Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Lunar Eclipse

Been a while since I've posted here. With an active three year old there's barely enough time to go out and take scenic photos, let alone sit at a computer and write about them. Today is no different but I thought I could throw up some photos from this morning's lunar eclipse while Abby is eating lunch. Already I've had to stop typing twice just this far in because of her calls.

The eclipse didn't start until around 11pm last night. I set up two cameras in the backyard, a Nikon D800E with a 200-400mm+1.4 teleconverter and a Pentax Q10 fitted to my Canon 400mm/2.8IS lens.

I had bought the Pentax a week earlier when it was a special sale on EBay. It's an interchangeable lens camera with a very small sensor. So when fitted to a lens made for a regular camera the small sensor acts like a 5.5x crop, giving my 400mm the equivalent field of view of a 2232mm lens on a regular camera.

It was a little cloudy as the eclipse started giving the moon a soft glow around it and blurring the details.

But by the time totality was reached the skies were mostly clear.

Miranda relaxed in the hammock while I fiddled with the tripods tracking the moon. With the Q10 the moon pretty much filled up the whole picture. It would also move completely thru the frame in a couple minutes. On the Nikon my field of view wasn't as tight, allowing more stars to get into the shot with the moon being so dark.

Originally I'd just planned on shooting the moon by itself since it was so high in the sky. But with over an hour of full eclipse available I figured I'd try getting something else into the shot. I headed for the Amtrak station. The distortion of the wide angle needed to get both the building and moon together kinda ruins the shot.

Mars is the bright spot to the upper right of the moon. I tried another with the flag pole and lights but still didn't like this view.

I got home just when the moon started moving out of the Earth's shadow. One last shot before bed.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Sunny days

I've written many times about how hard it is to find good photo subjects around Davis. Most of the time I end up having to drive out towards the coast or up into the hills for something interesting. But for a few lucky weeks in June and July, when the sunflowers bloom in the fields around town, we are blessed with some of the prettiest scenery you could ask for. It's also probably the only time of the year when I see other photographers in my local photo adventures.

Last year the peak sunflower season was pretty cloudless, leaving me with few good skies to pair with the fields of gold. Worried about not having a field in bloom if a good sunset did show, I started scouting which nearby fields were getting sunflower plantings early in the spring. A few of the fields last year had nice valley oaks complimenting the sunflowers. I was a little upset when most of those ended up as tomatoes or alfalfa this time. But once the first flowers opened up I didn't care about trees and let the flowers do their thing.

The first field I found with seedlings was just north of Woodland on CR 102, a few minutes past the Costco. Luck was on my side when the skies cooperated and brought some clouds in just as the flowers began to open up. I slid down the rows of the smaller, male flowers and started shooting away.

I was pretty happy with these first shots and was ready for some great color in the sky after sunset. But the weather system that brought in the clouds also brought in the wind. Sunflower plants are tall and top heavy. Even gentle breezes can move the flower heads a lot. As the sun dipped and the light dimmed it was really hard to keep my shutter speed high enough to capture the flowers without the motion blur of them swaying in the winds. Those high shutter speeds had to be achieved thru larger apertures which led to a shallower depth of field. The photos became more like portraits of individual flowers than a show of the whole field. 

I've shot a lot of landscapes intentionally with this large aperture method and though I didn't plan to shoot this way I like the results. 

Two nights later the clouds were out again so I headed back to this field for another try. I met up with Mir's friend Carson from her work who wanted to get some nice sunflower shots, too. But the skies didn't produce like they had before. The best clouds were to the south and I tried find a good set of flowers to match the cloud patterns. 

There was a little bit of color after the sun set, but nothing extraordinary. 

The next week I waited for another good sunset for sunflowers but nothing really materialized. So I took a flower break and tried to get the waxing crescent moon setting over the Capitol in Sacramento. 

Not as great as I'd hoped. I wanted more sunflowers.

