Saturday, October 18, 2014

How to Photograph Comet Siding Spring by Mars, October 18-19

Comet C/2013 R1 Lovejoy and a Geminid Meteor, December 2013
Comet Siding Spring will pass Mars tomorrow, Sunday October 19, 2014.  The Orionid meteor shower is also underway, so you might get lucky and catch a meteor as well, like I did with this Geminid meteor I caught with Comet C/2013 R1 Lovejoy last December.

I see that my exposure was 8 seconds at ISO 5000 on a 50mm lens. It was an f/1.4 lens, so I was able to shoot at f/1.6. No star tracking mount was needed for up to a 10 second exposure with that lens.  With that long of an exposure, shouldn't the stars appear to be moving across the sky?  Using the "500 Rule", as long as the focal length times the exposure in seconds doesn't exceed 500, you should be fine.  So 50 x 8 = 400, and you get no visible star movement.

If you try a 400 mm lens however your maximum exposure goes to 1.25 seconds, so you'd need a star tracking mount.  Most people don't have star tracking mounts, so a good compromise might be an 85 mm lens offering f/1.8 or wider, keep the exposure around 5-6 seconds or less, and boost the ISO a bit is necessary.  The comet is approaching Mars now, so try it tonight, Saturday, for practice.

Seen from mid northern latitudes this weekend, Mars will be visible to the southwest from the end of evening twilight until it sets around 9/9:30 pm or so.  Good luck!

I performed lens tests with Comet C/2-013 R1 Lovejoy in 2013. I've put together a time-lapse video today to show you how they did. I've uploaded the video to YouTube here:

+NASA Goddard has produced a cool visualization showing how Comet Siding Spring will pass Mars, in this video:

Friday, October 17, 2014

Fall Colors Report for Eastern Sierra Mono County October 16, 2014

Eastern Sierra fall colors, Mono County October 8, 2014
The latest reports are saying that many locations survived this week's wind storms better expected, and although there are many many bare trees at higher elevations, there are also colorful ones and others which still have green and will continue to change over the next 1-2 weeks. So it looks like we'll have prime conditions in Mono County this week, as good as it's going to get.

Here in Antelope Valley at 5000 feet elevation in the northern end of Mono County, the cottonwood trees are just starting to turn, so the Walker/Coleville/Topaz area could be nice for those in 1-3 weeks.   and I hope to get out to check current conditions further south in the county later today or tomorrow, and hopefully meet up with some of the folks we've met through photography in recent years.

These images of colorful aspen trees were taken in Mono County last week October 9, before the winds.

More fall colors photos from the Eastern Sierra:


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

500px Wants Your Feedback

How has the site 500px been for you lately?
Do you like their new Groups functionality?

They want your feedback, follow the link in their tweet to the questionnaire:
See you there!

Friday, September 26, 2014

Eastern Sierra Fall Colors Report September 2014

Fall colors near Bishop, CA Saturday, September 20, 2014
Fall colors are getting underway in the Eastern Sierra.  These are some of the better locations I found last weekend down in the Bishop area.  The aspen were still mainly green, especially nearly all of the larger trees off of steep hillsides, but for the next two weekends conditions should continue to spread the color to more trees at a wider diversity of elevations.

I say "should' because at this point in the transition to color, the big variable becomes wind.  If a storm blows through, the turned leaves can blow down.  Similarly, extreme cold can make the leaves go directly to brown.  So if you can only get up there on weekends, consider the next two for the Bishop area (especially Bishop Creek and Rock Creek), but do check the weather forecast and factor that in if you can only pick one.

The examples on this page were all taken Saturday, September 20.
Eastern Sierra Fall Colors 2014

Friday, September 19, 2014

California Landscape Photography Guide Book

Draft cover for my upcoming guide book to Southern California landscape photography
This is the draft cover for my upcoming guide book to landscape photography from Yosemite to San Diego.I started this journey in September 2006, putting whatever belongings I could fit in my SUV and dropping them off at a storage locker, before going on the road with a copy of "Photographing Southwest, Volume 1 - A guide to the natural landmarks of Southern Utah" by +Laurent Martres.  I went on the road full time as my divorce started. Landscape photography, and that book, got me through a lot of rough times in the next few years. In a sense you could say that they saved my life. Imagine my surprise when I started a Mono Lake and Yosemite regional guide, contacted Laurent since he didn't have a California book, and by coincidence he was just about to hire someone to write a book to cover those locations through San Diego!

