K3 First Light – M42

17 December 2014

To paraphrase the narrator in a YA fantasy trilogy, “Say what you will about the Pentax K3. Say that the K3 is fast.”

All images here are shown without any post processing other than to convert from RAW to JPEG. I did resize them smaller to save space but you can still see the noise and M42 for comparison.

Sunday I got up about 0300 to get a drink of water and looked out the window at the night sky. It was so clear, the stars were so bright, I could see Orion, and it was 30° F.

I went back to bed. I lay there, thinking how great the night sky was. I thought about my new camera and how it would be a great chance to check ISO vs shutter speed. I thought about how I would set up that test. I thought how Orion was right there. I thought how I really should go out and take some astrophotos.

After the third time through all that, I thought, “Geez! Quit thinking about it! If I’m going to think about it this much, I should just get up and do it!”

So I did.

M42, the Orion Nebula, aka the Great Nebula in Orion, taken with my new Pentax K3, 400mm, 5 sec., f/5.6, ISO 1600.

M42, the Orion Nebula, aka the Great Nebula in Orion, taken with my new Pentax K3, 400mm, 5 sec., f/5.6, ISO 1600.

I mounted my Tokina 400mm on the K3, set up the tripod, connected the cable release, and went to work. My plan was simple: to run a series of shots to explore the results of different shutter speeds applied to each available ISO suitable for astrophotography.

First of all, this was from my driveway, which is not exactly a dark sky site. The light pollution isn’t all that bad, fortunately, but it’s there: you can’t see the Milky Way, but you can make out M42, the Great Nebula in Orion, as a fuzzy patch.

Given the 400mm’s small field of view, I decided to make M42, the Orion Nebula, my target because it was right there in plain sight, at a comfortable angle, and easy enough to line up on. Since this was just a test to see what I would get, I set up everything and did the shooting without checking each image immediately afterward. After all, I just wanted to see what each combination of ISO and shutter speed would give me. Plus it was 30° F and getting colder.

From experience using my K10D, and to some extent my *ist DL, I knew that I needed to expose for 10 or more seconds to get anything. I wanted to see how much noise there was at the higher ISOs. I decided that I would test with the following string of shots:

ISO: 51200, 25600, 12800, 6400, 3200, and 1600

Shutter speed: 30, 25, 20, 15, 10 seconds

The remaining variables were constant: aperture was wide open at f/5.6 and the focus was manually set. Since this 400mm doesn’t have an autofocus or auto-aperture, the K3 required me to manually enter the focal length. There was no setting on the K3 for 400mm but there was 600mm so I used that. Afterwards, for just the photos posted here, I used an EXIF editor to correct the reported focal length (changed from 600mm to 400mm) and effective focal length (changed from 900mm to 600mm).

The first new thing I played with was the focus. The Pentax K3 has Live View, and I was eager to try that. My 400mm is fully manual, so I set the camera to manual focus mode. Then I made sure the aperture ring was turned to 5.6, wide open. Next I focused through the eyepiece as best I could, triggered Live View and zoomed in on one of the stars visible. Watching the Live View, I adjusted the focus ring on the 400mm until I had the sharpest possible view of the star. I don’t think it was perfect, but it was definitely at the best possible focus.

The next step was to compose my shot. I was using a cable release to avoid any shaking from pressing the shutter release. For the timing, I wanted it to be consistent, so rather than using Bulb mode I used Manual mode and set the shutter speed to each of the desired values as the shoot went on.

I started with ISO 51200 and 30 seconds. Then I went to 25 seconds, 20 seconds, 15 seconds, and finally 10 seconds. At that point, I dropped the ISO to 25600 and worked my way back up the exposure times. Next, ISO to 12800 and downward on the speeds…you get the idea. I shot all the times against each ISO before changing ISO settings.

At the top of this post I mentioned that the K3 was fast. I’m used to every 30 second exposure needing 30 seconds to store the image to the SD card. Even with my old, non-high speed SD cards, storage to the card even with noise reduction on was still well under 30 seconds. It even seemed to speed up as the shoot went on, perhaps due to the cold?

While changing the ISO, I accidentally went to 5 seconds exposure when I moved the wrong wheel. I was about to change it back to 10 seconds when I decided, “Why not?” So for the end of the downward run at 3200 and the upward start to 1600 ISO, I had two 5 second exposures.

It wasn’t until the next later that morning that I actually looked at the pictures to see what I got. The results, as they say, were nothing short of astounding. For one thing, I flat out did not expect to get the purple/pink of the nebula in the images. I simply had never tried imaging M42 with the 400mm before. Hades, I hadn’t even expected that simply with the 400mm I could achieve a “classic” image of M42! I thought you needed a big telescope for those.

At only 5 seconds of exposure at 1600 ISO, I fully expected the whole image to be black, with maybe a couple of stars showing up. That was NOT the case and I was floored with the result.

