Thank Your Lucky Stars
By Chris Bakley
In this changing world, sometimes it seems almost impossible to witness something extraordinary. Over the past year we have all had the opportunity to witness many astonishing events, from solar eclipses to meteors falling from the sky. I hope these columns have ignited the spark deep down inside of you all to adventure out onto our shores to witness the night sky in all its beauty.
With the holidays coming up fast, I wanted to put together a gift buying guide for those of you who may have been inspired to look deeper into the universe. I will break this guide into two parts: one for telescopes and the other for camera equipment. Cameras and telescopes aren’t needed for general viewing but can help aiding your eyes in viewing things you can’t see without them.
But before I get into my recommendations let me make it clear that absolutely any telescope, camera, or binoculars will help you see the sky better, be it a $10 thrift-store telescope or a $100 camera.
First, let’s talk about what I know best: camera equipment. These cameras and equipment may be my recommendation for photos of the stars but can also take incredible photos while visiting Cape May. Photography has changed my life in so many ways and I highly recommend you all trying it. Our shores are some of the most beautiful scenes in the entire world and I would love for you all to be able to capture it and share the images with friends and family.
First step in buying the right gear is getting set up with a good steady tripod. I can’t stress enough how important a good tripod is. Capturing photos in the dark, you need a tripod you can trust with your equipment. I use a heavy-duty Manfrotto tripod. Fully extended, it gets as tall as I am and has lasted me 10 years. Well worth the investment! You can try out different tripods online and see what works best for you and your set up. You’ll know it’s sturdy when you try it. Side note: most new phones have a night sky feature on them, but you can only access the full camera features if your phone is completely still and on a tripod. Hidden features go unnoticed by most. An easy way to see the sky more clearly, and all you need is a capable phone and tripod!
Now there are so many different camera brands and models to choose from and so many choices to be had. But there are a few things you need to look for when buying a camera to photograph the sky. First thing you want is to make sure the camera settings can be adjusted manually. You will need to put your own personal touch on the settings to be able to adjust it perfectly for capturing stars. Settings that need to be adjustable are ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture—the triangle of balance to make the perfect photo. Most cameras have this function, but it needs to be said to stay clear of the ones that aren’t adjustable.
Brand-new cameras can leave you with a bit of a sticker shock, but I highly recommend looking at the used camera selection online—MPB.com and KEH.com just to name a couple. They give you a return policy and a limited warranty, much better than buying off eBay. So many amazing older cameras such as the Nikon D700, Canon 5D series, Sony A7 lineup—all of which won’t break the bank and can leave you with images of the shore that will leave you speechless. Buying used also allows you to buy a camera with a larger imaging sensor inside. 35mm or full frame will give you cleaner images of the sky because it can gather more light into the image.
As technology gets better and better, just about any new camera can take gorgeous photos of the sky. But you will want a camera with interchangeable lenses. Being able to swap the lens on your camera for one suited for capturing images in pitch black makes life so much easier. The lens you will be looking to purchase is a very wide-angle lens with a large aperture. Money saving in mind, there is a great lens called the Rokinon 14mm 2.8 lens. The lens can be mounted on just about any camera and costs a few hundred dollars. A great lens for capturing the Milky Way, meteor showers, and so much more, this lens will show you a large portion of the sky. Any wide-angle lens with an aperture of 2.8 or larger will do nicely. Wide angle astrophotography is a great step into the hobby, and you can buy different lenses when the time comes to help you photograph new things in the sky.
Onto telescopes. Just like cameras, there is an endless selection of telescopes to buy. While cameras aid you in viewing the sky at a wide field of view, telescopes are focused towards bringing you closer into the universe, giving you a much more zoomed-in look. One of the biggest reasons people give up the hobby of astronomy is because as the earth rotates, the stars move across the sky, making it difficult and frustrating to track them. The number one thing to look for in a telescope is making sure it has some sort of tracking software. Normally it will be called the “Go to” system. This will allow the telescope to track objects across the sky without you needing to do it manually. The telescope will have software integrated to help you align the scope with the North Star allowing the telescope to track any object in the sky. It also allows you to pick what object you want to see, and it will pan and tilt the telescope until that object is visible. Having a telescope with this system costs a bit more money but alleviates all the hassle in astronomy. If you want to see the moon you can enter it into the keypad, and it takes you right there. That is an incredible experience. Even older telescopes that can be found at thrift stores or yard sales can have this software so keep an eye out for them.
Another important thing to buy is a cell phone adapter. This adapter allows you to mount your cell phone to the telescope to capture and share images.
If you do purchase new gear over the winter here are a few events to look out for here at the shore. During the month of December, the sky is illuminated by streaking meteors. The entire month is more active than usual due to the Geminids meteor shower. The radiant point of these meteors will come from the constellation Orion. Poverty Beach is the ideal location to spot some of the meteors. The peak of this meteor shower is December 13th, but the moon will be bright and drown out the smaller meteors, leaving only the largest ones visible. The moon will be full on December 19th; the full moon rising over the cold beaches is a sight to be had for those who are brave enough to withstand the temperatures.
I wish you all the best of luck viewing the sky while visiting and clear skies! Keep looking up.