Afocal Photography

When doing any sort of public astronomy, showing folks the beautiful sights available to a telescope, I often hear the question “Can I take a photo of that?” The person asking the question is usually holding the ubiquitous compact digital camera. They are often surprised when my answer is “Yes”.

Afocal Photography
Taking a photograph of the Moon using afocal photography

It is indeed possible to manage hand held shots of bright astronomical objects by simply holding the camera up to the eyepiece. There are a few tricks to making it work, but nothing that can not be demonstrated in a minute or two. The resulting photographs can be quite pleasing, definitely worth showing to friends and family along with the rest of the Hawai’i vacation shots.

The method of positioning a camera with a lens in front of an eyepiece is called afocal photography, or sometimes digiscoping. Afocal has been around for a while, but was not considered a practical photographic method by most. The advent of common digital cameras without removable lenses has changed this.

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WP Plugin Confusion

The world of WordPress plugins is a stew of confusion to a new WordPress user. Thousands of options are available for use with your blog, an amazing array of interesting features to add useful capabilities. From this, you are trying to choose what works for you. You really do need a few plugins to add key features.

For Darker View there a number of things I have determined I need to get working… Spam comment filtering, backup capability, statistics, social site support, threaded comments, and a decent photo gallery. I have the backup utility working now using the very nice WordPress Database Backup by Austin Matzko. Social site functions and statistics from Jetpack work smoothly.

The latest experiments center around getting a decent gallery function integrated. Two options appear to be worth considering… NextGEN Gallery seems to be the standard, but I had read that it was flash based, and I want things to work on an iOS device. In a later experiment I found that it does work on my iPad, so it is back on the list.

In the meantime I have experimented with DM Albums. This is a straightforward plugin with a decent interface. Just load the photos and put a single tag into the post. I like the effect, it seems to play well with my theme. The result is a nicely functional gallery.

DM Albums does have some sizing issues in the full screen mode, pretty annoying issues. The package has seen very active development lately, with two major releases already this year as they clean up the bugs and get everything working. Thus I am not giving up on this package just yet.

This issue is not done yet, I am just out of time to play with it for now.

[dmalbum path=”/wp-content/uploads/dm-albums/Hawaii 100/”/]

Keck in Motion Scene Guide

I have been getting a few questions about the video. To answer a few of them I have compiled a guide to the scenes. Some quick explanations to what you are seeing, information on the camera used as well as the exposure information.

The video is a combination of two techniques. Many scenes were filmed as standard video then accelerated during editing to allow the motion to become clear. Examples of this are scenes of telescopes slewing and the interferometer delay lines moving.

Slower subjects, such as clouds or the stars moving across the sky, were photographed as time lapse. Here a large number of still images were taken. These are then processed and converted to video using Photoshop CS5 before loading into the video editing software, Adobe Premiere Elements. To construct the time lapse sequences sometimes required thousands of separate images, quickly filling memory cards and exhausting batteries. After dark it is long exposure time lapse that is used, with individual exposures often 15 seconds to one minute long.

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A Premiere

Tomorrow night will see the premiere of my latest work. Over the last few months I have been assembling a video on Keck titled Keck in Motion. The nice part is that the first public screening will see the video on a big screen indeed… The showing will be at the Kahilu Theater. It will be run as a introduction piece before the Keck lecture

The video has seen the usual creative cycles during production… Enthusiasm followed by disillusionment, in alternating phases. Despite some doubts along the way, I have to admit the final version is not all that bad. Everyone who has seen it uniformly gives great reviews, but as the author, I see all the flaws and things I could improve. Whatever reservations I might have, the time has come to simply say… It is done. I have turned over copies to Larry and Mariko, ready for projection on a big screen tomorrow night.

The video has been seen a couple private showings to a selected audience. In particular it has been seen by the guys on the summit crew, many of whom appear in the video. Some bits of the video have been seen here before, particularly the three lasers sequence. Some of the material was stuff I had accumulated across the years, many pieces were custom shot to complete the project. Somehow it works into a very nice narrative and a complete story in three minutes, thirty-six seconds.

Look to see the video posted here after the premiere. Peeking at my Vimeo account will not help, I have not uploaded it yet. I suspect it will get spread around a little, used for Keck PR. It does show what a special place Keck is. Better yet, it highlights the hard work it takes to keep Keck on-sky every night. Because of that, this video is dedicated to the guys of the summit crew.

Lasers 3 over Mauna Kea from Andrew Cooper on Vimeo.

Repairing the Broken

There are some devices that folks still try to repair if possible, camera gear seems to be at the top of the list. I suppose this should not be a surprise, the gear is expensive, and seems to get damaged from hard use. Particularly on this island, where cameras see a wide range of harsh conditions, from tropical heat to salt water.

A month back I repaired a Pentax waterproof camera for a co-worker. Salt water had penetrated around the shutter button and corroded the switch. The camera, rated to 10m (30ft), had probably experienced pressures even higher. Her teenage boys can easily exceed that depth while free diving the island reefs. It was necessary to completely disassemble the camera to get at the button. Well over an hour of tiny screws and gaskets to replace a $1.35 switch.

