Hunting Orion

Searching for a giant in the dark

Matt Quinn
Feb 4, 2015 · 10 min read

It was nearing the end of 2014 and I was about to take some time off work for a much needed vacation. The goal was to seek out some of the darkest skies my part of the world had to offer. Being a night sky photographer, the darkest of the dark is also the best place to hunt for elusive deep space objects. The Orion Constellation, for example, is home to some of the most famous and beautiful nebulae that we’ve observed. Where I live, Orion is hidden below the horizon during most of the spring and summer but once fall rolls around, he starts to make his way into our night sky. The timing of my vacation was perfect and my pursuit to capture Orion was on.

After researching some possible locations, I settled on Bruce Peninsula National Park near Tobermory, Ontario, Canada. It is quite well known for its azure waters, cliffs and caves. It has some amazing hiking paths and breathtaking views of the Georgian Bay. Most importantly, it has some of the darkest night skies in southern Ontario. When I arrived, the park was in hibernation mode for the winter months. The gatehouse and most of the camping areas were closed. I ran into a park ranger who filled me in on the details and mentioned that she would be leaving the park at around 5pm. Turns out I was going to be the only human in the entire park that night. I had a mixed feeling of being completely free and completely isolated.

After setting up camp, I decided to head out for a hike. I ran into a few other people along the trails but they were few and far between. As I came up to the water’s edge of Georgian Bay I could hear the waves crashing on the shore. I came to a break in the trees…

… and the view was awesome.

The sun was intense for the end of October and I was sweating from the trek thus far. Seeing the clear gradient of blue water made me feel like I was in the tropics. I explored the area, climbing down the limestone rock and found a nice place to hang my legs. I had this space all to my own and it was fantastic. I ventured onward along the shore to a cave. The water was crashing in the opening that faced the bay but inside was calm.

I stayed here for a little while and had a brave squirrel climb on my back and shoulders, no doubt searching for the bag of trail mix I had in my pocket. He was busy fattening up for the coming winter and I couldn’t resist giving him a few nuts to help the cause.

I then came up to the famous Grotto. Every other time I had been here it was crawling with people but today I was free to explore it as if it were my own. I had never actually made my way down into the cave itself before so this time I took the opportunity to have a closer look.

I climbed down a path of jagged rocks and cliffs. There were a few gnarly spots where I had to get good foot holds and shimmy across rock walls. I abandoned most of my gear along the way with the exception of the pack that held my camera. I looked inward…

…and outward over the Georgian Bay.

The sun was fading fast now so I hustled back along the path to get a nap in before I headed out to capture the night sky. On the way back, there was this tiny waterfall where Cyprus Lake emptied into the neighbouring Horse Lake. I couldn’t resist stopping for a shot.

I returned to my campsite just as the sun went behind the trees and I was treated to a spectacular sunset. The sky was as clear as any night time photographer could hope for and I couldn’t wait to see what the darkness had in store.

After getting an hour of sleep I got up and headed out. Without the sun the cold set it pretty strong. The daytime temperature must have been around 15C, but now it was struggling to stay above zero. The night sky was alive with stars. There was a thick blanket of them in every direction you looked. The Milky Way was incredibly bright; enough so that it didn’t feel pitch black. It was just after 9pm and it was time to setup my traps.

There is something awesome about photographing the night sky. You look up and see thousands of stars, and when you hit the shutter button on your camera, you’re forced to wait however long it takes for the image to be captured. Looking upward while you wait, you have time to soak in your surroundings. There is no rush and you don’t feel you’re missing something by living behind a lens. When the shutter snaps back into position and the camera’s screen shows you what it absorbed, you can’t help but smile and say, “ The feeling is infectious. With the human eye you can only see so much. You don’t get a sense of everything that’s out there. Once you soak all of that light into your camera, you get to see what your eyes won’t let you and what’s there is pretty damn amazing. The Milky Way is rich and cloudy; bright in the core with its arms expanding across the entire sky. Instead of thousands of stars, there appears to be billions.

