Astrophotography Workflow

12 October 2017

Since the last time I blogged about my astrophotography tools things have changed somewhat. I thought I would write up my current workflow, without making it as much an app tutorial as I did last time.

For starters, I no longer use The Photographer’s Ephemeris. Ever since it moved to online only, it’s been pretty much useless to me in the field. It was a great program, and still is, for laying out sight lines, times, and such. Unfortunately, with it being online only, I can’t use it in the field to work out things.

I pretty much rely now on two phone apps and a computer program:

Stellarium: In the field on a laptop or at home, this is my favorite planetarium program. It lets me see what the sky might show on any location, date and time, and conversely allows me to see when a particular sky object might be where I want it for a photograph. Plus it’s great for finding your way around the night sky on site.

Dioptra: An Android only app, it illustrates the adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” With it, I can record in one image the desired view from that location, the actual GPS coordinates, and the compass bearing of the view. It records a few other details as well, but those are the ones I focus on.

Sun Surveyor: Available for both Apple and Android, I use this mostly on-site. Its Live View allows me to see the paths of the Milky Way, sun, and moon through the sky superimposed on that location. It’s useful in allowing me to get everything aligned on that spot and ready to take pictures before dark.

Yesterday, I went into the Owyhees with the goal of scouting a location. As can be seen later, the location doesn’t align for the planned photo shoot any time soon but using Stellarium I was able to identify a different possibility that I could take advantage of.

What I list below is pretty much my usual workflow.

Generally, I start out with an idea, which for some reason seems to tend towards shooting from in a canyon to frame the Milky Way or a planet or constellation between canyon walls. This time, I was thinking “Milky Way above Succor Creek.” I know the Succor Creek picnic area is in a narrow canyon (see what I mean?) and there is a bridge that crosses over the creek there. So, off I go into the Owyhees.

A cowboy, in baseball cap, chaps, jeans, jacket, on a brown horse herding three cows and a couple calves under a mostly white cloudy sky alongside the dirt road in the Owyhees.

A working cowboy herding cattle in the Owyhees.

After a relaxing drive, I arrive at the site. I take my camera bag out on the bridge, and position myself centered over Succor Creek. After first turning on the GPS, I pull up the Dioptra app. Once it’s open and I verify I have a GPS lock I wave my phone around in the classic 3 figure 8s to calibrate the compass.

Hmmm. Just had a mental picture of me in a hooded cloak, mystically waving my arms to summon Magnetic and command him to calibrate my compass.

Anyway….

The next step is to simply point the phone camera for the view I want and take a picture. The app then records that view overlaid with all the necessary “notes” I need to work with Stellarium.

A view up a creek with heavy growth of small trees, brush, and grass on both sides. In the far distance a butte sticks up from the horizon visible between the brush, aligned with the center of the creek. Partially white cloudy sky, mostly blue sky. Superimposed is various information from the Dioptra app like a heads-up display.

The output of Dioptra at the bridge over Succor Creek, Owyhees, Malheur County, Oregon.

While it’s hard to see, in the center of the image is a reticle that gives you an aiming point. I usually only use that for direction alignment on some landscape feature that I might want in the end image. Under that is a compass bearing, in this case 138° which is the direction of interest, straight up Succor Creek. Luckily for me, that distant butte is in line with the creek. In the upper left is the latitude, longitude, and altitude of that spot on the bridge. At the bottom is the compass direction. The two angles on the side are useful for getting the camera perfectly level but in this situation I don’t really care about those.

As you can see, one of the current issues with Dioptra is the use of white text and no way to change that. Hopefully, the programmer will be adding an option to change the text color in the future, but for now there are some workarounds. For example, you can change the camera angle to put the text onto a darker background and take a second picture. Or put your hand over the lens. That gives you the first picture showing you the planned view orientation and a second picture that ensures you get all the necessary information.

Similar to previous Dioptra image, but from the middle of a dirt road. Back half of a blue-green blazer visible to left, steep redish brown cliffs to either side of road.

Another Dioptra image, this time on the road to Succor Creek. Note the better visibility of the information upper left.

This is a Dioptra shot at another location. Notice the center information is almost completely lost in the white cloud but the information top left stands out quite nicely. It’s hard to see, but this straight run of the road lines up on 162°, a bit more towards the south and an alternative which would give me those distant rock fingers reaching to the sky.