I spent the next few years living out of the back of my car, returning to spend weeks with my kids, and to bring them out to explore America's incredible landscapes with me.  On one hand it killed me to be separated from them sometimes for weeks at at time, but on the other hand it was crystal clear that the days with them were precious, so I went out of my way to dedicate those days to them, and engage them in the exploration of places of unique geology and geography and almost overwhelming beauty.  I'm very fortunate that they seem to have developed some of the same curiosity and thirst for exploration and adventure that I enjoy.

All my life I've been drawn to nature and landscapes, growing up exploring the woods, ponds, mountains and coast of New England.  Our family hiked the peaks of Colorado and the boardwalks around Yellowstone's geyser basins curing our move to California, where the grand scale of the High Sierra, Mojave Desert and Pacific Ocean begged for attention.  In a sense my explorations over the years leading up to this project mirrored that legacy, as I shared with my children many of the same discoveries that my parents had led me to.  Custody days for me aren't a burden, they're a priceless privilege.  Gaining perspective on what's important in life is something that can never come too soon.  

I could travel the world in search of soaring mountains, searing deserts with massive sand dunes, wave-pounded seashores or forests with astonishingly massive trees, but that's all within a day's drive.  You can search the world or Oz to fill some perceived need, but for anyone lucky enough to have both family and Southern California nearby, there's truly no place like home.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What Lights Are in Your Light Painting Bag?

What's in your light painting bag?
A lot of my lights are re-purposed from camping, backpacking, cycling, astronomy, and so on.  A lot of the colored lights I use are from Dollar Tree or  I get asked a lot about what gear I used for a particular shot, so I store a lot of my purchases in an "Astore" on +Amazon.com
Your use of that link supports my work and blog.

What lights do you use?

Here are some of mine, shown above:

A. - Glow stick light wands - They are available in at least 6 colors plus a color-changing variety.  About $5 each.  Move them through the air or hide them inside things ot color the interior.

B. - Book reading lights - When you tie them to a string, spin them in a circle then rotate the circle to trace an orb sphere in the air, the plastic color shines through.  $1 each at +Dollar Tree@DollarTree
C. - Electroluminescent wire, also known as "El wire" - 9 foot sections of wire which glow in the dark.  About $5-10.  Whip it up and down to make "fire", move it along the ground to make "smoke".

D. - Stanley FatMax spotlight or Black&Decker - Millions of candlepower, two beam widths, very long battery life (haven't had to recharge it in months).  Great for chasing bears out of your yard or campsite.  About $50.

E. - Inova LED light - Great for light orbs, also for projecting small amounts of colored light onto objects.  About $7-9 each.
F. - LED Lenser RGB LED flashlight - Four on/off switches so you can mix and match colors.  About $40, may be marketed under Coast brand now.  Paint different areas of a scene with different colors.

G. - LED tea lights - The waterproof ones are very bright, either cool white or amber (orange).  The fake flame ones have more reasonable illumination on dark nights, and come in a warm yellow or a slightly warm white.  About $1 each in small quantities, but as little as $0.50 in larger quantities.

H. - LED under-cabinet lights - For your kitchen, or anywhere else you want a beam of light.  $1 each at Dollar Tree.I. - Green laser - Super bright, potentially dangerous to the eyes, not a toy.  Shines a bright beam for miles.  If an airplane thinks you're pointing it at them, you'll be reported to Homeland Security as a terrorist.  I bought mine at +Fry's Electronics, should be available at as well

J. - A Brinkman model, runs on AAA batteries.

K. - Small LED camping lantern.  About $10.

L. - Kukoda Track solar charging LED panels - Manufactured by +Flexiway Solar Solutions for the Kokoda Track Foundation, which is replacing kerosene lamps for residents of Papua New Guinea.  

M. - Colorful plastic film for coloring white lights - $1 at Dollar Tree.

N. - Cool white LED lights - I found these for $1 each in a 6-pack at +The Home Depot.

O. - Bike LED lights, white and red - Removable so they don't get stolen.  I bought mine at the Reno Bike Project, about $5-10 each.

P. - LED Light wand - Very bright, with the notable feature of having a magnetic side opposite the lights, so you can position this light firmly inside of rusty metal objects.  About $10 at Fry's Electronics,

Q. - MiniMag flashlight - Classic warm, incandescent bulb.  Easy to manage (enclose front in your hand) for adjusting camera settings, walking and only shining where your footsteps need to go, without spilling light all over town (like a headlamp).  A value leader at $10.
R. - LED MiniMag flashlight - Very bright, cool white.  About $30.

S. - Small "kids" headlamp - Small, light, compact, bright.  Thankfully no red mode which destroys everyone's foreground nearby if you accidentally turn it on.  About $12 as sale item in the clearance section of  +Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI)

T. - Mini-LED headlamp - Super small and light, I use this for hands-free use around camp when backpacking.

U. - UV headlamp - also has white and green modes.  I specifically bought this for hunting scoprions in the dunes in Death Valley.  Use UV-blocking eye protection.

