I am certain most of us are fortunate enough to have had memorable nights in our lives when the stars were especially spectacular, simmering as diamonds against a sky of black velvet. Two such nights immediately come to mind for me. One was disembarking a submarine at night in the Bay of Cadiz off the coast of Spain and the other was departing a snow trench in the early morning hours at 12,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada Mountains after a sleepless night during a cold weather survival training exercise. In both cases the stars shone so brightly and appeared so close that you felt you could reach out and touch them. The awe inspiring sight compelled you to stop whatever you were doing to admire the magnificent celestial display.
At the South Pole, we have the advantage of a night many months long. Unfortunately, much of the time the blowing wind with suspended ice and snow, as well as overcast skies, prevent one from stargazing. That said, when the wind is calm and the sky clear, the night sky here is a sight to behold. My only lament was not bringing a more capable camera with me to Antarctica so that I could better share my experience with you. My Nikon Coolpix does an admirable job even in minus 80 degree Fahrenheit weather and is the best point-and-shoot camera I have owned, but it cannot compare with a more expense Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera with larger sensors and a greater latitude for manual settings. If some of the photos in this blog seem unusually bright, remember they are long exposures and may appear brighter than was apparent to the naked eye. This is especially true of the Mid-winter photograph.
For night shots requiring long exposures, a tripod and remote shutter release are absolutely essential. The remote shutter release prevents camera motion while the shutter is open as well as allowing the installation of the camera in an insulating box or container to better protect it from the extreme cold. Chemical heating packets can also be installed in the container to help maintain some modicum of warmth. Lubricated moving parts and batteries tend to suffer the most with our very low winter temperatures.
My favorite time to be outside during the winter is when the winds are calm, the Moon is up, and the skies are crystal clear. When these conditions prevail, you can walk outside without the benefit of artificial light and not constantly trip over snow drifts or unexpectedly fall down snow banks. When the sky is overcast, without a headlamp you are walking around like a drunken sailor frequently stumbling and falling your way toward your destination.
In addition to the Moon and stars, we are fortunate to have the aurora australis or southern lights, but that is a topic for another time.