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Geminid Meteor Shower over Great Sand Dunes National Park

Geminid Meteor Shower over Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Geminid Meteor Shower over Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

The December 2020 Geminid meteor shower promised to be spectacular. The Geminids are always one of the most prolific and reliable meteor showers of the year, and in 2020 they coincided with new moon, which meant the meteors would dart across the darkest possible sky. The wild card was the weather.

Months in advance, I laid plans to shoot the 2020 Geminids from Murphy Point in the Island in the Sky District in Canyonlands National Park. As the time drew near, however, the weather forecast for Canyonlands grew worse and worse. The forecast for Rocky Mountain National Park, just an hour’s drive from my home in Boulder, wasn’t much better, so I began planning a shoot at Great Sand Dunes National Park, where the forecast called for mostly clear skies during the peak night, Sunday, December 13, into Monday, December 14.

The forecast also called for snow on Saturday, followed by rapid clearing late Saturday night. On Saturday I drove five hours to the park, hoping to shoot a winter wonderland Sunday morning. I arrived in time to shoot sunset, but the clouds were so low it was impossible to see the dunes, much less the 14,000-foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Range rising above them. After giving up on sunset, I pitched my tent at the Zapata Falls campground as snow continued to fall.

After a windy, snowy night, I got up at 4:15 a.m., drove into the park, and hiked for an hour to the top of High Dune. The hoped-for winter wonderland hadn’t materialized. The fresh snow had either melted as it fell or blown away. I shot a rather mundane sunrise, shot a few more frames when the sun came over the ridge, and hiked out.

Winter days are short, so instead of wasting time driving back to my campsite for a nap, I crashed in my truck for an hour, ate lunch, then began organizing clothing, food, and camera gear for an all-night meteor-shower shoot.

I had shot meteor showers before, most successfully below Snowmass Mountain in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, the Titan in the Fisher Towers, Turret Arch in Arches National Park, Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, and along the rim of Monument Basin in Canyonlands National Park. With each shoot I had refined my technique. Meteor showers have a radiant, a point in the sky where the meteors appear to originate, but the meteors themselves can appear in any part of the sky. You need a lens with the widest possible field of view to capture as many meteors as possible, but you also need a lens with a large maximum aperture to capture as much light as possible during the one-second duration of the meteor. Unfortunately, those requirements are in conflict. The best compromise between widest possible angle of view and largest area of aperture is provided by a 24mm f/1.4 lens.

To further increase the odds of capturing lots of bright meteors, I had built a bracket to support two cameras side by side, each with a 24mm f/1.4 lens. I would position the cameras so the fields of view just barely overlapped, with the radiant for the Geminids, which is near the star Castor, in the middle of the overlapping area. To shoot the background sky and land I brought a 35mm f/1.4 lens and a Really Right Stuff multi-row panorama kit.

All told, I brought two bodies, six lenses, two tripod heads mounted on a wooden bracket, a multi-row panorama kit, and a big tripod to support everything. I also brought an enormous down jacket and bibs designed for mountaineers tackling 8,000-meter peaks in the Himalayas so I could comfortably linger on the summit of High Dune in single-digit temperatures all night long.

I checked the forecast one last time before hoisting my 60-pound pack. It now called for slowly increasing clouds as the night progressed, with 60 percent sky cover by astronomical dawn. A few high cirrus clouds were already drifting across the sky. I eyed them nervously as I labored up High Dune, arriving around 3:15 p.m., an hour and a half before sunset. I shot a few frames at sunset, wolfed down a cold can of ham and two dry bagels, then began shooting land panoramas. I knew from previous experience that one problem with shooting night photographs of the dunes is that the dunes are all the same color. Without directional light on the dunes to cast form-revealing shadows, they tend to blend into one another. By shooting at nautical dusk, about an hour after sunset, I hoped that the last dim glow at the western horizon would provide just enough light to reveal the dune’s sinuous shapes.

Next, I mounted two cameras, each with a 24mm f/1.4 lens, on my wooden bracket and began shooting back-to-back frames at 20 seconds, f/1.4, ISO 2000. Every 15 minutes or so I repositioned the cameras to keep the radiant centered in the overlapping area of the two frames. At 9:45 p.m., when the radiant reached the right position in my composition, I set up the panorama kit again and shot a panorama of the sky that I would eventually blend with the panorama of the land. Then I resumed shooting meteors.

The hours crept by. I had thought about bringing a closed-cell foam pad to lie down on but left it behind at the last minute, thinking I already had too much gear. Now I regretted my decision. What’s another pound when you’ve already got 60 on your back? I lay down on my pack instead and soaked in the star-studded sky. The meteors came in silent, startling bursts, with several falling over a span of seconds, then long minutes with no meteors at all. The camera batteries ran out quickly in the cold, and I had to replace them regularly. Mercifully, it was almost windless, which made the cold more tolerable but also meant frost was a threat. Periodically I checked the front of the lenses for the frost buildup that could have ruined every shot.

As the night progressed, high thin clouds began rolling in from the west. Around 2:30 a.m. I awoke from a brief nap and saw that the sky was completely overcast. I waited a bit longer, hoping the clouds would clear, but the situation looked hopeless. I packed up and headed down around 3:15 a.m. after 12 hours on the summit of High Dune. By the time I got down, a big hole had opened up in the clouds obscuring the radiant. I set up one camera with a 24mm lens in the parking lot and banged out a few more frames while I drank a cup of decaf coffee and ate a muffin. Then I drove back to my campsite and collapsed into my tent after a 25-hour day.

All told, I drove 561 miles and shot 1,966 frames that I hoped would contain meteors. When I returned home, I spent a full day sifting through the meteor frames, ultimately identifying 330 that contained at least one meteor. From those frames I selected the 59 brightest meteors and added them to the image containing the background land and sky, arranging them so they appeared to originate at the radiant. After three days of work in the digital darkroom, Geminid Meteors over Great Sand Dunes was finally complete.

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