I kept an eye on the weather reports as a field just down the street from our house came into bloom. On an evening with a few clouds I took Abby out to investigate. 

She liked exploring the secret tunnels formed by the giant leaves of the plants while I shot away. 

The next night proved to have some better clouds so Abby and I headed out again. 


I felt pretty lucky to have had a few nice sunsets quickly into this season. But pretty soon we were back to clear summer skies. Sunflowers only look good for a week, two at most, before their heads get too heavy with seed. Not wanting to waste the their short bloom time I went out at night to try some starry sky shots. 

One of the nice things about summer in the Sacramento valley is the delta breeze that cools off our nights and brings some relief from the scorching afternoons. The temperature out at the field was great. But the breeze was blowing all the flowers around so much it was nearly impossible to get a shot with the flowers still enough. I got one shot with a faint Milky Way visible just outside of town. 

I didn't really expect the skies to be extraordinary so close to Davis and was ready to try again. After a break for a road trip to weddings in San Diego and Portland I spotted a field up I-5 from Woodland about to bloom. I seemed like it was far enough from the city lights to see the galaxy better. I waited until the moon was into its waning quarter phase and went out to try star trails and more galaxy shots. 

The shooting star on the right side was really bright and stretched almost across the whole horizon over the tree. But when I combined the 90 photos into the star trails composite above it ended up fading into the other photo layers. The field was right along the freeway and the passing cars helped light up the flowers. But all that light also diminished the intensity of the Milky Way. 

When the sunflowers get big they tend to only face east. Thankfully these were still just young enough that some were facing northwest following the sunset. The tree I'd hoped would align nicely with the galaxy and sunflowers was a little off. Despite walking carefully up and down several rows of flowers I couldn't find a good alignment of north facing flowers, the tree, and the galaxy.  

As July ended I was pretty sure the sunflowers days were done for the year. But on another late night expedition I found one more field just blooming. Again it was a windy night but this time the blur makes the photo more interesting. Not spectacular but still different. 

I think the farmers and I would both agree this season turned out to be a pretty good one for the sunflower crops. 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

MO Photos

Including the trip we made last month I've been out to Kansas City with Miranda four times now. And while what I've seen of Missouri is nowhere near as photogenic as scenic California, the area around her parent's house in the suburb of Blue Springs is prettier than the ag lands we have surrounding Davis. I'd done a few hikes around the area the previous times out there but this year I packed the good cameras with me, determined get out and explore with the camera. I even talked Mir into a road trip to see the St Louis Arch, though we eventually ran out of time to do so.

Our first night in town there was a good lightning show. I'd missed the one big storm that had come thru California a few months back and was excited about this one. But I wanted to stay with Abby for one storm since she had talked about the grumbly rumbly noise episode of her favorite cartoon Guess with Jess. Everyone told me 'It's Missouri, there'll be more thunderstorms.'

The place I had in mind for thunderstorm shots was the far eastern part of Blue Springs Lake that runs along the main road into their neighborhood.  Dead trees, killed in the flooding to create the lakes, covered this section and had my attention since the first time I visited.  On the next free evening I drove down to check out the sunset scene. There was one good storm cloud in the sky. I tried shooting it over those trees on the Blue Springs side but the sunset colors were much better over Lake Jacoma. A few sudden downpours but no lightning.

Still the trees called to me. So a few nights later I went down again and hiked down to the water's edge on the other side. I walked maybe a quarter mile, if that. As I set my bag down to get out the camera I noticed a few bugs on my pants. TICKS!!! On our last visit I woke up in the middle of the night and found three of the damned things on me after a short nature hike. This time I was determined not to let the bastards latch on and quickly picked at least twenty off my pants and socks. I had just enough time to get set up before the sun dipped below the horizon. 

The trees I could get close to shore weren't as exciting as I'd hoped. Also there was some kind of new overflow pumping water into the lake that kept it from being perfectly still. Can't decide if I like the rippled effect it made on the reflections or if it would've been better calm and smooth like a mirror. 