My next step is to take a few shots with the camera and lenses I am considering using. In this case, I took an image at each end of two zoom lenses, my fisheye (10-17mm) and my regular 18-55mm. I usually use the fisheye for my astrophotography but it’s useful to try the other lenses as well. Sometimes the framing in a different focal length just works better and if you don’t check that, you won’t know that.

Succor Creek test photo, 17mm focal length.

Succor Creek test photo, 10mm focal length.

Succor Creek test photo, 35mm focal length.

Back at the house, I pull up Stellarium on the computer. Using the location function, I enter the latitude, longitude, and altitude. Next, I move the view to the desired compass bearing. I can also set the field of view to match that of the lens I plan to use but I tend to leave that at the default setting unless it’s a site I use regularly and have a landscape for.

Pulling up the time function and setting it to 2300 tonight, I saw that the Milky Way wouldn’t line up with the creek…at all. It would be coming up over the canyon wall to the right. The 10mm focal length image above does show that I could get a decent shot with the fisheye and still be able to have the creek in the image. The creek wouldn’t be going down the middle of the image, though, if I really want to maximize the Milky Way. That creates a potential line that guides the viewers eye away from the Milky Way.

Not good. At all.

So, now I start clicking on the day in the time function, advancing roughly 24 hours per click. As I watch the screen, I notice the moon goes across the scene regularly. A bit of playing with the time and date shows that I could possibly get a shot of the moon high over the distant butte. The creek would guide the eye to the butte and the butte would point up to the moon. With the right moon, Succor Creek would be a ribbon of silver. That’s a decent possibility.

Advancing day by day again, I come up with a shot that doesn’t have the Milky Way, but does have Orion over the distant butte. Hmmm. That’s another possibility. The moon would be up, but hidden by the left cliff wall. The date says 2017/12/6…December 6th. Depending on the weather, that might be fun.

Stellarium, showing Orion above the butte. Succor Creek would be visible vertically in the lower 1/3 center (as seen in previous pictures).

Finally, I get the northern part of the Milky Way aligned…on 2017/12/27. Not as impressive as the main body of the Milky Way, but a possibility. I really want the center band, though, so I continue advancing…to 2018/06/11. Sigh. All the way to next June before I can get that shot.

Hey, Saturn’s there, too, and pretty much right over the butte!

Imagine the 10mm image of Succor Creek above with the Milky Way over it. Saturn would be directly above the butte.

So, now I have a few dates for images that might work at that Succor Creek bridge location. I know what to expect, where to aim the camera, which lens I will probably use, how early I have to be there, and how late I’ll have to stay. It’s a good opportunity to just go camping, too, knowing I’ll have some neat pictures of the night sky as a result.

If the weather cooperates.

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Reading

19 September 2017

Just recently I finished editing a novella for an author friend. While I was working on his book, I noticed several things about how I was reading it and did some thinking about the way I read.

I’ve always loved reading. The family story is that I was potty trained by being placed on the toilet and handed some books. If true, I’m sure they were suitable for my age.

In Junior High and High School, I quickly devoured every SF book in the school library, as well as other literature. SF, however, was my go to when looking for something to read. As to Westerns, I think I’ve read maybe six or seven in my lifetime. I’d also hit the base library (AF brat) and read just about everything SF they had. It was at this time that I also found Fantasy and began reading that genre as rabidly as I did SF. I was probably 14 when I read Lord of the Rings.

This love of reading almost got me into trouble in high school but thanks to a lovely English teacher, turned into a benefit instead. In the second week of a new school year, my English teacher caught me reading in the back of the classroom instead of paying attention. So, she sprung a pop quiz on us, based on the story she had been going over. The story was in the school textbook, and hadn’t been assigned to us as reading yet. I was one of the few to pass the quiz with a 100 grade, so she had me stop by after school. She then asked how I had done that and I explained I had already read the reader from cover to cover. After a few questions to verify I wasn’t just claiming that, we talked about moving me to her advanced reading program instead. The carrot for me was being able to read and the icing on the cake was learning how to speed read. By the end of the school year, I was pretty much reading one paperback a day on the bus to and from school and was reading at around 880 words per minute, tested.

Even now, I will read rather than watch TV. There has been a time or two when I’ve repeatedly told the family that there was a show on in 5 or 6 days that I wanted to watch, to make sure they were aware of my plans to watch it. Then that day I’d find a book and start reading. When the show came on, they tried to tell me and I told them I’d rather read this than watch that. That’s after reminding them for five straight days that I was going to watch this movie or whatever on Channel X at 7:30 PM. I’m sure there were some frustrated or dirty looks cast my way then!

