Reigning over the winter night sky is one of the most recognizable constellations. And hiding within the blade of the Great Hunter’s sword is the nebula bearing the same name – a massive stellar factory, giving birth to countless new stars, and among the brightest and most easily visible nebulae in the sky.
Still swept up in the ineffable joy of finally photographing both the eclipse and Andromeda galaxy last August, my heart swelled with excitement at the prospect of capturing the light from this breathtakingly beautiful celestial sight.
I had some vacation time recently, and in truly spontaneous fashion, threw a sleeping bag in the back of my car, picked up the 600mm lens again from my trusty camera rental store, and decided to drive east until I found clear skies. With NOAA’s National Weather Service site pulled up on my phone, I drove into the night with the sunset at my back, and patchy clouds painting the sky.
As I made my way further east, I entered the cover of a menacingly thick cloud bank. “Just a little further east,” I told myself. “NOAA says it’s going to be clear.” But the cloud bank was seemingly endless, as I drove over grassy, rolling, rural hills. The further I drove, the deeper my heart sank. But my determination was unwavering.
And it paid off.
After four hours of driving, I began to see little glimpses of sky peaking through the thick cloud layer. As I approached a larger city on my route, the cloud cover became increasingly sparse, and by the time I was in the city, I found myself amidst an enormous hole in the cloud bank.
But I was in the city. Oh, the light pollution…
My determination persisted, despite. I drove around the streets on the outskirts of the city, abutting the edge of the cloud bank, searching for the darkest skies to afford me a view of the Hunter. On the light pollution map, I ended up settling in an orange region. Oy. I have never shot in such light polluted skies. I definitely had my work cut out for me.
I found a grassy field on the side of a semi-busy road and set up my equipment in the piercingly cold, dry air. My toes and fingers went numb, as I shivered in the 20-degree weather, and methodically clicked off picture after picture in half-second increments at various ISOs, and manually readjusted the altitude and azimuth positions of my camera/tripod every few minutes.
Never really knowing how many exposures I needed in order to produce an acceptable final image, I went by my usual principal of “give it your all” and shot for a total of 4 hours in the bitter cold. Afterward, I retired to a brief night of sleep, before heading back home in the morning light.
What I ended up doing
- Camera: Canon 6D
- Lens: Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM
- Total exposure: 5 min, 19 sec (437 light frames)
- ISO range: 400 – 25,600
- Aperture: f/4
Though considered an accessible target, in retrospect, I’m not sure whether Orion was easier or harder than Andromeda. It certainly required less in terms of exposure time (5 minutes versus 13), but the technical challenge was palpable, probably due to a combination of my desperate search for clear skies, topped off with a battle against epic light pollution. But in the end, light pollution can sometimes be overcome, while clouds cannot.
It was worth every bone-chilling minute.