The Stars Came Out To Play

The forecast for Wickahoney was partially cloudy all weekend, not a promising omen. We left my house about 3 PM and headed to Boise to link up with Bob and Janet. I’d say we were on the road by 4 PM. All during the drive the clouds were to the south and seemed to be trying to move in. The closer to Wickahoney we got, the more the clouds seemed to be winning their way to us.

Yet…after we got there and set up camp in very windy conditions, the sky cleared up except for a cloud bank to the south, low on the horizon. For what I wanted, the conditions were becoming perfect, and they remained so throughout the night.

Wickahoney is a wonderful dark sky site. By the Bortle scale, I would call it an easy 3, possibly 2 and just maybe even 1 on a good night. I’m saying this from memory and without having actually worked through my copy of the chart that night. As a result, I didn’t know just what to check for, although I did think about getting the chart out once or twice. Now I wish I had so that I could state with conviction whether it was a 2 or 1.

Everything was dark and the surroundings were simply black against the sky as we had no moon, as promised by The Photographer’s Ephemeris and Stellarium. The Milky Way was glorious overhead. We did have a fire going in a pan well off the ground and that night it was defintiely welcome. As long as you avoided staring into the mesmerizing flames, your night vision would come back pretty quickly.

And the stars came out to play that night.

Carl Sagan was wrong. He should have said “trillions and trillions” not “billions and billions.”

It always amazes me just how many stars are visible when I go to my dark sky sites. No matter how often I see the night sky, as in really see it far from light pollution, I’m always like a little kid being shown his favorite toy. I’m delighted, excited, all past disappointments are forgot in the moment, and I’m humbled. It doesn’t faze me that there might be many intelligent civilizations out there or that we’re more than likely just one of thousands and thousands of worlds with beings looking up in awe. For me, it’s life-affirming.

I consider my Pentax K10D to be my best camera, so that is the one I set up for the Milky Way time lapse I came out here to do. I had done my homework and knew that to cover the Milky Way from 9 PM that night to 3 AM the next morning I had to cover almost 110 degrees of view. My Pentax SMC DA 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 ED[IF] Fisheye set to 10mm covered that just fine. I had worked out the ruins had to be on a line running 285 degrees from the camera. We got there in time to have plenty of light to set up the camera and check the view, alignment, angles, and decide where to set camp. It was windy, but the heavy tripod my son got for me on my birthday several years ago had no problems being steady. I love that tripod!

The lens was zoomed wide to 10mm, the aperture manually set to f/3.5, and the shutter to Bulb. My hard case was set on the TV dinner tray I’d brought and the laptop on top of that. The laptop was fired up and Pentax Tether started. The USB cable was connected and the camera parameters popped up in Pentax Tether. A little fiddling with the ISO, time lapse timings, and the like and I was ready to go. I shut the lid on the laptop, satisfied that when it got close to 9 PM and I wanted to start shooting, all I would have to do would be to open the laptop, log in, and click on the shutter button in the program.

The Pentax K-10 with fisheye is set up and ready for use. In the background is where we set up camp. Food prep, fire, and visiting area are in view, our tent was to the left of the truck and out of view. Bob and Jan slept in the back of their truck, parked in front of my son's and also out of view.

The Pentax K-10 with fisheye is set up and ready for use. In the background is where we set up camp. Food prep, fire, and visiting area are in view, our tent was to the left of the truck and out of view. Bob and Jan slept in the back of their truck, parked in front of my son’s and also out of view.

Throughout the night I checked the setup. There were a couple of times when I had to change the ISO as something reset it to 100. It took a little fiddling to get the timing right, I wanted 30 second exposures 30 seconds apart, i.e. 1 per minute. As the night wore on, I was able to relax and check less and less often, simply keeping an eye out to try and catch when I had to swap out the batteries. I think, and the times recorded in the EXIF seem to bear me out, that I caught the timing almost dead on, missing only one or at most two shots while I changed the batteries. I was very pleased to find that the two batteries I had, both fully charged at the beginning, were plenty for the task. I even had power to go longer but by 3:30 AM I was tired and cold and called it a night.

During all this, I had my other camera, the Pentax *istDL, and another tripod for any other pictures I wanted to work on. I used that to take the usual “tourist” pictures as we fixed dinner, sat around, explored the area, and through the night as I sought to capture M33, Comet Jacques (no luck, couldn’t even find it), Scorpius, the Big Dipper, and otherwise play while the K10D was busy with the time lapse.

Wickahoney ruins lit by flashlight at night with stars above and myself in the image.

Wickahoney ruins lit by flashlight at night with stars above and myself in the image.

13 minute star trails rotating around Polaris.

One of the images I captured with the *istDL, a 13 minute single exposure of star trails rotating around Polaris.

The next day, we all woke early and after breakfast, chatting, and some more photography, we packed up and headed home. It wouldn’t be until Monday evening that I had a good look at the results of my time lapse.

I had been doing some studying and visiting various tutorials in preparation for this particular time lapse. It was my first attempt at a Milky Way time lapse and given the amount of time involved I naturally wanted to have the best chance from the get-go. I also knew, however, the probability was high that I wouldn’t get exactly what I visualized the first time.

Putting together the time lapse and viewing it I was both pleased and disappointed. Star trails are minimized even with the 30 second exposure time. That matched up with what I should have expected via the 500 Rule (aka the 600 Rule). The video flows smoothly, the stars pass by overhead, easily followed.

All in all, it’s a reasonably good first attempt.

I had done some experimenting ahead of time, testing ISO vs Shutter. I had settled on 30 seconds at an ISO of 800 as workable. That turned out not to be the case. In this time lapse, you can only see the Milky Way as a brown smudge even though it was easily visible to the naked eye. I have always shot the Milky Way using 20 to 45 seconds exposure at ISO 1600, the max for the K10D. I had hoped that I’d be able to get enough exposure to bring the Milky Way out in post-production using some of the techniques I studied beforehand. The ISO 800 was an attempt to reduce noise as much as possible. While that seemed to work, there’s still noise and the Milky Way isn’t easily brought out better. Nor is it as visible as with 1600. One thing I had forgotten since I got the K10D and switched to using it is that the *istDL goes to ISO 3200. Interestingly enough, the noise level on the *istDL at 3200 is somewhere between the K10D at 800 and at 1600. I may have to seriously consider using the *istDL for Milky Way shots instead of the K10D.

I had also decided that I wanted everyone to be free to wander around the site and thus provide some “action” in the video to go with the Milky Way moving overhead. In hindsight, against the stars that concept worked great, but for most previews it seems the people in the shots are enough to make attention be split between the stars and the people. End result: most people would have to watch it twice to see the full effect of the stars in the time lapse. Once to watch the people and once to watch the stars. The next time, I’ll leave the people out of the video.

The light painting of the ruins was simply great. Actually, a bit too much. In the time lapse there are a couple of times when I have the ruins lit by a little flashlight my son borrowed. That beam is so bright and so powerful for such a little flashlight that I have to get one. It didn’t even use up one whole charge and comes with a second battery we never had to touch. For as much light as it put out, it’s easy to over-paint the subject with the light.

Anyway, I learned that whatever light I get and use, I absolutely need to practice with it to learn how much to paint things to avoid overexposure. By luck, I got a couple images where the ruins are nicely lit but quite a few times the area and ruins are overexposed. Whether I used my LED lantern or that flashlight, I definitely need to experiment and learn how to paint with them before using them again like this.

All in all, the run to Wickahoney was both satisfying and disappointing. I learned a lot but didn’t get exactly what I wanted. Next time….

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