Posts Tagged ‘Owyhee’

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.


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.

A Return Update

5 March 2015

It has been a weird beginning to the year for me.

I fully meant to return to this blog well before now, but somehow writing for my blog just wasn’t a priority. From time to time, I’d think of something to write about, but I just never sat down and actually did so.

From an amateur radio standpoint, I’ve been working to develop something I refer to as The Thumper. It’s based on something I read about in a blog post where the ham described his fondness for CW (Continuous Wave, aka Morse Code) and an on-the-air experience meeting a group of deaf learning ham radio and cw. The original Thumper was mentioned only in passing, and described as “a device that attaches to their forearm and taps them to indicate the Mose Code being received.” I have various issues with LED displays and my current tactile transducer setup leaves much to be desired. For The Thumper, I’d started by utilizing an Arduino driving a RC servo and while that does work to an extent, it has an inherent speed limitation that I don’t like. Almost anything over 10 wpm keeps the servo at the end of travel, making it impossible to detect the characters. I’m now looking at using a vibrator similar to those in cell phones, compliments of a good friend and fellow ham. Although not what I originally envisaged the vibrator does show better promise and a nice theoretical response to faster CW speeds. Coupled with a LED, it may turn out to be the best solution for me to listen to the radio. I know, but the combination might turn out to be better than the parts. Right now, I’ve only got the Arduino driving the vibrator. Still to be done is receiving and converting over-the-air CW signals provided via the audio jack of my radios.

Plans are under way for more Owyhee explorations, and while doing that I fully intend to try HF radio work from way out in the middle of nowhere. I’m building an end-fed, multi-band wire antenna that should be tuned to each band: 10m, 20m, 40m, and 60m. It’s only mobile in that you can easily carry it coiled up in the vehicle, to use it you have to park and deploy it. We’ll see how that works in practice, but I’ve got good expectations. I’ll be focusing, of course, on CW and PSK but when solo. If I have a friend along, I’ll be trying some phone work as well. More than likely, I’ll be band scanning and if I hear anything, I’ll pause on that and see if I can contact the other person.

Photography-wise, I’m currently teaching a beginning photo class, but with a twist. In all my previous classes I noticed that there was never a deaf or hard-of-hearing person attending. This time, I told the community education group that I would teach a beginning class in sign language. When I shared this idea with the few deaf community members I knew, the enthusiasm was outstanding. In the end, due to various reasons, there were only three in my class. We’re having a blast and there would have been at least two more were it not for an age limitation posted on the community education web page. That limitation didn’t apply to my class, but that exemption information was not passed on to the people that wanted to sign up. Word’s starting to get out there about this class, though, and I’ve mentioned I’ll offer it again, the same way. One of the reasons for doing this is that I just felt like turning the tables on the regular offerings…they’re oriented towards hearing people, the deaf have to get an interpreter. This time, though, it’s the hearing that have to get an interpreter if they try to attend.

I have also been investigating the use of the Shutterbug Remote with my Pentax K3 DSLR. Testing with an iOS device showed that the remote works well with the K3, but I’m getting crashes using the Android version of the app on my Samsung Galaxy Note 4. Testing with a Samsung Galaxy S5 shows it works reasonably well with that phone, so now I’m trying to determine whether or not it’s a setting, a FW, or a HW issue with my Note 4. An email to the developers has not provided any response, so I’m very unimpressed with the customer service aspect of their website. Enough that I’m not providing a link to it. It would be really nice to get this remote working with my phone as it’s a great little device which when used as an intervalometer provides better timing control capabilities than the built-in intervalometer mode of the K3. If I can’t get it working, I’ll definitely have to create an Arduino intervalometer or something.

I’ve built a new woodworking bench (above) in my garage along with a DIY woodworking bench vise (below). These will come in handy when I start building the Vardo.

On the Vardo front, I’ve started gathering materials to modify the trailer for the Vardo. It took me a while to figure out the best way to use my flatbed trailer for the Vardo, and still be able to easily use it as a flatbed trailer. One of the things I had to deal with was me being “greedy.” The flatbed trailer is 12’ by 6’ and I had been doing my designing based on that entire area.

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.

I was going to have a big Vardo that had luxurious room inside. Kind of a contradiction to my original plans for a simple, cozy Vardo, actually. As a result, one of the things I had to figure out a way around was the six tie-downs on the trailer bed near the sides. I finally realized that they provided a perfect way to fastend the Vardo to the trailer, a la pickup campers: straps built onto the framework of the Vardo that connect to the trailer tie-downs via turnbuckles. To do that meant I had to narrow the width of the Vardo box to fit inside the tie-downs enough that I could hook them into place and tighten. It’s only a 6” loss in width, give or take, but it also freed up the solution to another issue: I wanted to put the same kind of mesh that I had on the tailgate along the sides of the trailer. That way, things put in the trailer wouldn’t roll out under the existing side rails. And I could use that now open area to store poles for awnings, and other such gear.

I’ve been doing quite a bit of fishing lately, for rainbow trout. Normally I would catch and release trout, but my wife and I have found that we like the fish. I’ve learned to fillet them so that we don’t really need to worry overmuch about bones while eating. Only about 15 minutes from my house is a great little pond where, so far, I’ve always managed to catch my limit every day. I didn’t use to fish that much, or to enjoy it, but I’m finding I do. I’ll probably go fishing rather regularly while retired, using that to supplement our diet with fresh fish on a regular basis. It’ll be interesting to see how the fishing goes as the weather warms up.