10mm I should have set it at 17mm or just used the 50mm. I had the tripod set up properly and leveled, but since the horizon isn’t flat (mountains in the distance, hills nearby, etc.), that means the horizon line changes. Everything above and below the center line through each picture bends in. Even though the lens specs say 180 degrees field of view, I’ve long known it’s actually closer to 165-170. Although it made a nice panorama, and I can crop to get a nice picture, it’s still not suitable for a Stellarium landscape. I also made a small mistake on the exposure settings. All things to be noted, remembered, and fixed next time.

Fortunately, I’m used to the weather messing up my photography outings or even at times improving them. So long as I learn something from it, however bad the outing is, I’m happy. And of course, it’s always wonderful just getting out there.

Now for something different but still sorta related….

If you are a fan of the Firefly TVseries and the Serenity movie, I think you would really like Ken McConnell’s Star Trilogy series and his various SF shorts such as Tales of Ocherva. The short stories, in particular, are very much Space Westerns.

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One Response to “The Best Laid Schemes”

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