Not wanting to deal with any more nasty bugs I looked for a place around the big city to shoot. Earlier in our trip we had passed by the WWI Liberty Memorial Tower after taking Abby to the Crown Center. I searched online, found a few decent shots of it by other photographers, then got it in my head that this was the place I needed to shoot. After a dinner out with friends Miranda indulged be by letting me shoot around at night while she and a sleeping Abby waited in the car. 

The tower now sits on top of the country's only WWI museum and, fitting with KC's image, has a nice fountain at it's entrance. It was a little dark and I was trying to not keep Mir waiting so I only took a few shots. If I had this one to do again I'd try going a little lower to emphasize the ripples in the water more. 

I ran up top and tried another angle.

I like the twinkle of the lights on the stairs. But I had to use a fisheye to get the whole scene in and don't like the distortion it caused. 

Behind the tower there's a great view of the city skyline with Union Station in the foreground. 

I'd hoped there would be some lightning in the area to make the sky more interesting but I only saw one flash far to the east of here. Next time I'll make sure to come back here and do a multi-image panorama like I'd done in San Fran over the holidays. 

The last few days of our trip were spent in Colorado Springs visiting Miranda's brother Marcus who's stationed there. I was happy to sit shotgun for the nine hour drive across Kansas, hoping to take in the scenic glory of the state. I don't think I would've missed anything by watching the roads instead of the view. CO Springs, on the other hand, sits on the edge of Pike's Peak and the Rockies and looked like a much better place for a photographer to enjoy the outdoors. Mir's dad Mark mentioned wanting to visit a park called the Valley of the Gods that was in town. No one else was interested so one afternoon he and I took a 15 minute drive over to check it out. 

The park was pretty cool and everything was in easy walking distance. Several tall rock formations were covered in rock climbers dangling from ropes. While it was great to see it was hard to photograph. The paved trails were all lined with fences and signs telling people to not climb without permits and to respect nature. But all the paving and signs made it hard to photos that looked natural. 

I went up one unpaved trail to a smaller rock overlooking part of the city. Even here there were more signs. Out of the 15 minutes or so I was there I did manage to find a few seconds without anyone in the foreground for a shot. 

I thought this view would be great at night with the city lights glowing and decided to return again that night. I left a little late and missed the nice sunset colors in the clouds at the main overlook. But the red rock made for a nice conversion to black and white. 

I'm still a little upset at not getting the better clouds I would've had by leaving 20 minutes earlier but this one's a little too far away for me to get a do-over now. 

I hiked back up to the overlook for the night shot.

I like the moon as an element in the sky but the shadow it created blocked out a lot of the detail I'd wanted from the rocks. Again, not sure I'll ever get a re-do on this one so I'll have to live with it. 

We flew back home out of Denver with a stop in Orange County. Since Abby is over two she has to have her own seat now. While that hurt the bank account it made the flight more comfortable having a whole row to ourselves. It also guaranteed me a window seat. I kept one camera with me in case there was a good view. I'd hoped to see the Grand Canyon but most of Arizona was covered in clouds. The clouds didn't break until we were back in Cali. It was late in the evening and the low sun combined with the fog and smog in the San Bernardino mountains to give me one final redeeming photo from the trip. 

Next time we head back to KC I'm going to make sure catch the first lightning storm that comes around. And I'm definitely getting a plane seat with a good view. 

Monday, June 3, 2013

Stars of Gold

Way back when Miranda was volunteering her time at the Marine Mammal center in Sausalito I used to tag along sometimes and do night shooting around the Marin Headlands. I was surprised at how many stars were visible so close to San Francisco. After my first attempt at star trails I knew I needed to come back and try the star trails around the Golden Gate.

I tried once before early last year looking south but wasn't really happy with the results. The bridge was too bright to get long enough exposures to go with the stars. But after practicing with my post processing techniques and getting a new Nikon that has a sensor with the dynamic range to not blow out the highlights while keeping shadow details I figured it was time for another go at it.

