Archive for September, 2012

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.

Advertisements

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


Another one of those mixed Astro-photography nights

Ah, the dark nights are coming and for once I’m over the moon about it. Dark nights and colder days mean longer dark clear nights with means longer to check out the celestial displays above. I’d always viewed the summer nights are preparation for the winter when I’d really be able to get into the astro-photography and after what seems like the worst summer in living memory it’s just about upon us.

For once Edinburgh had a rare happening. A weekend night with a clear sky. Normally the sky clears when I’ve got to be up at half 6 in the morning so it was nice to see it on a Saturday night for a change. So, out went the scope about 9.15 to cool down, this time, I was going to do everything right.

I even had a go at EQ aligning the NexStar SE5. This telescope has a built in basic wedge (I mean really basic but it’s better than not having one!). The alignment process seemed like something from the Krypton Factor but thanks to this blog (http://astroadventures.wordpress.com/) I found I was able to figure it out and it’s not really that hard!

So, with scope levelled, aligned and the precise GOTO working while the sky was getting darker I let my nephew play about with the skytour on the handset, you have to encourage potential young astronomers don’t you?

Encourage maybe but little did I realise what the half hour of near constant slewing of the scope was about to do. All was well until we homed in on M57, the Ring Nebula. There it was nice and clear. Camera onto the visual back, couple of shortish exposures to get the focus and all was good. Started ramping up the exposure times with the D7000 tethered to my MacBook, even better I was getting 30s exposures with no trailing and loads of stars so I set the MacBook to keep taking shots and walked away and left it.

5 shots in I noticed a problem. Those nice stars were more like lines, not just elongated stars, lines! What the hell? Figuring a possible alignment issue I realigned the scope and pointed towards the Double Cluster in Perseus. Same problem. So, I flattened out the wedge and aligned in Alt-Az mode, same problem.

At this point I was getting irate. Nasty words were floating around in the dark and the telescopes parentage was being questioned. With not a lot else to try I ran the mains power out to the scope and plugged into that instead of my Maplin’s power tank and guess what? Yes, everything was fine. So I’d undone my EQ align for nothing, it was down to my crap cheap power tank being ran down with constant slewing with the skytour earlier.

With proper power restored, I managed to get 20s exposures in Alt-Az mode on the Double Cluster and also had another go at Jupiter once I cleared the neighbours tree. Jupiter was a revelation, last time I tried it on the webcam it was a disaster, and this time I could actually see banding on the planet on the capture programme. I didn’t get many shots at it until the not forecast clouds rolled in. I’m sure the met office had a random weather selector, their forecasts seems to have little in common with the weather in the real world.

By this time it was near 1am so I packed up figuring the clouds would hang about all night. An hour later I’m back in the garden taking the dog for a piddle and guess what, a fantastically clear night again. Typical.

Still, I’m reasonably pleased with the modest haul of shots I got, certainly one of my better nights to date.

Jupiter, top shot is 2 AVI captures processed at merged to show the planet and the moons. Bottom is a 2x Barlow AVI capture of just the planet.

Jupiter x2

Double Cluster, I’ve added some diffraction spikes to this one in Photoshop, not sure about the effect but I think I like it.

Double Cluster in Perseus w:spikes

The Ring Nebula, just a single RAW in the end but pleased at how clear the nebula is!

Ring Nebula 8 September 2012


An Astro-photo plan comes together for once!

Plan last night was to head down to Marine Drive in Edinburgh which is right on the coastline next to Cramond where there was a chance of photographing the moon rising over the water. Using The Photographers Ephemeris on the Mac it was possible to see where the moon would rise and there was nothing but water in-between last night. Better still, it was a fairly clear night so off I trotted.

Marine Drive is a funny place. Actually pretty dark, has great views over to Fife and is a prime spot to look for aurora, the only downside is that is seems to be a popular dogging spot which means you get random cars drive up, park, check what you’re up to and head off back up to the dark part of the road!

If you can put up with that though it’s a prime photo spot with a few possible shots, doggers not included.

When I got there the eastern horizon was so dark you really couldn’t tell if there was any cloud there or not but with 10 minutes to go before the moon came up I used the view west for a few shots. Over an hour after sunrise there was a fantastic colour in the sky on the western horizon, too good to miss in fact when you also take into account the slowly receding high tide catching the last of the golden light.

These shots were the result, no filters, just a bit of PP work and that’s about it. The 2nd shot looks closer in towards the Cramond Island causeway.

Cramond Sunset 5 Sept 2012

Sunset over Cramond Causeway 5 Sept 2012

By this point though, it was clear there was cloud on the horizon as the moon hadn’t appeared but there was some hope, a very faint orange glow so worth hanging about for.

In the meantime I took a few shots of the planes on final approach to Edinburgh Airport. This is right under the main flight path and in the dark you can get some pretty dramatic trails.

2 things stood out on the sky at this point, the bright red star Arcturus to the west and the constellation of Cassiopeia, that distinctive W shape. After watching a few landings I got the compositions right and this was the result. 1st shot is past Arcturus and 2nd is past Cassiopeia.

Plane passes Arcturus

Plane passes Cassiopeia

Finally though the moon had started to show, that faint orange glow was now very obvious so on went the bigger lens, after some playing about I got the shots I was after. This might be better with a thinner crescent moon, as the exposures might be closer, as it was I had to really overexpose the moon to get any detail in the foreground.

