It’s been a while

22 October 2014

It has been quite a while since my last blog post. There’s been a lot going on in my life and at work so that I’ve not felt any desire to write at all. Now that things are starting to settle down and sort out, I think I owe my few readers an update, if only to let them know I’m not dead and will be posting in the future. The updates in this post will cover Astrophotography, General Photography, and Amateur Radio.



Well…as with writing, I haven’t been doing much of this since Wickahoney. It sucks, too, because the weather has been great for it. It hasn’t been a total loss, though.

I did crawl out of my warm bed to see the Blood Moon of the wee hours of 8 October 2014. I actually went outside in the driveway and watched it for a while before it dawned on me to grab my camera. So, I quickly went back in, grabbed the camera, and got back out. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I started taking pictures handheld. Trying to keep the ISO down in order to eliminate as much noise as possible, I was obviously shooting hand-held exposures that weren’t going to come out nice and sharp. Eventually I actually realized that and started bracing against the porch. That kept slipping, definitely operator error, so I moved to the car. The angle of the windshield was perfect but I was still getting blurry images due to the speed at which the moon moves. As I started dialing in for that by increasing the ISO and getting better and better pictures…my battery went to bed. By that time, the moon was emerging from totality so I just stayed up and watched the show a while longer then headed back in to bed.

Lessons learned: Get the friggin’ tripod, it’s only 30 seconds into the house and back out. Wake up more and think things through. Don’t be stubborn about the ISO, for stuff like this bump up the shutter speed, you’ll get better images that way!

On the plus side, I can now state that I have seen, personally and with my own eyes directly, with binoculars, or with a telescope all but one of the planets. The only one I’m not able to say I’ve seen with 100% confidence now is blue Neptune. Pluto doesn’t count, even though I keep thinking of it as a planet. Plus Pluto is so far away that I’ve got a snowball’s chance in hell of seeing it in person. Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, some asteroids, Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus I’ve all seen now. Hold the Uranus jokes, please. Maybe this year or next year I’ll bag Neptune as well.

With Neptune having a magnitude of 7 to 8, I think I now have the necessary tools to locate it. I just have to watch for it to pass near something I can easily identify in the night sky and triangulate off, something that will help me restrict the area I search. The setting circles on my Celestron Classic C8 should really help with this hunt as will the GoTo capability of my Celestron Nexstar 102GT. Provided, of course, that I orient them properly.

Speaking of the Celestron Classic C8, I have the piggyback mount attached to the OTA (Optical Tube Assembly) now. This will let me mount my camera on the C8 and use the telescope to guide the camera. I should be able to get some nice long exposures even with the 400mm now.

General Photography

The only time I did any intential photography in this period was while on vacation in McCall, Idaho. As usual, we went to Charlie’s Gardens to see it and myself with the intent of doing some photography.

This time I got some really nice images of various flowers, and I admit to being pleased with many of them. I was trying to do macro flower photography and I actually took several hundred pictures. Some I took to try and stack for a greater depth of field and some I took to try different perspectives. The best ones, though, were those I simply took to practice macro photography.

Picture of a small blue and yellow flower against a blurred background of green leaves.

A macro of one of the flowers at Charlie’s Gardens, McCall, Idaho.

I also attempted to take the necessary pictures to produce a multiple image of each granddaughter, of my daughter and her daughters, and of her husband. For various reasons that I fully understand in hindsight, the results were dismal: late in the afternoon the light was changing too rapidly, and my depth of field was too shallow. Of the six shots in each sequence, only one is really in focus, the rest are just out of focus. Perhaps not enough to matter to others, but to me that whole project should be tossed. I’ll probably still assemble the images and deliver them to my daughter, but I’m definitely neither happy with nor proud of the result.

Amateur Radio

I’ve done no operating, but I did manage to get a nice, clean installation of my Yaesu FT2500M and FT857D radios in my new to me 1992 Blazer. Power and feedlines are mostly out of sight and are definitely not in the way of passengers or driver like they were in the Geo Tracker.

Image shows two radios mounted in the center area of a 1992 Blazer Silverado.

The FT-2500M is mounted right under the dash while the FT-857D is mounted to a bracket that is in turn mounted to the sloping front of the center console. The Chorus (described in text later) is in the console cupholder.

