Sometimes a wonderful photographic opportunity just falls into place with no effort on my part.
I watched a hawk dive down towards the water of Wet Beaver Creek and then heard the squawking of another bird—this heron—as it took flight. It landed in this tree top a moment later. And then I saw that the Moon was right there. I only had to take a step or two for this positioning of Moon and heron. And, then, a moment later, it took flight again and was gone.
On 21 December 2020, Jupiter and Saturn passed a tenth of a degree from each other in what is known as a Great Conjunction. Great Conjunctions are not rare and occur every 20 years. But the apparent separation between the two planets varies with each event and this one was the third closest in over 800 years (1226 and 1623 were closer) but only one of these was visible; the other was lost in the bright glare of twilight.
The images shown here used a 300mm telephoto lens—which is barely sufficient to resolve the rings of Saturn. The rings can be seen as making Saturn appear oval shaped.
The first image is from 1803 MST on 21 December 2020, just a few hours after closest approach. The second image has labels for the brightest moons of Jupiter and Saturn.
Below is an image showing the daily movement of Jupiter relative to Saturn. It is also easy to see the motions of Jupiter’s four largest moons as they appear in different locations for each of the three Jupiter positions.
The planets Jupiter and Saturn are drawing closer to each other in the evening sky with each passing day and will be at their closest on December 21st. In the meantime, the crescent Moon moved through the same part of the sky making a nice triplet in the evening twilight.
Here are views from two nights of the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn.
Although it’s fun to photograph the Full Moon, I actually prefer photographing a thin crescent Moon, usually just a day or two after the New Moon. The thin crescent is brightly lit while the remainder is softly lit by light reflected by Earth, hence known as Earthshine. It’s also known as DaVinci Glow. As well, the Moon does not overwhelm the night sky so that stars can also be in the photograph.
During late Spring and into early Summer the crescent Moon sets in the west-northwest and this makes it a good target for shooting at Upper Lake Mary. The long and narrow lake is aligned WNW–ESE so that the Moon casts a brilliant reflection that can run the length of the lake.
I’ve shot this several times over the last few years but never tire of it. All it requires is enough of a gap in the clouds for the Moon to shine and for light winds so that the lake surface is relatively smooth.
The past few weeks have offered numerous opportunities for photographing objects in the twilight and night sky.
Above is a photograph showing the planets Venus (visible near the top of the image) and Mercury (located just below the center of the image). The glow of evening twilight on the horizon is reflected in the shallow waters of Mormon Lake.
Taken later on the same evening is a photograph showing four planets and an asteroid in a single frame. This was taken with a 24mm focal length lens to capture these solar system objects (SSO). I did this as a fun test to see if a wide-angle lens was able to capture these dim and distant SSOs. From top to bottom are the asteroid Vesta, Uranus, Venus, Neptune, and Mercury.
Zoomed-in crops (below) show the dimmer objects that are in the image above.
Before leaving that night I did a final wide-angle shot of the southeastern sky which included the constellation Orion as well as a portion of the winter Milky Way.
The following night I was out again to test my recently purchased Nikon 180mm ƒ/2.8 ED AIS manual focus lens. A few previous tests have shown that star images are pretty good at an aperture of ƒ/2.8 but much better at ƒ/4. At ƒ/2.8 there is just a hint of star spikes; at ƒ/4 they are quite prominent. This is a stacked sequence of images of the Pleiades star cluster. Image stacking was done with Starry Sky Stacker; histogram stretching was done with rnc-color-stretch.
On 18 February there was a Lunar occultation of the planet Mars. I had planned to get up early and drive to a dark location but an alarm failure meant I barely had time to get up and set up the gear on the rear deck of the house to start the sequence. Luckily, Flagstaff is a Dark Sky City and it was dark enough to get the shots. This is a sequence from just a few minutes before the Moon moved in front of Mars followed by a longer sequence after it reappeared.
Finally, Comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) is in the northern sky making it an easy target—except that it is still very dim with a magnitude of about +12 at the time of this image. The still image is a stack of 49 images each 120 seconds duration at ISO 1600, 180mm, and ƒ/2.8. As noted above this lens is pretty good at ƒ/2.8 but better at ƒ/4. Because the comet is so dim I wanted the maximum light gathering ability so settled for an aperture of ƒ/2.8. Also in the image is M97 (“Owl Nebula”) and M108 (“Surfboard Galaxy”). The star Merak is part of the “Big Dipper.”
Also, there is an animation—made from the same images—showing the movement of the comet over a period of just under 2 hours.