Blog, Prints & Photography Lessons from Edinburgh and the Lothians

Posts tagged “photography

An irrational fear of tripods

There doesn’t appear to be a name for a fear of tripods, an as yet unrecognised but very real phobia. And yes, I did Google it.

When I say “fear” that’s probably too strong a word but from giving photography lessons I have noticed that a fair few of the people I’m teaching don’t own a tripod or are very self conscious of using one.

I have to sympathise with this though. I wasn’t a prolific tripod user when I started out, probably down to a mixture of dreadful cheap tripods and not really seeing much need. As I progressed into using filtration I soon started using one nearly all the time. At some locations this didn’t bother me but in the city centre I was very self conscious of using a tripod as if it were some sort of badge that marked out the weirdos of society.

I soon realised that especially living in Edinburgh photography tripods are like rats in a big city, supposedly you’re never far away from one. Look about in a city centre, you will see people using them at certain locations, they are nothing unusual at all and it’s a fear worth overcoming as the benefits to your photography are huge.

I use a tripod as a matter of course these days. Even in bright light when shutter speed isn’t going to be an issue I still prefer it. I can compose a shot, take it and then since the camera is tripod mounted I can make adjustments and be confident my composition remains unchanged. You’d be amazed at how handy this can be.

Combine a tripod with a wireless remote control and you’re onto a real winner, the perfect combination for all situations. It’s worth simply making this part of your photography workflow for all situations. Of course, by all means shoot handheld if the situation demands it. I only ever shoot action and macro handheld as using a tripod is simply too restrictive.

For landscapes though, that just isn’t an issue and getting used to setting up on a tripod and attaching your remote is a worthwhile few minutes spent before taking any pics.

A quick word on tripods though, these are the perfect example of the buy cheap buy twice philosophy. I lost count of how many tenner in Tesco’s type tripods I burned though before I moved onto cheap and nasty Jessops efforts. I wasn’t until the death of yet another sub £40 tripod I moved up and bought a nice Giottos with a tilt and pan head. It’s been abused for 3 years now, submerged in sea water, covered in sand and made a few trips at speed in a downwards direction when the carrying photographer doesn’t see the mud in the dark on Blackford Hill. Asides from me breaking the tripod head a few months back it’s still going strong. I reckon it’ll be like Trigger’s broom in Only Fools and Horses. He had the same broom for years but it had 6 new handles and 8 new heads only it’ll be legs and heads in my case.

The point being though, for £130 I’ve had a stable, well performing platform to work from for the last 3 years. Well worth every penny.

Using a tripod also allows you to explore some other functions you might never have used on your DSLR, such as Mirror Up. or mUP as it’s called on the Nikons. Mirror up essentially means you press your remote once to flip up the DSLR mirror and then again to start the exposure. The benefit of this is that you can totally eliminate any shake from longer exposures. Flick up the mirror, wait a second or 2 for the camera to settle and then take the pic. Not a massive thing with wide lenses but tripod mount a big zoom and you’ll get to love the feature.

I suppose I should make some reference to tripod heads as well. There’s a bewildering array of them out there. The ball head seems to be the current favourite but if I’m honest, I hate them. Fiddly is the word here. I prefer a good old fashioned tilt and pan, 2 levers to do all you need it do to. Simple and functional. If you ever take pictures in the dark that’s what you want but at the end of the day it’s all personal preference.

Think too about the weight of a tripod and max height of a tripod. If you’re 6ft 6” and your tripod only goes to a max of 120 cm you’re going to get backache using it. Get something appropriate for your height, that does mean the taller amongst us will be paying more unfortunately.

Weight is a factor too. 7 stone weakling doesn’t want a full aluminium tripod with a heavy duty head on it to carry about for a days shooting, carbon fibre is more expensive but a hell of a lot lighter. The payoff may be that it’s not quite as usable in strong winds. I’ve got an aluminium one and at times I can learn to hate it with the weight in it but first windy day and I can see why I stick with it.

Again it’s down to personal preference and how you intend to use it. Do you only ever take pictures 5 ft from your car? Then buy the cheaper aluminium one. Do you hike up Ben Nevis before breakfast for the sunrise? Then you might appreciate a carbon fibre one. Do you struggle to open a packet of crisps? Get the carbon fibre. Are you Geoff Capes? Get the aluminium one. You get the idea.

So, shrug off that coat of self consciousness and go forth and be proud of your tripod, your photos will thank you for it!


Edinburgh Fireworks made easy

A photographer living in Edinburgh has, shall we say, a good few opportunities at fireworks photography. With 22 Tattoo performances each with fireworks at the end of the performance, St Andrews Day, Son Et Lumerie, New Year and of course the huge 45 minute end of Festival display we’re somewhat spoiled for choice. We even had fireworks at midday at Edinburgh Castle this year, a strange experience if I’m honest!

So, how do you go about getting the best from all these opportunities?

What I’m going to detail here is my method for these shots, this is how I’ve taken the shots below. It might not be how everyone else does it but it sure does the job for me.

So what do you need? A camera certainly, a DSLR is best but any camera that you can control the aperture and exposure time will work, we’ll be in full manual mode for this. You also MUST be tripod mounted and using a remote control. If you don’t have a remote and your camera has a self timer set it to the lowest setting (typically 2s) and use that. It’s far from perfect but can be used if you have to.

Next job up is planning. This is essential and the key to getting the best shots. Think about where your display is going to be and what vantage points you might have. This year for the Tattoo in Edinburgh I’ve been out in a range of places. Calton Hill, Salisbury Crags, the lower slopes of Arthur’s Seat and right under the Castle in Johnstone Terrace. Each of these requires a different approach which must be planned for.

Calton requires a long lens but a shorter zoom can also be handy, Salisbury Crags is similar. The lower slopes of Arthur’s Seat only need the long lens as your so far out from the Castle. Johnstone Terrace meanwhile called for a super wide lens as you can get so close to the action. This is what you need to think about before you head off. Also think about access to the location, how easy is it? Can you get a car in there or will you have to walk?

Think about the light, will it be totally dark? You’d assume so but the early performance of the Tattoo on a Saturday night finishes at 9pm and it’s still fairly light in which case you’d be best of facing away from the sunset for the shots where the sky will be darker.

Do your research, there will be stacks of info on the net about times of fireworks etc, make sure you know when to expect them and get setup in plenty time. Search sites like Flickr for pointers on locations, you might find a great place you never thought about.

This is the hard part really but once you have this info getting the actual shots will be a hundred times easier. Performances like the Tattoo fireworks have an additional advantage in that they are the same every night. You can learn the sequence of the bursts and prepare for particular bursts you know are coming.
Once you’re at the location get your camera tripod mounted and your remote hooked up. Decide what composition you want to use, remembering that the fireworks themselves will be high above where they will launch from, in a lot of cases a portrait orientation works best for the bigger bursts, landscape for the lower bursts.

Do make sure you have some context to your shots. Get some land interest in them. It gives the fireworks a sense of scale and it will really improve the final image. In my case this is nearly always Edinburgh Castle so it’s easy to work with. I take test shots before the display starts where I make sure the Castle isn’t overexposed and there’s enough light coming in from the ground to show the city.

I like to use in nearly all cases, ISO400, f7.1 and an exposure time of around 1s. You can adjust this to get a nicely balanced image. ie, if the ground in your shot is too dark, go up to f5.6, if it’s too light, drop down to f11 or more. Ideally you want to keep that 1 to 1.6s exposure. The further away you are the longer you can chance but at close quarters 1s is more than enough to get big trails and minimise the chance of burning out the fireworks.

With the camera set up, the test shots taken, the image looking nicely balanced is all about hitting that shutter at the right time now. Don’t just rattle off shots, watch the display and hit that shutter when you see a nice trail develop. You’ll get a good few shots at it and on the longer displays time to play about with settings. Just don’t panic, keep watching the display and hit the shutter when you think it’s right.

Take loads of shots. You’re dealing with a real unknown in fireworks, the more shots you have the more chance you have of that one killer image. Simple as.

When it comes to processing fireworks shots you have to be careful with them. If you shoot in jpg there’s not a lot you can do but if you shoot in RAW make use of the fill light to bring out the land element and use the recovery slider to take out any burnt out areas as much as possible. Pay attention to the curves too but above all don’t lighten the image too much.

Fireworks are not the easiest of subjects to get right but following these guidelines should put you on the right path, the rest is up to you!

Virgin Money Fireworks Display, 1st September 2013

This is the big Edinburgh display and here’s a run down of locations you might want to consider.

Calton Hill – Iconic views but really really busy. In my opinion, best avoided.
Arthur’s Seat – Incredible view from the top, take a long lens. The lower slopes have some good vantage points too, long lens again.
Salisbury Crags – Incredible viewpoint, big and medium zoom’s work well. Can be busy.
Blackford Hill – Stick to the lower slopes near the observatory, more sheltered and away from the idiots who seem to always be at the top of fireworks night. Get’s busy and limited parking but a great flat on view. Big zoom needed.
Inverleith Park – Great view of the front of the castle flat on but gets very busy again.
Princes Street – Forget it. Simply not worth it.
Johnstone Terrace – Can be spectacular but only the biggest fireworks will be in view. Very wide lens works best.
Braid Hill Drive, get’s very busy, need to be there very early better off at Blackford Hill. Ditto Braid Hills.
Regents Road – Will be busy but nice scenic view over the top of Waverley if you can get a spot.
Grassmarket – Will be busy and probably plenty drunks too. Good view though.
Kier Street, great view to the castle from here, very close so wide to medium zoom will be enough.
Bruntsfield Links – Great spot, very close a wide lens to medium zoom is best. Can be very busy.

Here’s a few of mine from the Tattoo this year.

