Looking Up Down Under

Gary Hart: Milky Way and Small Magellanic Cloud, Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand

Milky Way and Small Magellanic Cloud, Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand
Sony a7SIII
Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM
ISO 1600
f/1.8
20 seconds

James Webb Space Telescope’s First Deep Field image

Are you as thrilled as I am by the mesmerizing images we’re seeing from the James Webb Space Telescope? There’s nothing like a heaping dose of perspective to remind humans of our insignificance in the grand scheme things, and these images deliver perspective in spades.

I think my favorite Webb image is the view deep into a seemingly tiny black region of sky that reveals thousands of galaxies. How tiny? According to the NASA website, “This slice of the vast universe covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground.”) The light from these galaxies traveled as far as 13.1 billion years to reach us, which means we’re getting a view of our nascent Universe as it was less than a billion years after the Big Bang.

I get another dose of perspective, albeit on a much smaller scale, each time I visit the Southern Hemisphere. After a lifetime living north of the equator, I pretty much take for granted the Northern Hemisphere night sky. When I’m outside after dark, I reflexively look up and locate the Big Dipper. Using the Dipper’s pointer stars, my eyes slide to Polaris (the North Star) to locate north, then slowly scan the surrounding sky for other familiar features: bright stars Arcturus and Spica, constellations Cassiopeia and Corona Borealis, among many. If it’s dark enough, I try to pick out the Little Dipper and the Andromeda Galaxy.

Looking up at night in the Southern Hemisphere is downright disorienting. Most of the stars and constellations are completely unfamiliar (but no less beautiful), and those that are familiar (like Orion), appear “upside down.” (There’s no true up and down in space because up/down, left/right is always relative to the viewer’s frame of reference.) The Milky Way down here is reversed, and I’ll never forget the first time I watched a Southern Hemisphere moonrise and realized that it moved left (north) as it rose—duh.

A personal Southern Hemisphere highlight is the opportunity to see the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. Like the first (only) time I saw the Taj Mahal and Stonehenge, my first view of the Magellanic Clouds was like spotting a celebrity I’d heard about my entire life but never imagined I’d see in person.

The Magellanic Clouds are satellite galaxies of our Milky Way. The Large Magellanic Cloud is about 160 light years from Earth and estimated to contain 30 billion or so stars; the Small Magellanic Cloud is about 200 light years distant and weighs in at around 3 billion stars. It also appears the the SMC orbits the LMC, making it a satellite of a satellite.

In a dark Southern Hemisphere sky, both Magellanic Clouds appear as smudges of light, faint but clearly visible. The diameter of the LMC is about 5 degrees, while the SMC spans less than 2 degrees (for reference, the Sun and Moon are each about 1/2 degree across when viewed from Earth). None of Magellanic Clouds’ individual stars are bright enough to be resolved with the human eye.

About this image

In an earlier post I detailed the night I photographed the Milky Way over Cecil Peak and Lake Wakatipu. It was the first night of the New Zealand winter photo workshop Don Smith and I do each year, and we were pretty pleased that the conditions cooperated so nicely.

We came straight here from our sunset shoot, then waited for the sky to darken enough for the Milky Way to appear. Toward the end of the shoot, once everyone was locked in and feeling good about their results, I started to look for ways to do something a little different and my eyes landed on the Magellanic Clouds. But there were a couple of problems: first, there’s a lot of sky between them and the Milky Way, which was still going to be my primary subject; second, they were both above a blob of large shrubs (or small trees) on the lakeshore.

It’s times like this that I especially love the wide field of view of my Sony 14 f/1.8 GM lens. This lens is always great in New Zealand because the Milky Way’s core here is so high in the sky, the wide field of view enables me to get lots of Milky Way and foreground. This evening I found that by going horizontal at 14mm, I could in fact get the Milky Way and Small Magellanic Cloud in my frame without crowding either too close to the border.

But now the ugly shrubs were in my frame too. The solution for that problem was simply to walk about 50 yards up the lake. Engaging the Bright Monitoring feature on my Sony a7SIII (Sony shooters need to look up this underused feature that’s fantastic for night photography—mine’s assigned to a custom button on all of my bodies), I saw in my viewfinder that the shrubs were no longer a problem.

I only shot here for about 5 minutes, but by the time I made it back to the group, the group was ready to head back to the hotel for dinner—always a good sign that everyone was happy with their results.

Here’s my Photo Tips article on Milky Way photography

New Zealand Photo Workshops


Looking Up

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