I waited for a moonless, clear night (and Miranda's permission) and set off for a night alone with the bridge. When I pulled in there was a good crowd at the Battery Spencer overlook for the sunset. So I went back down to the base of the bridge to kill some time.

I'm still not sure how I like this view. Maybe I'll try again but with a tighter composition. After 45 minutes here I headed up top and had the place mostly to myself. 

I wanted a view of the whole deck of the bridge. So I brought my 9 foot tall tripod and set it up to shoot over the chain link security fence, up the path from the normal photo area. 

I like the headlight trails running all the way to the bottom corner and was really surprised that the light on the TransAmerica building came on for about a minute in the middle of my shooting. But the star trails weren't long enough to be really exciting. Also the chain link fence I was shooting over showed up enough in the bottom right corner to be distracting. I did a quick but ugly clone job to clean it up in the final image. As I was packing up I poked around and found that shooting from the top, where the fence line heads down the cliff face, helped keep the fence from showing up in the shots. Knowing there was a better view to be had was going to force me to return and do it better. 

On the way home I made a quick stop in Sausalito on a hunch from a view I'd seen on the way in. I circled around a bit, found a hidden parking spot, and climbed down to the water's edge under a freeway overpass. Alcatraz lined up perfectly with the Bay Bridge and its new lights. Though it was windy out, the water here was just calm enough to get some nicely colored reflections. 

A few nights later I trekked down again, determined to double the star trail lengths and get that fence out of my shot. Here's the better angle with 1.5 hours of trails. 

The construction lights on the SF side and TA building weren't lit like last time. But work crews coming and going beneath the bridge made some cool headlights trails under the north section. 

While that camera was running I set up two other cameras at the regular photo spot to see how that view looked with star trails. One horizontal

and one vertical
Both of these were shot with my Canon cameras which don't handle the mix of bright lights and dark skies as well as the Nikon. So at the end of the star trail shooting I took two extra photos, one exposed for the highlights on the bridge, then another at f/16. The small aperture creates the starburst effect on the bridge lights. Since the star trails process is spent blending 100-200 photos together (and considering the time spent erasing plane trails from those 100-200 images) blending in those last two photos didn't add much time to the process. I'm glad I included them as they really did a lot to improve the quality of the final images. 

I'm pretty happy with how these turned out. But I still think the star trails need to be longer to make the image really dynamic. I did a quick calculation that 5 hours would get enough trails going from the horizon to the top of the photo to make it look complete. Might as well pull an all-nighter, I guess. Don't know if I'm that dedicated, though. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Holidays in San Francisco

It seems as though society is getting more polarized every day. People are taking sides, often refusing to even consider other viewpoints. We start young with boys versus girls. In eighth grade in Fairfield our choice in music divided the 'rockers' and 'soulers.'  As we got older things become more serious: democrats against republicans; pro-life versus pro-choice; gun control or second amendment; etc. You can only be one or the other nowadays, there is no room for moderation. Families have been torn apart, mild acquaintances unfriended on Facebook.

That is why I like being a photographer, we don't care about such trivialities as race or religion. While Giants and Dodgers fans try to kill each other the photographers for each team will happily chat away about our new photo apps. Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and atheist photographers ignore the question of life after death and instead focus on the practicality of the zone system. Wether you drive a Ford or a Chevy, we don't care as long as you aren't one of those bastard Nikon users.

I've been a Canon shooter since Andre Agassi first started promoting the Rebel line when I was a teenager. I slowly built up a professional assortment of bodies and lenses and about two years ago thought I had all the gear I'd ever need. Then Canon announced a 200-400 zoom lens. Nikon had had a similar lens for years that was popular with sports photogs. I knew I needed this lens until I saw the price was estimated to be $11,000. Suddenly my longstanding love of Canon began to wane. I began pricing things out and I figured could buy both the Nikon version and the top of the line Nikon camera for the same price. On top of that Nikon then released an affordable 36megapixel camera in the D800E. So when a good deal on that camera and another on the Nikon 200-400 popped up on EBay I made a move.