From Calton Hill, this arc of fireworks was good to me this year!
Tattoo Fireworks 24 August 2013

Tattoo Fireworks 21 August 2013

Tattoo Fireworks 2 - 14 August 2013 - Explored

Tattoo Fireworks 14 August 3

From Johnstone Terrace, right under the display
Tattoo Fireworks 22 August 2013
From Salisbury Crags, sunset and fireworks at the same time!
Fireworks at Sunset

From the lower slopes of Arthurs Seat
Tattoo Fireworks arc 23 August 2013


Photographing fireworks in Edinburgh

Well, it’s been quite a while since I last blogged hasn’t it? Not quite sure how that happened, I’m guessing the whole Facebook page has just got in the way, and if you’ve never seen it, my day to day stuff can be seen on Facebook here: http://www.facebook.com/realedinburgh

Anyway, a subject I’ve blogged on before was about never being afraid to take the same photograph twice, three times or how many times you want to take it. You can re-create a composition but you will never recreate an image. What might be a mediocre image one night might be that killer shot the next. Never let anyone tell you “oh you photograph the same stuff all the time”. As a photographer you capture light and that light is never the same.

Another advantage of revisiting was clear to me this week when I made a 2nd trip to catch the fireworks at Edinburgh Castle which mark the end of the nightly Military Tattoo performance. My first attempt at the early show on Saturday wasn’t great as it was still simply too light so another mid week visit was in order when the show finished around 90 minutes later.

Wednesday night was that night. Warm with reasonably still conditions which were perfect. Heavy rain forecast but fingers crossed it would stay away till the fireworks had finished at least. If I’m honest, when I left the house at 9.30pm I had little enthusiasm for driving into town and hiking up Calton Hill in the dark with a bag full of camera gear after a long day at work but the sight of Edinburgh Castle from the outskirts of town all lit up and standing out like a sore thumb had me inspired enough to get going!

Calton Hill has a somewhat unsavoury reputation at night but at this time of year it’s filled with tourists in the dark and the front end of the hill isn’t particularly dark either. If you’re hesitant about going up there, don’t be, you’ll be only one of a few photographers up there more than likely but stick to the front of hill where it’s well lit and you’ll be fine and the views of the city are unbeatable.

Having shot this exact same sequence on Saturday night this gave me 3 valuable insights.

1. What time the fireworks will start (in this case, 10.30pm)
2. Where the fireworks launch from (to the right of the castle away from the Tattoo lights)
3. Roughly what will be coming, ie huge bursts or low level bursts.

Number 3 was particularly important and I was pushing the limits of what I could get in the frame using a combination of the Nikon D7100 and Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 EX HSM rather than the wider 18-200mm VRII. Using the Sigma was important as it’s oh so sharp compared to the 18-200mm lens and that makes a massive difference with these shots.

With that little prior knowledge I knew the first burst was a huge red firework so I could get setup with the camera in portrait mode. I also adjusted position to put the lit front of the castle and the Balmoral clock in the centre of the firing zone so I could get both focal points in the shot.

Sure enough, 10.30pm and there goes the first shots, it was all very calm and all I had to do was wait and hit the remote at the right time, almost too easy but then again, with the forward planning most of the guesswork was out the way. This was the first shot of the night.

Tattoo Fireworks 14 August 2013

The next few minutes were more or less a scramble of bigger fireworks with some lower level stuff but I knew what I was after was still to come. Not that I didn’t rattle off shots in the meantime. Using a fairly short exposure, around 1.3s at ISO400 and f8 was suiting me perfectly and allowing a good range of shots.

Now, this prior knowledge paid off again. I knew there was a gap in the fireworks and after that long-ish gap was the bursts I was looking for. A series of low level bursts in an arc above the castle. Knowing this was coming I had plenty time to flip the camera to landscape mode, zoom in a bit more and make sure the focus was spot on.

Sure enough the expected bursts came and the shot I had planned was in the bag.

Tattoo Fireworks 2 - 14 August 2013

A previous visit along with a little planning had paid off and it’s another classic example of why you should do your homework and never be afraid of doing a shot again. Armed with this knowledge now I might have another go at these fireworks from a different location and see what the outcome is. The best of this is I’ve got fireworks shots now from a premium location, a location that will be packed to capacity for the main event on Sunday 1st September at 9pm. Where will I be that night> Not on Calton Hill that’s for sure, I’ve already got my shots from there!

The 2nd image above is for sale as matt prints or canvas up to A0 size, which can be ordered from here: http://goo.gl/ZMTkar or by visiting my website at http://www.realedinburgh.co.uk

If you want to try these fireworks yourself the Tattoo is on till the 24th August (except Sunday). Monday to Friday the fireworks will start about 10.30pm and last approx 10 minutes off an on. On Saturday they start at 9.00pm and again around midnight where it’s a longer display.

The main Edinburgh fireworks event takes place at Edinburgh Castle on Sunday 1st September at 9pm and lasts for around 45 minutes.


Why I’m finally calling it a day on telescope astro-photography

It’s been a long, at times frustrating journey. Certainly, the lows outweigh the highs by quite some number and when a hobby starts to feel like that it’s maybe time to re-examine it and why you’re doing it.

When I first got a notion for astro-photography I was under no illusions. A quick initial bit of research showed it to be a complex discipline with a lot to learn so I don’t think I underestimated it but what I did do was seriously underestimate the financial aspect and the worse still for a photographer, the lack of creativity.

I first noticed the writing was on the wall when I started to ignore clear nights and not feel like I was missing something. Before the new year any clear night I was out, imaging the Moon, Jupiter and anything else I could get too. By this time though I had already realised that with the kit I had deep space objects were going to be beyond reach but I figured I’d be happy trying to get as good as I could with lunar, solar and planetary images.

This was true for a while but once you’ve done the best you can with Jupiter 20 or so times it’s gets slightly “samey”. You see, one of the main issues with astro work is that there is no opportunity to be creative. Astro-photography is all about capturing what it there, as it is. It’s about making the most of every available photon of light. There’s no opportunity to try and be creative with what you have, it’s more a never ending fight to get more light.

It’s hard to explain.

If you were to take a picture of a flower, how many ways could you take that picture? There’s an almost infinite number of ways to interpret the scene, be it with different lenses, artificial light, angles etc etc etc… You simply cannot do that with astro work.

And now we come to telescopes. I’ve had 3 in the last year and I’ve never really liked any of them. They are fiddly to set up, tempremental to operate and lets be honest here, in all but the biggest of scopes, the views of anything other than the moon or planets is shall we say, disappointing. Those pictures you see of majestic clusters or colourful nebula are visually just grey fuzzy patches. The knowledge of what you are looking at is far more exciting than the actual view in reality.

Now we come to cost. It’s a bottomless pit. Even at the bottom end of the market it’s a massively expensive hobby. Don’t be fooled either into thinking you can do it on the cheap, you simply can’t. If you can be happy with poor to average results then yes, you can but if you really hanker after those wonderfully detailed images of planets and deep space objects be prepared to re-mortgage the house. Nothing is cheap and if it is, then it’s not up to the job. Simple. You hear of people getting “wonderful” results with £3 webcams. The results are not wonderful, they are acceptable for a £3 webcam. Wonderful is what Damian Peach puts out and he simply does not use a £3 webcam.

I can look at landscape images taken with say, a Nikon D4, Lee filters, expensive Nikon lenses and I don’t think, wish I could do that. I can do it, and at a fraction of the cost too. If you look really close, and I mean really close then yes, the image maybe isn’t quite as good but you can as near as damn it do as good as the pro kit for a lot lot less. The difference between the pro kit in astro work and what might be termed as “reasonably affordable” is massive. Don’t even think of looking at the planet images in the Astro-photographer of the year competition and think you will get to within even a million miles of that on cheap kit, you simply won’t, the best you can ever hope for it something YOU are content with.

And at the end of the day, therein lies my root problem. I wasn’t happy with the results I could get. I wasn’t prepared to plough in any more money so I hit a brick wall. Lets be honest too, the British weather didn’t help either!

So what next?

Well, I’ve steadily found I get more enjoyment if I can take astro pics using just normal photographic kit using normal photographic processing techniques. None of this Registax or Deep Space Stacker stuff, just Photoshop, nice and simple. So that leaves me with lunar, solar, comets, widefield, ISS to name but a few. Really the only thing I’m going to miss out on is deep space which I’d already decided wasn’t for me and planets, and talking of planets, only Jupiter and Saturn and really worth looking at anyway.

For now, the binoculars will keep me satisfied and at some point in the future I might look to get a 10” dobsonian scope but I’m in no hurry to do that. The sale of the astro kit will hopefully fund a nice big Sigma 150-500mm lens which I’ll be able to use to good effect on the moon and sun as well as a myriad of other uses!

I suppose this post seems like the whole thing was a very negative experience and it’s wasn’t. There were times of great excitement and feelings of satisfaction. I’ve learned so much too but I also learned that in the end, I’m a creative photographer at heart and that’s where I’m happiest. I’ve also gained massive respect for the guys who do produce these great space images, I’ve dipped a toe in there and know just how hard it is and can now fully appreciate what they do.

So, if after that, anyone fancies a full lunar, solar and planetary imaging kit in Edinburgh, get in touch!


Edinburgh in the springtime, a photographic guide

So, we’re well into February and that means the winter (might) be about to step away to make way for spring. Not that it’s always that easy to tell with the Scottish weather, not being unusual to experience spring, summer, autumn or winter all in one day, or indeed, in one hour.

However, at this point the sun starts to travel further over the sky, rising and setting in different places and reaching a higher transit point in the sky, all of which makes a different to the images you might take. Whether you’re an Edinburgh resident or just passing through this will hopefully help you make the most of the spring time months.

March and April typically mark the end of the sunset season from up on Calton Hill, after April the sun moves to far to the west to really make a big difference to that classic Edinburgh castle shot so catch it while you can.

Edinburgh Sunset 17 March 2012

April also marks the start of being able to get some decent sunset’s from down near the Edinburgh coastline. The sun starts to dip below the horizon over the water rather than inland and there are plenty of places to take advantage of it such as Newhaven Harbour the Forth Bridges.

Newhaven Sunset 18 March 2012

Forth Bridge Sunset

You will have to keep a close eye on the weather though, rain is never far away at this time of year, not that it should stop you getting some very nice images indeed. This was from Blackford Hill last year.

Storm over Edinburgh

Fog is another pretty regular feature in spring but as photographers that’s a good thing isn’t it!