I'll have to work on posts which illustrate more sample uses for many of these types of lights.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Chrome Extension Shows Klout Scores in Your Twitter Feed

Sometimes when new people start interacting with you on social media you don't have a lot of context.  Or with people you may have been connected to for a while, how active are they?  You can only keep track of roughly up to 150 relationships in your life, so for online interaction, a number of tools have been developed to help you make sense of the rest.

You may be familiar with +Klout, which ranks people for their activity and interactions online.  It has some drawbacks, like over-ranking people for activity volume rather than content quality, and failing to demote serial copyright violators who mainly re-upload others' images, but for a brief glimpse it at least tells you if they are active on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Google+.  A Klout score of 70 or above for example indicates a ranking in the top 10% of social media users.

Here are a couple of examples, the one above looking at +Andy Hawbaker's Twitter feed and  the one below looking at the feed for +Sierra Trading Post:
I took a look at their Twitter feeds after Sierra Trading Post licensed one of my photos for an article on night photography.  I like giving back, so I went to Sierra Trading Post and bought clothing from +Columbia Sportswear and fishing gear from +Ross Reels , +Umpqua Feather Merchants+frogg toggs and others.  Thanks Sierra Trading Post for using my photo, for helping me upgrade my clothing and gear!

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Mars, Saturn and Moon Conjunction Over Bodie's 1937 Chevy August 30

Mars, Saturn and the moon over Bodie's 1937 Chevy on August 30
I wrote a blog post last week about the opportunity to capture the moon, Mars and Saturn on the evenings of August 30 and 31.  This is the shot I planned with +The Photographer's Ephemeris to place them over the rusty 1937 Chevy in California's Bodie State Historic Park.

Moments earlier I had been catching sunset on Main Street, and Mars and Saturn were just becoming visible over the DeChambeau Hotel:

Mars and Saturn become visible to the left of the Moon over Main Street in Bodie 

It's fairly easy to plan for interesting photos to capture these astronomical events if you use any one of a number of astronomy or astrophotography planning applications to anticipate potential compositions.  I mentioned several in my blog post last week:
For The Photographer's Ephemeris, check out the new Web version of TPE, since Google has retired the version of Google Maps used in the prior desktop app.

Monday, September 01, 2014

The Redemption of High Dynamic Range (HDR) Software

Joshua tree in Hidden Valley, Joshua Tree National Park
When I captured the image above in early 2009, I used a Canon EOS 40D.  Although that was the first Canon camera marketed as producing 14-bit RAW files, it wasn't always clear from the results that it was producing the implied 4X more color resolution compared to prior models producing RAW files with 12-bits of information.  This is the original single exposure image, fully post-processed recently in Adobe Lightroom 5.  In that single exposure result I was frustrated by the relative lack of detail in the shadows, and the highlights are lacking in detail as well, so the dynamic range, the ability of the camera to capture a wide range of bright to dark light values, is clearly inadequate.

Fortunately the image was captured in a 3-exposure sequence, so as I revisit the images from that day now, over 5 years later, I can try post-processing it using a current version of Photomatix HDR software which offers a "natural" mode which produces fewer artifacts than prior versions did..  One thing that is clear is that there is a significant amount of shadow and highlight detail present in the scene which is brought back into the HDR result.

3 exposures post-processed in Photomatix HDR software

I had been unable to produce an acceptable result for this image in 2009, but using current tools, significant highlight and shadow detail can be recovered.  High Dynamic Range software is finally getting to the point where it can produce high dynamic range.

Six days before I had captured this photo, I had written a blog post including the following:
"Many people vilify HDR; I don't get it. Most people play guitar poorly, but that won't keep me from enjoying the work of many talented guitarists. Of course everyone's entitled to their opinion and their own tastes. If classical music fans want to say, 'Ugh, I think I hear a guitar in that piece!', or photography fans want to say 'Ugh, Galen Rowell used graduated neutral density filters!', that's their privilege. Surely HDR software will get better and better at expanding dynamic range while producing unobtrusive results, and as that value is delivered for more and more shots, I'll have terabytes of exposure-bracketed images to draw upon."
Why Would Anyone Use HDR? It's Unreal!
While the degree to which the HDR processing itself is still noticeable is open for discussion, I didn't care for the original which was overly light and dark at the same time, so this strikes me as an improvement.  It is also a good example of that concept I proposed which proposes that future advances in software may help us overcome current limitations in hardware, provided that you record more data than your camera can capture in a single exposure.  The way to do that is to capture an exposure-bracketed sequence, where you capture both darker and lighter exposures than your best attempt at a single exposure.

