Shadowchasing: My Eclipse Story

Journal, Photography, Science Tech

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As my great uncle eloquently reminded me, “The best laid plans of mice and men, Oft times goes astray”. No, my eclipse trip was not an utter disappointment, it was merely… dramatic. But let me back up a bit.

Anderson, SC, August 21st – 8:00AM: I get up and eat breakfast, and glance out the widow gives me good news: the skies are blue in all directions.

I had waited for this event for a long time. I have been an avid stargazer and astronomer for several years, and few events are as greatly anticipated as a solar eclipse. A long time had passed since the last one; for many people, this was the first accessible  total solar eclipse in their lifetime. I am among this group.

Of course, one of the challenges I faced was how to get equipment to the path of totality. Mailing was simply out of the question due to cost and mail carriers’ (ahem) reputation handling delicate components. For the same reason, I wanted to avoid checking any equipment on a plane. This left me the challenge of making all my equipment carry-on friendly.

Anderson, SC, August 21st – 10:00AM: I arrive onsite at my observing location at my gracious and hospitable cousins’ house. We arrived there in South Carolina the day before. I had unloaded my equipment and assembled it at the house, and then had left to spend the night at my great aunt and uncle’s apartment 10 minutes away.

Since all my telescopes were 1). large and heavy and also 2). had too much focal length, I decided against these. For those unfamiliar with the term, too much focal length means too much magnification. I wanted the entire disk of the sun to fit in the field of view of my astronomy camera. Therefore, I set about finding a suitable optic to fill the need. After some experimentation with software, I determined that a 300mm focal length would work well. Not long thereafter, I bought from ebay an old, manual Nikon lens, a Nikkor 300mm F/4.5 ED IF AIS. Perfect. It was lightweight, had the right focal length, and decent optics.

For mounting, I had at my disposal my EQ-3 (Orion AstroView) equatorial mount. While the mount head was good, and more than adequate for the load I was asking of it with the 300mm Nikkor, the tripod was a no-go. It was too long, and also quite flimsy in it’s extruded aluminum and plastic construction. Solution: I fabricated some small tripod legs from a 2×4 board. Very solid, small, and portable. The only piece missing from the mounting was a way for it to track automatically, leading to the purchase of the Right Ascension motor for the mount. Excellent: a small, sturdy, tracking mount.

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Portable Eclipse Rig. Have equipment, will travel.

Anderson, SC, August 21st- 11:00AM: I gather all my equipment outside, aligning my mount with north as best as I can. The temperature is really rising, setting us up for a very hot southern day. To shield my computer, I use a cardboard box so I could see the screen, as well as keep the computer from overheating. Again, for those who may be unfamiliar, I use my computer to control my astronomy camera. This little camera has no buttons, no viewfinder, or external controls: it is merely a sensor with circuitry, which has to be controlled by a computer with software. It will output raw video for later processing.  Some puffy clouds floated lazily across the sky, but I’m fine with that. As long as they remain sparse and keep moving.

So I had the equipment that would fill the need. I also brought all my DSLR equipment- D600 body, with 14mm F/2.8, 28mm F/1.8, 50mm F/1.4, and 70-300mm F/4.5-5.6 lenses. I stuffed all my equipment into a carry-on bag and a camera bag, ready for the airport. There were only a few final obstacles between me and my destination: Airport security, and making sure my bags made it on the plane without them being selected for checked baggage due to full flights. Airport security was no problem (50+ pounds of glass and metal, no one blinks an eye…). Needless to say, everything made it safely.

Anderson, SC, August 21st- 1:08PM: First contact! Everyone celebrates the small bite out of the sun that we know to be the moon. After a few minutes of observing, we settle down for a while, eating lunch and cooling off in the shade. I keep an eye on my computer, which occasionally suffers through software glitches.

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2:00PM: Electric excitement builds in all of us as we approach the culmination of the event. We still have a little while to totality, but the temperature continues to drop noticeably. The sky begins to change- the hue didn’t exactly change, I think it is better described as merely having less luminance. However, a large cloud bank looms in the western hemisphere of the sky, and I begin to fear that it is moving eastward.