Cramond Causeway 24 March 2012

It’s not all making the most of adverse weather though as this shot from along the Union Canal shows!

Ashley Boathouse in Spring

So there you have it, changeable weather but who comes to Edinburgh for the weather, you all come here for the history and some of the most incredible city views in the world don’t you!

If you are travelling to Edinburgh you could do worse than check out Roomwise.com for accommodation around the Capital. Loads of choice at reasonable rates too, what more could you want?


Ta Ta Jessops

So it finally happened. The last surving high street photographic retailer bit the dust just after New Year. Jessops is no more, it is an ex-camera shop, it has ceased to be.

Looking at it though, it’s no real surprise. Jessops has been facing some stiff competition from the online retailers for years. But, that’s not the whole story, it’s not just online retailers, it’s good old brick and mortar retailers who just got smarter than Jessops at online trading who have helped drive the nail in this particular coffin.

When I look in my camera bags I can say that at least 70% of my current kit was a Jessops purchase. Some of it bought way back when the internet was but a nipper, and some more recent when the pricing wasn’t too bad or on offer. One of the main reasons for my using Jessops was if I had decided on a new camera body, or lens, I wanted it there and then. Not ordered, paid for and wait for 3 days on a delivery. There and then and that’s where Jessops had a real upper hand on the internet retailing.

There’s no substitute for walking into a shop, handling the camera, testing out that lens to see what works for you. I nearly bought a Nikon D300 but after handling it in store and a D7000 I changed my mind and the D7000 was bought. You simply can’t do that buying online.

So, if this was so great a benefit to Jessops what went wrong?

Quite simply, to me at least, Jessops became skilled in the art of pissing off the customer.

Jessops prices were consistently at the higher end of the market, I think we all accepted that but they were also high as an internet retailer, the one place you MUST be competitive. So how did they get around that? A dual pricing structure. An online price, and an in-store price.

As I found out recently this meant that I could find a new tripod head on Jessops website, £140 in store but only £100 online. Even more, I could order online and pay and collect in-store for £100. Walk in of the street ready to buy and it was £40 more expensive. Would they give you the web price in-store, even if you mentioned it? No.

So, you go home to reserve it online, but that means another trip into town and hey, there’s the internet, might as well just order it and have it delivered. But wait, why use Jessops, they have just hacked me off and there’s a million other retailers out there who haven’t and bang, there’s a lost sale.

They even started advertising cameras at a low price but with a much higher “You pay today” price, the lower price was part of a cashback deal you had to claim. Don’t know about you but if I see a price in big bold type that’s the price I expect to pay there and then, not what I’ll have eventually paid after trying to claim the cashback and waiting on the refund. It smacks of desperation.

So there you have it, high prices, dual pricing structures and false pricing, 3 great reasons not to shop with Jessops.

So, what now for high street photography?

Might it be the rise in the independent retailer? Of course it won’t. Most of them are even more expensive than Jessops. Unless an independent retailer can cater for a niche market such are old or rare kit or simply just cheaper 2nd hand they will also go under eventually. It’s a romantic notion using your local independent photo guy, supporting him to keep a shop open but in reality, he can’t sell to you nearly as cheap and the big online guy can so you won’t buy from him. You might go and look at his stuff but you’ll tell him you need to think about it and then go home and get it online a lot cheaper.

The sad part is, in the quest for the ever better deal we’re all the worse off for it. My other passion is astronomy and here already in Scotland you simply cannot go and see a telescope in a retailer before you buy. There’s not one store of any kind in Scotland with a reasonable selection of scopes from different manufacturers so you buy blind over the net.

My first scope was a monster, way to big, heavy and cumbersome. Had I seen it before I bought I wouldn’t have bought it. So what happened here, I sold it, lost money and bought another blind over the net. Thankfully this one suited me fine but ultimately this scope effectively cost me £100 more after you factor in the money I lost with the unsuitable purchase.

Sure, there are distance selling regulations to protect us but once you’ve got the product, and especially if it’s a big heavy product sending it back isn’t always that straight forward then you you’ve got the wait for the retailer to confirm they have it back and then the wait for a refund. It’s awkward and I suspect it means a lot of people end up keeping stuff rather than go to the hassle of the return.

So, like I’ve said, already with astronomy it’s an online retail world for me, soon the whole photographic world will be the same. Even with HMV gone where really can you go and browse a section of music bigger than the top 40 now? The high street is disappearing fast and I for one hope this online world we’ve all had a part in creating and feeding doesn’t turn around and bite us one day as we’ll have nowhere else to go.


A year in photos… 2012

Well, it’s that time of year again where I like to reflect back on my photographic year and look at my favourite shots from each month.

January
There was quite a few shots from January I liked but this one was the big performer. This shot went sort of viral after I uploaded it getting in excess of 10000 views in under 24 hours on Blipfoto and Flickr. This was a mere hint of aurora taken from Blackford Hill looking over towards Arthurs Seat. It was a lucky catch truth be told with all that cloud about.

Aurora over Edinburgh

February
2012 was the year I really got into the astro-photography and there was no more engaging subject than the International Space Station. Orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes or so, 200 miles up and moving at 17,5000mph all with humans on board. It’s mind boggling you can see this pass so easily from your back garden. This shot was taken in the Pentland Hills and shows the Moon, Venus, Jupiter and the trail of the ISS passing over.

Moon Venus Jupiter ISS Feb 24 2012

March
This shot was featured on the BBC Scotland website in their feature of the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter. This was taken in North Queensferry looking at the planets over the top of the Road Bridge just minutes before an almighty blizzard hit.

Jupiter and Venus over the Forth Road Bridge

April
Rain was very much the theme for the year in Scotland but thankfully I managed to avoid the worst of it until this shot. I just came over the top of Blackford Hill and was met with this view, it was so epic I stayed far too long and ended up soaked. Worth it for a nice pic though!

Storm over Edinburgh

May
I got my first proper telescope in May and got to work frustrating the life out of myself planetary imaging. It’s such a difficult form of photography but oh so rewarding when you get a result, this might not look like much but the learning that went into getting this little shot of Saturn was huge and I was over the moon to get a chance to image the most awesome thing you will ever see though a telescope.

Saturn 26 May 2012

June
The rains were kicking in big time by June. Photography time was limited to say the least and astro stuff was even worse with the near constant cloud cover. This shot represented a rare trip out for a sunset.

Sunset on the Forth 18 June 2012 - Explored

July
And the rains continued into July. Edinburgh had it’s worst flooding for 10 years and I spent a day soaked to the bum cheeks capturing it. This was the Meadows slowly being turned back into the South loch.

Meadows Flooded 7 July 2012

A special mention should go to this shot as well, the Red Arrows doing the Olympic flypast over Edinburgh Castle.

Red Arrows Olympic Flypast 27 July 2012

August
Again, this might not look like much but this is the International Space Station. This took several nights to get and I never attempted it again after this shot as it was simply too difficult!
ISS 14 August 2012

September
September was a good month. There was so many pics to choose from but this was the standout for the month. A real shot from nothing. The weather wasn’t great, there were spots of rain about and I only just got to Belhaven Bay in time for the sunset and high tide just for the clouds to part and an amazing sunset to kick in.

Belhaven Sunset 21 Sept 2012

October
So many shots I loved from October but this is the shot that sent my little Facebook page from an also ran to, well, something a lot bigger. This went viral on Facebook and got over 12000 likes in 24 hours. In fact it was just one from an incredible night on Calton Hill with the best sunset I have ever seen.

Sunset of the year, 9 October 2012

Although that pic was the one that got me noticed, I prefered this one.
Calton Sunset 9 October 2012

Then there was the chance Moon-rise from Blackford Hill too…
Moonrise over East Lothian

And how about the panoramic shot the same night with the belt of Venus providing some nice colour?
Edinburgh Skyline and Belt of Venus

Or the Autumn on the Canal shot used for a charity calendar?
Autumn on the Canal

November
Again so hard to pick, November was another good month!

How about the bus trails on Princes Street?
Bus Stop Trails 4 November 2012

The Newhaven sunset?
Newhaven Sunset 3 Nov 2012

The 22 degree Moon halo with Jupiter?
Moon Halo 1 November 2012

Or the perfect morning at the Forth Bridges?
Forth Bridge winter high tide

Forth Bridge Reflections

December
December has started well too. I think the standout so far though is the shot of the Edinburgh Winter Wonderland from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle on a very very cold afternoon.

Edinburgh's Wonderland 2 December 2012

So that’s mine, what about the rest of you?


What camera should I buy? A beginners guide…

I get this question a lot from people looking to get into photography. What camera should I buy?

The eventual answer though depends on budget available and what you want to do with it but in the main my answer to a beginner is usually the same, buy the absolute best you can afford.

Lets forget about compact and bridge cameras here, someone looking to get into photography properly needs some sort of interchangeable lens system. You simply don’t get that level of felxability with compacts or bridge cameras no matter how good they are. You get convenience but ultimately you need a DSLR of some sort.

I’m also going to rule out the new wave of compact system cameras for the beginner too. Even with the interchangeable lenses these cameras look like a nice easy route into photography, well made, small and portable but with the added bonus of being able to change the lens, and there-in lies their main problem. Have you seen the prices of lenses for these systems? Additional lenses are both expensive and limited in choice hence why I’d always advocate, stick to a DSLR.

I’m also going to go out on a limb here and say, forget about everything else except Nikon or Canon. Yes, I know there are other makes but these 2 are the big players, the VHS to the Betamax of the rest. Now I’ve probably offended every Pentax, Olympus, Fuji, Panasonic and Sony owner out there (and more) lets get down to camera choice.

It really doesn’t matter if you go Canon or Nikon, both are similar, both have massive ranges and are supported by a myriad of 3rd party companies too. Whatever route you go, you won’t be disappointed.

So, what to actually buy? This comes back to the opening statement, spend as much as you can possibly afford, it’ll save you in the long run. If your budget only stretches to the entry level DSLR and kit lens then great, go for it. If it can go further then start looking up the ranges.

