Posts Tagged ‘Oregon’

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.


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.


The Problems with Maps

18 June 2014

Well, my plans for a very specific photo this weekend just went bust.

As you may know from this post, one of my planning tools is The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE). I mentioned in this Spring Fever post what I wanted to do (9th paragraph down): photograph the Summer Solstice sunrise at Three Forks.

So, it was time to do some scouting. I needed to verify angles, lines of sight, refresh how to get there, and if necessary identify a better location on the ground and re-work the lines in TPE.

I loaded up my son, one grandson, and one granddaughter last Saturday and drove out to Three Forks to perform the requisite scouting. The last time I had been there, we had stopped at the top of the canyon. This time we went down into the canyon, which was easy enough, given I was driving a 1992 Silverado Blazer, but I’m not sure I’d really want to drive a regular car down that road. A Subaru Legacy went down before us and was having no problem, and there was a pickup and a small SUV already down there, so obviously as long as you have clearance you can make it down, and back up. That road, however, is pretty rocky and is very steep. I’d swear 75% of the vertical distance from rim to floor is in that first half of the road going down. No wonder there’s a couple of switchbacks!

It didn’t look that bad in TPE. But then, it’s not a topo map either. More to the point in this particular case, if you’re not paying attention you can lose your N/S orientation.

Down in the canyon, we spent an hour having lunch and exploring the area. I, of course, checked out the pre-determined location and angles. Unfortunately, while my location and angles were correct, the canyon had various protuberances and twists not so readily evident in TPE, Google Maps, Google Earth, or Flash Earth.

What looked like a perfect alignment simply wasn’t. I could get a wonderful image of the solstice sun breaking over the rim above me, but it wasn’t what I wanted. It wouldn’t line up down or up canyon. In hindsight, I know very well I should have gone to a topo map site and checked things there.

Simply put, despite mentioning the benefits of doing your homework, I just didn’t do all my homework. Everything lines up, or appears to, but without checking against a topo map with closer contour lines, I was just working from too high level a view. I needed the nitty gritty details and failed to do my due diligence there.

I’m glad we went and I definitely plan to return as I saw some awesome rock formations across the river that would align very nicely with a Milky Way overhead. I just need to figure out how to light them up so they show up. I have several ideas how to do that and I know it’s possible to do so, so I am definitely planning a return trip for some astrophotography from there.

That’ll have to be an overnighter, though, as it’s a 2 1/2 hour 100 mile drive one way mostly on dirt roads and there’s that steep rocky road to navigate back out of the canyon.

Oh, and the title of this post? It refers to relying on insufficiently detailed maps while doing this type of planning. However, it also refers to another problem I have with maps…they’re so much fun to explore!

And there’s another, similar, canyon junction visible on the maps to the east…maybe that one would work?

An Owyhee Outing

28 August 2013

Saturday was interesting. I left to go get gas before visiting a friend to pick him up before we headed for the Owyhees for an astrophotography session, hopefully. There was a lot of traffic before I could turn onto the road I needed. Then I had to wait at every stop light. After that, I had to wait for a train. After that, another two stoplights, then while getting gas I discovered I’d forgotten my phone. I was already running half an hour late, so I headed home to get my phone and have my wife call my friend to update him. That was lucky for me.

It turned out that my friend had sent an email to my work address, after I’d already left for the weekend, saying he’d had to bow out. My dad had already had to do so, and now him. My wife asked what I was going to do and I said I was still heading out. That didn’t sit well with her, my going up in the Owyhees by myself, so she came along. I thought that was great.

On the way in to Leslie Gulch, Oregon, I stopped and took a GPS averaging reading at a very specific turn in the dirt road. On Friday I’d been looking over my topo maps and had suddenly noticed a place called The Rocks near the the edge of one of the maps. Just the other day I had come across a mention of the history of the place and where the school had been. Looking at the map spread out and seeing the back roads, I suddenly realized I knew the shapes of those turns in the road very well. I knew exactly where on that map I would find the school, based on the shape of the road, and sure enough, it was marked right where I expected it to be.  I’d been trying to locate that particular place, the Rocks, the location of an old stage stop, for years without satisfaction. But now, I knew the lay of the land and I was willing to bet that particular curve The Rocks was near was right where I now thought it was. So, when I got there I pulled over and took the GPS reading.

360 spherical view of the location where the Giant’s Skull is visible.

When we got to where The Giant’s Skull was, I took some more GPS readings and also some compass bearings. We had some issues with flies, but fortunately not biting flies. It was smokey there but it looked like the skies were clearing out so I was hoping for a fair to good photography session. In the meantime, we enjoyed the place, company, quiet, and I took pictures. Then as the sun began to set…clouds moved in again for an overcast sky. So much for that. At 9:00 PM we packed up and headed back.

Looking down Leslie Gulch Road from where we parked.

Almost right after we got home, after a detour to visit my daughter and her family, it rained.

Think something was trying to tell me I wasn’t going to get any astrophotography in that night?

Well, it turns out that I did indeed recognize those curves and roads on the map after having driven them numerous times since I first started looking for The Rocks. Up to then I’d been thinking the location was somewhere else and it turns out I’ve actually passed it by many times. My GPS reading was almost spot on. So, next time I head out for astrophotography in that area, I’m making a point of locating the spot accurately, once and for all. And once I’ve located it I’m going to find a certain picture of when the old freighters used to stop their wagons there for the night and try to replicate that picture, but with my Tahoe. Once I have a good picture of it, I’ll share a little of the history here.

While I didn’t get to see the night skies, my GPS readings and compass bearings were sufficient to let me know that the picture I had planned on working would be difficult to take. From that location by the road there happens to be a turnout where you can park off the road. The Giant’s Skull is visible only from a very short section of that road: from any other angle it doesn’t resemble a skull at all or it’s hidden by towering rock formations. Where I set up my camera that day is about the only place I can safely pull over and set up. That gave me a bearing of 120 degrees magnetic. Looking on Stellarium later, I verified that the Milky Way would be almost overhead, and not over the Giant’s Skull.

So, that’s out now. I might still try it with the fish eye lens, but I’m not going to get the awesome shot I hoped for, a close-up of the Giant’s Skull with the Milky Way right over it.

And no. I know the Uber Photographer moves stuff to get the perfect picture he wants, but man, that rock is 10 to 12 feet high and wider than it’s tall. No way I can move that, without a helicopter, to a better location. Moving to any other vantage so that the Milky Way does line up means losing the holes in the rock that make it skull-like.

Still, there are other options.