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Waiting for Totality. The sky’s luminance is beginning to decrease at this point

2:33PM: -Minutes to totality- The clouds obscure, and then reveal, the sun in a tense cycle. The western hemisphere of the sky is completely blocked. I desperately try to capture what I can as the sun goes behind clouds, and the landscape continues to darken.

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Minutes to Totality. Note that only half the sky is covered…

2:38PM: “Totality!” my friend shouts, and all the surroundings become dark. The temperature plummets. We, however, can see nothing: inopportune clouds blanket half the sky, including the now begun eclipse. Cicadas chirp, as if it were late evening. In desperation, I sit by my equipment, and take in the surroundings; Jupiter and stars are visible in the clear hemisphere. We continue to wait.

“There it is!” someone cried. I look up, and the clouds parted to show us the firey spectacle. I grab my binoculars and soak in the black orb and luminous corona. I point out to my family and friends the bright pink prominences on the limb. I hand the binoculars to my friends and desperately try to capture the scene; however, in the moment I made the wrong adjustments and ended up recording nothing.

2:40PM: I realize my mistake, but too late! Totality is ending, and I capture as many frames as I can. For everyone’s safety, I remind them that all safety filters must be worn again at this point. I feel, simultaneously, joy and defeat. I am happy that I got to see anything, but I regret not capturing it well. I came away with a little over 500 frames as totality ended (video clip above). For the next hour, clouds completely block the sun, after which they give way to a sunny afternoon and the last few stages of the eclipse.

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A Cloudy Totality. Image is a stack of frames from the video

Traffic greatly lengthened our journey back to Alabama, but I did not mind that much. I had great fun and made many memories on that trip. I now look forward to 2024, when another solar eclipse will visit the United States. Until then, the wait and the planning begin again. My family, too, now eagerly awaits the enticing shadow of the moon. The drama will begin again, and more memories will be made. If you missed totality on this one, don’t miss it again in seven years. Nowhere else in our solar system has God seen fit to provide a planet with a moon that spans the same angular diameter as our star, as seen from the planet. Go see it! You will have your own Eclipse Story to tell.

 

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Southward Sights: A Day or Two in Washington, D.C.

Journal, Photography

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Last week I was southbound on my way to Washington, D.C. with a small group from the University of Maine Honors College.  I had a day and a half to explore the city with a few friends, and we never had a dull moment. We packed every hour with walking, talking, eating, and seeing. Exploring the city was fun, but while I was there I also explored a new view of the world: a view through a 14mm focal length lens, which I picked up just before I left (it’s a Rokinon 14mm F/2.8). The very wide angle is fascinating, but I found that it must be used with care to use it well. It certainly teaches you to mind your lines, foregrounds, and backgrounds. A wide perspective makes everything look like it’s “leaning back” if you look upwards, such as in the photo below. It’s not an effect I’m crazy about, but it can be used effectively. I played with the perspective corrections in Adobe Lightroom to “fix” the effect in a number of photographs from the 14mm, but sometimes the effect itself is compelling. In the photograph below, as was pointed out by Scott Fillmer (my uncle, and a photographer I respect greatly), the effect creates leading lines from the pillars, bringing the viewer’s eye out and to the Washington Monument in the frame.

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However, adding a perspective correction can also make a great photograph. This is essentially, digitally, the same as using a tilt-shift lens. Doing this in post will reduce the field of view, so it won’t be the a full 14mm view, but that is fine for many photographs especially if you have plenty of pixels to work with. The downside is that extreme corrections can degrade image quality. In the photograph below, I used the 14mm. In the original, the pillars are “leaning away” from you, much like the photograph above. I really wanted to convey how massive these pillars are in the Lincoln Memorial, and I think the perspective corrected photograph does a better job at that than the uncorrected one. It also is closer to how I remember it looking in person.

