I’ve never viewed myself as a landscape photographer. I do have photos of perhaps a dozen covered bridges, and 10 of them have been published. None of them, however, are traditional calendar material. I have photographed perhaps four lighthouses, only one of which is on the ocean. But the other three lighthouses are on my “Published Photos” web pages. If you click these words describing the photo below of the Milky Way over Cape Neddick Light (“Nubble Light”) you will be taken to a version you can zoom into and pan around. You might even be able to spot the snowy owl sitting on the rocks near the lighthouse that I saw about 8 hours previously.
I like to photograph almost anything, perhaps mostly people and nature/wildlife, and I rarely plan. I guess I have more of a photojournalistic style in most of what I photograph. I’m basically an opportunist, who gets lucky by being out in the world a lot.
Most often I get a special photo by exploring the world rather than traveling to iconic spots to get a beautiful photo that is similar and likely inferior to many beautiful photos others have taken. Only a few of the photos here were “planned,” and even for the planned photos, the planning was minimal.
For the photo above the planning happened a few hours earlier when I decided to head to a nice spot just in case I might find something good. I took my one trip to the coast the winter of 2014 to try my hand at the snowy owls. Late in the day I realized I needed a place to sleep for the night. “Hey, why not head up to York—haven’t been there for years—and maybe I’ll find something to photograph.” I woke up in the middle of the night and headed to Nubble – a place I was at once or twice back in the film days.
Most of my photos are the result of “getting lucky.” But the way one gets lucky is to spend a lot of time in places where luck might happen. “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
My day and night sky photos are no different. Few were planned; many were lucky. Here are some examples of the Celestial Lights you might photograph if you look upward and are prepared. I have included many links for those who might want to see more and maybe learn by seeing photos of others – a great way to learn in my opinion, if you also photograph your own vision rather than copy. Click on the highlighted words throughout this article to get to more photos and details that might interest or motivate you.
The moon is a popular subject for many. I’ve taken my share of moon photos, but I don’t recall any with an ocean lighthouse or covered bridge. Maybe some time I will plan one. I did write a two-part article with tips on photographing the moon.
The Milky Way is getting easier and easier to photograph with the very sensitive, low noise, current generation digital cameras and many apps that let you PLAN your shots. But few of my Milky Way photos have been planned. Some of my favorites were made during an 18-day trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon on wooden dories. One of my favorites is to the right. I managed to get it without my full-frame camera and fast lens.
The photo above was taken near the end of this fantastic trip with O.A.R.S. at a camp often called “Love Nest”. I took multiple shots to get the Milky Way and then another exposure for the camp fire. Conditions were great because this was late October, so the sun set early and I could get to bed under the stars without a tent at a very reasonable hour. I’m a morning person. This photo was shot at 7:34 pm, pretty close to my bedtime, especially after a long and exciting day on the river.
One of my really getting lucky shots was when I decided to head out on Lake Sunapee in the middle of the night to try a panorama of the Milky Way. I got it, but I also got something quite unexpected—the Northern Lights in the images when I swung to the north as seen in the photo below.
One time with only a few hours of “planning” I made a time-lapse of the Milky Way moving on a partly cloudy night. (If you haven’t figured it out yet, click the highlighted words it the preceding sentence to see the time-lapse.)
Rainbows are another classic subject. Unlike the other Celestial Lights that are described below, rainbows and glories are seen with your back to the sun. They are centered around the antisolar point, a point directly opposite the sun through your head. Rainbows are seen along an arc 42 degrees from the antisolar point. Therefore, they can only be seen when the sun is fairly low in the sky. At midday the rainbow is below the horizon.
Rainbows are rarely anticipated but much appreciated when they happen. Here are four, one when I was in the White Mountains to photograph birds, one when a neighbor alerted me to one over a New Hampshire lake we were staying on, one from St John, USVI, and finally one from a hilltop in the Hanover, NH area. All but the first of these (with the White Mountains in the background) were 4 to 7 shot panoramas.
Glories are most frequently seen from an airplane on the clouds below. A glory involves refraction, reflections, and diffraction — they all get into the act. But no matter. It pays to occasionally look for them when flying in the sun over a cloud layer — and have a camera handy. I photographed the glory below over the Atlantic returning from my first trip to Nepal.
Hexagonal plates of ice crystals falling like leaves in the sky reflect light from the sun and form a sun pillar, vertically above or below the sun. If this happens at sunset, as in this photo looking across Vermont, the sun pillar can be colorful. The peak on the left is Mount Ascutney.
A Sun Dog is a “parhelion,” a colored, luminous spot on either or both sides of the sun formed by refraction through hexagonal ice crystal plates falling with their long axes vertical. I photographed a pair shortly after sunrise when I rode my mountain bike into Cherry Pond at the Pondicherry NWR in NH.
Arcs and Halos
Arcs and Halos are also caused by sunlight refracting off ice crystals in the sky. The pair of images below was taken around noon in Arizona. The top image shows both a Circumhorizontal Arc and 22-degree Halo above it. The bottom photo shows a Circumhorizontal Arc. This amazing light show lasted for an hour.
THIS PAGE has more photos from the Arizona light show as well as sun dogs and arcs from here in New Hampshire.
Crepuscular Rays, sometimes called “god beams,” are alternating light and dark bands of rays and shadows caused by clouds intercepting sunlight. They appear to diverge in a fanlike array from the sun’s position. Below is a pair of images. The first is from New Hampshire. The second shows crepuscular-like rays over mountain peaks in the Khumbu region of Nepal. I did not discover until I wrote this piece that a nearly identical photo, taken 8 years earlier than mine, was published in an excellent book by Tim Herd that describes Celestial Lights in intricate detail. This photo was taken the first morning of a trek from Lukla to Phaplu. Along the way we delivered 200 pounds of fleece jackets to school children. This is the region hit hard by the second recent strong earthquake.
Sun stars are caused by the bending of light (diffraction) around the edges of your lens’ diaphragm (aperture). For the same reason that lenses are less sharp at f/22 than at intermediate apertures, sun stars are best created using small apertures, which means large f/numbers and wide angle lenses. The smaller the “hole” the more edge there is and the more diffraction there is. Sun stars are often best when the sun just peeks through a small opening or around a corner, as in the photo below taken shortly after the rays in the photo above morphed into a partial sun star. The second image below from NH had the sun fully in the photo.
Transit of Venus
Another mostly unplanned series of photos were made June 5, 2012. I knew this Celestial Light show was happening for the only time in the remainder of my life – Venus crossing in front of the sun. People who planned had a very dark filter to cover their lenses to protect their eyes. My friend did. He was well prepared, but it rained at his location and he only got a few not-so-great images. I got lucky when clouds moved across the sun just at the right time to get some shots without going blind. Below is one. Venus is the tiny dot in front of the sun near the top. The other smaller spots are sun spots, not dust on my lens.
A Puzzle for You
Here is a photo I took around 8 AM while waiting to board a flight from the amazing airport in Lukla (9,200 ft) for a flight to Kathmandu, Nepal. The shadow you see on the clouds is clearly from the mountains. But the sun is behind the mountains. How can this be? There is only one obviously correct answer.