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How To Photograph Emissions Nebulae Above Washington Coast / Oregon Coast, Elsewhere

Published 06/20/23 at 6:25 a.m.
y Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff


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(Oregon Coast) – Arguably, the most intense of Oregon coast and Washington coast photographs are taken at night. Properly done, with a star tracking system or without, they illuminate another world for us – quite literally. We can't see the light wavelengths cameras pick up, and therefore there's stuff up there above the waves and sands most of us don't know about. (A detail from larger shot of Natural Bridges near Brookings. Photo Ralf Rohner and on Instagram/Facebook accounts @skypointer2000. Barnard's Loop is the largest of the nebuale here)

Astrophotograpy captures not only alien worlds and objects from the beaches, but it's your only way of photographing glowing waves or sand when that bioluminescent stuff is around. In recent years, however, photographers with such pro gear have been able grab sight of something only astronomers really knew about before: emissions nebulae.

This is part two of Oregon Coast Beach Connection's duo of articles [Interstellar Objects Above Oregon Coast / Washington Coast Only Cameras Can See: Emissions Nebulae ] about these absolutely astounding objects in the sky, sections of other nebulae out there that are filled with hydrogen gasses and illuminated in a very strange way. These are insanely huge, enough that if we could see them on our own eyes they would dominate the skies in some areas.

Natural Bridges near Brookings. Photo Ralf Rohner and on Instagram/Facebook accounts @skypointer2000.

So, how do you get these shots yourself? Two pros of astrophotograpy offer tips on how to photograph emissions nebulae on the Washington coast or Oregon coast – or really anywhere.

First, you're going to need some really pro editing software, programs that can deal with layers, stacking and blending. That's a whole other story in itself.

Then you'll need a sturdy tripod, a DSLR camera (even advanced smart phones won't get these), and you'll need to have your camera set up for astrophotograpy – and then log in some good learning time on that first.

Colorado photographer Darren White spends considerable on the Oregon coast and even gives photo workshops here. He said getting a camera converted for astrophotograpy will set you back a little.

“I believe it can be done to most any camera,” he said.

Then how to capture these special nebulae? You have to get what's called a narrowband filter.

The filter cost will vary based on the camera it's being installed in,” White said. “Roughly, it's about $400 for the conversion from a regular camera sensor to a astro modified one.”

Photo Darren White - 

Ralf Rohner is a photog from Switzerland who loves shooting on the Oregon coast, and he's captured some jaw-dropping shots of these rather whimsical-looking astro phenomena.

“The filter is a so-called narrowband filter,” Rohner said. “It blocks all wavelengths, except the astronomically interesting lines of ionized Hydrogen and Oxygen. These emission lines are called H-alpha for Hydrogen, which is a red light, and Oiii for Oxygen, which is Cyan. Many galactic hydrogen clouds are ionized by nearby hot and young stars and therefore glow strongly in the red Hydrogen-alpha light. Ionized Oxygen is less common and you therefore don't see any cyan Oiii nebulae.”

Getting deeper into this requires a lot of extra work. Rohner said the filter blocks out the rest of the light spectrum and therefore will require really long exposure times. But the plus is that the hydrogen-alpha light passes through unrestricted, letting the longer exposures take in details of these spectacular extraterrestrial formations without burning out the rest of the sky around it.

There are lots of really intense techniques to shooting emissions nebulae, including exposures that can be 20 times longer than many night shots.

And the things that can go wrong? Oh wow. The Oregon coast and Washington coast especially have some challenges. There is wind to knock around your gear and blur things, and the longer the exposure the more chance wind is going to wreck something. Also, Rohner said, the filter really destroys color balance, so in post-processing you have twiddle quite a few functions.

“Light pollution is a big problem in astrophotography,” he said. “That's why I go to dark places, like the Oregon coast, but even there unexpected light pollution can cause problems. During my visit in Samuel H. Boardman State Park, a brightly-lit fishing vessel was cruising near the coast, destroying my exposures for about one hour. When it finally went away, the stars had moved too far to allow me to finish my panorama and I had to start over again. Fortunately, there was enough time to re-shoot it during that night.”

Then there's sleep deprivation while shooting way into the wee hours. Rohner said this can cause all sorts of human errors.

If you want to get started in astrophotograpy and even snapping these hydrogen nebulae, White said to have patience. You also have to keep trying.

Maybe more importantly, he says to find a mentor or a workshop. White himself offers lessons via Zoom. Hook up with other night photographers and get tips from them. Ask questions.

“I could tell you to just go out and set your camera up on a tripod, ISO 6400, F/2.8 for 30 seconds and you'll get a shot, but there is a little more to it,” White said. “As you begin to go down the night photography rabbit hole you'll find that while there is a lot of work that goes into it, after doing it a few times it's really simple.”

White has two workshops coming up on the Oregon coast this year: one at Yachats and one in Bandon.

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Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees over 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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