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You may have notice that I shot a lot of Black and White. This was not expressly my goal, but it happened to work well on a generally grey D.C. day while shooting a lot of white marble and white painted sandstone. However, color really makes the Washington Monument “pop” at night. This is interesting if you think about it, because most of the negative space around the monument is black… and the monument is white. however, the slightly blueish cast from the lights, the variations in the stone, and the small dash of color from the flags all contribute to the image.

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We saw a number of monuments and memorials, but I my favorite was the World War 2 memorial. It was very appropriate, and thought provoking. If the opportunity arises, go see it. One cannot help but think about the momentous struggle, the strength and bravery of thousands, the sad reality of this world war. I live in a free nation because young men my age stormed beaches, flew aircraft, manned warships, and lived (and died) through every hardship to combat a darkness bent on overtaking the world. If anyone out there has no respect for their military, they need to visit this memorial.

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Another memorial worth visiting (well, aren’t they all worth visiting?) is the Korean War Memorial. A wall, a flag, a fountain, and soldier statues commemorate this war and remind us that “Freedom is not free.”

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It wasn’t all wide angle fun in Washington, though. I found occasion to pull out a longer focal length, as was needed to photograph the Washington Memorial and the Capitol Building in the same frame.

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Also good for photographing D.C. guards. Yeah, she’s having a great day.

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Maine: School and Hiking

Journal, Photography

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Hey y’all! Since my last post on the blog I’ve gone through some fairly drastic life changes. To put my life in the last 3 months bluntly: I have moved over 1,000 miles away from the Heart of Dixie, Alabama to beautiful rough and rugged Maine. I started my studies at the University of Maine this fall. Thank goodness for fall break! I’m not going lie, the freshman semester is rough. So to take my mind off the books, I accepted an invitation to hike Mt. Chase. It’s not the biggest or roughest mountain, but I certainly enjoyed the hike. It was an amazing feeling to go out and climb 2,400 feet up a mountain, then stand on the summit with nothing else but the clear wind whipping past and Katahdin looming in the hazy blue distance. As much as I enjoyed the hike, I struggled to translate the beauty into my photographs. Hope y’all Enjoy the photos from the trail.

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The Trail

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Up to Eagle Point

The above photograph shows one of the hardest parts of the trail, although it wasn’t very difficult. This part of the trail actually doesn’t go to the summit, but to a great spot called Eagle Point. I found the climb to Eagle Point exhilarating; it starts out like most of the trail, a stony and root covered path ascending through a fairly wooded slope. Suddenly, you come upon a spot where you must scramble over a rock face and continue the trail at a steep grade, which breaks you above the trees and leads you to a clear summit with a lovely view of the autumn landscape. The photograph above shows the spot in the trail where the more vertical component begins. The below photograph is the trail leading almost to the top of Eagle Point.

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Katahdin Horizon

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Katahdin

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Trail to the Summit

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Providence Canyon, GA, 2016

Journal, Photography
Providence Canyon 2016

Providence Canyon 2016. The Cliche Landscaper’s Panorama.

Hello everyone. Although my blog has been quiet, I have not stopped taking photos. I eagerly awaited spring this year, and I took a good many photos of flowers, etc. Perhaps I will do a post including some of them at a future date.

I am quite the (self-admitted) gear junkie, so before I go any further I must mention that (since my last post) I have picked up a new camera, a Nikon D600. It’s an absolutely spectacular tool with an amazing sensor. However this post is not about my new camera.

Recently I spent some time at Providence Canyon. I went twice, both times hiking with friends. The first time the skies were mostly overcast, and the second time was mostly clear sun (as can be seen in the first photograph). Neither time was I there for the landscape photographer’s hallowed “golden” hours of dawn or dusk. However, I made the most of it and came away with some photographs that I’m pretty happy with.

