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.

IMG link to G+ ruins picture and 12 min star trails

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….

Stars Over Wickahoney

21 August 2014

These last two weeks have seen me focusing on three things: my Vardo, my writing, and my astrophotography.

Vardo

After much thought, I jumped at the chance to get a utility trailer, 6 feet by 12 feet, for a really good price. My original base, seen here, would have given me a 6 foot by 8 foot Vardo. The new trailer will let me have an 8 foot by 12 foot vardo plus a drop-down porch if I work it right. The extra room is very welcome and more appealing to my wife as well.

Factoring in the cost of paint, steel wool, a new trailer light system, new wheel bearings, sandpaper, new tongue, and sheet metal just to get that old base rebuilt into a foundation for the Vardo, getting this new trailer was actually cheaper. And the plan is to be able to remove the Vardo if I need to use the trailer for hauling stuff.

Image of a 6 foot by 12 foot utility trailer with one pair of wheels. Sides are an open framework of angled metal. Tail gate is about 4 feet tall when up and contains a metal mesh. Parked next to a blue-green 1992 Chevy Blazer in front of the garage in the driveway.

This is the new utility trailer that will become the base for the Vardo. I’m especially happy to get the all metal bed.

That tailgate will make a very nice sized porch with the addition of some drop-down or other legs if I do it right. I’ve already got some ideas how to work it and still be able to use it as a ramp if needed. It’ll be good for scraping off mud or stamping off dirt and sand before going inside, all that stuff will just fall through the grating.

Construction should be starting after the middle of September due to vacation plans and other such interruptions. The goal is to have it ready by 4 July 2015, when we go to Haines, Oregon, to my wife’s brother’s place. All her cousins and his friends get together then and have these huge motormansions (her term, not mine) or behemoth trailers. She’s tickled pink with the idea of seeing our cute little Vardo tucked in the field with all those. She’s even been coming up with ideas and suggestions for stuff in it. She’s apparently been talking about it so much so that even the oldest granddaughter made me agree that “it won’t just be a box on a trailer, but it’ll be a cute trailer.” I showed the granddaughter the pictures of Paleotool’s Vardo that I’m using as my guide and said, “it’s going to be like that.” She approves of that design, just like my wife. Clearly, I’m going to be spending a lot of time this winter in the garage and driveway.

And in trouble if I don’t get it done!

Besides, I’ve been dreaming of all the places to go camping around here. Farewell Bend. Cascade Reservoir. Bruneau Sand Dunes. Steck Recreation Site. Leslie Gulch. Those are just off the top of my head, there’s so many more.

Writing

Lately, I’ve been trying to go swimming every Tuesday and Thursday. I don’t always make it, but when I do I just swim laps. That has been very conductive to my writing process as it lets me just swim along and think about the storylines, back stories, future stories, or just mentally write. I don’t always remember those exactly (I need a waterproof laptop!) but I do remember enough to get a lot of it written down.

Recently, I’ve been trying to focus on the next short story, Scarle’s back story, as decided in my last blog posting. The last two times I went swimming, though, my mind drifted away from that and instead focused on another part of the overall story. It was something that I’d been wondering how to tell without revealing any secrets. Throughout the Tales of Pa’adhe I’m scattering little subtle clues that I don’t amplify or even, usually, reference again in the tale they appear in. They’re usually presented in passing and should be easily found in hindsight, but they all point to one thing and I had no idea how to present that to my readers.

I now have a solution to that conundrum and have written half of it. Unfortunately for my readers, this can only be told in The Final Voyage. But at least I clear everything up with it. As soon as I finish writing that section up, it’s back to Scarle’s back story and what’s supposed to be the current Work In Progress.

Astrophotography

Strictly speaking, I probably should just say “photography” since I’ve been busy with more than just astrophotography planning, photography-wise.

The last several days I’ve been planning for the trip back to Wickahoney this Saturday, 23 August 2014. We’ll be heading out Saturday, I’ll be shooting all night, and we’ll head back Sunday.

My main project is a time lapse of the Milky Way. It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for some time now, and I think the Wickahoney ruins are a perfect foreground for it. I want to start shooting around civil twilight when the stars are just coming out and shoot until 3 AM Sunday or my batteries run out. I’m hoping for some additional foreground “action” in the time lapse, but it depends on the timing of when everyone gets there, where we set up, and all that good stuff. We’ll see how that works out. I’ll definitely get the Milky Way time lapse, which may or may not be all that great. I’m still learning to shoot good Milky Way images.

I also want to shoot a 360 degree panorama for incorporating into Stellarium as one of my three personal landscapes. That’s simple enough and just needs decent light. High noon Sunday should be good for that to minimize shadows. I need to re-do the other two to get a sharper division between the distant land and the sky, but that’s a project for another time. Each new 360 pano that I do teaches me something and each gets better.

Finally, I want to shoot some video for another project. Originally this was going to be another time lapse, but I ran into problems there: I only have two batteries for my main camera, and I need those intact for the Milky Way time lapse. I could shoot this with my second camera, but I plan to use that for other astrophotography shots and can’t guarantee the battery capacity of that, either. I’ve decided, then, that I will shoot this as a video and try to achieve the desired result post-production. As a time lapse it would have made it easy to do certain scenes, but my homework last week seems to indicate I can do the same with a video file anyway. We’ll see.

It does indicate I need to do something about my camera battery situation. I’ve several ideas for that, one of which is just get another battery for both cameras. I’ll need to address this soon so I will be good to go next time I head out for an all-night time lapse like this.

UPDATE: Here it is Thursday and now they’re predicting Saturday as partially cloudy and Sunday as clear. Hopefully, the night will still be clear!

Pa’adhe Returns

6 August 2014

It has been a while since I’ve posted any new Tales of the Pa’adhe. As previous blogging has indicated, there’s been a reason for the break in the short stories. What’s worse, in my eyes, is that I’ve had this latest short story available for a while, I just haven’t posted it.

Part of that, I think, is because once I posted it, I felt that it would be imperative I get going on the next one. Indeed, I have plots and notes for three more short stories.

Sitting in the parking lot of a store recently while my wife was inside shopping, I was contemplating those three stories and wondering which I would like to write next. I wasn’t thinking about “do I want to write this one next” but rather, “which of these three shall I write next?” There’s a difference between those two phrases, which I’ll leave up to you to discover.

Unable to decide, I gave up and just looked around the parking lot. The glare of the sun off the rear windows of three cars parked side by side caught my eye. For a while I just sat there, bemused by the glare, then out of the blue I decided that I would alphabetically assign each story, which already had working titles, one to each glare. Whichever left first was the one I would write.

That decision made, I was able to relax and just enjoy the view, such as it was. White clouds moving overhead, the flag flapping, trees dancing gently. Eventually, the middle car of the three backed out and left.

So be it. That is the next story to be written. Scarle’s back story will be revealed next, hopefully this Fall.

Ah, well, since that has been decided, clearly it’s time to post the latest Tale of the Pa’adhe.

I give you, dear readers, the ninth tale: Ghost Ship.


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