Astrophotographer Andrew McCarthy captured this image of Saturn on Aug. 14 from Los Angeles using different cameras and layers.

Arizona photographer avoids monsoon rain to capture Saturn in beautiful clarity

An Arizona-based photographer has gone out of his way to find the perfect weather needed to photograph Saturn during Sunday’s opposition.

Ironically, astrophotographer Andrew McCarthy would end up capturing Saturn from California, having recently moved to Arizona to find darker skies for his work.

“There’s a lot of cloud and rain in the Southwest at night,” McCarthy said. “You know, it’s very frustrating that this photographer recently moved to Arizona to escape this situation. I know the monsoon is coming, but obviously, this year has been especially bad.”

Below is an example of the booming and cloudy conditions McCarthy faced.

To get some relief from the ongoing monsoon season, McCarthy left his Arizona home to capture some celestial phenomena, including the recent August full moon and Saturn opposition. According to NASA, the opposition is the point where Saturn is directly opposite our night sky. It also occurs at Saturn’s perigee, when Saturn is closest to Earth, making it more prominent and brighter than usual.

After a trip to Sacramento, he started coming home, thinking he would find a place to capture Saturn along the way.

The initial forecast for Yuma, Arizona, was promising with calm skies, so McCarthy was there when the forecast changed.

“For planetary photography, it’s very different from many other types of astrophotography because the planets themselves are very small. The airflow basically just folds the image of Saturn and Jupiter or whatever, and completely blurs out the details,” McCarthy explained. “So it’s very important to get the calmest sky possible, and it extends all the way into the upper atmosphere.”

Los Angeles isn’t known for its clear skies, but on Sunday, the forecast called for five out of five clear skies downtown. McCarthy changed course again, heading to Los Angeles.

“I found a parking lot with a completely empty upper deck,” McCarthy said. “I took out my telescope and all my stuff and started photographing Saturn.”

A few hours later, McCarthy produced a very detailed image of Saturn and its rings. The bright lights around Earth are some of Saturn’s moons.

McCarthy used a telescope and two cameras to capture the shapes of planets and rings using infrared filters. The image above is actually a number of layered images to capture Saturn and its rings in amazing detail.

“It shrinks the amount of light that goes through and passes it into the infrared, which scatters significantly less than those shorter wavelengths of light, like blue. This allows me to get really sharp details on this planet, really defined ring edges , and of course the beautiful, beautiful shape of the planet.”

He then used a color camera to pull them together.

“I was able to get the best of both worlds by blending these images together, I had to use infrared, it really made things clear, there were separate color filters, which gave me a lot of color depth, which is why I like The cloud bands on the spread have distinctly different colors,” McCarthy said.

Now back in Arizona, McCarthy said he’s still excited to use it as his new base.

“In Arizona’s defense, the sky was unbelievable until that moment. So it was that monsoon season,” he said. “Overall, it’s still the right call for me because in Sacramento, it’s like winter fog and summer smog. There’s never a good time.”

Although the monsoon season is not good for astrophotography, McCarthy has learned to hone his skills to create beautiful images of powerful lightning and storms.

McCarthy reckons that he began earnestly taking an interest in astrophotography ahead of the 2017 Great American Solar Eclipse. During the pandemic, he made the switch and now captures celestial images full-time.

You might see some of his detailed moon images as NASA is using them to advertise the upcoming Artemis 1 launch, including a 30-foot banner that hangs in front of the Space Launch System rocket.

More of McCarthy’s work can be found on his website, where he explains his photography process in detail.

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