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Deep Sky Photography. What Could Go Wrong?

The "winter" Milky Way - Orion - and Comet 46P

Ah, Door County, Wisconsin! I've always heard rumblings about this little peninsula jutting off of the state of Wisconsin. In fact, it's this peninsula that prompts some residents of Wisconsin to call their state the "mitten" state. I could see that, maybe, if I was really drunk. We all know that mitten description belongs to the state that really does look like a mitten - Michigan. But, I digress.

Door county is still a very scenic location. The cliffs along the shoreline of Lake Michigan are a sight to behold. The teal hue to the crystal clear water is breathtaking. I was up that was back in June during the Great Milky Way Chase, a social media challenge run by the folks over at Milky Way Chasers. I'll write a separate post about the craziness of that challenge another time. However, it was that day when I knew this spot would become a favorite. For one, Door County is in a Bortle Class 3 index for light pollution. Granted, this isn't the best, but for this area of the country, a class 3 is phenomenal, and will get you some great images. The Bortle scale is a 0-9 numeric scale that measures the night sky's brightness of a particular location. It quantifies the astronomical observability of celestial objects and the interference caused by light pollution. For reference, Chicago is on a 8/9. Until getting into astrophotography, I had no idea just how far reaching light pollution is. To put this in perspective, Door County is ~300/350 miles from Chicago, and its still in a Bortle 3. Granted, there's also Milwaukee, Sheboygan, and Green Bay to the west, but its crazy how far these lights travel. If you look in the image above, you can see see the "light blooms" from the various cities on the horizon. What's the point to all this about light pollution? Well, in order to see the some of these fainter celestial objects, you need as little extra light as possible.

December we were treated to a comet being visible in the night sky around the constellations Orion and Pleiades. Known as Comet 46P/ Wirtanen , or "the Christmas Comet", this small green/teal object would be visible for most of the month, but made is closest approach on Dec. 16th. It also so happened that the Geminoids meteor shower would be peaking on the 13th. Unfortunately, for us mid-westerners, we would be clouded out for the peak of the showers. I decided to go up to Wisconsin on the 14th, as soon as the clouds cleared, in hopes to catch some stay meteors. I didn't see anything really spectacular.

The whole point to this trip was to give a go with very basic "deep sky" photography. I've used a star tracker on wide-angle and normal focal lengths, but never with the telephoto. It has always intimidated me. Well, since I had all night to fumble around in the cold, figured now was as good of a time as ever to give it a go. The issue with longer focal lengths is that your polar alignment of the tracker had to be spot on. I'm horrible at this alignment, honestly, so I figured this whole thing would be a disaster. I also wanted to take the astro-modded Nikon D7000 out for its first imaging session. After shooting with full frame stuff for a while, I kind-of forgot that the crop sensor stuff lacks quite a bit of the extra functionality that the pro-level cameras offer. The biggest of these missing features is the ability to take longer than 30-second exposures. I did have a wired remote with me, but the 7000 also uses a different connector. Well, crap... I guess it'll have to be saved for another outing. I went back to using the D850.

Another wide-angle view of the Comet over Lake Michigan.

The first few images were the typical wide-angle shots that I do for nightscapes. These were tracked, as well. There's some very faint nebulousity around Orion that I was trying to get to show up. The extra long exposure times help in that regards. I still didn't quite get it in these shots. an astro-modded camera helps capture the faint reds in this h-alpha channel.... which, well, see above. LOL.

After getting a few images in wide angle, I switched over the to the telephoto. You know what's fun when shooting with a telephoto at night? Finding your target subject. With the much narrower field of view, and looking to mostly darkness, this proved to be quite the task. The extra weight of rig itself is not to be underestimated. DO NOT skimp on a sturdy tripod or tripod head/ballhead. You will regret it and it will drive you absolutely nuts as nothing will stay put, and staying put is critical when doing long exposures! I finally invested in a quality ballhead and tripod that can handle the weight and its 100% worth the money. 100%. 100000%.

The next step would be to locate Polaris. For those of us who are used to light polluted skies, what used to be a simple process quickly can become disorienting when you can see a billion more stars! I remember back in New Mexico, seeing truly dark skies for the first time since I was a kid - and not being able to find the big dipper anymore. It sounds silly, but its true. Of course, once you get your "bearings" , you'll start to be able to see those iconic constellations again with ease. There's a few aps out there for the phone to help, too. My favorites are Sky Walk 2 and Stellarium.

How did this all turn out? Well, here's a few shots!

Comet 46P.

Orion, Horsehead, and Flame Nebula.

Pleiades Star Cluster

All three of these were taken with the Nikkor 70-200mm lens at 200mm. I didn't have the polar alignment perfect, *surprise surprise*, so the exposures were limited to 13-20 seconds before they started trailing. However, with a bump in ISO and wide aperture, was able to gather enough data to bring out some detail. In an ideal world, I would have taken something like 40 exposures for object, another 10-20 "dark" frames, and then light frames. This way the stacking software could subtract out the digital noise, and get more of the high dynamic range needed to bring out the beautiful details in these heavenly subjects. All of these images were made from 5-6 exposures and then stacked to being out more detail and noise reduction. Honestly, I wasn't expecting to be able to pull this much detail from such little data. I guess that's a testimate to the latest technology in camera sensitivity!

Of course no trip would be complete without staying up for sunrise!

Cave Point County Park at sunrise

The only ice patch I was able to find.

Honestly, I was REALLY hoping for some ice and snowscapes. We have been in a warm weather pattern as of late, so all the snow and ice melted. You know what that means? Just have to go back!

All in all, it was a decent first trip out for Deep Sky imaging. Ran into some "teething" issues with trying to figure out the D7000, which ended up in failure. Also, I cannot express enough how important it is to have the proper gear - both for the camera and yourself. Even though it was relativity warm with temperatures in the 20s, when you are out there for an extended period of time, it gets COLD. When you are cold, it becomes miserable, which then ruins the whole experience. So, be prepared! Another topic I didn't touch on because I wasn't effect by it this night is condensation with cameras and lenses. When it does get cold enough, the camera lens can develop condensation. Those handy hard warmers can help with this, by taping them to the lens. You'll want them anyways for your own hands. Luckily, I didn't need them for the camera. I also made sure to keep the camera equipment outside of the car, when I went in to take a break to warm up.

As always, thanks for reading and thanks for all the support! I truly appreciate the comments and feedback on the images. :)

Until next time!

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