Antennae for 2m and 70cm are roof-mounted mag mounts: a 5/9 whip for the FT2500M and a combo 2m/70cm for the FT857D. For a clean HF antenna mount, I bolted a front receiver to the frame of the Blazer and was thus able to simply slide in my stinger-mounted 40m Hamstick, using the entire mast assembly intact from the Geo Tracker. I was even able to keep the tow hook that was there. I couldn’t use the rear receiver as the antenna would constantly be in the way of opening the rear and there’s also the need to use the rear receiver for towing the trailer.

This shows the receiver mounted where the tow hook bolts on as well. The L shaped receiver with the condujit pipe mast is the same assembly formerly used in my rear receiver of the Geo Tracker.

This shows the receiver mounted where the tow hook bolts on as well. The L shaped receiver with the conduit pipe mast is the same assembly formerly used in my rear receiver of the Geo Tracker. The mast has no noticeable impact on the headlights lighting up the road.

There’s no APRS install yet as I’ve got to figure out where to put the GPS receiver for best reception. I don’t want it just sitting there on the dash against the windshield. The Geo Tracker’s ragtop was ideal for the APRS setup I had. The Blazer has a metal roof, as you’ve probably deduced from the use of the mag mounts, so mounting it right up there against the roof isn’t an option. I’m thinking of mounting it to the Blazer’s roof rack, but we’ll see.

I also found a small device, the Chorus in the cupholder of the interior image above, that I had forgotten about. That device was originally intended to help me with lipreading but it’s useful for other audio detecting. Supporting a vibrating external transducer and having a mic input, it allows me to connect it to the radio’s audio jack and feel when the squelch breaks without having to look at the radio. I’m hoping it will help me locate and identify CW frequencies in the area. I’m also hoping that with it I’ll be able to eventually learn to “listen” to CW by feel.

Along with that approach, I’ve got a friend attempting to recreate an arm-mounted device I read about that was only referred to as “the Thumper” by some deaf CW operators back in the 1960s. I’ve mentioned the Thumper in an older post.

One of the things I’d been trying to figure out how to do recently was to somehow limit the FT857D scanning to just the 40m CW frequencies. I finally found out it has that capability in the form of Programmable Memory Scanning. Yes, the manual does refer to it as PMS, and so does the radio’s LCD: “press the [C] (PMS) key”. I’ve already made some groaner jokes about that elsewhere and won’t repeat them here. Anyway, it goes to show checking the owner’s manual every so often is worthwhile.

I’m hoping to use this feature to monitor for CW activity without having to scan through all the other frequencies I’ve got programmed into the FT-857D. I’ll be doing this monitoring mostly during my commutes to and from work but hope to also play with it up in the Owyhees. With any luck, eventually I’ll build up a list of reliable CW frequencies for this area and start imporving my CW skills.

I have no intention of transmitting CW while driving. I’ll pull over to operate, but I very much want to get my CW skills up and running so I can have reasonable QSOs and be able to just “listen” to CW exchanges while driving like you listen to the AM/FM radio or your cell phone. I’m not into contesting, but I am interested in chatting and this is a skill that would be very welcome during my Owyhee explorations, which often are in areas with no cell phone service.

That’s it for now. I’ll try and post more frequently again.

Wickahoney Time Lapse

3 September 2014

It took a bit of time, and I had to learn to use some software better than I already did, but on the whole, comments back have been positive on the Stars Over Wickahoney time lapse.

Stars Over Wickahoney time lapse from Wickahoney ruins, Owyhee County, Idaho, USA.

Stars Over Wickahoney time lapse from Wickahoney ruins, Owyhee County, Idaho, USA.

As the photographer and video creator, I’m pretty picky about my own stuff. I see a lot that could be improved, but I’m not sure how to proceed. I’m not happy with many of the images. I think I could improve the overall video components, adjust the timing…so many other things. Yet, everyone that’s seen it so far and provided feedback really likes it. I guess that means it’s acceptable and the things I see are just those that the perfectionist in me knows are there.

It was a lot of fun, going out to Wickahoney, getting the images, being out there, and putting the video together.

Bob, one of the guys that went that weekend, and I are dangerous when we get together. At a BBQ last weekend we were talking about this Wickahoney time lapse and as tends to happen when we get together we branched out into other ideas. One that came up is a project that I would really like to do next: Stars Over Stonehenge.