The unprocessed (other than to convert from RAW to PNG) 1600 ISO 5 second image is at the top of this post. Even the 3200 image below is awesomeness.

M42 Orion Nebula Pentax K3, 400mm, f/5.6, 5 sec., ISO 3200

M42 Orion Nebula
Pentax K3, 400mm, f/5.6, 5 sec., ISO 3200

There is more noise with the 3200 than the 1600 ISO, as would be expected, but more of the nebula is visible in the 3200 ISO shot, again as expected.

At first I didn’t expect to see star trails, but then I realized that the field of view through the 400mm is so small that it would take less exposure time for the stars to move across the image than for, say, a 135mm lens. Or a 50mm.

At the higher ISOs, the image is actually washed out from being overexposed! I absolutely did not expect that. Things really only start getting visible in the 10 second 51200 ISO exposure.

M42, the Great Nebula in Orion, buried in the overexposure. This is the first image (see text) where M42 is truly visible in a test image. Pentax K3, 400mm, f/5.6, 10 sec., ISO 51200.

M42, the Great Nebula in Orion, buried in the overexposure. This is the first image (see text) where M42 is truly visible in a test image.
Pentax K3, 400mm, f/5.6, 10 sec., ISO 51200.

Working through the images afterwards, it was very noticeable that there is a line in the sand related to noise and it’s at the 12800 ISO vs 6400 ISO point. This is clearly evident in the two images below.

Showing the dividing line between ISO 12800 (left) and ISO 6400 (right). This is the point where the noise level really drops between ISOs. To either side of this line the noise level is gradual, here it's somewhat abrupt.

Showing the dividing line between ISO 12800 (left) and ISO 6400 (right). This is the point where the noise level really drops between ISOs. To either side of this line the noise level is gradual, here it’s somewhat abrupt.

All in all, I am very pleased with my new Pentax K3 camera. I certainly didn’t expect to get such a “classic” image of M42 with just the K3 and my old manual 400mm Tokina. And with the pink/purplish glow of that nebula, to boot! This camera has several tools such as internal stacking that are ideal for astrophotography and I’m really excited to play with them.

Hmmm. I wonder what’s possible with my Classic Celestron C8 mounted on the camera? Or even just with the K3 plus 400mm piggybacked for tracking. ISO 1600 for 3 seconds each, stacked? ISO 3200?

I can’t wait to get out and try again now that I know what this Pentax K3 is capable of.

The best of the season to you all!

See you next year.

Reflections On A New Camera

10 December 2014

I now have a Pentax K3 body, which is both good news and bad. The downside is that it is likely to be the last upgrade to my Pentax system. I’m retiring, with all that means, so it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to get a new Pentax camera anytime soon.

The upside, though, is that it’s well worth it. I was pushing some of the limits of my K10D and the new K3 will take me beyond those limits. It has additional bells and whistles that I can actually use, as opposed to just being cool features. This camera should last me a while.

Plus, now that I have two extra DSLRs, I can now take two grandkids along at the same time and give them each their own camera to play with. I can also set up multiple cameras for different astrophtotgraphy and astro-landscape attempts. At events, I can now rig multiple cameras with different lenses. Lots of uses for having multiple cameras, especially with the type of photography I like doing. Let’s see those meteors find a patch of sky I’m NOT photographing! ;-)

That last is a comment on how it always seems like the meteors go through the sky either between my taking photos or in an area just outside my field of view. I had a really bright, long meteor go over one night and was so excited because I was positive I’d caught it. When that exposure ended, I promptly checked it and…no meteor. It had been just above the top of my exposure.


Getting the Pentax *ist DL was a no-brainer and learning to use it was pretty easy. There were some differences, but on the whole it was so similar to the Pentax ME that it was almost a case of pick it up and use it. I had good arguments for upgrading to the K10D, and doing so from the *ist DL was straightforward. There were a few new settings I learned to use, but again, it could have been a straight FW upgrade. There were mechanical upgrades that were new, of course, such as the anti-shake feature, and being a faster camera. But there wasn’t anything “really new” as most of it was performance upgrading: lower noise, faster shooting, but on the whole, a nearly identical camera when using it in the field.

The K3, now…that’s a different story.

Sure, I can take it and go out and start using it. I know I’ll get good photos, and that I can manually control the camera every bit as well as with the *ist DL and K10D.

What gives me pause with this K3 is that it has features that I “need” that weren’t in the other two. Features I’ve never used because I never had them available. It’s kind of like getting a new car…my previous cameras were fundamentally identical, with them it was like going from a car to a car. Going to the K3 is more like going from a car to a car with built-in GPS navigation when you’ve heard about GPS but never used it. I know, everyone pretty much has GPS navigation on their phones now, but the point is I’m gaining additional tools with this new camera.

Take Live View. I’ve heard about it and I’ve read about it a little. I know how it can help you really fine tune your focus and with some lenses such as my fully manual 400mm prime I’m really looking forward to learning how to use this feature to get that lens dialed in for my photos.