Taking the Nikon range for example. Buy a Nikon D3100 and you’ll get a nice camera with a fairly bog standard kit lens, but the entry level DSLR doesn’t have the top screen with all your setting on it. The D3000 never came with a port to attach a wired remote of any kind either, both, in my opinion, big things to be without. If you can push the budget that little bit more, the D5100 would make a far better purchase.

I’d actually go as far as to say that if you are really looking at the bottom end of the market, seriously consider the 2nd hard option. For D3100 money you’ll pick up a used D90, a far far better camera that will last you for ages. If you can afford a D5100, consider a used D7000 and you’ll never have to think of cameras again for ages.

In my humble opinion, the amateur photographer needs look no further than the Nikon D7000 or Canon 7d, after this you get into full frame territory, serious cash and I see simply no need or justification for a amateur photographer to venture into this territory. A D7000 to all but another expert photographer match a D3 in terms of image quality. In real terms, the D3 will be far better, but in the real world, 99% of people will never be able to tell any difference and if you really learn how to use it, your D7000 will produce the most amazing and striking images.

And so lenses. Simply get the kit lens, it’ll be fine to start out with and you have other things to worry about. Factor in the cost of a reasonable tripod for starters, cheap tripods won’t last, spend at least £100 and it’ll last for ages.

You might also want to consider:

Remote control of some sort, preferably wired.
A decent bag to carry this all in, buy something big enough to accommodate future purchases as well.
A screw in polarising filter
Some sort of slot in filter system, p series system with some Hitech graduated filters is a good cheap entry level into this world and it’s the one single item that will change you from a snapper to a photographer.

There’s about £250 in that little lot of extras, you don’t need them all straight away but this is what you need to consider to take the hobby at least semi-seriously.

Once you’ve used this little lot and got to grips with it then you can start looking at lenses. You might want a wider lens, a bigger zoom even? Both good purchases. The old trusty 50mm f1.8 is a great purchase, the cheapest lens you’ll ever buy and so versatile you’ll wonder how you ever managed without it.

I don’t expect everyone will agree with my reasonings but from coming through the beginner route this is my findings and my recommendation. What you buy is of course up to you but hopefully there’s some food for thought in there!


A picture goes viral on Facebook…

Viral might be an over statement but in the realms of my little Facebook world last night was, what can only be described as, mental. It was social media overload and it all came from a little picture of a sunset I posted online last night.

Last night I hadn’t even really planned to go out for sunset, it’s the sort of in-between time of year where the coastal locations are finished for the year with sunsets and Calton Hill is the only real obvious choice for an Edinburgh sunset. The problem being though, I’ve been there are done it, many times but that said, with the thin wispy clouds it was obvious this was going to be a cracker of a sunset, no big bank of cloud out to the west to ruin it, just light clouds to carry the light.

Sunset was 6.27pm and I got to Calton at about the same time, I don’t think I even took a shot until near 6.40pm and at that time the light from the sky was still to much for even a stacked 0.9 and 0.6 grad filter to cope with, it was a good 10 minutes later until the light came good. The real good light didn’t come till nearly 40 minutes after the sunset by which time the lights on the Castle were on too.

I left the hillside about 7.20pm with a haul of about 90 shots, mainly sunset views and a few looking into the Leith twilight. Back home looking at the RAW files there was one real standout shot, a shot of the Castle and clock with a real pink sky behind, needed a little work to tease out the detail but overall the base shot was pretty reasonable.

I uploaded the image to Flickr and set out a tweet for it and uploaded to my Real Edinburgh Facebook page at about 9.30pm last night. This is when it all started to get a bit surreal.

The shot picked up some momentum on Twitter, quite a few comments and retweets of the Flickr shot and the views build steadily to over 500 in a little over an hour. Facebook though was going mental.

Within minutes of uploading the shot it had gathered over 100 likes, comments started flooding in, shares were going through the roof and page likes were coming in by the second. In less than 15 minutes the shot had racked up over 1000 likes and nearly 100 shares. I figured it had to slow down soon but it didn’t, and over 14 hours later still hasn’t.

At the time of writing this the shot has merrily skipped past 8000 likes, way over 300 comments and god knows how many shares. Page likes have doubled to over 4000 and continue to rise. The pic has been viewed by over 50,000 people on Facebook.

There is a downside though, I’ve already found a version of the shot ripped off from Flickr on the EA Fifa 13 forums and who knows how many Facebook profiles it now sits on top off. Worse still, how many saved it and passed it off as their own? Quite a few I’ll bet but that’s the perils of sticking stuff out there on the internet, it’s a trade off between getting your work viewed and the thoughtless minority.

I’ve no idea where this is going to go. I’d noticed the page building up some momentum the more likes it picks up but it feels like it’s ran out of control just now. My next post will automatically drop onto the timelines of over 4000 people; I suppose I better watch what I say in future!

One thing you can’t deny though, Facebook is oh so very powerful in this sort of situation. Much more so than any other social media outlet. I never watermark images, but I so wish I had with that one now! Still who knows, if everyone gets 15 minutes of fame maybe that was mine? Pressure now is to keep following it up with shots of equal quality! Not the easiest with the Scottish weather!

Check out the Facebook page: Real Edinburgh on Facebook

And the pic? Here is is…

Sunset of the year, 9 October 2012


Top Edinburgh autumn photography locations

Ah, Autumn, thank god it’s here at last. Whatever it throws at us it can’t be worse than the soggy summer of 2012. In photographic terms at least, the next couple of months are great for getting out with the camera. Sunset and sunrise are at sociable times, nice dark (hoepfully clear skies) and the trees turning those fantastic golden shades.

So here you are in Edinburgh, what’s the hot shots to try out the next couple of months?

Lets kick off with the top sunset location for Autumn in Edinburgh and it’s predictably Calton Hill. At this time of year the sun in heading back towards the Castle at sunset meaning all those fantastic cityscapes can benefit from the full burst of colour from the setting sun.

Calton Hill Sunset 31 August 2010 - Explored

Don’t forget the twilight too from up here, any direction is good, why not try Leith at twilight for something a little different?

Leith Dusk

Sticking with Calton Hill, the just after sunrise the National Mounment will be casting some nice shadows. Get up there early though, too late and the sun will be in the way of the shot.

Unfinished Shadows

Seafront locations are not at their best at this time of year for sunsets but the Cramond causeway can provide a nice sunrise.

Cramond Sunrise

On 5th October, the sunset at high tide at both at exactly 6.31pm, with a 5m tide it’s a perfect night to head out to Belhaven Bay outside Dunbar for the Bridge to Nowhere shot.

The Belhaven Bridge to Nowhere

It’s getting a little late in the year but 8th October might be a good night to try and catch the advancing tide at the Longniddry wreck found just off the number 1 carpark.

Longniddry Sunset - Explored

Nearer the end of October with the moon out the way it might be a good chance to try for the Milky Way before it slinks off for the summer, try the carpark at Harlaw Reservoir about 2 hours after sunset, give your eyes time to adjust and you should see the dense star cloud that forms the band of the Milky Way just off to the south west.

Milky Way at Harlaw 11 September 2012

There’s obvioulsy quite a few fireworks opportunities around November 5th but keep and eye open for the South Queensferry display for a chance to catch them over water.

Fireworks in the Ferry

There might also be a display at the Castle for St Andrews day, though possible not exactly on 30th November and it’s likely to be short display too.

Homecoming Scotland Fireworks Edinburgh - Explored

With the darker nights it’s also a pefect time to try those light trails shots, with Princes Street open again it’s an obvious choice but anywhere with traffic is possible, why not try Holyrood Park about 30 minutes after sunset?

Holyrood X

It’s also a good time to get those star trails shots in, Newhaven lighthouse, is a cold but worthy spot as you can get Polaris in the shot.

Newhaven Star Trails

Hopefully that little lot will give you some ideas for Edinburgh photography over the next few months!


Time to jump off that Nikon ship?

I don’t know when it started but after owning nothing but Nikon DSLR’s since the launch of the original D70 I’m getting itchy feet to explore the wonderful world of Canon. Switching systems is a big move though, as those itchy feet are shuffling nervously as the urge to go for it gets stronger.

So, why the sudden change of heart? Well, it’s certainly not because my Nikon kit isn’t capable. It’s more than capable of anything I throw at it and I’ve got a fair bit of kit built up over the years to cover most eventualities so I’m rarely left floundering in the kit stakes.

I think the real issue is Nikon themselves. Since the launch of the D7000 we’ve had the D4, D800 and now the D600, all full frame and all with a bullock busting £2k+ price tag to match. Below the D7000 we’ve got the aging D90 and entry level D3200 and D5100. That leaves only the now elderly D300s sat alongside the D7000. The range is limiting and when you kit the D7000 the only way up on full frame which I have NO desire to commit to.

Canon through seem to have a myriad of crop sensor models of varying capability topped off by the fantastic 7d. Lens selections on Canon also seem more varied and indeed, better priced from my initial research.

Canon too is far wider supported in terms of astro-photography and the ability to add the Magic Lantern firmware is a rather compelling plus point to me at least. In terms of day to day photography the7d and D7000 seem pretty evenly matched so with switching it seems I have nothing to lose yet might make possible gains, it’s hard to argue against that.

Of course with 2 Nikon DSLR’s and 8 Nikon Lenses it’s not going to be straightforward making the move. I need too sell on my Nikon kit for the absolute best possible return in order to replace it with equivalent Canon kit and may have to sacrifice that handy 2nd body if I went for a 7d.

It’s a dilemma alright. Once you buy into one system that’s usually it, people never switch unless of course they are the type of person that can afford to replace their loo roll with a pile of used £20 notes.

I’ve done a bit of maths regarding potential returns on private sales of the Nikon kit and have a nice shopping list of Canon kit and the 2 just about work out. If I can sell the Nikon then it might well be game on…

Wish me luck.


Basic astro-photography from light polluted areas

This whole astro-photography thing is a pain in the cheeks at times. There I was sat in the cold with the telescope last night, tripping over wires in the dark, cursing the GOTO for not being spot on and finally chucking it all in after 30 minutes because the wind was an even bigger pain and it was impossible to get anything worthwhile at all.