Providence Canyon 2016

Providence Canyon 2016

Providence Canyon 2016

Providence Canyon 2016

The first trip I made I only did the 3 mile Canyon Loop trail. Most of the photographs were taken from the vantage point of this trail, and it generally contains the best views of the canyons. These first three photographs above, as well as the four below, were taken from the Canyon Loop trail. However, from a photographer’s view, there’s not much flexibility except from staying right there on the trail, so sometimes finding compositions that work can be harder. It doesn’t help that I’m not great at composing photographs. What I mean is that the photograph that resulted after post processing wasn’t the original composition (i.e., I cropped to a different composition afterward to achieve a more pleasing image, but that I didn’t envision the crop while looking through the viewfinder).

Providence Canyon 2016

Layers, Providence Canyon 2016

Providence Canyon 2016

Providence Canyon 2016

Providence Canyon 2016

Providence Canyon 2016

Providence Canyon 2016

Tree on Canyon Wall, Providence Canyon 2016

You can also hike in amongst the canyons. You can do this if you take the 3 mile loop trail and then just follow the creek bed up among the canyons, but taking the longer hike will get you there as well. On my first trip we hiked up only a few  of the canyons, but on my second trip we hiked into almost every canyon. These two below were taken from within the canyons.

Providence Canyon 2016

Providence Canyon 2016

Providence Canyon 2016

Providence Canyon 2016

The 7 mile Back Country Trail, for the most part, is not exceedingly scenic. It does take you near the rim of some smaller outlooks, but most of it is walking on a clearly marked path through the woods, and eventually down through the bottoms by the creek. My friends and I did come across a snake, though…

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Enjoy.

Jupiter Transits, March 14 2016

Photography, Science Tech

Jupiter Multi-transit Event March 14 2016Left to right: 22:42, 23:03, 23:28 CDT (-5 UTC). Io and Europa, with accompanying shadows.

Hey everyone, I know it’s been a long time since I posted anything. But here’s a post about last night, which seems worth sharing. I was blessed with a very nice and enjoyable night.

I began last night at a leisurely pace. I had noted that it was going to be a nice night as the evening progressed, but even so I must admit that I was less than enthusiastic about going out. Even to me, someone who loves astronomy, the thought of the upcoming day and the lack of sleep prevent me from going out all the times I’d like to. But I continued putting up my equipment. I decided to just put an eyepiece in and enjoy a simpler night.

I glanced at the moon for a good bit, and noted that the atmosphere seemed quite still. It was a comfortable night- warm, perhaps, for a March night but pleasantly so. It cooled off later to the point that I put a jacket on. Biting bugs aren’t quite out yet, so I wasn’t plagued by bloodthirsty, whining drones of chomping insect jaws. I swung the C9.25 over to a star and inspected the intrafocal and extrafocal images for collimation. I noted for the first time in a long time what I assumed was a heat plume, which comes off of a warm secondary baffle in the telescope. The atmosphere, on the Pickering scale, was probably about a 5 (this is a scale of atmospheric turbulence on a scale of ten, by looking at the airy disk and diffraction rings of a star). The air’s transparency could have been better, but I was okay with that because I wasn’t interested in searching out faint objects. After deciding that my collimation was satisfactory, I moved on to Jupiter in the eastern sky.

Immediately upon putting my eye up to the eyepiece (I was at a magnification of 235x), I noted that a lot was going on. I at once saw two shadows and one moon on the disk of the planet. I didn’t immediately see the second moon, but I new it had to be there because of the position of it’s shadow. The entire transit was very near the disk’s limb. I wasn’t sure if the transit had just begun or was just about to end. After watching it for a while, I concluded that it had begun and was rotation across Jupiter’s disk. I immediately decided that this was worth getting my camera out for.

A good bit later, after making the necessary adjustments needed to use my camera, I was again on Jupiter, capturing the transits of Io, Europa, and their shadows. As I have said, I was blessed with a very enjoyable night. There were a couple equipment problems, but nothing major. After the initial setup and I began capturing files, I relaxed a little bit and was able to look around. It’s very peaceful, out there in a field by yourself under the stars. It gives me opportunity to praise God who made them. My wonder for creation is turned into love for the Creator.

