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May I say, that I am really very stoked about my first APOD image – enjoy!
But, first of all many thanks to my TWAN colleague Babak Tafreshi for the inspiration, and Bernd Pröschold for the Weather cross-check! And many thanks to a blue hole in a otherwise cloud covered Sky above Switzerland. Reminded me a bit of a hole in a Swiss cheese 😉
The winding road to an APOD
I’d like to give an insight here on the creating of my APOD image. First because it was such a great adventure capturing it. A lot of planning ahead, a fair amount of luck and a very patient farmer were the ingredients of achieving it. As well as my understanding wife & family, since I took half a day and a full evening off a family holiday for the drive to the location and selecting/processing the images later on.
Second, just watching this amazing beautiful conjunction, a timeless sight with my ARTES HR8.5×45WP binoculars was also an experience I will never forget. All this, including the adventure and planning that leads to such an image, is what I love about TWAN landscape astrophotography. So here’s a brief “Making-of” regarding this image, I would like to share with you.
At the software side, there are helpful apps that make planning and last-minute adjustments easier, as well as increasing the success rate. The rest is luck (weather) and to be at the right place at the right time. For iPhone I use RedShift (also available for OSX), PeakFinder, WeatherPro, MeteoEarth and sometimes PhotoPills and SunSeeker. Naturally Google Earth is the main tool for simulating and researching landscapes.
A short trip to Switzerland
WeatherPro’s preview for my planned location at Schruns, Montafon (place of our Family Holiday) looked not that bad the evening before 2nd. The car was prepped with everything ready to use on location. Tripod, D800, loaded batteries, 2x converter, binocs. For a challenging image project like this, I prefer Nikon’s D800, with it’s amazing crop possibilities in post processing, and the outstanding image quality up to high ISO. A 2x Teleconverter, Nikon’s TC2-E3 would of course soften the image a bit, but by staying stopped down to f8 as long as possible, I tried to minimize this effect. My old 4th Gen. AFS 80-200/2.8 would provide a versatile zoom range.
Some of Bernd’s Satellite Data, he had sent me earlier, looked also quite promising for high and low clouds and everything in between…
Last Minute decision
But by the time I hopped into the car on the afternoon of January 2nd, it didn’t look good for my previously selected location near Schruns, upper Montafon. Blue dot – my location, planned location – red dot. And I didn’t have so much time to drive around.
Amazingly, while I was driving towards Schruns, the blue sky hole visible on the animated Satellite view in WeatherPro appeared nearby the Swiss border. I quickly exited the highway at Feldkirch, called Bernd again. I was lucky, he was in front of his PC, checking the current weather data stream. Bernd was like Babak and other TWAN photographers around the globe about to leave for imaging the crescent. After a short talk, considering cloud movement and wind directions, we both agreed that going West to Switzerland would probably be my best bet. We hoped that by the time I would arrive behind the Mountain range on the Horizon (Alpstein), I should still be inside the blue window with a hopefully good view towards south. Later clouds would come in again, but until then I should be finished.
But: I didn’t know the locations around Alpstein, so finding the right angle towards Venus would be the real challenge – the adventure could start!
I decided to head for the Mountain Region west of the “Hoher Kasten“, called “Appenzell”. About 55 Minutes later I was already driving trough the most beautiful Swiss meadows imaginable. Keeping the sun in my “visor”, as Venus would set circa 4 degrees right of the sun.
While driving trough this gorgeous Landscapes I realized that I could not approach the “Hoher Kasten” Top-Station to avoid a wrong angle towards Venus, as there was no quick access to the Station from North.
It then became immediately clear, that the “Säntis” Mountain Peak Station would provide a better shilouette towards Venus, as well as some dramatic snowstorms at it’s ridge (which however settled during the crescent).
Now I had to correct my position far more to the east of Säntis, to get Venus setting above the famous Swiss Landmark. And I also had to gain some height to get a good elevation to the horizon. As I drove and drove smaller and smaller winding roads, the sun was already painting the Peaks red – time was running.
Spotting the “Guggeier”, a Hill towards East that would give me elevation and sight, I had to find my way up there over a zillion of small mountain roads with some dead ends. I checked Google Maps satellite view to see where I would go, and it took me another 5 minutes to find the best road towards that location (zooming in and out of Google Maps satellite view is a bit tricky on the iPhone). Sun was already setting on the highest peaks.
Trapped at a Dead End Street
Then the worst case happened: After another 5 Minutes driving up a narrow road, I stranded at a dead end street of a private house. However, due to trees and other obstacles limiting my horizon view at locations below, this place was my only option.
The Venus clock was ticking loud. I walked around the house to find someone to ask if I could stay, but it was unoccupied, rear windows closed. I don’t recommend staying at a location without prior permission, and I would have asked farmers nearby, but time was running out. Luckily in the next moment a car was coming up the old mountain road towards my parked car.
A farmer jumped out of the car, wondering what I was doing there – but he exposed a friendly face. Thank God. I totally would have understood if he would be angry, since I hadn’t asked permission.
It turned out however, the house was a privately owned summer residence he was in charge of, and he had thought I was the owner, surprise-arriving without prior notice. After I had explained what I was up to and that I was running a bit out of time capturing a very rare Venus-Moon conjunction, he smiled, said “really no problem”, shaked my hand and told me to “take as much time as I needed”. I regret not having noted his contact to later thank him again for his patience and to show him the results at a beer. Often criticized for this and that, Swiss people are in general very friendly – if one asks carefully and explains the mission – which is always my approach. Being raised nearby in Vorarlberg’s as well beautiful Montafon valley, I can speak “Schwyzerdütsch” and understand some Romansh, so that helped at the conversation.
Just in time I prepped up the Nikon D800, AFS 80-200/2.8 combo, and started imaging with the ARTES binoculars in my right to check the motive and the camera remote trigger in the left hand. It was not a single second too late. The very dim moon crescent was nearly impossible to spot with naked eye, so the binoculars proved a great tool. I then worked on the motive switching between 2x TC2-E3 converter for 400 mm length (a bit softer) and using the original 200 mm setting (sharper image). Doing this, I noticed that for best sharpness I would rather focus with Liveview at 200 mm and then attach the 2x converter, instead of trying to focus with the attached converter.
Tipp: For motives like this and starry sky images in general I ALYWAYS use the Live view magnification, to make sure sharpness is spot on. Autofocus can be a little bit off from time to time, and this “little bit” will spoil the picture. A couple of frames later… Venus was setting incredibly fast.
Finally Venus was gone or hidden behind the Alpstein, dawn set in with the crescent moon increasing brightness, and the Moon’s earth shine was visible for a long time. Time to relax a bit and enjoy the scenery. It was when I discovered that a skiing slope below was starting to brightly illuminate the Alpstein mountain. Uh oh, Light Pollution even at this place… But the D800 managed this contrast very well.
Finally, time for a panorama. What a lovely place.
As Bernd had estimated, clouds from the Northwest were slowly setting in. So the blue hole in the sky had just lasted long enough to get that one shot. Thanks to the pilot, too, who flew the plane between Moon and Venus.
When the above panorama image was taken, I packed my stuff together to drive home and immediately process the images.
The next morning I discovered that I obviously forgot to pack in my loved Manfrotto geared head tripod, so I have to visit that place again. I hope this time I can drink a beer with the farmer.
All in all, it was a great evening and experience. And excellent teamwork. I will never forget this great sight. Many thanks for watching, too.
All the best and happy 2014!