I was this close → ← to chucking the whole lot on Gumtree and packing it in totally. Such was the severity of the huff. Thankfully I didn’t but what it’s taught me is not to attempt this stuff when the conditions aren’t perfect.

Less than perfect conditions though don’t stop you having some fun with a nice clear sky, never mind how windy it is and the even better news is that you can do this stuff with some nice basic photographic gear; this post from here on will be a telescope free zone!

All you’ll need is a camera you can control the exposure on (variable zoom will help too), a tripod and a remote control for the camera or at least one with a self-timer. The hardest part is getting the clear sky but even the odd cloud can add to a shot as long as your intended target is still visible.

To demonstrate what’s easily possible, these 4 shots were taken in central Edinburgh, in light pollution with a Nikon D90 fitted with a Nikon 18-200mm VRII lens.

The technique is simple enough, keep the ISO fairly low, around 400 to 640 otherwise the light pollution will run away with your shot. Exposure times will vary maybe from less than 1s in the case of a planet to a few seconds on a star cluster, even as long as 30s on a wide field shot. The whole idea is to get enough light in to give you the shot but avoid stars trailing to get a decent shot.

Finding interesting targets is your next challenge. The sky just now is best after midnight and even with the moon out the way there’s some nice stuff you can get. After midnight the Pleiades open star cluster will be getting higher in the sky and below it will be the brilliance of Jupiter, a nice photo opportunity, especially if you can include some ground interest to give some perspective.

Jupiter and the Pleiades

The Pleiades itself is a very nice target and fills the frame nicely at nothing more than 200mm. Keep the exposure shorter when you’re zoomed in like this. The diffractions spikes on this shot were added in Photoshop with a plug-in, it’s not the natural look!

The Pleiades Sept 13 2012

Sticking with 200mm try Jupiter as well! You’ll really need a shorter exposure with the planet so bright take a few at differing exposures and you should also be able to pick up the planets moons.

Jupiter 14 Sept 2012

Winter skies usually provide the best targets but at this time of year you can also get the summer triangle, an easily visible triangle of the very bright stars Vega, Altair and Deneb.

Summer Triangle 14 Sept 2012

Light pollution needed be a killer but if you do get a chance to get out under really dark skies you might be lucky enough to catch this, the fabulous sight of the Milky Way rising in the sky above…

Milky Way at Harlaw 11 September 2012


The Astro-Photography frustrations continue…

My aspirations in Astro-photography finally bit the dust last week or at least licked the dust. After a frustrating night attempting to find the Andromeda Galaxy by star hopping, or more like star limping it has to be said I all but packed it all in. All I had to show for 2 hours out with the scope was a sore back and heightened blood pressure. What had I seen? Stars, by the bucket load but I had no idea what I was looking at and therein lay the problem.

I’d bought my scope at entirely the wrong time. I got it as the darkness retreated and potentially even worse; all the planets departed the night-time sky into the early morning. When I first got it a few hours just attempting to image Venus, Jupiter, Mars and the Moon was more than enough to keep me interested. Take all those out the equation and I was left floundering trying to find deep space objects, which in the lighter summer skies was even harder.

So, something has to change. I needed a GOTO mount otherwise I’d never see anything. I also decided the Skywatcher Explorer 200P on the EQ5 wasn’t for me. It took too long to setup, was too big and too heavy and I was already starting to skip clear nights through simple couldn’t be bothered-ness with all the mucking about to get setup.

The solution therefore was to sell the 200P and EQ5 and look for something different and so last week the scope and mount went to live with its new owner and I started a hunt for a replacement. I had decided against the GOTO upgrade for the EQ5 as it wasn’t addressing the issue of the scope size and weight.

I eventually settled on a Celestron Nexstar 5SE on the full GOTO Alt-Az mount. I know the Alt-Az isn’t the best for photography but its fine for me just now and the mount has a basic built in wedge. I won’t be doing any minute’s long exposures but I should be able to get something out of it. At F10 nowhere near as fast as the 200P at F5 but it’ll suffice for what I want to do initially. What’s important here is I get a scope that easy to handle and easy to setup so I can learn. Any images I can get that come along will be a bonus. In fact, when Jupiter come back to the night sky it might even be better than the 200P.

The new scope arrived yesterday and I have to say from first impressions I’m very pleased with it. The whole package seems better built than the Skywatcher stuff. The stock 25mm plossil eyepiece is nice and bright and much better than the Skywatcher 25mm item.

Setup was easy enough, as was the align once I realised I had my position set at Louisiana USA, not Edinburgh, Scotland and I actually got to see some stuff! My align was far from perfect just using a 2 star align but I did find the Double Cluster, Ring Nebula and Great Cluster in Hercules, a massive improvement on what had gone before.

Sadly dew was a major issue and I didn’t have a dew shield fitted which ended the session earlier than I would have liked so I never hooked up the camera but that’s now sorted and I’ll have the D7000 hanging off the scope at the first opportunity next time around.

In a true Astro-photography sense I’ve taken a step back but in doing so I’ve rekindled interest and that above all is what’s important. It’s pointless having a million pound setup if you can’t be bothered to use it. They say the best scope you’ll have is the one you use and for now at least, I’ll be using the 5SE at every opportunity!

I’ll leave you with a few shots from last night, none of these where through the 5SE after the dew got to it, these were all with my D7000 fitted to a Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 and 2x tele, Samyang 500mm reflector lens or my mates Skywatcher Explorer 200PDS on an HEQ5 Pro mount.

Full Moon with Skywatcher 200PDS 2 Aug 2012
Moon with a Nikon D7000 and Skywatcher Explorer 200PDS

Full Moon with 70-200mm 2 August 2012
Moon with a Nikon D7000 and a Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 and 2x tele

Full Moon with Samyang 500mm Reflector 2 August 2012
Moon with a Samyang 500mm reflector lens

Ring Nebula Skywatcher 200PDS 2 August 2012
Ring Nebula with a Nikon D7000 and Skywatcher Explorer 200PDS

Hercules Cluster Skywatcher 200PDS 2 Aug 2012
M13, the Great globular cluster in Hercules with a Nikon D7000 and Skywatcher Explorer 200PDS


Photo Mo-Jo No-No

It’s gone beyond funny now.

Seriously, the Scottish summer has put a major dampener on my enthusiasm for photography this year. There’s only so many pictures you can take of rain soaked Edinburgh before it gets very long in the tooth indeed. I done a blog post a wee while back about not letting the rain put you off, that’s fine when you get occasional rain but not constant heavy rain!

I’ve never done a landscape shot for weeks, what’s the point? I don’t need any more shots of Edinburgh with dull grey skies and the camera gear isn’t all that keen on being wet all the time.

I’ve never done an astro shot since I don’t know when. What’s the point? Nearly total and constant cloud cover has all but stopped that particular pleasure and the telescope lies gathering dust having only had one brief spell of use in the last 6 weeks or so. Nearly every visible phase of the moon has been blocked by it being too low to see over the house or more often, thick cloud. Saturn has all but gone and I’ve no confidence at all in being able to see the Jupiter/Moon occulation this weekend at all.

I can’t get a clear shot at the sun either, we see a faint glow now and again but it’s not enough to get any sunspot detail.

Normally I spend a lot of time in summer down by the Botanic Gardens, not this year. My style of floral photography usually involves unusual angles etc, and lying in wet and mud to get a shot it’s really my idea of fun so that particular pleasure has gone for now too.

Macro shots in the woods are out, I usually combine it with walking the dog but there’s so much mud the dog gets caked and it’s a total pain.

All I seem to have done for weeks on end is macro insect shots from things I find in the garden, there just doesn’t seem much point doing anything else. It was a brief bit of interest chasing the flooding around Edinburgh at the weekend getting pics but that too involved being wet for nearly the whole day, caked in mud and there’s a sore throat in the post too.

Roll on autumn and winter and some decent photography weather!


Garden Safari Photography

Summer is a time of mixed emotions for me. Sure, the nicer (!) weather is welcome and overall more pleasing temperatures but it’s also a time I ease off on any landscape photography. The daylight is harsh, the sunrise is too early, the sunset is too late and let be honest here, it does rain a lot in a typical Scottish summer. That’s why every year around June to August my attention turns mainly to macro photography.

The summer months are bumper months for macro lens usage, more flowers about and in turn, more insects which are my principal targets for close up shots. Living in Edinburgh with the Botanic Gardens just a 15 minute drive away is pretty fortunate, especially for floral stuff but it’s amazing what you can find with a little wander around your garden or any nearby grassy/bushy area.

Insect life in particular is rife at this time of year and if you know where to look then you’ll have a myriad of subjects close at hand. I have a particular patch in my back garden where some wildflowers grow; I leave this deliberately as every summer it’s teaming with potential macro subjects but any bush or even hedge if you look close enough will turn up some interesting beasties.

Flies are the most abundant. Approach your chosen area with caution, keep back and just look. I mean, really look. You’ll almost certainly find some flies, particularly evening, while the sun in still up but not as hot as earlier in the day. Most flies are quite tolerant of an approach as long as you are stealthy and don’t rush in on them. Set the camera up well away from your target and move in slowly. Using a macro lens I like to find the subject in the viewfinder from far out and slowly move in increasing the magnification until I’m at full 1:1 on the lens. Now gently move until the subject in focus, you might have to rock back and forward a bit to get it, microscopic movements but as soon as you see focus in the viewfinder, take the shot.

Even with a flash you might be lucky enough to get a few goes at this. Using a ring flash and a setting of around f16 greatly helps with the depth of field and getting any sort of focus at all. Always focus on the eyes, if only one part of your shot in sharp you want it to be the eyes.

If your subject flies off, just pull back slowly and scan the immediate area, they don’t always move far at all. Hoverflies are particularly good as they will fly off and seconds later come back to exactly that same spot so don’t abandon immediately unless you find another target to try.

Other good places to look are as simple as the grass, you’ll often find insect life on a daisy and indeed any plant of any sort is worth checking out. Try to look for surfaces that have warmed up during the day. Wheelie bin lids, car roofs and plastic garden furniture are all spots where flies sit and funnily enough, clothes lines and pegs are places I’ve found loads in the past.