Since I got such a good deal on both my original intention was to shoot as much as I could quickly, sell each for a profit, then go back to life as a Canon shooter. December had just begun and San Francisco would soon be alight in all its holiday glory. I spent a few days perusing Flickr and Google images looking for all the best touristy places to shoot. Then poked around Google maps to see if I could find any new angles to take advantage of. With an eye on live webcams from around the city I waited until the light on top of the TransAmerica building came on. Finally, on the first night of Hanukah, it lit and I prepared to execute my plan.

The following night I packed up my gear and headed to my first destination, Alamo Square and the Painted Ladies of Full House fame. I found the one parking spot around the whole park, hauled out two big tripods, set up, and waited for the light to come on. At 5 the sun set giving the sky a beautiful pink hue. At 5:30 a twilight blue sky covered the city. By 6 the sky was mostly dark but the light was still not on. A nice gentleman from Germany, in town on business, had a similar idea trying to capture as many iconic scenes as he could in three days. I loaned him a tripod and talked about places to go. He showed me photos from the top of Coit Tower he had just taken and I added that to my list. By 7:30 the light had still not come on and I decided to move on to another spot and see what I could make of the trip.

My next scheduled stop was a neighborhood on Portero Hill, overlooking the city and the 280 curve. Most people take a nice, tight view of the skyline with the lights of the cars streaking along the freeway. But since the TA light was not on I decided to take a panoramic view, combining 7 photos together for incredible detail. I parked my car part way down the steep street and set up the tripod on my car roof, to help get a view of the bay bridge over the roofs of the houses.

While the Nikon D800E has an impressively sharp 36megapixels, this combined panorama is 240megapixels that could blow up to 10 foot wide prints and still have enough detail to look great with your face pressed up against it. You may notice the light is on on the pyramid in this shot. I went back again to the same spot a few days later and blended it into this one. While that's not ethical for the work at the Enterprise, I don't have a big issue with it for something that is much more scenic than documentary.

I went back home and started waiting again by the livecam views. On the 13th it lit again. Miranda surmised it was for the 12 days of Christmas. Whatever the reason I was back in action. My next day off was Sunday the 16th. Forecast called for rain but the hourly view suggested it wouldn't start til 8. I drove back with Sunday I-80 traffic getting into the city just after 5:30. Coming thru the tunnel on Treasure Island the the drops started to fall on my windshield. By the time I got to my first stop at Coit Tower it was a heavy downpour. I almost quit but having driven all that way I decided just be a tourist and check out what the tower had to offer. Tripods are not allowed on the observation deck and all the windows are locked shut. And at the 6 o'clock closing time the TA light still was not on. As I tried to find a raindrop-free window to watch the clouds scrape across the tops of the buildings the light suddenly appeared. I pressed the camera up between the window and my face to keep it stable.

After a few snaps the call came for the last elevator ride down. I was happier now that the light was on and moved down to the Embarcadero to Pier 14. The rain had been a blessing in disguise as it scared off most of the tourists so I had the pier to myself. I started with a single shot with a fisheye on my Canon, corrected in photoshop to fix the distortion.

then tried five photos across the view to stitch together into a panorama

I didn't have the camera exactly centered with the pier and raindrops on the lens caused some spots in the photos. Even though I was happy at the time, when I edited them at home I knew I would need to try this one again. This is probably the most colorful view of the city and it needed to be done right.

On the other side of the ferry building from Pier 14 was Pier 7. It lines up perfect with the TA building and has pretty, old style lights lining its path. Again the rain was key to this photo, helping to reflect the light and brighten up the image. Back to the Nikon for this one.

A seagull came and perched on the closest light and I zoomed out to include all the Embarcadero Center buildings.