While I would love to go to Amesbury, UK, I’m actually talking about the Stonehenge near Maryhill Museum and overlooking the Columbia River Gorge. I’ve been there several times years and years ago but can still remember it vividly, as well as the chess sets in the basement of Maryhill Museum. Every time I take I-84 to or from Portland, I look for it.

I can’t see this happening this year, but who knows. For sure, though, I would like to do this next year. A moonless night, facing south, the rising Milky Way…. I don’t know if I’d be able to pick up the traffic on I-84 across the Columbia due to the freeway being down in the gorge but it’s a wide open view to the south. I might make a run there to talk to the curators of the museum to see if I need, and if necessary can get, permission to be at the Stonehenge replica after dark. See if I can see I-84 from where I’d likely set up. Check out the campground nearby where I can crash after the photo session is done.

The only thing I’d be concerned about is the light pollution in the area. The Dalles isn’t that far west. However, Dark Skies Finder is very promising so I’m excited about this project and starting to research it.

Between now and then, though, there’s other sites, other sights, and time to improve my skills.

The Stars Came Out To Play

28 August 2014

The forecast for Wickahoney was partially cloudy all weekend, not a promising omen. We left my house about 3 PM and headed to Boise to link up with Bob and Janet. I’d say we were on the road by 4 PM. All during the drive the clouds were to the south and seemed to be trying to move in. The closer to Wickahoney we got, the more the clouds seemed to be winning their way to us.

Yet…after we got there and set up camp in very windy conditions, the sky cleared up except for a cloud bank to the south, low on the horizon. For what I wanted, the conditions were becoming perfect, and they remained so throughout the night.

Wickahoney is a wonderful dark sky site. By the Bortle scale, I would call it an easy 3, possibly 2 and just maybe even 1 on a good night. I’m saying this from memory and without having actually worked through my copy of the chart that night. As a result, I didn’t know just what to check for, although I did think about getting the chart out once or twice. Now I wish I had so that I could state with conviction whether it was a 2 or 1.

Everything was dark and the surroundings were simply black against the sky as we had no moon, as promised by The Photographer’s Ephemeris and Stellarium. The Milky Way was glorious overhead. We did have a fire going in a pan well off the ground and that night it was defintiely welcome. As long as you avoided staring into the mesmerizing flames, your night vision would come back pretty quickly.

And the stars came out to play that night.

Carl Sagan was wrong. He should have said “trillions and trillions” not “billions and billions.”

It always amazes me just how many stars are visible when I go to my dark sky sites. No matter how often I see the night sky, as in really see it far from light pollution, I’m always like a little kid being shown his favorite toy. I’m delighted, excited, all past disappointments are forgot in the moment, and I’m humbled. It doesn’t faze me that there might be many intelligent civilizations out there or that we’re more than likely just one of thousands and thousands of worlds with beings looking up in awe. For me, it’s life-affirming.

I consider my Pentax K10D to be my best camera, so that is the one I set up for the Milky Way time lapse I came out here to do. I had done my homework and knew that to cover the Milky Way from 9 PM that night to 3 AM the next morning I had to cover almost 110 degrees of view. My Pentax SMC DA 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 ED[IF] Fisheye set to 10mm covered that just fine. I had worked out the ruins had to be on a line running 285 degrees from the camera. We got there in time to have plenty of light to set up the camera and check the view, alignment, angles, and decide where to set camp. It was windy, but the heavy tripod my son got for me on my birthday several years ago had no problems being steady. I love that tripod!

The lens was zoomed wide to 10mm, the aperture manually set to f/3.5, and the shutter to Bulb. My hard case was set on the TV dinner tray I’d brought and the laptop on top of that. The laptop was fired up and Pentax Tether started. The USB cable was connected and the camera parameters popped up in Pentax Tether. A little fiddling with the ISO, time lapse timings, and the like and I was ready to go. I shut the lid on the laptop, satisfied that when it got close to 9 PM and I wanted to start shooting, all I would have to do would be to open the laptop, log in, and click on the shutter button in the program.

The Pentax K-10 with fisheye is set up and ready for use. In the background is where we set up camp. Food prep, fire, and visiting area are in view, our tent was to the left of the truck and out of view. Bob and Jan slept in the back of their truck, parked in front of my son's and also out of view.