Other things like spiders like little hidey holes, try windowsill outsides, clothes poles, vegetation near a wall and you never know what will turn up.

In 5 minutes outside on a dull night I managed to photograph a few flies, a spider and a ladybird all less than 20ft from my front door. You really don’t need to travel far for macro photography, just stay where you are and eventually it’ll come to you!

All shots taken with a Nikon D7000, Sigma f2.8 105mm EX DG Macro and Marumi ring flash.

Spider Eyes

Ladybird3

Ladybird1

Fly


Photographing the sun with standard photographic equipment

The sun, the giver of life on this planet and so important to photography. It provides the natural light photographers crave after but it’s a subject in itself that few other than astrophotographers ever attempt. Loads of people will have a crack at photographing the moon but few will take on the dangers of the sun but it’s not as hard as you might think even with some standard photographic equipment.

Of course, using a telescope with a solar film filter or a dedicated solar scope will provide the best results but you can still capture those sunspots with possibly, what you have already.

Before we proceed though, a warning. Photographing the sun is dangerous, I cannot stress this enough. Blindness can occur in seconds and photographic equipment can be ruined just as quickly but proceeding with some caution you can minimise risks and catch pictures of the surface of the closest star to Earth. I accept no responsibility for any lack of sight or melted cameras that may result from the following, you try this at your own risk.

OK? Not freaked you out? Let’s get started!

Firstly you will need:

DSLR camera (preferably)
As big a lens as you have (I use a Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 and 2x tele giving 400mm)
Tripod
At least one 10 stop photographic filter or enough filtration to get as much as 10 stops.

The 10 stop filter is essential. If you don’t have one, can’t get access to one or can’t replicate with other filters DO NOT proceed. Some filter sets come with 3 standard ND filters, 0.9, 0.6 and 0.3 which stacked will give you 6 stops, which is NOT ENOUGH but if you can add others in there to get to 10 stops on you go.

For extra safety I like to shoot with the DSLR tethered to my MacBook pro using the Nikon only Sofortbild software to control the camera but you can get away with a standard remote control on the camera, it’s just not quite as easy.

To get started, mount your camera on the tripod and add the 10 stop filter to the lens, set your focus to infinity and using the live view feature on your camera or laptop preview, locate the sun. Once you have it, cover the lens to stop heat build up. Now, switch on Exposure delay mode if your camera has it, close the lens up as much as you can, f22 or higher, I use f32 on my own setup. You should be in manual exposure mode, so set your exposure to as high as it will go, typically around 1/4000th and your ISO as low as it will go, typically ISO100.

Now, you’re good to go, uncover the lens, take the shot and cover the lens again. Now you can check what you have. You should have a white-ish disc, sunlight is white not yellow and if sunspots are visible then there will be darker areas on the disc. From here you can adjust exposure to get the best possible shot but DO NOT exposure for any length of time, keep the exposures in the region of thousandths on seconds, you do not need to go any higher at all.

If no sunspots are visible it may be that the side of the sun facing us has no activity on it at the moment, check http://www.space-weather.com for an up to date listing of active visible sunspots. If there are sunspots and you cannot see them on the shot you may be overexposing, dial in a faster shutter or up the f setting to as high a number as it will go and try again.

All going well, this is what you should end up with:
Sun 28 April 2012

The darker dots are the sunspots. I’ve also added a little false colour to make the shot look a little more like what people expect the sun to be.

It’s possible using http://www.space-weather.com to identify the sunspots and label these up on your shot.

Solar disc 14 May 2012

Solar Disc 21 May 2012

That’s all there is to it, it’s not that difficult with some pretty normal bits of photo equipment and take the proper precautions and you’ll be fine. Do please remember though, never look at the sun through the camera viewfinder, even with the filter on place and never leave your camera focused on it for long periods of time. Have some respect for the subject and you’ll be fine and get a shot of something not that many ever attempt.


This astro stuff DOES get easier, slightly…

Equatorial mounts, Newtonian reflectors, refractors, registax, counterweights, polar alignment, autostakkert, wavelets, webcams, tracking motors, collimation, Saturn, Venus, avi’s, sharpcap… Astro photography, it’s enough to put you off just thinking about the bewildering array of stuff to learn. What the hell are those things, where are they, what do they do, how do I use them? Well, with a little perseverance it DOES get a bit easier.

Take the telescope and mount to start with. When I first got it I had no idea what I was doing, Even now the EQ5 mount seems more like an instrument of mental torture than something to mount a telescope on but I am getting used to how it works. I’ve never attempted an accurate polar alignment yet mainly due to how late it is in summer until I can see Polaris but even a rough alignment is enough to get you moving. Simply set your latitude on the mount, 55 degrees for Edinburgh point the North leg funnily enough North and make sure the mount is level. It’s not perfect but it’ll allow you a go at some planetary imaging at least.

Just doing the above steps I’ve found that it’s adequate enough to keep a planet in the field of view for ages with the tracking motors engaged. It wouldn’t be any use at all for imaging deep space objects but for now, for planets and moon its working ok.

The tracking motors too came with the vaguest of instructions, now though I’m confident enough to find my target, lock the clutches and start the tracking and it works fine.

So, as I’d got hold of a Philips SPC900 webcam, all ready to be used with the scope and the skies had cleared it was time to give this planetary imaging a shot.

There’s not a lot of targets at this time of year, Venus is rapidly heading for its appointment with the Sun in June and Jupiter is long gone is the twilight sky. Saturn is getting higher and Mars to be honest has never been my favourite subject so Venus and Saturn were to be the targets.

When I setup, only Venus was visible in a still twilight sky. I can’t wait till dark as it’ll be lost behind the neighbourhood roofs. It’s so easy to locate in a twilight sky and the crescent shape is very visible in the scope and it’s quite a thin crescent now too. After centering Venus in the eyepiece I slipped in the 2x Barlow and made sure it was centered and then switched to the webcam.

Luckily for me, Venus was still there with the webcam and using the free capture software, SharpCap I was able to get it centered on the camera and adjust the settings till I got a clear view. I got a couple of short captures with the webcam until Venus was lost to the shed roof. I then ran the avi file through another free bit of software, Autostakkert which stacked the best frames from the movie.

The resulting image was saved as a TIFF and then opened in Registax 6 where you can adjust the wavelets. I have no idea what a wavelet is but it certainly works and greatly brings out the image detail and sharpness. I then finally opened the image in Photoshop CS5 for some final tweaks and this was the end result.
Venus 19 May 2012 Cropped

A million times better than I’ve managed with the DSLR, the webcams much smaller sensor gives a much bigger final image which in turn lets you get more detail. Using a webcam also lets you capture those microseconds of clarity through the atmosphere where the viewing is at its clearest and the stacking software puts all these together to get your final image. It takes a bit of getting your head around but it does work!

Saturn was next up and this was the AVI file I processed to get to the final image:

It’s probably way too long but after processing this in the same way as the Venus image I got to this final shot.

Saturn 19 May 2012

Which is a vast improvement on my best with the D90 attached to the telescope:

Saturn

As you can see, there’s a lot more detail in the stacked image, some colour too.

For a first shot with this style of imaging I’m pretty pleased especially as the seeing was pretty bad. There’s a lot of room for improving especially with the software end all of which I’ve hardly even scratched the surface of yet. I also need to get hold of a quality 5x Barlow lens to get a larger image. Lots to do, I just a few more clear nights!


Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s SUPERMOON!

Supermoon fever seemed to grip the online communities on Saturday night. Twitter was buzzing with it as people who would normally pay no interest in our nearest celestial neighbour peered upwards trying to see if the moon was indeed 14% bigger than usual and 30% brighter as the news websites reported. Of course if you hadn’t seen the moon for a few months then suddenly caught it on Saturday it would have looked different, if you look for it all the time you didn’t see much since the move to a big moon is gradual and not all at once.

The Supermoon, or perigee moon, is not a once in a lifetime occurrence as the media would have us believe, it actually happens a few times a year as the moon’s orbit gets closer to Earth and then ebbs away again, it’s just some are closer than others, this year’s wasn’t as close as the March one last year but it was still impressive.

With the moon’s latest close approach to Earth the timing wasn’t great with regards to the moonrise time still falling in daylight. The moon came up over the horizon from Edinburgh at 20.37 and to that ends I was stood on Blackford Hill with a good view to the South East with a Nikon D7000, Sigma 200mm f2.8, 2xtele and photographic tripod and the MacBook pro so I could try some tethered shots. However, as with all good astro plans the weather got in the way dumping a low bank of cloud on the horizon spoiling the fun. The sky was still very light too so gave up and went home in a huff.

It didn’t take too long though for the moon to get over that cloud bank and around an hour after moonrise I got my first shot at it from home. Sadly, it was so low I had to shoot from the front garden in-between passing Lothian Buses double deckers and glaring sodium streetlights. This was shot tethered to the MacBook pro with Sofortbild which lets you get a real handle on the focus, the golden glow of the low moon still very evident.

Supermoon 5th May 2012

Remember those buses I had to try and avoid, I didn’t manage it every time…

About an hour later with the moon higher in the sky I tried again, not tethered this time due to where I had to stand to get the shot (half way up the neighbours stair to avoid a telephone cable). The golden glow has lessened but there’s more contrast and detail.

Supermoon 2 5th May 2012

It might have just been imagination but even at midnight the sky still looked almost twilight to the south with that moon shining so brightly.

The following night with a later moon rise and more cloud about I wasn’t hopeful of anything at all but it did peek out from between the houses over the road very low down and very orange. Pretty impressive even though it wasn’t a “Supermoon” any longer.

Not quite so supermoon

The reality here is that any phase of the moon, near or far is a delight to photograph. Despite it being the same subject it’s a challenging subject to get right and atmospherics and cloud play their part too. It’s probably my favourite photographic object and it’s not out of reach for those even with basic photographic equipment. Supermoon or not, give it a try on the next clear day, daylight, twilight or night time it’s always worth a go.