At that point in 2009 I was using HDR software roughly 80% of the time, in spite of its crude state and sometimes objectionable artifacts.  Shortly after upgrading to a Canon 5D Mark II, with a full frame sensor and much better dynamic range,  I was able to quickly drive my HDR usage down to 10% and then 2-3%.  HDR could still rescue images which could not be salvaged in single exposure form, so it remained one of many tools at my disposal, but it became more of a tool of last resort than a key piece of my workflow.  

Unfortunately by that point the use of HDR had developed negative connotations with many photographers, so in 2011 I felt the need to explain my rationale for using it at all:
"Some photographers have fallen in love with High Dynamic Range (HDR) post-processing, producing dramatic but strange results. Other photographers dismiss the often wacky-looking HDR results as 'technicolor vomit' and note that any monkey can move a slider in software to make a scene look strange, the talent lies in making a single, flat camera exposure look more like what we experienced onsite. Unfortunately, the range of light present, the dynamic range of the scene, is often far beyond what a single camera exposure can capture. So like so many polarized debates these days, the prudent path may lie somewhere in between. " 
HDR Isn't Just a Crutch, or a Crime 
As I look back now, with improved HDR software providing even more useful utility, as I try to process photos from my pre-2009 cameras I still have challenges producing excellent results from some of the lighting conditions I found myself shooting in.  So although my own pendulum of HDR use swung from strong support to a bias against it, as my use is rising again it's still a centrist view: I'll use it when it's useful, and it is becoming more useful.

Merced River Calm
HDR 2014, Canon Digital Rebel XTi photo captured November 2006
If you decide to buy Photomatix, you can get a 15% discount by using the coupon code JeffSullivan when you by it from its publisher HDRsoft:

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Racetrack "Sailing Stones" Witnessed... Mystery Solved!

"Sailing stone" on the Racetrack, Death Valley
In one of the enduring mysteries of the world, people have long wondered how rocks move across a horizontal dry lake bed surface in Death Valley National Park.

People have offered a variety of theories on how the rocks moved, with the first scientific study in 1948 suggesting dust devils.

More recently, high winds were suggested:

Using Differential GPS to Map the "Sliding" Rocks of Racetrack Playa
"So the evidence suggests that strong gusts of wind and swirling dust devils, in combination with a slick playa surface may set even the heaviest the rocks in motion. Off they go, scooting along downwind until friction slows them down and they come to rest. There the stones wait for the next time when slippery mud and wind spur them into action again."

In 2008 Ralph Lorenz of Johns Hopkins University proposed that the rocks moved when embedded in bouyant "ice cakes", as had been witnessed in tidal areas in the arctic.
"The stones partially embedded in the floating ice rise slightly above the bottom with the increasing level of water. Both the friction between the ice and water and between the stones and the bed are very small, so that blowing wind with some intensity pushes the ice (and the rocks embedded). If the stones and mud at the bottom have a light touch, the dragged stones leave a trail that remains once the ice has melted and the water has evaporated."

Would magically energetic rocks look like this when moving?
Having seen many of the prior theories, I offered the following explanation on April 1, 2010:
"Their secret... an internal power source!  They glow as they move.  Who knew?"

My April Fools Day theory didn't gain much traction. It was fun to illustrate though!

Fortunately there were some much more serious people working on the case, so on December 21, 2013, Richard and James Norris were present to see standing water frozen on the lake bed, and to see and hear the ice cracking as the ice started to melt, then wind blew the ice sheet with the rocks embedded.  You can read the full account in today's story in the +Los Angeles Times:

Mystery of how rocks move across Death Valley lake bed solved

I had actually predicted that mode of movement after reading an article on the stones in +National Geographic seven years ago, as I mentioned in this comment on +Flickr:
"I don't believe that 700 pound rocks can move by wind alone; I think they need to be trapped in floating ice, melting along the shore, that far outweighs them and which also catches the wind. Even the heaviest rocks are inconsequential when a solid lake surface that weighs many tons starts shifting in the wind."

I didn't exactly run up there to photograph it... Ice, high winds, while access to the area may be limited, what's not to like about that?   There are some good reasons why no one has been there to see it!

Z truth is out there...
Now that the mystery is solved, will this end the pilgrimage of people wanting to see these rocks, now that the mystery is gone?  The National Park Service worries that the news may actually increase traffic.

Will the end to the mystery stop people from stealing the rocks, with the hope that they have magical powers?

Of course not.  The proposal that the rocks don't have magical powers could simply be a government cover-up, right?  The sale of tinfoil hats to Death Valley visitors will be greater than ever.

