Monday, August 17, 2015

The Stars they come stealing at the close of the day

Amazing night in Algonquin Park

I had an adventurous visit to Algonquin Park on Saturday. Nothing physical, I can't do the things I used to do in the past, but a trip that more or less worked the way I planned it. I had intended to go up early evening, scout locations for shooting stars later, shoot a sunset somewhere, probably ending up on the beach at Lake of Two Rivers campground where I would sit in the car on the beach, the same spot Mark and Ron and I visited last September.

The problem with shooting pictures of stars is it only works when there are no clouds. If you live in this part of the world, it's really hard to predict when that will be. There are some sites out there, like but their forecasts only go out two days (Navigate around their site to find a local observatory. They have 1900 of them in North America. Here's one in Algonquin Park).

I had been hoping that clear skies would coincide with the peak of the Perseid meteor shower, but it was cloudy up there Thursday night. I did shoot some in the Minden area, though. Two nights later, the forecast was for clear skies, But one problem I anticipated was the high humidity, which meant that the camera would "dew" up (sure enough, it did).

Anyway, I headed out on Saturday afternoon, planning to sit there all night. I should have stayed a bit longer than I did, but I was happy anyway! I invited a bunch of friends, but nobody came along, so it was just me, myself and I. I brought my D800 and wide angle lens, heavy duty tripod, cable release, extra batteries, and a handwarmer. You'll see why in a minute. I packed a cooler bag with a couple of sandwiches and some pop, plus a thermos full of hot coffee. I threw a bathing suit and towel in the car, a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt.

In preparation, I had phoned Algonquin Park Information, because I was concerned about the number of visitors to the Park (summer weekend) and wondered if that would interfere with my plans. "Not a problem", I was told, "just be sure to get a day pass". Debbie knows what she's talking about but some of the more junior staff are not on the same page. I also picked her brain, to ask if she knew any spots to suggest. I told her I was looking for a North view, far enough off Highway 60 to avoid light pollution from passing cars.  She suggested a few spots.

The first challenge came when I entered the park and stopped to buy a permit. No such luck. Permits expire at 10pm, and, according to the young lad at the counter, you can't buy a permit for the next day. He's wrong. He said the only overnight permit is for camping which is (1) expensive, (2) I didn't want to camp and (3) all the campgrounds were full so they wouldn't sell me one anyway.

After a fruitless attempt to contact a supervisor, I asked about the fine for not having a permit: $65, the guy told me (wrong. It's actually $155!). But I said, "you have to catch me first"!

UPDATE: I've rewritten the following after another phone conversation with Debbie at Algonquin Park information. 
So here's the deal. They know that some people come in to the Park for stargazing. What you need to do is to buy a two day pass (or two passes) that doesn't expire until the following night at 10. If you get an argument, tell them to look in their computer, it's available. This information is from a park supervisor via Debbie on the info line. With that pass or passes displayed on your dashboard, you should be good.
The rules say you can't be in the Park after 10pm unless you're a registered camper or "other legitimate occupant", and stargazing (or photography) qualifies. If it were me, I would make sure you make them aware of you and what you're planning to do when you buy your permit, or I'd call in advance to go on record. Phone them at 1 705 633 5572 during business hours. Or email

Once in the Park, I headed for the suggested spots to scout them out. One didn't pan out, it involved parking in a spot right by the highway and hiking in... (my car would have been ticketed for sure, and anyway, I didn't want to hike in and sit in the bush all night), and one did. I'm going to keep it to myself for now... but it was far enough off the road to make it unlikely I'd be seen, and there was zero light pollution! That's the good news.

Here's the bad news (depending how you look at it): I found out that a large bull moose and a big sow black bear had been seen in that area. Right there.

It was hot and muggy. So I stopped at the Lake of Two Rivers beach for a swim. There was a telephone booth there: I REALLY wanted to change into my bathing suit in a phone booth like Superman, but discretion proved the better part of valour – there were too many people around! Had a great swim – the lake must be spring-fed as its name implies: the water when you get more than a few feet down was c-c-c-cold!

