An amateur tries his luck at the midnight skies

... watching for comets, all we could see were stars

from Don Norris

It was mid-August, and the astronomers told us that we would experience two nights of
shooting stars, sometime between 1a.m. and 5a.m. We were watching the tube when I
suddenly remembered this was the night. So I quickly grabbed my Canon camera, a
tripod and a flashlight and ran out to see the sky alight with brilliant comets.

Above, a "normal" exposure. At the right, the same photo after treatment in Adobe

Unfortunately there were none. Not a single shooting star. Too early, I concluded,
but as long as I had the camera set up on a tripod, I could try my luck at "non-
shooting stars". Keep in mind this is metropolitan Boston, and the chance of seeing
lots of stars is fairly slim. But it was a good night, pretty clear, and we are just
far enough from the lights of downtown Boston to get a decent view of the heavens.

The camera thing is strictly a hobby with me, although some 40 years as a journalist
did give me an advantage. I set the tripod down in the driveway, which gave me a
rather tight view of the skies -- between the house and the trees around us.

I set the ISO to 6400 -- very sensitive to light -- and opened the zoom lens wide --
to f5.3 -- then turned the speed-dial to "B". And for the first time, I screwed in a
push-button release line so I could shoot in terms of seconds. The lens was set to a
short telephoto setting of 135mm -- kind of short for star-gazing, but then I could
use the fold-out view finder anyway.  Folding the screen-viewer helped, but I was
very limited to what I could see.

I pointed the telephoto lens at what I thought would be  good spot in the sky, looked
at the screen, and pushed the release button for (I guess) four seconds. To my
surprise, it was right on, and I had a picture of the stars!

So I kept doing that -- there were no shooting stars -- by trying to remember the
constellations up there, without much luck. It's been a long time. But then, just
above the roof line, there was the little dipper, still upside down, but bright with
seven stars. Long time, no see.

I switched the tripod around to the north, where, for some odd reason, the horizon
was a relatively bright orange. Strange, but I photographed that, too -- but the
picture looked like the sun had just set, at 1a.m.

Ah ha! A star so close that we could almost fly there. I wonder if it, too, has a
bunch of planets circling it, where other creatures grow.

But then, suddenly, a huge airplane began its approach to Logan International, some
six miles to the southeast of our hilltop home in Melrose. Quickly I spun the camera
on its tripod, sort of aimed it at the airplane, and pressed the remote button, One,
two, three and close.

It turned out just great -- a white streak across the black sky, with a light that
flashed on and off every second. What luck! Simple achievements make me happy!

I spent about an hour in the darkness, hoping for a "shooting star" but without
seeing a one. My collection, however, kept growing as I experimented with various
settings. In the end I had some 50 shots of the sky -- plus another group of blurry
pix that resulted when trying to use a longer telephoto lens. It was a good
experiment, and I think, soon, Lorry and I will travel back to Penobscot Bay in
Maine, where the night skies are filled with millions of stars. I've seen them,
there, before the advent of digital photography.

September 6, 2013

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