By the time my laptop battery was about to die, I had capture 33 gigabytes of data. Today I was able to process all of that and turn it into some images. I ended up with 14 frames, which I was able to turn into a time-lapse animation. Each one came from a 10% stack from a 10,000 frame video. I also made a collage of 3 frames spaced about 20 minutes apart, which you see above.

And here is the time lapse.

Maine 2015

Journal, Photography
Sailboat

Sailboat

Hey everyone, if you follow my blog you may have noticed that I take an annual trek to Maine, and that has continued this year. Maine is a wonderful place and a drastic change from Alabama…it’s a place of rugged beauty with rocky coasts, clear waters, and trees that cling to shoreline rocks with mighty roots. Oh, Maine has some really good lobster, too. The weather was really nice, at least to me! On this trip, I challenged myself to look for (and take, naturally) photographs that really said, “Maine”. I also did a good bit of dabbling in Black and White photography.

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Cormorant in Maine Harbor

Cormorant in Maine Harbor

A Classic Maine Coast

A Classic Maine Coast

Maine 2015

Roots Among Rocks

Roots Among Rocks

Seagull

Seagull

Maine 2015

Maine 2015

Saturn Success!

Photography, Science Tech

Saturn

Hey everyone! Unfavorable weather and busy schedule continued to dominate spring this year, so much so that I was beginning to think I wouldn’t get a chance to photograph Saturn this season. A few good nights came up however, and I am most happy that I was able to give Saturn a shot.  There are a couple details that I’d like to point out  (north is up): Obviously, the rings are the main attraction on this planet. The large gap in Saturn’s rings is called the Cassini Division, and where the rings pass in front of the disk of the planet, you can actually see through the division to the surface of the planet. On the globe itself, notice the “belts”, zones, and variation in colors. The belts, similar to Jupiter, are formed by fast jetstream winds. One interesting detail is Saturn’s strange north pole hexagon. Saturn’s NPH can be resolved with a little difficulty by astrophotographers here on earth. In my photograph, the hexagon is the green patch at the north pole– if I look at it just right, I like to convince myself that I can see the hexagonal shape.

Saturn can be a challenge to photograph. Being small, it needs a lot of magnification (or focal length). For perspective, normal daytime photographers consider a 600mm or 800mm lens a lot of focal length. This photograph was taken at a focal length of 5,875mm, nearly 6 meters! The focal ratio was F/25. As you can imagine, this is one of the reasons astrophotography is so challenging.

Astrophotos Amid the Rainy Season, March and April

Photography, Science Tech
Nocturnal Cows

Nocturnal Cows

Several nights have yielded some nice results for me over the past month even though spring brings a lot of clouds and rain around here. I enjoy the nights I’m able to get out, even if some of them are plagued with equipment quirks. Jupiter is steadily  receding, growing smaller and setting earlier every night, so Jupiter season is starting coming to a close. But it’s not quite over yet! I’m still shooting. The nice part is that it crosses the meridian at a convent time, and is still large enough to enjoy nice detail. So, here’s what I think is my best Jupiter to date, with the Great Red Spot. Taken on March 30.

Jupiter 2015-03-30

But there’s more! Jupiter rotates quite quickly: about once every 10 hours. You can actually watch it rotate over the course of hours. And with such quick rotation, we can do some cool things. I took two photographs, within about 10 minutes apart. Jupiter rotated a little bit, but noticeably, within that time. Since the two photographs have a slightly shifted perspective, I can put them side by side and create a 3-D stereo pair. If you’re familiar with stereo pairs, give this one a try! You should get a neat globe effect.

Stereo Pair

Some lunar shots, also from the 30th:

Moretus
Tycho

Gassendi

Copernicus

Plato

Sinus Iridum

And finally, here’s another Jupiter. This one has some interesting features- it has a lunar shadow in transit. To Jupiter’s right, you see one of Jupiter’s moons: Io. On the face of Jupiter, you see the shadow that is cast by the moon.

Jupiter Io Shadow Transit