I can read several books a day if I’m allowed to. That’s one reason I like ebooks: I only need to take my tablet with me and I have multiple entire series as well as stand-alone books readily to hand. Heck, I have an entire library with me. No risk of getting to book 2 in a trilogy and having to run around to find book 3. Or carry a stack of books on vacation. And yes, I still very much enjoy reading physical books, turning the pages and having that weight.

That’s my background. I’m a reader, born and bred.

So, to the point of this blog post. It turns out that I have different reading modes, at least four that I’m aware of. No surprise there as I think everybody does, actually. After thinking about how I read and the different “modes”, I find the differences intriguing.

If I’m reading for my own pleasure, I pretty much zone out everything but the words before me. I’m still aware to some small extent what’s going on around me; being deaf I tend to automatically be aware of my surroundings, at least to some extent, as a safety measure. And, yes, I do get irritated when my reading is interrupted.

Speaking of getting interrupted, my wife has this uncanny knack of always interrupting me when I’m in the middle of some battle scene, engrossing dialogue or other action. I logically know it’s not premeditated, but I can’t help wondering why she never seems to interrupt in the boring parts of the book.

Anyway…

The first mode is typically reading at full speed. Some books, especially non-fiction, I read the fastest. I’ve not tested in a long time, but I’m pretty sure I’m not reading at my original 880 WPM now, but more likely closer to 500 to 600 WPM. In this mode I will slow down at certain parts, such as detailed descriptions of interesting techniques or explanations. I also use this mode with heavily embellished fiction, such as where they describe what someone’s wearing down to the thread count or every leaf on every tree in the park the characters are in. Those sections, I read as fast as I can without actually skipping them entirely.

The second mode is reading at a slower rate, probably down around 300 to 400 WPM. This is reserved for books I’m really enjoying, books that I’m savoring. Even with these, I’ll sometimes speed up over what I consider unnecessary detail, as mentioned previously. This is probably where I read most SF and Fantasy, especially my favorite authors.

Those two modes above, I start at the first word of the book and read straight through to the end. I’m simply reading for enjoyment or education.

For mode three, I’ve noticed that when I do a preliminary edit, whether my own writing or someone else’s, I read at a much slower speed. It’s not so much that I’m reading as it is I’m looking for discrepancies. I’ll read a ways, then see something that doesn’t click, read it again, mark it up or verify the discrepancy then mark it up. In this state, I’m also marking up misspellings, typos, grammar that really stand out. Right now, I’m not necessarily looking for particular wordsmithing problems, I’m looking for issues in the story itself. I am, however, not willing to put up with glaring English errors, either. While in the previous two modes I would grimace and keep reading, momentarily irritated with the author for not doing his work, this time if it jumps out at me I won’t hesitate to write it up. On the whole, though, I’m almost reading like I do for fun. Just more deliberately, and with an eye out for glaring story line or grammatical errors. At this rate, it can take me a couple days to get through a book.

The final mode is a full on editing mode. This is the slowest mode of all for me. It’s also one of the more intensive reading modes, a point that surprised me. Here, I’m doing all that I do in the preliminary edit, but where there I only go back to check something, here I’m constantly going back a paragraph or page and re-reading from there. I’m constantly unconsciously asking myself questions: Did this flow properly? Could this really happen this way? Didn’t she sit down a couple paragraphs ago? Can a ship really do that? Would he really speak like that? Does this read like an insert by the author trying to explain something directly to the reader? Is this grammatically correct? Would the reader understand this reference? Is this spelled right? To vs too vs two and other such critters.

As an example of reading progress while editing, consider any consecutive pages of a book. I’ll read page 1 halfway, go back a couple of paragraphs, study a sentence or two, figure out what’s wrong with it that grabbed my attention, mark the correction, continue reading from that point. After several times doing this as I work my way down the page I’ll eventually finish that page and start on page 2. Then I go back to that last nagging paragraph on page 1 and resume from there. When I get that taken care of, I continue reading anew from that point. After a few paragraphs, I’ll go back to a previous paragraph and study it…why did that demand my attention now? I’ll even read ahead past some error to see if it’s explained or accounted for in the next several paragraphs. If not, I go back, make my comments, and resume reading there even though I’ve already read ahead. And so it goes for the whole book, constantly going back and forth by sentences, paragraphs, pages and chapters until eventually I reach the end of the book.