Earlier in the day I found this spot on the shore of Cyprus Lake that would make an amazing composition against the night sky. It was a small trek from the parking lot and I knew if I was going to get the shot, I’d have to brave the darkness on my own. I took it as a personal challenge. I imagined classic explorers and the risks they took to find amazing things. That put my menial task into perspective; a short walk on a manicured path in a dark forest. After a short pep talk, I was on my way. My strategy was to be as loud as possible as to not catch wildlife by surprise. For a moment I thought that I must have lost my mind; talking to myself while periodically ringing a bell, walking down a path with a bright headlamp on carrying photography gear. It was exhilarating but to any witnesses I may have looked off my rocker. “Bears don’t mess with crazy,” at least that’s what I told myself. I made it to my destination unscathed and set up my gear in the darkness to capture an amazing view of the landscape, sky and the stars reflecting off the still lake.

Even though the sky appeared pitch black to my eyes, the photo revealed that the night was still young as the Sun’s effects were still visible. The horizon was a mix of colour; greens and reds from airglow and a small remnant of orange from the sunlight that had faded away. I headed back to my car with a sense of accomplishment. For many adventurers, this small trip might not have been anything to remember, but for me personally it was quite the opposite. Small steps were made into a bigger world.

After an hour capturing the stars, I had some time to wait before Orion would rise in the east. I headed into Tobermory, a small town about 20 kilometres away to see what I could find. I recalled there being a pretty great lighthouse when I visited as a kid. Sure enough it was still there and, as I learned that night, it was affectionately named ‘Big Tub’.

Just before midnight I headed back to the park and sat waiting for Orion to appear. I set up in the parking lot where I had started my hike earlier in the day. Setting up the telescope mount to track the movement of the stars takes about 30 minutes to do. It requires precise alignment to the north pole and can be challenging to get right. I also set up a time-lapse with a second camera to give a different perspective of the process involved in capturing these deep space photos. The compiled time-lapse condenses a 5 hour period into 11 seconds and gives you a unique view of how our world turns.

Orion was now peeking out over the horizon in the east. My camera was ready to go and it was time to see what I could get. These deep space images require immense patience as the light gets absorbed into the camera. Ideally you can do exposures as long as 10 minutes per frame, but with the equipment I had, you’d be lucky to get a 3 minute image without seeing blur. After a few failed test shots, I thought luck wasn’t going to be on my side. Then after a few camera setting adjustments I was able to get solid 3 minute frames. Happy with this, I set up my timer to take photos for the next couple of hours.

While hours passed and my camera snapped away, I wandered around the area exploring what the night had to offer. I didn’t venture all that far from the car because I’d hear scurrying about, crashes or loud noises nearby and then retreat to safety. It was most likely a racoon, but I wasn’t going to take any chances. Being out there completely alone definitely put me outside my comfort zone. I had to take a few deep breathes and look up to calm my nerves.

It was approaching 5am and I had been capturing the night sky for over 5 hours. The images that appeared on my camera looked good, but only when I got home and reviewed them on my computer would I know if I was going to get a decent final result. As I packed up my gear I noticed a thin layer of frost forming on everything. It was getting cold. I headed back to my campsite to get an hour or two of sleep before the sun began to rise.

Before I went to sleep, I looked at the captured frames again. There in front of my eyes was a structure of gas, dust and stars that was over 20 light years across. I looked up into the sky and saw the three stars that made up Orion’s belt and shook my head. It was hard to believe that what I was looking at on my camera was actually up there. For millennia these objects laid hidden until the early 1600s when we first laid eyes upon them with our newly minted telescopes. Knowing that fact, it’s quite an awesome feeling to see them appear on your normal everyday camera.

After returning home, I poured over the captured frames compiling them into one final image. I then spent hours tweaking them using software. Deep space images require huge amounts of post processing to make the details shine. Below are the results of the hunt. Not only was I able to capture the Orion Nebula, but the neighbouring Running Man Nebula as well. Half way through the night I moved my camera ever so slightly and as an added bonus caught the Horsehead and Flame Nebulae as well.

The Great Orion Nebula on the right and the Running Man Nebula on the left.
The Horsehead Nebula on the right and the Flame Nebula on the left.

Last but not least, since this group of nebulae are so close in the sky I stitched these images together so that you get a sense of where they are in relationship to each other. Just for context, the Orion constellation is most recognized by the three bright stars that make up Orion’s Belt. In the Horsehead image above, the two intensely bright stars in the top-to-mid left of the image are the first two stars in the belt.

The trip north was an incredible success. I was able to see and capture some amazing night skies and explore like I did when I was a kid. Being out in nature on your own away from everything provides something that’s really hard to explain or reproduce anywhere else in life and I absolutely recommend you give it a shot. Be safe and happy exploring!

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