Update 7 pm:
Here's a video which includes a sequence showing a rock moving.  Jump forward to 2:58 if you want to go straight there:

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Plan Your Moon, Mars, Saturn Conjunction Photo August 30 & 31

Shooting the moon, Mars and Saturn over Bodie's 1937 Chevy at 9 pm, Saturday August 30, 2014
Last weekend offered the opportunity to shoot the crescent moon near Jupiter and Venus.  Now that the new moon has passed, as the crescent moon moves into the evening sky, we have the opportunity to catch the moon with Mars and Saturn on consecutive nights.  The first night will be August 30, when the moon will be roughly 11 degrees high at 9 pm (here at 38 degrees latitude) as the sky gets dark, near bright star Spica and west of the two planets.  The screen shot from +The Photographer's Ephemeris ("TPE", free on a PC) shows a possible composition shooting over the 1937 Chevy in Bodie State Historic Park.  The park closes after 6 pm, but we're bringing a group in for a night photography workshop, so the crescent moon and planet conjunction event is a nice bonus opportunity for us.

The even tighter and more interesting configuration will be on the following night August 31 when the moon joins Saturn and Mars to form a close triangle.  At 9 o'clock for mid-northern latitudes the moon will be southwest and roughly 17 degrees high, moving westward and setting over the next hour.

To plan some shots for this celestial event, you can use apps such as The Photographer's Ephemeris, +PhotoPills , StarWalk and Sky Safari+:
StarWalk Screen showing conjunction August 31
Here's a screen shot from the StarWalk app showing the relative positions of Mars, Saturn and the moon. (The appearance of them on the screen is not to scale.)  Using this app to see the relative position of the three objects, then using TPE or PhotoPills to pick natural landmarks on the horizon or man-made objects in your foreground to place them over, you can plan for some interesting compositions well in advance.  A wide shot to capture a foreground subject might work well at 14-24mm, while a telephoto composition might range from 50 mm to 200mm.  You can capture individual planets or the moon at longer focal lengths.  I may use my crop sensor Canon 70D to get an extra effective 1.6X magnification, so my 70-200 mm lens with 2X teleconverter shooting at 400 mm will produce an effective 640 mm.

Saturn over Mars (upper right)
You can scout potential locations for your shot all week, just look for the red light of Mars to the southwest as darkness falls, in the evening about an hour after sunset, and Saturn is the bright planet just to the right of Mars.  This is a location I scouted and ruled out earlier this week due in part to excessive light pollution just out of frame to the right.  Mars is the red planet in the upper right (and even easier to see in the reflection), while Saturn is just to the right.  The crescent moon between and above them will make a tight grouping, so I should bring my Canon 50 mm f/1.4 and 85 mm f/1.8 lenses to be able to use wider apertures and lower ISO settings for less noisy results.

A handy planning site for the Moon, Mars, Saturn conjunction event on August 31 tries to recognize your location to be able to give accurate times for visibility of Saturn in the evening, as well as set times for Saturn, the moon and Mars:

Photos of the Moon, Venus and Jupiter Conjunction August 23

Jupiter, moon and M44 Beehive Cluster rising yesterday, August 23.  A short while later Venus joined them, below Jupiter.
The Internet, mobile phones and social media can provide some interesting opportunities at times.  I learned about a close Venus - Jupiter conjunction coming up on August 18 from the SkyWeek+ app from +Sky & Telescope.  I looked up more information, and found an excellent planning guide by +Universe Today.  I shot the August 18 conjunction, only to have Universe today include it moments later in their write-up on the event!  I looked up more articles, discovering a mention in an +EarthSky article of the moon joining them in the sky on the morning  August 23.  But there would be a nice practice day August 22, which I shot.  As it turned out, EarthSky included my Aug 18 Venus - Jupiter image in an excellent planning guide to the August 23 event.

Venus, Jupiter, moon and Beehive Cluster in conjunction 
I checked my app The Photographer's Ephemeris to confirm a good composition for the moon rise angle at Mono Lake.  I then checked the StarWalk app and determined that the last of the three celestial bodies rising on the 23rd,Venus, would be rising at 4:53 at Mono Lake.  So I arrived onsite yesterday at around 4:30, I was moving my cameras into position around 4:45, and I was just getting my exposures settings set as the moon rose next to Jupiter and its moons (above).  Venus was the next to arrive (right), and its light was colored bright red in the atmosphere choked with smoke from fires in the American West.

Apparently no other photographers had planned to shoot here, although one car did pull in and leave its headlights on briefly, providing some unplanned light painting on the tufa-strewn shoreline.  The sky gradually brightened as twilight "blue hour" progressed, and the view of the moon became more clear and it tone more white as it rose above the densest slice of atmosphere.  Venus increased in apparent brightness as it rose, and hints of the approaching sunrise could be seen on the horizon.

