John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High" has been playing in my head ever since last Friday.
"I've seen it rainin' fire in the sky."
Denver supposedly penned the song after watching the Perseids high in the Colorado mountains.
We didn't go high this time; we've driven to the San Juan mountains in the past in an attempt to shoot the meteor shower sans metro light pollution and with the scraggly skyline of the Cimarron. Previous predictions of hundreds of shooting stars per hour sent us into the high country with high hopes. Never, until this year, did our excursions prove successful. Either the camera I had at the time wasn't capable of capturing shooting stars, or the predicted celestial fireworks just didn't pan out as frequent as planned.
I turned one evening's adventure into star trails, which means stacking all the individual images in Photoshop, which shows the path of the stars over the course of about an hour or so.
Star Trails in the Cimarron circa 2007
The only successful meteor shoot I'd ever experienced prior to last Friday was the Leonids back in 1999, with a film camera. Back then, most hobby photographers couldn't shoot unlimited shots. I used all 36 shots on a roll. I think I saw 16 meteors that night, but I didn't have the camera pointed in the right direction for all those shots. Nevertheless, I thought it was a GREAT meteor shower because I'd never seen so many in one night.
I captured two shooting stars on one very long exposure and rushed the film to the department store the next morning before work so I could get the film back that night. I couldn't wait to see if the shot had turned out!!!
The department store printed all my photos green. "You must have light-leaked your film," they told me. "There's nothing on here but white streaks." They weren't going to charge me for processing. I begged them to print them again, and to print them black, explaining they were sky shots with stars.
The reprints were still a tad green, but the shooting stars were very clear. I don't know where those original pictures are now, but the best one looked something like this...
Last Thursday, my bosses granted permission for me to be a couple of hours late on Friday so I could attempt to shoot what was expected to be the best Perseids show in history and then sleep a bit before reporting to work.
We set the alarm for 1 a.m. Friday because that was when the moon would set, got up and checked to see if the skies were clouded because we'd had clouds but no rain for about three weeks. We could see stars! We could even see shooting stars, even though the city lights from Denver and Aurora made the sky way too light! We grabbed the camera bag and the tripod, loaded up the car and rushed out east until we could no longer see the aura of Aurora to the northeast and north. We had to drive for an hour and a half to escape the light pollution!
Off to the south, Colorado Springs was still vivid on the skyline, but mostly because of the city lights reflecting off a huge cloud bank that was filled with electricity. Pretty cool to watch! But that wasn't why we were there.
The Lizard found a seemingly deserted dirt road, I set up the tripod and began shooting. We had to put on our fleece, but the weather was otherwise perfect.
Perseids literally rained all around us. We saw faint ones, we saw fireballs, we saw tails that took a few seconds to fade away. It was the most incredible sight!
I had not shot the night sky other than fireworks and lightning with my Big Gun, the Nikon D300. I had researched how to shoot the Milky Way, but I don't have a wide-enough angle lens for that yet. The D300 is what they call a cropped frame sensor, which means my favorite lens, 65mm, is more like 90mm, which is great for portraits and flowers. Not so good if you're trying to shoot the entire sky.
I started out with the 15-second exposures recommended for shooting the Milky Way but forgot to change the aperture, which I'd last used for macro flash photography. I was shooting at F16, which means a very tiny opening. Which means my first five or six shots, including one Perseid that just happened to pass through the sky where my camera was pointed, turned out all black. Not enough light. I didn't discover this until I checked to make sure I got the shooting star, and I was SO discouraged!
The next several shots were spent adjusting the aperture until I had star images with which I was content. From that point on, I manually fired the camera every time the shutter closed, paying attention to the block of sky where the camera was pointed but trying to watch the spectacle for as far as my peripheral vision could see. This isn't official or anything, but I think we saw a Perseid every five to ten seconds. For more than an hour!
I haven't yet gone through all 180 shots, but so far, I found seven exposures with shooting stars.
We shot until the camera battery died, then drove back home. I was so excited, it took me nearly an hour to fall asleep. I woke up at 7, then downloaded the camera and quickly scanned through the photos. I'd tried to remember which frames had shooting stars. 83, 111, 117, 126, 153...
I quickly processed the photos I remembered with Perseids, sharpening and increasing the contrast; my bosses had told me they wanted to see photos. I had to have something to show for my unplanned vacation time! Then I looked for the photo with the plane. Yes, a plane went through one of my exposures!!! I couldn't help thinking of Hervé Villechaize!
Then I quickly grabbed 36 consecutive exposures and stuffed them in a separate folder so I could run the star trails action in Photoshop. With that, my work was done. I rushed to water the garden, then The Lizard dropped me off at the train, and I had SUCH a hard time staying awake until 5. But I made it through the day, and oh, was it ever worth it!
I am SO glad we got to see the Perseids this year! What an incredible show! A true meteor SHOWER!!!