On Highway 60 there was a "Bear Jam". One car spots something and pulls over, five minutes later there's a crowd scene!

One little bear cub, barely visible in the brush, and a riot ensues. I wondered where mama bear was... 

I checked out the campground beach and filed it in the back of my mind as an alternative location to shoot. I'd have to avoid the park rangers, though. While I was there, I took a gratuitous shot of a girl in a bikini...

... and went back along the highway to look for a spot where I could get a sunset picture. I didn't find one, really, but I took this shot:

HDR merge in Lightroom. I liked the warm sunlight on the rocks. 

Off I went to my secret spot where I parked the car out of sight and set up the camera. The built-in compass in the iPhone is really neat, but it was set for "Magnetic North", not "True North". I discovered that just in time when I looked up and saw the big dipper where the camera was pointing instead of Polaris. I moved the car in front of the camera to get a few shots with foreground interest before it got really dark, tried a little light painting but that didn't really work out. The mosquitoes made me retreat back into the car where I sat, waiting for dark.

So here I am, all alone, in the dark, going out to set and reset the camera. In big bull moose and bear territory. "They're more afraid of me than I am of them", I've heard...if you make noise to let them know you are there! Fortunately there was nobody around to offend with my loud singing and harmonica playing.

Looking North, I was disappointed that the skies didn't really look dark. I decided to start capturing a sequence at 10:30. As I said, dew buildup was a concern and about 10 photos in, this is what I got:

pretty useless, right? 

That's what the handwarmer was for. I had read that if you strap it to your lens, it heats it up to prevent the condensation from forming. It didn't seem to actually get warm to the touch – they're designed to work in a confined area – note to self, get some new ones and bring some plastic wrap to enclose it next time. But it did the job or the weather conditions changed enough: no more condensation.

When I looked at the back of the camera, what was all that colour about? I couldn't see it with the naked eye: OH MY! Aurora Borealis. I scrolled back and looked at one of the first images before the lens fogged up:

No words, right? 

So I shot a sequence of a little over 100 exposures over the next hour, which I planned to merge into a star trails image using StarStaX (I came up with another solution too: look below, or click here!). Then I decided to move the camera to face South, so I could capture the Galactic core of the Milky Way.

I did this shot by turning the camera to face South so I could get the car (inside lights on, obviously) and the Milky Way . 30 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 800, 17mm lens. Among other things, the new dehazing filter in Lightroom worked wonders. 

In hindsight, I should have tried some different exposures. Higher ISO made it easier for some photographers I've been following to get more detail out of the Milky Way, with less effort in post-processing. The mosquitos were annoying so I just decided to go with what I had.

This is about the best I've been able to do. I'm not satisfied yet...the Milky Way doesn't stand out enough from the other stars. Just means I have to go back! 

I turned the camera North again but the Aurora had faded. I decided to pack up and go home at around 12:30. By 2 am I was home and uploading images!

I tried to find a couple of ways to show you what it was like there. The first way was with a little 30 second time-lapse video which I posted on my site. Here's the link. Click it. You'll like it!
Watch the 30 second video clip. If you watch carefully, you'll see seven meteorite events, remnants from the Perseid Meteor Showers. On Thursday night there were over 100/hour, seems to be down to just a few on Saturday.

By the way, the music in the video clip is played by Bob Culbertson on a unique instrument called the "Chapman Stick". It defies description: you should check out this YouTube video

Here's the second way: a StarStaX composite of about 110 images (I deleted the initial 15 fogged up ones)

When you run StarStaX, you can watch the image building. It lays the next image on top of the stack in "lighten" mode which works great for the stars but not so well for the Aurora, because they get muddier and less distinct as each image is added. So when it was all done, I opened the resulting image and stacked in another copy of one of the earlier images, this time in "saturation" mode. Effective, but not as smooth and subtle as a single image like the one further up this blog post.

I think the video is the best way of communicating what it was actually like. Had I stayed longer, I might have been able to do a longer clip that would have done justice to the whole experience. As I said, an excuse to go back again!

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