Venus, Jupiter and moon during blue hour
As the planets and moon rose together, I had to zoom out to a wider 70 mm focal length to fit them in comfortably.  Incresed color in the sky was offset by the relative fading of the planets as the sky brightened.

Later this week we'll have this sort of opportunity all over again as the crescent moon yields to the new moon, then becomes a crescent again as it switches to the night sky, and moves close to Mars and Saturn.  I'll talk more on that in a following post here on my blog, and I'll post updates on Twitter (@jeffsullphoto) as well.

The moon, Jupiter and Venus as dawn approaches on August 23
Here's one of my last shots of the moon with Jupiter and Venus last Saturday as the sky continued to brighten:

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Venus Jupiter Conjunction August 18 to Add Moon August 23

Venus plus Jupiter with four of its moons before dawn August 18
Venus - Jupiter Aug 18
The Venus -  Jupiter Conjunction was a rare event to catch Monday morning before dawn, as they slowly rose above the horizon as dawn approached.  It's always great to be out in the early morning, as many animals are active and others start to stir.  Two great horned owls gently called back and forth.  Black bears have been in our neighborhood at night lately gorging on peaches, and plums, blackberries and apples are starting to add to their buffet as well.  A group of coyotes were howling in the small orchard down the street, no doubt harassing a bear getting in the way of their hunt for rabbits and quail.  It was nice to have some moonlight for illumination, so I'd be able to see a bear approaching if I heard one leaving the orchard in my direction.  I kept a flashlight nearby to alert any bears to my presence, to avoid an awkward encounter.  Being so well fed our bears are large.  They're not overtly aggressive and they'll generally run away from people, but it's still a good idea not to startle one at close range.
As the week progresses Venus and Saturn remain close all this week, with the crescent moon arriving in their vicinity on the mornings of August 22, 23 and 24. Their closest encounter will be on Saturday the 23rd, with the two planets and the moon forming a triangle before dawn, 7 degrees on each side.

Update Friday morning, August 22:  The moon lined up with Venus and Jupiter this morning.  The moon will drop next to Venus and Jupiter tomorrow morning before dawn, to form a triangle.  Venus rose today at 4:53, so for best results, start looking by 5 am.  Where I plan to shoot tomorrow, all three celestial bodies should be above the horizon by 5:10 or so.  The times will be similar for other mid northern latitudes, with small adjustments for your position on the earth and in your time zone.

Plan for an interesting composition for the conjunction tomorrow using any of these four astronomy apps:

Tutorial on Moon Photography Planning  

The rest of the story:

As I shot Venus and Jupiter this morning there were large, fresh bear prints on the ground, and half of an apple that the bear carried 1/2 mile but couldn't finish.  The bears start arriving late at night this time of year, but as they compete for fruit in neighborhood fruit trees, they start to come earlier and earlier.

This large bear climbed up a neighbor's tree last year when we arrived to take his picture.  He growled at me at first, but stopped when that tactic didn't result in our departure.  On this night, our neighbor had called us at 8 pm to tell us that there was a huge bear which "looks like a bison", his back scraping the branches of the apple trees.  He definitely was well fed, and is probably back for more feasting this year.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2014 Video Released Today

Moon Over Half Dome, Yosemite National Park
Thanks to the +Royal Observatory Greenwich in London for including my image in your video about the Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2104 competition!  Read my 2012 blog post about this image: Moon Rise over Half Dome in Yosemite

Astrophotography is a great way to encourage an interest in science and engineering among young people.  In 2011 the Royal Observatory Greenwich sent a film crew to interview my daughter +Nicole Sullivan in 2011 when she won Runner Up (2nd Place) in the Young Astronomers category of the competition.

Nicole: the blue hour from Royal Observatory Greenwich on Vimeo.

Nicole will be attending the University of California, Davis this fall, and she is considering a number of careers related to science and engineering.

"Origins of Life on Earth" image by Thomas Sullivan
Nicole's brother +Thomas Sullivan is not far from applying for college as well.  He was honored with an Honorable Mention in the 2012 Astronomy Photographer of the Year contest, and his photo appears on the cover of the Japanese edition of the coffee table book containing awarded entries in the competition, available for purchase through

#astrophoto2014 #astrophotography #landscapephotography #APOTY #2014

Monday, August 18, 2014

Perseid Meteor Shower 2014 Continues as Moon Rises Later

Perseid meteor over mining ruins, Eastern Sierra
I set up my camera Friday night to take a sequence of shots so I could make a composite all of the meteors I caught in the hour before the moon rise, but I only caught this one Perseid meteor. I still made a composite photo however, since the best Milky Way was when I first set up and the meteor came later as the moon was rising, washing out the view of the Milky Way. So everything in this photo is exactly where it happened, but the 11:29 pm meteor is effectively time-shifted into this image from 10:32 pm.