The Pentax K-10 with fisheye is set up and ready for use. In the background is where we set up camp. Food prep, fire, and visiting area are in view, our tent was to the left of the truck and out of view. Bob and Jan slept in the back of their truck, parked in front of my son’s and also out of view.

Throughout the night I checked the setup. There were a couple of times when I had to change the ISO as something reset it to 100. It took a little fiddling to get the timing right, I wanted 30 second exposures 30 seconds apart, i.e. 1 per minute. As the night wore on, I was able to relax and check less and less often, simply keeping an eye out to try and catch when I had to swap out the batteries. I think, and the times recorded in the EXIF seem to bear me out, that I caught the timing almost dead on, missing only one or at most two shots while I changed the batteries. I was very pleased to find that the two batteries I had, both fully charged at the beginning, were plenty for the task. I even had power to go longer but by 3:30 AM I was tired and cold and called it a night.

During all this, I had my other camera, the Pentax *istDL, and another tripod for any other pictures I wanted to work on. I used that to take the usual “tourist” pictures as we fixed dinner, sat around, explored the area, and through the night as I sought to capture M33, Comet Jacques (no luck, couldn’t even find it), Scorpius, the Big Dipper, and otherwise play while the K10D was busy with the time lapse.

Wickahoney ruins lit by flashlight at night with stars above and myself in the image.

Wickahoney ruins lit by flashlight at night with stars above and myself in the image.

13 minute star trails rotating around Polaris.

One of the images I captured with the *istDL, a 13 minute single exposure of star trails rotating around Polaris.

The next day, we all woke early and after breakfast, chatting, and some more photography, we packed up and headed home. It wouldn’t be until Monday evening that I had a good look at the results of my time lapse.

I had been doing some studying and visiting various tutorials in preparation for this particular time lapse. It was my first attempt at a Milky Way time lapse and given the amount of time involved I naturally wanted to have the best chance from the get-go. I also knew, however, the probability was high that I wouldn’t get exactly what I visualized the first time.

Putting together the time lapse and viewing it I was both pleased and disappointed. Star trails are minimized even with the 30 second exposure time. That matched up with what I should have expected via the 500 Rule (aka the 600 Rule). The video flows smoothly, the stars pass by overhead, easily followed.

All in all, it’s a reasonably good first attempt.

I had done some experimenting ahead of time, testing ISO vs Shutter. I had settled on 30 seconds at an ISO of 800 as workable. That turned out not to be the case. In this time lapse, you can only see the Milky Way as a brown smudge even though it was easily visible to the naked eye. I have always shot the Milky Way using 20 to 45 seconds exposure at ISO 1600, the max for the K10D. I had hoped that I’d be able to get enough exposure to bring the Milky Way out in post-production using some of the techniques I studied beforehand. The ISO 800 was an attempt to reduce noise as much as possible. While that seemed to work, there’s still noise and the Milky Way isn’t easily brought out better. Nor is it as visible as with 1600. One thing I had forgotten since I got the K10D and switched to using it is that the *istDL goes to ISO 3200. Interestingly enough, the noise level on the *istDL at 3200 is somewhere between the K10D at 800 and at 1600. I may have to seriously consider using the *istDL for Milky Way shots instead of the K10D.

I had also decided that I wanted everyone to be free to wander around the site and thus provide some “action” in the video to go with the Milky Way moving overhead. In hindsight, against the stars that concept worked great, but for most previews it seems the people in the shots are enough to make attention be split between the stars and the people. End result: most people would have to watch it twice to see the full effect of the stars in the time lapse. Once to watch the people and once to watch the stars. The next time, I’ll leave the people out of the video.

The light painting of the ruins was simply great. Actually, a bit too much. In the time lapse there are a couple of times when I have the ruins lit by a little flashlight my son borrowed. That beam is so bright and so powerful for such a little flashlight that I have to get one. It didn’t even use up one whole charge and comes with a second battery we never had to touch. For as much light as it put out, it’s easy to over-paint the subject with the light.

Anyway, I learned that whatever light I get and use, I absolutely need to practice with it to learn how much to paint things to avoid overexposure. By luck, I got a couple images where the ruins are nicely lit but quite a few times the area and ruins are overexposed. Whether I used my LED lantern or that flashlight, I definitely need to experiment and learn how to paint with them before using them again like this.

All in all, the run to Wickahoney was both satisfying and disappointing. I learned a lot but didn’t get exactly what I wanted. Next time….


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