By Sunday night, I’d had enough of Twitter, CNN, COVID-19, Costco, and everything else about this pandemic. I needed an escape to sanity, to tranquility. So with the family safely sequestered at home and Netflix running overtime, I did what any normal wannabe-hermit would do in a time of crisis: I social-distanced my ass straight out to the middle of nowhere.
In this case, “nowhere” was deepest, darkest Pennsylvania: Ricketts Glen State Park, in the state’s northeast quarter and about two hours from my town. The park is renowned for its waterfalls and old-growth forest—a rare accomplishment given that nearly all woodland was razed during the nation’s lumber era of the late 19th century. But I didn’t actually see any forests or waterfalls, or anything else in the park for that matter, since I’d arrived there after dark, following a pleasant sunset drive away from the chaos of coronavirus.
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The only thing I could see was the stars above, thanks to the park’s safe remove from most urban light pollution. It’s not quite as good as the dark skies at the state’s real gem—Cherry Springs State Park, a few hours farther to the west—but it’s far more accessible from where I live.
That was my goal: visions of outer space. It’s always been my go-to stress-reducer. Some people go scream at concerts to blow off steam, while others savor good books or dive headlong into YouTube rabbit holes.
My fix is distant galaxies, planets, star clusters, nebulae, and the complex, interconnected abundance of the Milky Way, our home galaxy. These are visual thrills that few realize exist in plain view—as long at that view isn’t diluted by the light domes created by cities and suburbs.
(Note: I favor state and national parks because they’re often in dark-sky locations, but they may also be closed due to the coronavirus spread. But dark skies can exist anywhere. Use this light-pollution map to find a good spot near you.)
Enjoying these sights can be as simple as lying down on a blanket and gazing out into the universe—not “up at the stars,” an important distinction I choose to make—or using binoculars and a star chart or planetarium app to find your way around to the best stuff.
My preferred wayfinder is Star Walk 2, which allows you to hold it up in the sky as it steers you around with directional arrows toward your chosen target.) In the right conditions, and with your eyes fully dark-adapted (no bright smartphone screens!) you can see countless deep-space objects, and fully grasp the outline of the Milky Way.
Bonus move: You can also capture these sights relatively easily with a decent camera. In fact, Milky Way photography is one of the best entrées to astrophotography you can hope for, requiring just a digital camera with a wide-angle lens, a tripod—or even a folded-up jacket on a picnic table—and the ability to make a few key settings adjustments in manual mode. It’s a process outlined nicely in this piece.
You can get stunning results that are like catnip to the Instagram crowd, allowing you to provide not just a mental diversion for yourself, but a few seconds of wondrous distraction for your friends, too.
On this visit, though, I wanted to go deeper than the Milky Way with a longer lens, zeroing in on specific celestial targets. That’s where you do have to level-up a bit with the skill, equipment, and patience, but it’s absolutely still within reach of even the rankest amateur.
The greatest challenge is the fact that the objects are dim and small, and the Earth rotates at a pretty good clip—about 1,000 miles per hour. Because they’re so dim, you have to shoot longer and longer exposures to get bright, detailed results. But when you zoom in on a target in space, it will only stay centered for a few seconds. (You don’t have this problem with wide-angle photography until you hit exposure times of around 20 seconds.)
You have to compensate for that rotation in one of two ways: 1) taking multiple short exposures and stacking the images in specific types of software, which creates increasingly cropped images but adequately replicates the effect of long exposures; or 2) using a camera mount that tracks objects as they move across the sky.
This type of mount is called an equatorial mount—when properly aligned with the Earth’s axis, it will use an internal clock drive to move the mount at the same rate as the planet rotates. Mine is a slightly older version of this product from Sky-Watcher.
It’s robust enough to manage the weight of my mirrorless Sony A7RIII camera and a reasonably large lens. (On this trip I shot with an 85mm Sigma f/1.4 and a Sony 24-70mm f/2.8) There are smaller options, such as this model from iOptron, and more affordable ones, as well, including this Orion model.
Once you have the mount, the next challenge is actually aligning it. Each will come with instructions, but the gist is that you’ll have to sight through a small telescope toward Polaris, the North Star, and then turn it on. You can go to great lengths to get it fully aligned, or just ballpark it and start shooting—even a rough alignment will still buy you at least a minute of good tracking before stars start to form trails in your images.
With that done, you can aim the camera in any direction in the sky and it will keep moving with the Earth’s rotation. (To do this, your camera needs to be on a ball-head, attached to the mount.) Try exposures of 1 to 2 minutes, different ISO settings (lower is better in order to minimize grain), and different f-stops—wide-open generates brighter results, but slightly closed will give you a more definable “cloud” presence in the Milky Way.
Then start zooming in. My chief targets Sunday night were the Andromeda Galaxy (known by the designation M31) and the Orion Nebula (M42). I went for brighter initial images that I could darken later while editing them, still gaining the benefit of detail and longer exposures. Shooting RAW images with your camera gives you greater latitude while editing the shots, and also more detail. Focus manually by targeting the brightest star you can find, and then use the star chart or the planetarium app to find these objects. I ended up with images with great detail—including dust lanes in the Andromeda Galaxy, as well as its satellite galaxy, M32—and nice pinpoint stars.
But here’s another secret: You can also shoot randomly along the Milky Way. Just point the camera somewhere that looks nice and dense, and fire away—you’re almost guaranteed to snag something that you can identify later. In my case, I did that and got a lovely shot of the Double Cluster, a pair of dense star clusters right next to each other in the constellation Perseus.
I still count myself as an extreme beginner in the world of astrophotography, but I’m thrilled with what I got Sunday night, and the mini-road trip provided just the distraction—and distancing—that I needed.
After just a few hours in this lonely, remote park, I packed up and headed home, eager to come back when the weather permitted … and when my psyche called for it.