Thanks to +Angela Fritz of the +Capital Weather Gang at the +Washington Post for blogging two of my earlier 2014 Perseid meteor shower photos over the weekend:
In past years I've captured time-lapse video of the Perseid meteor shower, as in the first 1:49 of this 7 minute video:

Venus - Jupiter Conjunction at Dawn Today

Venus and Jupiter put on a show in the sky this morning as sunrise approached.  As seen from earth these two bright planets appeared to pass within 0.3 degrees of each other in the sky.

For the next shot I used a crop sensor camera to get a little more effective zoom out of my lenses:
Canon 70D, 70-200mm f/4 IS L lens, 2X teleconverter
400mm focal length x 1.6 crop factor = 640mm equivalent

I uploaded one of my shots to Flickr, and +Universe Today had already blogged it moments later.  Thanks +Nancy Atkinson!
Here's a link to the blog post by Universe Today:

Monday, August 11, 2014

Perseid Meteor 2014

Perseid meteor 4:19 am August 11, 2014
Yes, it is possible to get Perseid meteors in spite of the full moon.  This one was at 4:19 am, right next to the North Star, Polaris.  For a little over 1.5 hour I had my camera shooting 15 second exposures at f/5.6, ISO 2000.  At roughly four shots per minute, I ended up with nearly 400 images.  This was by far the brightest Perseid fireball I caught.  I don't know if our clouds will break enough for me to shoot again tonight, but if they do, I may focus on a ground-based subject and see whether I can happen to pick up some meteors as well. 

To see some of my Perseid meteor shower time-lapse videos from past years, visit my YouTube account to see them in my Night Time-lapse playlist:


Saturday, August 09, 2014

Image: Transit of Venus 2012

"After centuries of trying, only photographic technology could measure the ‘Transit of Venus’ and tell us our position in the solar system." - Royal Observatory, Greenwich. This Venus transit photo I captured in 2012 is one of my entries in the Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2014 competition.  Winning photos will be announced September 18:
#astrophoto2014 #astronomy #science #astrophotography

Monday, August 04, 2014

Guaranteed Delivery Photo Sharing Networks: Flickr, Instagram, Twitter

A crate originally containing blasting caps, explosive charges used to set off dynamite, sits in an abandoned house in the historic mining town of Bodie, California. 

The "handle carefully" label on the box is good advice for photographers in the fragmented world of online photography sharing world.  While other sites shelter copyright violators, invade your privacy and threaten to sell your photos without any benefit to you, Flickr remains a key place for serious photographers, arguably THE place.  But if you want to connect with friends and family on social media sites, or grow your audience with photographers who haven't found or returned to Flickr yet, you may have to spread a few of your photos around a bit.  Sites don't all connect to one another, and they have different functionality, so details can get lost from site to site, and where you share to or from can affect how well your photos are received where they end up.

Let's consider Instagram, Twitter and Flickr.  Instagram can be a receptive place for mobile phone photos, but I don't spend much time on Instagram.  I have more followers on Twitter, and Twitter is known as a place for real time updates.  But Instagram photos shared directly to Twitter don't show up with a preview image, greatly reducing the odds that anyone will see, let alone respond to, your tweet.  So if I want to make a mobile phone share to Instagram and also reach my friends who might be on Twitter, it's best to post to Instagram and Flickr at once, then from Flickr share to Twitter.  A Flickr share to Twitter does result in a photo being posted with the tweet, with a thumbnail included in the left colum, so your odds of interaction with your post are much higher.  But most importantly there's also a link back to the original photo on Flickr, a full-featured "home base" for photography.

Many sites have popped up over the years enabling sharing photos, but many of them have implemented filters preventing all of the people who have subscribed to see you photos from actually seeing them.  Flickr does not prevent other photographers from seeing your work, it does not tolerate or even facilitate copyright violators like some other sites, it hasn't had privacy issue after privacy issue, there haven't been scandals where they would allow selling of your work without your knowledge or permission, and most importantly, it remains the photography place with the strongest tagging, grouping, album, location, date and interestingness-ranking functionality, that intelligent searches can be performed on.  So when your'e going to a national park and want to get ideas on where to go and what to see at that time of year, you can perform a search and find some great images and places.  Others can similarly find your images that way.  And everyone is easily accessible, you just post a question below their photograph or send them a flickrmail, there's no weird layer of site intervention over who can "friend" whom, or which people can communicate with each other.