Moonrise over the Forth 5 Sept 2012

Moonrise over the Forth 5 September 2012

Just a wee bonus, I was back in the car heading for home to get the telescope out when I spotted a plane heading right for the moon, a chance to get that elusive plane in front of the moon shot. With everything packed away I had about 20s to get the tripod out, extended and the D7000 adjusted and on top. No time for the remote so I had to press the shutter button and hope. This was the result, really not clear but I’ll get it next time now I know roughly where and when I can get it from.

Plane in front of the moon

All in, a good night for the 40 minutes or so I was there, much better than the dreadful night had with the telescope later but that’s a story for another day…


Easy time-lapse movies from still images

I stumbled across this earlier totally by accident but I can see it becoming a little obsession for a while.

While shooting the fireworks one camera had a really cheap remote control on it, the sort where you can push the button up and if you have the camera set to high speed drive it’ll just keep taking pics until you run out of memory space. This meant I just engaged that camera to run and I manually triggered the other one. The upshot was, I had long sequences of shots, one after the other which when flicked through in iPhoto sort of looked like a little movie…

An energy saving lightbulb lit up gradually over my head and I ended up going through all the pics taken on Sunday night with the D90 and found quite a few multi shot sequences.

These were all in RAW so I had a hell of a lot of processing to do, the trick being to take each sequence and process every shot in exactly the same way, I done this by saving the settings in ACR and applying to every shot in the sequence.

Next up with all the shots processed was to order them, as I saved with the default name I just ordered by name.

Now, using iMovie on a Mac you simply have to drag all the files in one go into iMovie. From here, highlight all the pics and set the time interval to 0.1 or 0.2s in the clip adjustment menu (little blue drop down in the bottom the highlighted pic. Now pick the Cropping, Ken Burns and Rotation menu, whatever Ken Burns is it’s a pain. Switch all the shots to Fit and click done. This will stop that stupid zoom in thing on every shot from happening. You might also have to go into File — Project Properties and change the Initial Photo Placement drop down to Fit in Frame.

With this done you can now preview the movie and make any further adjustments. Now go to Share — Export Movie and pic the best option for you. I picked the 1080p HD option but beware, 167 12mp frames ended up as a 70+mb .mov file. The .mov is fine for upload to You Tube, Facebook and Flickr so I would assume it’ll upload to other video services too.

And that’s about all there is to it, I’ve also now applied this to sequence of shots meant for a star trail that shows the movement of the stars once you give it the time lapse treatment.

You can check out the final movies on You Tube:


Fireworks and Wind, Edinburgh Festival 2012

Well, that was probably the most challenging night I’ve ever had shooting fireworks in Edinburgh. Fireworks are never particularly easy but add in a fairly brisk westerly breeze and it makes it even more of a challenge as the burst gets blown in the wind leading to nasty trails. Not the best but I got around it to an extent.

The location of choice for the 2012 Virgin Money Fireworks Concert at Edinburgh Castle was the old favourite of Blackford Hill. I went for Blackford over the Crags this year as with the wind coming from the west the smoke from the fireworks would drift towards the Crags but off to the South, Blackford would be fine.

Blackford has the added advantage of being flat onto the back of the Castle so you are shooting the bursts as they are, rather than through them which you do from Calton or the Crags. Inverleith is the same as Blackford but looks directly onto the Front of the Castle, arguably a better location but Blackford is higher too which I think helps.

The setup for this year was again 2 cameras on the go. The Nikon D7000 had a Nikon 18-200mm VRII on this year for some wider atmospheric shots and the D90 had the Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 for those closer in shots, both tripod mounted (obviously) and both with remotes attached. The D90 was set to high speed drive so with the remote engaged I could leave it to snap away while I manually triggered the D7000.

As I said earlier, the wind was a real issue. Any wind causes the fireworks trails to trail with the wind too leaving you with messy trails, the solution I used was to try and keep the exposures short, against the conventional way of shooting fireworks.

Most exposures I kept down to 1s or under, especially on the closer in shots, wider could stretch a bit longer and I wanted the lights from the city too. The upshot of this wasn’t the glowing long trails of usual shots but the shorter trails and quicker exposure combated the nasty drift from the wind. In this mode I was able to rattle off nearly 600 images from the 2 cameras which gave me plenty to cherry pick from to get the best. All in, not as good as previous years but I certainly handled the conditions better than I have on previous windy nights.

Just as an aside, I know the whole display was geared up to be viewed from Princes Street but a lot of Edinburgh watches it from other locations too. This 2012 display was pretty poor from any vantage point that didn’t look onto the front of the Castle. Long gaps of nothing visible, and I’m talking 5 minutes upwards was the order of the night and certainly not as good as previous years. I even missed the finale as there was a massive gap with nothing notable happening, not until I packed up and was halfway back to the car at least.

Roll on the Hogmanay fireworks and hopefully no wind!

You can view the whole set at:

Festival Fireworks 2012 1

or even head over to Facebook to http://www.facebook.com/RealEdinburgh and hit the like button and see them there was well!

A few choice shots…

Festival Fireworks 2012 1

Festival Fireworks 2012 11

Festival Fireworks 2012 15

Festival Fireworks 2012 18

Festival Fireworks 2012 8

I even got the lead shot on BBC News this year too!