The transition to Autumn is well underway as we feel and see the world around us change as the patterns of stars are replaced overhead.
I love this time of year when the Milky Way and exciting stars of Summer begin yielding to the dazzling constellations of the Winter skies.
Mythological tales are outlined in the Autumn drama of star patterns of king and queen Cepheus and Cassiopeia, their troubled daughter Andromeda, the hero Perseus and an ugly Sea Monster, Cetus. Soon to be gone below our horizon are the flying constellations of the Swan and Eagle as even the Big Dipper yields its dominance in the north to the mighty Queen Cassiopeia.
Autumn 2018 is unique in that four naked eye planets are visible this week in the skies. In the evening twilight is brilliant Venus. The next bright star above the western twilight is Jupiter. Directly south in Sagittarius and in the heart of the Milky Way is Saturn. And nobody can mistake bright red Mars dominating the skies in the high south.
This week and next through First Quarter Moon on Oct. 16th is the last time for photographers to get a great image of the Milky Way. The end of the month sees moonlight wash the starry river away. The next moonless evening cycle is the first two weeks of November, and though good photos are possible, the Milky Way is arcing across the western horizon instead of spanning overhead.
Here are some tips for shutterbugs wanting that Milky Way shot in their portfolio: A tripod is essential, but you don’t need a fancy one. Set the camera ISO sensitivity at the highest level, but 2-5,000 ISO is plenty. Next, use manual mode for 30 seconds at the lowest f-stop, probably f 3.5. Figure out how to use your self timer for at least 5 seconds and preferably 10 seconds—this eliminates unwanted camera shake. And, very important, make sure your camera focuses on the stars, which may not always be infinity, but that’s a good place to start on a manual focus. Auto focus may not sense the stars, so you might need to figure out a manual focus.
Take some horizontal and vertical photos, and try to frame the horizon with a nearby tree or structure like a barn, windmill, etc. That adds depth and an earthly element.
Do not delete any of your photos in the night, as you’ll be surprised how different the image is when transferred from a camera screen to a computer monitor. And sometimes a mistake can be artistic, so enjoy editing your Milky Way images.
What you are seeing, and photographing, is one of two huge arms of stars that comprise our Galaxy of maybe 200 billion stars. Until 100 years ago, astronomers thought the whole Universe was contained here. But the revolutionary 100-inch Hooker and 200-inch Hale telescopes on mountains in California revealed the starry structure of the Andromeda “Nebula,” and great minds like Edwin Hubble figured out our Milky Way is just one among billions in a huge Universe.
While you marvel at the Milky Way, there are plenty of bright stars making their final appearances of the year, including the Summer Triangle of stars. Deneb is in Cygnus the Swan that flies down the starry river. Brightest and in the middle Vega of Lyra the Harp, a crooked rectangle of fainter stars. Altair is the other component of this “asterism” trio, and it is in Aquila the Eagle, smaller than Cygnus but with a cross shape of stars.
Enjoy the cool, crisp air of autumn nights as the stars beckon you to look up and enjoy. And no matter what your photographic skills, have a try at photographing your own image of our celebrated Milky Way.