It’s no surprise that heading out to watch the Perseid meteor shower on the night of its 2016 peak gave me a lesson in showing up. After all, for me life is always about showing up. I even named this year “the year of living present” (see this post for more on naming years). Everything, it seems, conspires to invite me, cajole me, prod me, and drag me kicking and screaming into being present.
This: looking at the night sky in a really dark place transports you directly into the moment. There’s no help for it.
I remember my dad once waking me out of a sound sleep in the middle of the night. We were at the cabin where we went every summer for vacation. I was pretty sure the sky was falling or the world was ending, but he was just sharing something with me. He gave me a few minutes for my eyes to adjust – it was really dark in northern Wisconsin in those days – and then he told me to look up. The stars! Oh. My. God. The stars.
Art as life
Since that night I’ve always loved the stars. I love planetariums – the ones where they actually teach something about astronomy, not the cheesy shows they put on to entertain people too used to game consoles. I love pictures of the stars, the moon, the sky. Lately I’ve been experimenting with astrophotography, and the meteor shower seemed the perfect excuse to get out there again and take some cool pictures. How hard could it be?
The thing about taking pictures is that anyone can do it. You’ve said that, right? Or at least thought it? Yeah, right. That much I learned from my professional photographer friends, when I see how hard they work. I’m no pro – in truth I’m barely an advanced amateur – but the main thing I learned from really good photography is to give up on trying to capture reality. Good pictures don’t capture life – they improve on it. They make life into art.
The goal of a good picture is to convey a feeling – in this case the feeling I had as that little boy, outside in the pitch black night with my dad, looking up and realizing what a tiny part of the universe I am.
Life needs a secret sauce
The second thing I learned is that you have to work on a digital image to make it come to life. Looking at the raw images in the camera wasn’t too bad; looking at them on the computer was downright depressing. That’s not what I saw! How’d that happen? The Perseid shower is supposed to look spectacular!
To make the picture on the right out of the one on the left, I had to boost the exposure, up the contrast, bring out the whites and darken the darks, fix the lens distortion, and a couple of other things. I didn’t alter life to reflect the way I thought it should be, the way that photo-shopping women to be taller, thinner, and flawless; but I did have to bring reality out of the shadows. The galaxy you can see in the upper right quadrant didn’t get added, nor did the gaseous nebula at the meteor’s tail end. They were invisible at first, both to the naked eye and to the raw image. But the camera captured them, and I used Photoshop and Lightroom to bring them out.
Ok, I did use Photoshop to take out the phone lines, so I did alter reality to be the way I wanted it. Using what we know to focus on what’s important and minimize distractions is part of the secret sauce too.
Compound essence of time
According to the projections, theoretically I could see 3 or 4 meteors per minute at the peak of the Perseid shower. Getting pictures should be easy!
Except that most of the meteors are microscopic and invisible to the naked eye, and they aren’t all in the same place in the sky. To get a picture of a meteor I had to point the camera in the right place, and have the shutter open at the right moment, at the right settings. Quite a bit of the time the meteors I did see were somewhere else in the sky, or I was between shots. Or I simply got it wrong.
I spent a lot of my time last night waiting, or fiddling when I should have been looking, or or pointing myself in the wrong direction. I took about 320 pictures last night. Four of them had visible meteors, and altogether I ended up keeping about a dozen shots.
A lot of life is about waiting, and a lot of the rest is about failing, and trying again. Patience and perseverance. Last night reminded me that it doesn’t have to be a lost art.
Last night would have been fun regardless. But chasing the Perseid meteors reminded me of some things about showing up in life:
- The story of life is less about the words than about the feeling conveyed.
- The beauty around us isn’t always obvious, and it takes some work with the tools we’ve learned to bring it out.
- When life doesn’t look so hot, dig deeper. What you find might surprise you.
- Be willing to wait, make mistakes, miss opportunities, and keep at it. Life has a way of delivering to those who know how to wait, and know how to persevere.
Dr Les Kertay
This last one’s a bonus, from a trip to Michigan last month. The trail isn’t a Perseid, and in fact it’s not a meteor but a plane. Life’s full of little surprises. I hope you enjoy!