When I hit something that I think is wrong, I’ll look for the answer and try not only to comment on the error, but suggest a fix and provide helpful information to avoid that error in the future. I’ll spend several minutes on two sentences, trying to see what made me pause and see how to fix it. It might be voice, it might be tense, it might be grammar, or it might be English. Maybe it’s inconsistent based on a previous book or drawing or model. Perhaps it’s illogical, written that way to accomplish the author’s goals. Maybe it’s physically impossible. Something made me pause here, and I intend to discover what it was. By the time I have finished the book, I have probably read every page three or four times on this one pass from the first to the last words of the novel. This mode of reading can take me at least a couple of weeks, if not more, to read the same book that took me a mere couple of days in the preliminary edit.

I guess it’s to my advantage that I can “forget” most of what I’ve read last time when I re-read a book. I like re-reading a book and being able to enjoy it all over again. I always find something new, some new insight to the characters or some new appreciation for some action or dialogue that comes from knowing but not necessarily consciously remembering what’s going to happen later. This also comes handy when editing as it allows me to maintain a fresh perspective rather than having in the back of my mind that nagging that I’ve already checked this once. Since I never really forget what I’ve read, mention of something at odds with previous pages, stories or books related to what I’m editing tends to pop into mind when needed.

Well, there you have it. I don’t know if this is interesting or useful to anyone else, but it was fun writing up how I read.

Time Passes

6 September 2017

It’s true, time passes faster when you’re having fun. It’s also true that if you stop doing something for a while, it’s much harder to resume. At the same time, at least for me, having that break with regular writing and playing on the radio makes it harder for me to start anything else since I have those two things hanging over my time. I want to get back into them, but…tomorrow? And then because of that attitude, I’m not eagerly starting new projects or doing other things that I want to. Not because I can’t or don’t have time, but because I have those two things hanging over me and I can’t get myself going on anything.

Milky Way from Coyote Grade in the Owyhee Foothills.

I did get out and do some Milky Way photography. It turned out OK, and I had a blast. With all the smoke lately, I haven’t gotten back out to shoot more astrophotography. Or any photography, actually. The drive just isn’t there and to be honest, I’m reluctant to just go by myself. Not because I can’t, but because I know my wife doesn’t like me going solo into the Owyhees. And I’ve sort of gotten used to having someone else along.

Excuses. Just excuses.

I do need to go back out with some settings from that shoot and try doing more and specific adjustments to the camera to attempt to get better images. I also want to take one of my telescopes out and use it to track the camera. That way, I can get some images to try stacking and see how that works to get a better Milky Way image.

In spite of that, I did do a bunch of prep for the recent total eclipse of 2017. For that, I built myself a solar filter out of PVC pipe and gold mylar sheet. A preliminary test showed the filter worked, but I am not happy with it and will probably eventually replace the mylar with newer or something else. It’s just not perfect.

My homemade solar filter mounted on the lens I will be using for the 2017 solar eclipse.

 

The sun as shot through my homemade solar filter. It’s two layers of gold mylar secured between an inner and outer PVC ring.

One of my sisters lived right in the path of totality, so it was a simple matter to head to her place 45 minutes away and observe the eclipse there.

My setup while shooting the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse. We had 100% totality here.

I did get at least one decent image that I was really happy with, and one I was sort of happy with. And yes, you can see sunspots in my images, so I guess there actually are other decent images from the event.

Bailey’s Beads from the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse. You can also see some solar prominences.

 

Another shot of Bailey’s Beads as the sun moved out of totality.

 

Sunspots during the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse, along with the moon encroaching. This is early in during the eclipse. They’re easier to see in the full size image.

The same time I did the Milky Way shoot, I took my DJI Phantom 4 along and did some flying. I had been mentally rehearsing the remote controller stick movements for a 180 flyby where you spin around 180 degrees without stopping. Or put another way, you’re flying away from a spot looking back at it and at some point along the flight path you spin around to face the other way while you continue flying in a straight line. I’m happy to report I got the stick movements right and it worked pretty well.

And now we have a Purple Air Quality alert for the valley. That’s the color for “very unhealthy” with the next color being brick red and meaning “hazardous”. So, I’ll leave you with one last image, one that I took last night and that I call the Fire Moon. The color is due to the smoke in the air, of course.

The nearly full moon, discolored from the heavy smoke covering Treasure Valley, Idaho.