The Astrophotography learning curve begins…

I wouldn’t call what I’ve been doing up until know as “actual” astrophotography. Sure, I’ve been snapping away at all manner of astro related subjects, planets, moons, sun, star clusters, conjunctions, earthshine, aurora, milky way, ISS to name but a few but it’s all been done on a photographic tripod and with the restrictions that brings. Not that it hasn’t been highly enjoyable, it has and it was quite cool to get into this utilising the camera kit I already had but I really wanted to get deeper into the hobby.

With that in mind I started to seriously look at getting a telescope around February. What I found though was an utterly bewildering array of kit on offer that made my head spin every time I looked at it. I spent hour pouring over telescopes on Amazon having to go off and Google all manner of things. What the hell was an alt-az mount, en EQ mount, what’s the difference from an EQ2 to an EQ6, focal lengths, aperture, motor drives and what’s this? Using a webcam???

It was too much to take in initially and with a fear of buying crap I backed off and bought nothing. I put the thoughts of telescopes out my head totally and thought about getting hold of a Sigma 150-500mm lens instead. Coupled with the 2x it would make it a 1000mm lens and I’d have other uses for a lens that size but then by chance I spotted a 2nd hand Meade 4504 telescope on an EQ mount for £80 for sale locally.

The Meade was a disappointment and a revelation at the same time. When I got it home on closer inspection it had had a hard life. The mount wasn’t working properly; it couldn’t be locked in place at all. The motor drives didn’t function either but the OTA was fine. I couldn’t get the camera to focus with it either so I sold it on quickly. What it did do though was take my breath away when I simply used it for observing. From that first night when I properly used it and saw Jupiter and its moons, Saturn and the Orion nebula I knew I had to get something better.

It took another few months of research until I fully understood what I needed. I had a rough budget of £500 and had to get the best from that I could. Initial plans for a Skymax 127 Mak on a GOTO alt-az where discounted when I realised that the alt-az would be great for getting going fast but it would end up frustrating me. No, I had to do this right. It had to be a heavy EQ mount; it seemed pointless going for anything else if I was going to try this properly.

Finally I settled on a Skywatcher Explorer 200P, an 8″ Newtonian reflector sat on an EQ5 mount. It gave me a nice mixture of sturdy EQ mount and a decent sized telescope. At £400 it wasn’t cheap and the SynScan goto version would have bust the budget by a lot so I also got the Skywatcher dual drive motors for the EQ5, all in just under the £500 budget.


Not the best pic, I’ll get better soon but it gives the idea!

Setup, it’s huge and pretty heavy. It’s certainly not a scope you’ll drag out for a quick 5 minutes viewing but I’m safe in the knowledge I’ve got kit that’s capable, once I know how to use it, to deliver what I want. Coming into summer there wasn’t a worse time to buy such an item but I hope to use the next few light months to get to grips with the new toy, learn that EQ mount and get used to the software that goes with astrophotography so when the winter rolls in again I’m prepared and ready to really start learning to image properly.

I’m in this for the long term now, prepared for the fact that it’s going to be a long and at time frustrating learning curve but I’m looking forward to it. If Edinburgh ever clears a clear night again I might even get my first shot of the moon through a telescope.

Here’s a quick artists impression of how I expect the sky over Edinburgh to look for the foreseeable future…

Keep following this blog for the forthcoming astrophotography related highs and more likely lows!


Sigma and a tale of excellent service

When I bought my D7000 I swore I would never buy another Sigma lens. It’s not the best when you get a nice new camera body and find issues with your lenses working with it which will always be an issue with 3rd party manufacturers.

Curiously, my Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 EX HSM which is now over 10 years old worked perfectly. However I lost AF in live view on my 10-20mm superwide but that wasn’t something that bothered me as that lens is nearly always MF only and I rarely ever use live view either.

The big problems started with my 28-300mm which was seen by the camera but just didn’t function at all. In the end I sold the lens on as I wasn’t that keen on it anyway but the real issue came with my Sigma 105mm f2.8 EX DG macro. Now, I love this lens. Every summer I cast off the shackles of landscape photography and delve head on into the wonderful world of plants and insects with the macro lens. It’s used a lot. The problem was though that the D7000 simply refused to even see the lens.

To say this hacked me off was an understatement. Sure, I still had my D90 where it worked perfectly but this lens was less than 3 years old and didn’t work with the new kit. I was so hacked off by this that when I was looking for a new mid range lens I totally discounted any Sigma product and went the extra mile for a Nikon 18-200mm VRII as hey, it’s a Nikon lens, and it’ll work for ever no matter what body I buy in future. Sure, it’s expensive but it won’t ever be obsolete.

Luckily though, Sigma DG products come with a 3 year warranty. No problem, send back to Sigma with the proof of purchase and they’ll re-chip it. Problem. No proof of purchase. I had bought it nearly 3 years ago and had no idea where the receipt would be. I phoned Jessops as I had bought the lens along with my D90 there and they couldn’t help. I emailed Jessops customer service and they did manage to locate a duplicate copy for me but when it arrived the date on the receipt was the day they had ran off the copy, not the original date of purchase.

I emailed Sigma again, expressing my displeasure that a less than 3 year old lens wasn’t working and explaining the proof of purchase issue. I had an email back asking me to phone their service supervisor which I did. In the end Sigma, with no persuasion needed offered to re-chip the lens in an act of goodwill even with no proof of purchase, something they didn’t have to do.

The lens was sent recorded delivery to Sigma in the UK and in only 5 days over a weekend too it arrived back re-chipped and cleaned too. Stuck on the D7000 and it worked like a dream. So there you go, in this day and age when the consumer now expects to be shafted silly there are sill a few companies out there giving decent service. My faith in the Sigma brand is restored and I wouldn’t hesitate to buy Sigma again, I always felt they were better built than the more expensive Nikon lenses anyway.

Now, my less than 2 year old original iPad can’t run some apps and it cost more than the lens did. Wonder what Apple’s response would be if I asked them to upgrade it?


Moon shots with a tethered DSLR

One of the things that really frustrates me about photographing the moon is getting the camera settings right. OK, it’s not that big a deal but every time you touch a big zoom lens to make an adjustment there’s a degree of shake introduced, even with exposure delay set to on there’s still a chance the camera won’t have settled by the time you take a shot. It’s tempting when experimenting with exposures on a subject like the moon just to quickly change the shutter speed and hit the remote, especially if there’s cloud in the equation where exposure times can change from second to second. What you invariably get are shots that look ok on the preview but on closer inspection are slightly blurred. No good to anyone.

The solution I’ve found, where it’s convenient anyway, is to tether the camera to a laptop. Most modern DSLR’s should be capable of being controlled remotely from a laptop and there’s a range of freeware out there to help you along. For this example I’m using Sofortbild on a MacBook Pro tethered to my Nikon D7000.

Here’s a pic of the setup with a bonus can of beer in the background…

When connected to the laptop the camera show’s this on its top screen and all settings are now changeable directly from the app window on the Mac.

Sofortbild is a Nikon only Mac based app but there’s stacks of options out there for all models. Other than the laptop and software all I needed was a mini-USB to USB cable. I bought a 5m one from eBay for less than £2. This lets me have a certain freedom from the camera, i.e. I can sit in the car with the laptop or in my shed etc. Sounds like overkill but when the winter comes around and the temperatures drop I’ll be the one sat with a heater on taking pics from the garden shed!

In this example I’m setup on a photographic tripod but it would be fine with the camera connected to a telescope or piggybacked. The downside to the photographic tripod is no tracking so you do have to keep adjusting it to keep the moon in view.

With the setup done in Sofortbild there’s a live view option so I can see what the live view screen on the camera will see although, bigger on the laptop screen. You can zoom in on this too so you can really nail that focus. Much easier than peering at the 3″ screen on the back of the DSLR.

With optimum focus in place now you can take a shot. Within seconds the final image, not a preview, is viewable within the app, you can zoom in and carefully check exposure and focus with much more accuracy than you ever could on the camera preview screen. If you need to adjust all the settings are there in drop down menu’s easily accessible and more importantly, you are never touching the camera at all. Even at 400mm the moon takes a couple of minutes to travel through the FOV so you have a good few opportunities at settings before you’ll have to adjust the camera’s position.

With Sofortbild I can also set it to auto import into iPhoto where I catalogue all my RAW files. All shots are stored on your laptop not on the memory cards which for me is a win situation. At the end of the day all the shots will end up on the MacBook for processing anyway so it cuts out a step of my workflow process.

I’ve certainly found this a cheap and highly functional alternative to using a normal camera remote. It might not be suitable in all conditions but if you can use it it will provide benefits the traditional methods won’t. For the outlay of an extra long USB cable it’s transformed the way I’ll be taking astro pics in the future and it’s yet another part of the astro photography learning process ticked off!

Here are a few shots of the moon taking with this method.

This is a blend of 3 exposures blended in Photomatix Pro.
HDR Moon 28 April 2012

Moon in a twilight sky
Moon in a twilight sky

And just to finish with, here’s a shot of the solar disc taken with the same method and setup with the inclusion of a 10 stop filter on the lens.
Sun 28 April 2012


Adapting to the conditions, photography in the rain

]It’s been a funny old couple of weeks weather wise in Scotland. We’ve gone from sitting in the garden in shorts and t-shirt to snow, hail, torrential rain and even thunder and lightning. One thing about the Scottish climate, it certainly keeps you on your toes.

It’s been a very mixed bag for me photography wise. On one hand for astrophotography I want totally clear skies but for landscape I’d prefer a cloudy sky or at least some clouds in the sky. Clouds give you options, slow the exposure down and you can streak the clouds, or if you’re lucky enough to get huge high contrast clouds it can give a shot real drama. Clouds also help a sunset along no end; a slightly cloudy sky will always yield a better sunset than a clear sky will.

The last couple of days though have been really challenging, mainly due to the one thing that can stop play. Rain. Rain can be a real pain in the back end, water on the camera gear isn’t usually desirable although less of an issue with weatherproofed DSLR’s. It’s entirely possible to get some decent shots in rain though, you just need to adapt to the conditions. Remember too, rain can also come with extreme weather and nothing makes a better shot than extreme weather!

Certainly though, rain will stop you using filters, unless you want to sit cloning out rain drops on your shots for days on end. In these conditions I find it best to go simple. Shoot handheld, with the lens hood on and just bring the camera out when you want to take a shot. Balancing exposures will of course be an issue but there’s another weapon at your disposal here. HDR.