For this photo I took an iPhone photo and used the free Snapseed app to post-process it and post it simultaneously to Flickr and Instagram.  So technically it started here as well as there.  Then I used the Flickr to Twitter sharing function to  tweet the photo with a preview image and link back here on Flickr.  It's simple, fast, gets the photo were I need it, and lets me keep my portfolio grounded on Flickr where I can best manage it.

Where i want a more subtle and controlled edit I may wait to import my iPhone images into Lightroom and upload the edited images from my PC to Flickr.  In that case I then go to the Flickr app and I can download my Lightroom-edited photo on Flickr to my phone's camera roll storage.  Like magic, any of my photos on Flickr, even ones taken on a DSLR, can be shared to otherwise mobile-centric apps like Instagram that way.

With the strong tagging/metadata and search functionality it seems like Flickr is still one of the places editors look first to find images.  It'll be interesting to see whether the new licensing functionality announced last week can reinforce and amplify that trend.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

2014 Perseid Meteor Shower Begins

The annual Perseid meteor shower is ramping up, but the moon will increasingly interfere with viewing as the shower's peak approaches. This one was caught to the northeast while out looking for Delta Aquarids and Piscis Austranids earlier this week.

I pursue photos and time-lapse videos of every meteor shower when conditions are favorable. Here's my Perseid meteor shower footage from 2013:

   How to Create a Time-lapse Video on Your Digital Camera.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Delta II Rocket Image Sequence from OCO-2 Launch

Four minutes during NASA's OCO-2 satellite launch from Vandenberg AFB, California
NASA sent the OCO2 satellite up on a Delta II rocket last Wednesday morning, and I captured it on several different cameras at once.

+Philip Plait (The Bad Astronomer) goes into some detail on the satellite in his blog posNASA Launches a New Eye on Carbon Dioxide, so I'll stick to the photographic detail in the following sequence of photos matched to their corresponding events in the launch timeline.

2:55:53 a.m.
T-minus 30 seconds. SRB ignitors will be armed at T-minus 11 seconds.

The launch ignition sequence will begin at T-minus 2 seconds when a launch team member triggers the engine start switch. The process begins with ignition of the two vernier thrusters and first stage main engine start. The three ground-lit solid rocket motors then light at T-0 for liftoff.
2:56:23 a.m. 
LIFTOFF! Liftoff of the Delta 2 rocket with the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 to watch the Earth breathe from space!
T+plus 15 seconds. The launch vehicle is departing Vandenberg Air Force Base, heading south for the trek downrange over the Pacific carrying the OCO 2 spacecraft.

T+plus 36 seconds. Delta has broken the sound barrier, rapidly accelerating on the power of its first stage main engine and the three ground-lit strap-on solid-fuel boosters.
2:57 a.m. 
T+plus 50 seconds. The rocket has flown through the area of maximum aerodynamic pressure in the lower atmosphere.

2:57 a.m. 
T+plus 1 minute, 6 seconds. All three ground-start solid rocket boosters have burned out. The Delta 2's first stage RS-27A main engine is providing the sole thrust for the next couple of minutes.

2:58 a.m.
T+plus 1 minute, 50 seconds. The ATK-made solid rocket boosters have jettisoned from the first stage. They remained attached until the rocket cleared off-shore oil rigs.

T+plus 2 minutes. Delta now weighs half of what it did at liftoff two minutes ago.

2:59 a.m.
T+plus 2 minutes, 41 seconds. Delta now traveling at Mach 5.
T+plus 3 minutes. The first stage main engine still firing well. The Aerojet Rocketdyne powerplant consumes kerosene fuel and liquid oxygen to produce about 237,000 pounds of thrust.
3:00 a.m. 
T+plus 3 minutes, 34 seconds. The Delta 2 is now passing a speed of Mach 10.
3:01 a.m.
T+plus 4 minutes, 39 seconds. MECO. The first stage main engine cutoff is confirmed and the spent stage has been jettisoned.
T+plus 4 minutes, 44 seconds. The Delta's second stage has ignited! The engine is up and running.
T+plus 4 minutes, 51 seconds. The rocket's nose cone enclosing the satellite payload has been jettisoned.

3:02 a.m.
The rocket is at an altitude of 82.7 nautical miles, a downrange distance of 360 nautical miles and a velocity of 11,127 mph.

Here's NASA's diagram of the sequence (click on it  for a much larger view):

Here's the whole sequence put together in a time-lapse video covering 3 hours prior to 1 hour after launch:

If night photography looks like something you'd like to master, I'm scheduling a night photography session at California's Bodie State Historic Park on July 25:

Digital photography differs from film photography in many important respects, and nowhere is that more true than for night photography.  I've invested the sleepless nights learning the techniques and trade-offs to save you time and money required to discover it all for yourself.