Then there’s the ability to actually move the sensor for horizontal and vertical alignments. How cool is that? How can I take advantage of that? I have no idea but the fact that this along with the GPS option would enable me to take exposures of as much as 5 minutes without needing to track the stars excites me.

And what about the built-in “stacking” capability? Instead of taking multiple exposures then stacking them on the computer, I can somehow do that in-camera to create the single exposure with less noise, less star trails, etc.. Or get long star trails built up in a single image, if that’s what I want.

Yep, I said “somehow”. I’ve glanced through the manual and looked online a little, but I still have no idea how to use that. The menu isn’t that hard to navigate, but finding this feature, turning it on, and selecting the desired settings for it…easy enough. Using it…that’s a different story. What do I have to do to take the various images used in the “stack”? Will it take all the desired images itself, or do I have to take each one? How does it know when to stack them, when I’m done taking the desired images?

It’s also got HDR. I’m interested in that, too, and eager to see how it compares with the HDR I’ve created with my laptop. This, too, is right now in the same category as the stacking feature…it should be easy enough to set up, but the same questions apply.

On-board time lapse capability. Full HD 1080 i/p video capability. Dual card slots.

There are lots of new features I’m looking forward to taking advantage of, and also some bells and whistles I’ll probably never use, such as the various on-board digital filters. I’m not sure why those are there, or when I’d ever want to use them. That kind of stuff seems to me more appropriate for post-production workflows.

It’s going to be an interesting journey getting used to this new camera and I’m looking forward to experimenting and pushing the limits of my K3.

Discovering New Photography Techniques

3 December 2014

It’s true, discovery is as much due to accident as anything else.

I had been having some problems achieving the desired clarity of focus lately while taking pictures of birds. While I could get some really cool shots, such as this:

I simply was not happy with them. I believed that I should be able to focus well enough to see every feather. After all, other photographers “routinely” achieve that, so why shouldn’t I?

Don’t get me wrong, I have no idea how many shots the other photographers had to do to get that one super-sharp image. Plus most of them, that I follow anyway, focus on bird photography so they obviously refine their techniques for that. I, on the other hand, am a generalist with a preference for astrophotography and astrolandscape photography. Obviously, I’ve not put in the time they have pursuing the perfect bird image.

However, I have taken a lot of photos where I needed the image to be sharp.

So, why such a difficulty? How do I get around it?

A craftsman does not blame his tools. That’s a lesson I take very much to heart. Clearly, then, it is a matter of technique. Or of using the tool (camera) properly.

I use center spot focusing virtually all the time. That means that what I aim at is what I should be achieving my focus on. Logically, to me anyway, Depth of Field is perhaps an issue with the moving bird getting out of focus before I can take the shot. This is especially likely to be true as I also tend to use use AF-S (AutoFocus-Single). So, I focus on the bird then take the picture. There’s a lag there and if my DOF is shallow enough, that could be enough to blur even a slow moving bird slightly.

I’m aware of AF-C (AutoFocus-Continuous) and how it’s supposed to work. I’m aware, too, that many bird photographers utilize this mode almost exclusively. I assume they also use the Dynamic Area mode, if available. All this contributes to my problem most likely being a DOF and focus issue.

Last weekend, though, I discovered a trick. It may be well known to everyone else, but I achieved it by accident. Very simply, I forgot to remove my finger from a button while I pressed the shutter to take the picture. That button was the AF (AutoFocus).

I’ve long since moved my autofocus off the shutter button and onto the AF button on my Pentax K-10D. In a way, what I discovered is very much akin to the focus trap method I describe here. In this case, though, I am utilizing the autofocus instead of manually focusing for the focus trap.

What I did was aim my center focus point on the mallard I was trying to photograph. I pressed the AF button and got a nice, sharp focus. Then maintaining that focus point in the viewfinder, I took the photo. I did this a few times before I realized that I wasn’t releasing the AF button before taking the photos. I had been holding the AF button down all the way through the process: aim, focus, track, take picture. I was executing the focus trap method but letting the camera’s autofocus do the focusing for me. The end result was some wonderful photos of the mallards with the detail I had been seeking.

This will NOT work with a manual lens, of course, as there is no way to auto-focus it. I was pleasantly surprised at the results and hope to play with this technique with other active subjects. I do intend to look further into AF-C and Dynamic Area, as there are times when I won’t need to move the camera, but for the most part I’ll probably continue to use this new method. I’m not sure, and will experiment to find out, just how the AF-C would work when I lose track of the subject and have to re-acquire several times in a session. Holding the AF button down, while keeping the focus point on the target, and shooting may well work better for me in these situations. There will be some lens thrashing as it re-focuses, of course, if I lose track of my subject then regain it. That may not be a good thing with, for example, quick flitting birds in mid-air, but for those instances where I can easily track the target such as these mallards were, it should be an acceptable method.


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