There's no time for fright. The end of October is putting on a stunning show of airglow, meteors and gorgeous deep-sky objects. Relive my night on mountain tops to capture it!
Happy Halloween! As tales of walking-deads and crawling ghouls may haunt your wildest fantasies, astronomy is calling you out to trick or treat YOU! Spending a full night out alone in the dead silence of the Swiss Alps may not be for the faint-hearted, and on the contrary it can bring much needed peace, isolation, reflection and contemplation. What a reckless or foolish idea to travel two and a half hours away from home to spend a night out in the wild while the weather conditions are so unpredictable there! I would probably answer that the reward for such an enterprise could be worth taking the risk. Plus I am currently collecting a series of novel time-lapse sequences to be featured in my next big release, 'Galaxies Vol. II', the sequel to Galaxies Vol. I. In the former, I want to explore all the possibilities of a modded camera to show the fine structure and red nebulosity of our night sky in single frames. A big part of this new episode will evidently feature a part of the winter northern sky that contains a lot of this H-alpha emission: the Orion region. Theres is so much to innovate in when it comes to astro-lapse, and the boundaries are virtually endless. My wish is to develop the medium-format deep-sky time-lapse (time-lapse of deep-sky objects with foregrounds at 50-200mm) and astro-modded possibilities. It is such a difficult task, because you need to understand/know the capabilities and limitations of your cameras like the back of your hands. It is a field that has rarely (if not ever) been explored and there aren't any tutorial, so it just needs to be self-taught! I am glad and honored to be one of the pioneers of such a challenging but rewarding new field!
On October 26th, the forecast was calling for clear skies over the region of the Leman Valley, so I hopped in my car without hesitation with my gear in hand and headed for the Swiss Alps in the Valais region. I had spotted a location that could be great for shooting, as it is high enough to give a wide enough view on the mountains. I needed some peaks to be high enough to enter into the composition of some of my shots, but I also wanted a vista view from where I could test the panning mode of my Vixen Polarie tracker. I chose the Barrage d'Émosson (Emosson Dam) right at the France-Switzerland border. It offers such a place, with a signature view on the snowy Alpine ridges including a breath-taking vista on the Mont-Blanc, Europe's highest mountain! I arrived there after two and a half hours around Lake Leman and climbing 1930m of altitude. The sun had just set and the sky was turning pink. Unfortunately I had to do some scouting to prepare for my night adventures and I didn't have time to shoot the sunset. As I started setting up my cameras, I saw a guy come up towards me with his fishing rod. He was coming back from the lake that the dam holds, with some freshly fished trouts in his backpack. He was a local- a Valaisan as they are named, and with a weird Swiss-French accent he asked me if I wanted to celebrate with him the end of the day with a bottle of local white wine. After a couple glasses, his hunter friends came to pick him up and had hunted a mountain goat they had put in the trunk. People there are so nice and it's was such a neat beginning to my evening! I turned back a little tipsy towards my cameras and ate. The moon was going to be up for some time (4 hours) so I took advantage of this time to shoot scenes of the mountains, milky way and moonset, without losing focus.
When the moon eventually dipped under the horizon, I started shooting the summer part of the milky way setting behind the mountains above the lake, and I could already see a lot of red airglow there. The sky wasn't perfectly dark, nor was it perfectly clear. However remote the area can be, it is still surrounded by city lights in the valleys, not to mention Italy just behind the Mont-Blanc (Aosta region) and Chamonix to the west. This creates localized but also diffuse light that can drastically change the purity of your sky. On the other hand, even though the forecast had predicted clear skies, there was intermittent passages of high-altitude cloud veils that covered some interesting areas at times. From 1:00 am till 4:30 am, most of the sky was clear though, which enabled me to collect what I was here to do. Around midnight, I took a deep breath and started setting up my tripod, tracker, Canon 6D, Samyang 135mm and PureNight light pollution filter from Lonely Speck, for what was going to be the decisive time-lapse sequence of the night. I had had encouraging results once in Denmark with such a set up (no tracker and no light pollution filter, and at 24mm though) and I was in total doubt whether what I was doing was going to succeed. I wanted to get a shot of the Orion region with the Orion Nebula, Barnard's loop, the horse head, flame and Lambda Orionid nebulae, rising from a mountain peak peppered with pine trees. Such a shot comprises so many challenges. The first one is to get enough light with the light pollution (reduces incoming light), a perfectly stable and well oriented tracker, and some relatively short intervals to ensure smoothness. As the sequence starts in the middle of the dark mountain, I needed to sort of predict the settings, according to some test shots I had done before. I went for 15 seconds, ISO 4000 and f/2.8 to get enough light but sharpness, knowing the noise capabilities of my 6D. I could have pushed the ISO higher, but my worry was to not blow out the highlights too much in the Orion nebula, since it is very very bright overall. I also needed to be far enough to my foreground to keep everything in a decent focus, since I am shooting at such wide apertures. As I quickly stopped my sequence to look how it was before rapidly putting it back on, I just got amazed by what my eyes were seeing. Take a look at the raw file:
Then I knew I had gotten exactly what I wanted, the way I wanted. It even exceeded my expectations, and I can safely say that I have now come to a point in my skills where I can really see consistency and expertise (without pretension of course!). My conclusions were: scoop! you CAN get a all that beautiful information in a single shot with the right settings, gear and skills! From that point on, it reassured me and opened up tons of other opportunities and ideas in my mind. I was just getting started. The rest of the night I also tried to catch the region in other ways that you can view in my film below (airglow, Orionid meteors..). All in all it was such a good night in many ways, because it enabled me to get the shots I wanted for my next film, and expanded the horizon of this branch of astrolapse way more. As I got home around 7 in the morning, I slept for a few hours before spending all my day post-processing the pictures. The sequences looked even better after post-processing, and all the red color of the H-alpha pops out really well, thanks to the light pollution filter and the astro-modification. It's so nice to see something red move across the sky or the foreground, a sight that no one is used to seeing, until now!
My next stop is the Canary Islands of La Palma next month, where I will be focusing on the winter sky targets again, including telescopes and arid slopes of the volcanic island. Follow me on social media for more exciting updates! Until then, Take care!
WATCH THE FILM: