See some great sights close to home

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Monday, December 18, 2006

At the start of the classic film Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee's character tells one of his students to consider a finger pointed at the Moon. As the student closely examines Lee's finger, Lee slaps him on the head and says, "Don't concentrate on the finger, or you'll miss all that heavenly glory."

For this installment, let me turn Lee's statement around: Don't concentrate on the heavenly glory or you'll miss some beautiful atmospheric sights. In other words, when the weather is iffy - in fact, when it's most iffy, with thunderstorms, funky cloud formations, or bitterly cold temperatures - that's the time to head out with a new mindset. At such times, forget about the deep sky, and concentrate on the near sky.

Near-sky phenomena include rainbows, haloes (of both the Sun and the Moon); Sun dogs (or parhelia, which are bright reflections from the ice crystals of cirrus clouds) and the rarer Moon dogs (or paraselene), light arcs of various types; Sun pillars; glories (backscattered light caused by water-droplet clouds); flying-saucer clouds (lenticular altocumulus); and sunset effects. The latter category includes crepuscular and anticrepuscular rays (rays of sunlight that seem to radiate from or converge to a single point), Earth's shadow, and the belt of Venus.

One advantage to near-sky phenomena is their size: You don't need a telescope to view them. Don't discount using binoculars, however, to bring out certain details or make colors more apparent. Near-sky events also are easier to photograph than their deep-sky counterparts. Most readers of this blog own digital cameras, so film and developing costs no longer matter. So, shoot anything that looks strange in the sky at every shutter speed, f/stop, and zoom setting. You may capture something worth saving. Only sunset effects, because the exposures will be longer, may require a tripod.

If you're unfamiliar with any of the near-sky phenomena I've mentioned, or if you'd like to read up on them before (or after) you observe the real thing, check out Marcel Minnaert's The Nature of Light and Color in the Open Air (Dover, 1954) or Robert Greenler's Rainbows, Halos, and Glories (Cambridge University Press, 1980). And let me know what you've seen lately.

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