There, I said it. That dirty photography word, HDR. “Stone him” I hear you all cry. But wait! Why not? I’ve hardly used HDR for the last 18 months but the last couple of days it’s been a useful style to adopt. HDR is really down to personal taste but if done tastefully then I can’t see any reason why not? A bad shot will still look like a pile of poo in HDR but a good shot can look particularly pleasing if done properly.

My bad weather method of shooting HDR is as follows.

1. Low as ISO as you can, HDR always works better with a low ISO, I try to stick to ISO200 or lower.
2. Shoot 3 bracketed shots for everything, +2, 0 and -2ev. Most DSLR’s have an auto bracketing feature.
3. Turn on your high speed drive and if you have it vibration reduction, image stabilization or whatever it’s called on your camera.
4. Frame the shot, focus and press the shutter until you hear all 3 shots rattled off.

It’ll take about as long as a blink of the eye and you should have 3 shots, sharp, bracketed and not that far off the same position. Use features matching in Photomatix when you’re combining the exposures and you should be fine.

I like to bump up the contrast in Photoshop of HDR shots after the tone mapping is finished; I feel it gives a cleaner look with more tonal depth. Tone mapped images can look a little bland to me and bumping up the contrast finishes off a shot how I like it.

While you’re getting your shots though, do try to keep the lens pointed down when you’re not shooting and keep a close eye open for rain drops on the front lens element. They might not be that noticeable on the preview screen but they’ll be the cause of much wailing and gnashing of teeth if you find them once the pics are downloaded.

These shots were all taken in rain the last 2 days using a Nikon D7000 and Nikon 18-200mm VRII lens. All are 3 exposures combined in Photomatix Pro 4 and finished in Photoshop.

Forth Bridge in the Rain

Storm Clouds over the Bridge

Pier and Bridge

Crags to Calton Hill


Stars, Planets, Snow, Hail and Wind!

One thing about Astro-photography, you’re totally at the mercy of the weather. No matter what’s going on in the night sky, you can only see it if the clouds let you see it. There’s nothing you can do about it other than cross your fingers and hope that as darkness falls the skies clear. Which predictably they don’t 9 times out of 10. The conjunction of Venus and Jupiter last month being a perfect example. The night the 2 planets were at their closest in the sky thick cloud hung about all night over Edinburgh spoiling the celestial display.

With the weather rollercoaster central Scotland was experiencing yesterday I held out little hope of even seeing, let along photographing 2 meetings of night sky objects last night. All afternoon the weather swung from heavy snow/hail showers to broken cloud and back again. As the twilight approached this was still the case so getting anything was going to take timing and a hefty dose of luck.

With this in mind, I set up the camera and tripod in the garden shed. This is the kit I’ve been using until I finally get my telescope. It’s a Nikon D7000, fitted with a Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 EX HSM and 2x tele converter which gives me a 400 f5.6 lens, 600mm on the Nikon crop sensor. The D7000 is fitted with a Hahnel Giga T Pro remote receiver so I can use the powerful IR remote to trigger the camera. Exposure delay mode is on the try and minimise any shake. At 400mm the slightest movement will be obvious, more so when the subject is many thousands of light years away.

The first object to try for was the conjunction of the planet Venus and the Pleiades open star cluster, also known as M45 or the Seven Sisters. Venus has been steadily getting closer this month and on April 3rd it was sat right on the edge of the cluster to our view. 400mm fills the frame nicely and even though M45 wasn’t visible in the twilight sky, the camera could see it. There was just the small issue of the passing torrential hail shower to wait out first. As the dirty ominous clouds passed I got my first few shots at the target which was made difficult with a biting strong wind. 18″ long lens setups and strong winds don’t go too well together.

So, high ISO of 1600 and 1s exposure to try and keep the stars as dots rather than oblongs and the full 400mm was the order of the day. The wind affected a lot of shots but this was the pick of the bunch. Venus is of course very bright and the star cluster much dimmer, so I exposed for the stars and let Venus appear as an attractive starburst. Exposing for Venus would leave the stars not visible at all.

Venus Pleiades M45 3 April 2012

This shot was taken later on in the night with a darker sky and the 2x teleconverter removed to try and combat some of the “wind wobble”. ISO1600, 200mm and f5.6, 0.8s exposure time.

Venus Pleiades M45 April 3 2012 2

The 2nd object of the night was the close proximity of the Moon to Mars and the star Regulus forming a celestial triangle in the constellation of Leo. The clouds hadn’t parted at all over this part of the sky and it took a while to get any hope of photographing it. With the 2x tele removed due to the distance between the objects around 9.45pm the clouds moved and I got my first shot at the Moon. The final shot had to be a blend of 2 shots, one for the Moon and one for the planet and star. To expose for the very bright Moon left Mars and Regulus nearly invisible, to expose for Mars and Regulus burned out the moon totally and worse still caused huge lens flares.

Moon Mars Regulus in Leo

As the clouds rolled over again the final shot of the night was a closer shot of the moon with the clouds looking all atmospheric. ISO800 at 400mm, f5.6 and 1/25th exposure time done the damage. It’s hard to get decent focus with clouds moving over the moon so I consider this a fairly lucky shot.

Cloudy Moon 3 April 2012

An enjoyable, if cold, night but hammers home the need for a telescope again, even just for tracking purposes it would be invaluable. I’ve pretty much decided on a Skywatcher Explorer 150p Newtonian on an EQ3-2 mount which I’ll fit with the optional motor drives. Hopefully I’ll have it soon when the real fun and steep learning curve will start.


First tentative steps with Astrophotography

Well, I knew it was going to happen. This tale kicks off back in early December when I made my first ever attempt at a star-trail image, it never happened that night as cloud rolled in but I did get a natty shot of the Forth Bridge and the Big Dipper next to it in the sky. That was the start of the near obsession with the night sky.

Winter is a difficult time for me photographically, especially a winter with little or no snow like this year. Sunsets are difficult, due to working when the sun in setting and the position of the winter sunset is tricky in Edinburgh to so I typically resort to night-time shots and to be honest, I get a bit fed up with photographing the city at night so I needed something new. That something new turned out to be the oldest thing I could photograph, our universe.

Since that night I’ve progressed though star-trails, photographing star fields, the Milky Way, the planets the ISS and anything else astro related I could manage with my current photography equipment but I still lacked one thing, mega zoom!

I needed a telescope. So I bought one for the exorbitant fee of £30 from Jessops. Now, I didn’t expect much from a £30 Jessops junior telescope with a 50mm front on it. What I didn’t reckon for was how bad it actually was. This spindly thing was dreadful and nearly put me off a telescope all together. It was so frustrating to use. I went off the idea since then and started looking at a Sigma 150-500mm lens instead, which combined with my Sigma 2x teleconverter would have gave me a 1000mm lens, 1500mm on the crop sensor. To be honest I’d have bought this but I lacked the £800 or so I needed to get one.

Then Gumtree happened. Up popped a Meade 4504 114mm Newtonian Reflector and motor-driven equatorial mount. The usual Googling was done and off I went to see it. As soon as I laid eyes on it I knew I was buying it. It was huge and that’s what matters right? £80 paid and off I went with my bazooka sized new toy. Satisfyingly filling the boot and back seat of the Mondeo it looked perfect, there was even a camera adapter with it. Glorious up close moon shots were just around the corner, or so I thought.

If you’ve never used a telescope on an Equatorial mount before then you are well unprepared for how difficult it is to get the thing pointing where you want it to. Then when you discover that your 2nd hand bargain has had a harder life than you first thought the bubble slowly starts to burst. Over the next 2 days I discovered that the mount won’t lock in place, a real pain, once you located an object it requires little more than a gnats fart to move the scope and lose the object. Not that bad with the moon but a real bollock ache with the planets.

No matter thinks I, it’s got a motor drive that’ll fix the problem! 10, yes 10 AA batteries later and the motor drive whirred into action. It works, yes. But wait, shouldn’t the mount actually move when I tell it to? Scratch that, it doesn’t work. So, I now have this massive malfunctioning telescope sat in my shed, the wife wont let me keep it in the living room. To be fair, it’s that heavy I don’t really want to carry it from the house to garden to use, 8ft out the shed is much better so there it lives under an old blanket.

Much as I was disappointed by the mount I still figured I could at least get some moon shots with this setup. That’s when I got a stark lesson in focal lengths of telescopes. No matter what I do I cannot get the D90 to focus when attached to the telescope, either using the prime focus or eyepiece projection methods. It seems as if the camera is too far from the telescope mirror. I tried every combination but nothing worked. I’ve since read that using a 2x Barlow lens might correct the issue, I’ve got one of them so that’ll be the test for tonight.

All in, it’s been a frustrating and disappointing experience so far, I didn’t expect to jump right in and be photographing details on Saturn or distant galaxies from day 1 but I had hoped at least for a sharp shot of the moon filling the frame. I’m treating this as part of the learning curve for now, I had similar issues when I first delved into proper long exposure photography but with a little dedication I did get there in the end.

But, and there has to be a but. This post sounds fairly negative, it’s not been the best of experiences but there has been a massive positive. Even with the scope not perfect, I’ve managed to observe the moon really close up, right into individual craters and even a view of the moon on the lowest magnification is awesome, it’s so sharp. A truly breathtaking sight. If that wasn’t enough I’ve also observed Jupiter and close enough in to pick out the moons and the coloured bands around the planet. Something which amazed my youngest son too. I’ve also seen Saturn and the rings around the planet, a sight so awesome it’s hard to describe. When you think about the distances involved in where these objects are its mind boggling.

Even if this telescope never takes a picture for the views I’ve had so far it’s been worth it alone. I’ve seen things that relative to the amount of people on the planet, few have seen. I get fairly awestruck seeing historic landmarks you’ve only heard about of seen pictures off, places like the unfinished cathedral in Barcelona, the leaning tower of Pisa, Pompeii to name a few but seeing Jupiter and Saturn? That’s quite a special feeling and one you can get from your back garden with an £80 investment.


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