As National Astronomy Week 2011 began in northeast Alabama, so many people were dealing with the tremendous devastation of the tornados that ravaged the area just the previous Wednesday. Even though we had no damage at our home, power was out for miles in all directions and had been for the better part of four days.
My teenage sons were barely surviving without their video games, computers, or even televisions. By this particular evening, they had pretty much grown tired of running out to the car to plug up their cell phones for a quick charge and were looking for any diversion from all the hours of darkness. Though neither had ever shown much interest in astronomy, I recognized an opportunity.
For months I had been putting together all the equipment necessary for astrophotography, and this seemed like the perfect time to give it a try. As we lugged out my mount and five inch reflector, I really couldn’t believe the darkness. There were no street lights or lights coming from the neighbors windows. The moon was yet to rise, and even the normal glow of the nearby city was gone. There was nothing but pure blackness all around.
While I fumbled in the dark to set everything up, my sons couldn’t wait to take the first image. Finally, I turned the scope toward one of the brightest deep space objects visible, M13, the great Hercules globular cluster. I nervously connected the T-ring and DSLR, focused as best as I could, and set the exposure for "bulb." What film speed? How long of an exposure? Questions kept popping into my mind, while all the time thinking that I should have read more before trying this. Then again, nights like this do not come along all that often.
So I gave my 16-year-old, Dalton, the camera remote and my 14-year-old, Logan, my watch. Logan would say "go" and Dalton would open the shutter. Then Logan would say "stop" and Dalton would close the shutter. I decided to try for a one minute exposure at 800 ISO.
Now, when you take long exposure photographs, they are very big files, and the camera takes a long time to save them before they can be viewed.
"Go" said Logan.
I thought that little red light on the back of the camera would never stop blinking. Then it did, and there it was. M13 was right there on the LCD screen of my camera just like it was in all the books! When my sons saw it, well, I didn’t even know teenage boys could be so excited by something other than the aforementioned video games, texting, and of course girls.
Yes, the photo turned out great, but the time together was so much more important. With such destruction all around, I couldn’t help but look up to that pitch black sky and think what a lucky man I was! It wasn’t a big celebration, but it was a very special night.