Happy with my visits to the piers I went back to Portero Hill to redo it with the light on. Here's the tight view of the skyline

Since it's over an hour drive from Davis to San Fran with a couple bridge tolls I tried to make the most of each visit. Miranda and I had taken Abby to Macy's last year to see all the decorations and we wanted to do it again this year. After Macy's and trip to the wharf I dragged them over to Twin Peaks. Along the way we made a quick stop back at Alamo Square.

It was pretty cold and windy up at Twin Peaks. So while I set about making another panorama Mir and Abby skyped with her parents in the car. 

This is a 260megapixel image. Here's a 100% crop of two people standing at a bus stop on Market St in the middle of the photo.

Considering how windy it was I'm really happy these photos weren't too shaky.

The following Sunday brought another solo trip, starting with a redo of Pier 14.

The skies were clear this time and a waxing gibbous moon helped give the sky a blue hue even after twilight. This is a 5 shot, 131MP panorama with the Nikon. I also shot to the right over to Angel Island and left covering the whole Bay Bridge but decided to keep it to this view to emphasize the colors reflecting in the water. This was my favorite shot of the city.

Back across the west span of the bridge to Treasure Island I tried more panoramas. First from the far end of the island:

Then again from up the hill a bit, looking right down Market St for a 212MP panorama. 

I'd hoped to see some of the traffic along Market from this view but the ferry building blocked it out. Only a red-orange glow from the lights extending into the sky showed. 

Over the bridge once more and to the Presidio area I tried a view I hadn't seen before with the Palace of Fine Arts and TA pyramid together. 

I probably should've offset them more or gone tight perfectly centered. With time getting late I went over the Golden Gate and down near its base to try one more city panorama, using a large seastack rock for foreground detail. 

The city was just a little too small in this view. 

After Christmas I started my next trip on the Marin side, hiking down to Kirby Cove to see the city under the Golden Gate. A five shot 130MP panorama.

Then up near the top of the hill to get a close up of the Golden Gate north tower and TransAmerica bldg. 

My next scheduled stop was Ina Coolbrith park in the city. But Hwy 101 runs along Lombard St so I decided to detour and see what view of the city I could get there. I set up with the best view of the skyline I could find. I was so busy trying to get the curve, Coit Tower, the moon, and the holiday lights together that I didn't notice the giant tree branch in the upper right. This one will have to wait til next year for a redo.

While I had found a parking spot right at the top of Lombard, the closest parking I found to Ina Coolbrith had to be on one of the steepest hills in the city. My driver side door swung open immediately while the passenger side had to be held open or it would slam shut. The view was worth it, though, with the moon light reflecting in the water under the bridge. 

Here's a 100% crop from the panorama of two guys talking on a balcony of the middle apartment complex. 

I sped thru the city and into the Oakland hills for a more distant view of the skyline. First some night hiking in Joaquin Miller park (230MP)

Then over to Grizzly Peak for just one shot of the bridge 

I managed to get to most of the places I wanted to with the lights on but had one more top priority place to photograph, a reshoot of last year's New Year view from Ft Baker. Mir, Abby, and I went down again, this time near the fishing pier. I wanted more reflection of the lights from the fireworks and TA light than I got in last year's photo and hoped the pier would smooth out the water enough to make that happen. There was also a small beach that Abby and Mir could play at while I shot away. I set three cameras up this time, hoping one would get it all right. A single shot with the Canon 7D I borrowed from work, 

And a 240MP panorama with the Nikon

Getting to see the city from so many angles got me thinking about where to shoot the next New Year's fireworks from. With a little photoshop work I put together what I think I will be shooting a little under a year from now. 

After three weeks of pretty heavy cityscape shooting I decided that maybe Nikons aren't so bad. In fact I was so impressed with the detail in these photos I decided to sell off most of my Canon gear. If only it were so easy to view the world thru our rival's lenses for a while on the other subjects that divide us.