The light on the horizon – photos of zodiacal light

“But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?”

-Romeo Montague, “Romeo and Juliet”

“Wow, look at that z-light!”

-Me

 

Ah,  zodiacal light, that confounding glow on the horizon long after the sun has already set. At times (particularly in the fall in the northern hemisphere) I have cursed it because it interfered with my view of the Milky Way, but more often than not I celebrate it. 

Why?

Because I think it looks cool.

After you’ve taken tens of thousands of photos of the night sky you start to really appreciate unique events or circumstances, and even though I’ve photographed zodiacal light a number of times, it’s still (to me, anyway) a rare and exciting phenomenon. I still think it adds a lot of visual interest and an air of unpredictability to the standard night sky.

But what is it?

It’s billions-of-years-old space dust, lit by our sun! If that answer doesn’t suffice, check out EarthSky’s articles on the topic (found here and here), or even wikipedia’s.

So as an ode to these bright triangles of glowing interstellar dust, below I’ve assembled a collection of my zodiacal light photos, in almost no particular order below.

 

 

The planet Jupiter hangs over the jagged peaks of Arizona's Kofa Mountains.

“Jupiter rising, Kofa Mountains,” the largest planet in our solar system, bathed in zodiacal light, hangs over the jagged peaks of Arizona’s Kofa Mountains.

The above photo (“Jupiter rising, Kofa Mountains”) was one of the rare times I had anticipated seeing zodiacal light in the night sky. Why? Because I had seen it in the same place the year before, and the weather conditions were similar. This time around, I knew Jupiter would be very close to the zodiacal light (it was more in the southern sky the year before), and I had hoped that the planet and the z-light would line up. My hopes came true.

The desert southwest is a great place to go to see zodiacal light in the wintertime: That clear, dry air seems to really allow for some great z-light displays. In this case, I set an alarm for a couple of hours pre-sunrise, got up and left my phone glowing in the bottom of my tent (see photo below), and then took these multi-row panoramas. The final field of view on these is somewhere around 180 degrees wide.

 

Zodiacal light glows in the night sky.

“A light on the horizon,” zodiacal light appears behind the Kofa Mountains, Arizona.

But dry conditions in places like the desert southwest aren’t required for taking these sorts of photos. Occasionally the skies clear up on the “wet” side of Oregon’s Cascades, giving us Oregonians a chance to view zodiacal light as well.

The photo below was one of the first times I had an opportunity to properly shoot zodiacal light and incorporate it into my composition. (Previously I had only haphazardly photographed it, not really realizing what I was seeing.) In the case below, I had researched where the sun would set, and I knew it would line up pretty closely with where I wanted it to be for the composition below. What I didn’t realize is that strong zodiacal light would persist well after sunset. Surprisingly, I’ve seen zodiacal light in this same location a number of times, despite the Oregon coast not being well-known for its clear skies. 

A waterfall flows toward zodiacal light on the Oregon coast.

“False dusk and falls, Oregon coast,” second-place winner in The World at Night’s 2014 Earth and Sky photo contest.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve really come to enjoy photographing the night sky in the wintertime, for various reasons that I won’t get into here. In the two photos below you can see the results from a night of winter shooting at the Oregon coast (the same location as “False dusk and falls, Oregon coast” above).

 

Zodiacal light glows in the night sky off the Oregon coast.

“Tributaries in the river of light,” zodiacal light appears off the Oregon coast in this familiar location. This photo received “special mention” in TWAN’s 2016 Earth and Sky photo contest.

Zodiacal light, airglow, and the Milky Way shine in the night sky in this upward-facing view taken at the Oregon coast.

This full-dome view of the night sky at the Oregon coast shows the winter Milky Way, airglow, and strong zodiacal light that nearly reaches the sky’s zenith (right side).

The photo below was another memorable occasion for shooting zodiacal light, mostly because it was on a sub-freezing morning at Joshua Tree National Park during my first visit to the park. This particular shot was 

Zodiacal light shines brightly behind a Joshua Tree.

Zodiacal lights shines brightly during the pre-dawn of a winter morning at Joshua Tree National Park. In this case, the planet Saturn bathes in zodiacal light, while the bright star Vega shines on the left side of the photo.

 

 

And finally, here’s one from the dry side of the Cascades. Again, Jupiter played around in the zodiacal light for me, which is always a nice bonus.

Zodiacal light shines over the playa of the Alvord Desert in eastern Oregon.

Zodiacal light shines over the playa of the Alvord Desert in eastern Oregon.

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