There have been other items this year… A classic chrome stand microphone that required a little rewiring to work with a modern computer. A pair of very nice computer monitors now found on my desk. A toy RC aircraft with broken motor leads. I do appear to have gained a reputation for fixing this stuff.

Last week it was an underwater video camera case brought to me. None of the external controls were working, no way to hit record once in the water. The repair turned out to be fairly simple, a broken conductor in the LANC cable used to control the camera. A bit of scrounging around in my spare parts to build a replacement cable was all that was required to put everything right. Most repairs are that sort of simple, just the effects of wear and tear taking their toll.

After the repair J sent me a link to his YouTube channel and I spent a lunch watching video. Well edited, nicely crafted videos of the local paddling sport community. Canoe races and special events covered with a personal touch, with respect for the people and traditions. I was very happy to see I had done a bit to help someone who was producing such excellent material.

The repairs serve me as well. Each time I take apart an unfamiliar device I learn, I refresh my skills, I experience the simple joy of using those skills. Each device is a challenge, to successfully disassemble the gear, find the fault, and put it all back together properly. On occasion I fail in that challenge, either I do not have the skill, or the repair is impractical, or the device too badly damaged. There is often little real risk, if it is broken the attempt to save something useful from the trash is an easy choice, the only thing lost is the effort. The reward is seeing the gear returned to useful service and knowing you prevented that little bit of waste.

I wonder what will come my way next time?

An example of J’s Videos

The ACLU Publishes a Guide to Photography Rights

A nice guide to your right to photograph by the ACLU. It is interesting to note the current restrictions to the audio portion of videography that some states have attempted to enforce using wiretapping laws. Fortunately Hawai’i is not a “two party consent” state, removing that issue here.

Postcard from the Summit – In The Hall

Another processed infrared image from Mark Devenot. This time the subject is an everyday scene inside the facility with some of the crew standing in the hallway. The odd feature behind them is actually the large doors that lead into the Keck 1 Telescope dome. Everything looks much different in the thermal infrared…

IR Hallway
In the hallway, a mid wave infrared image taken with a FLIR PM250 camera, with artist effects added in Photoshop, photo by Mark Devenot

The Canon 60D

A box was waiting for me when I got home. A long awaited box. A box that represented hours of reading, weighing and wrestling with the question…

A new camera!

I now have a replacement for my venerable Canon 20Da that I have used for over six years. Not that I will be getting rid of the older camera. It is still invaluable to me for astrophotography, a role it is specifically modified for. Nor will it replace my Canon G11, a camera I have carried every day for well over a year now. The G11 will remain my day to day camera, a role for which a compact is well suited.

Canon 60D
The Canon 60D DSLR camera, image credit: Canon USA

No, the 60D will be there when the smaller camera is simply not enough. There have been a few recent instances when I had opportunity for a good photo. An image I knew the camera in my hand simply could not capture. There was that pueo sitting on a lichen covered boulder last week. Or the summit under a blanket of fresh snow, lit by the full moon. Or… To many instances.

Another primary reason for the 60D… High quality HD video capability. This is something I have come to truly miss in my existing cameras. There have been a number of occasions when I really could have used that capability! Unfortunately now that I have a camera capable of truly good HD video, our backyard volcano has stopped producing photogenic lava flows. At least I know that will not last.

The decision was made more difficult by the choice of cameras available. A dizzying array of options now exist. A number of very capable DLSRs, the new mirrorless designs, this was a decision without a simple answer. In the end it came down to a choice between the Canon 60D and the very similar 7D. The newer 60D sports a flip out screen (something I love to have), better movie controls, and while it gives up a metal body it is also much lighter to carry. Both cameras use the same sensor and feature essentially the same image quality.

My thanks to Baron. I ran into him at the ROV competition last week. And lo… he was carrying both the 60D and a 7D. Even better, he let me fondle his gear while we chatted about the relative merits of the two cameras. Nothing like a hands-on look at the gear and the opinion of someone who uses the cameras extensively.

Even when holding a brand new camera I am wondering what will replace it in a few years. Maybe a mirrorless compact? That is a market segment to watch. What about my veteran G11 camera? Deb is making less than subtle suggestions about my getting a G12 so she can have my G11, mostly for underwater I suspect. Cameras are one place the technology is still changing rapidly enough to make these decisions difficult.

For now I need to learn a new camera and find its limits. A good low light session is in order, and I have a night on the summit coming up… with lasers!

DSLR Astrophotography

Digital SLR cameras make surprisingly good astrophotography cameras on bright objects. Good sensitivity, low noise and a convenient form factor make these camera a good choice for shooting the night sky.

One useful modification to the camera is removing the standard IR cutoff filter present in cameras and replacing it with a filter that is tuned to let in more of the red. The new filter should allow light at 656nm, what astronomers call hydrogen alpha, or Hα, the light emitted by neutral hydrogen atoms, the most common element in our universe. This is the red glow that makes the emission nebulae so colorful. An astrophotographer can do the filter change themselves, send it to a specialist who can do the work, or buy an already “modded” camera. Canon has produced two special models specifically for the astrophotography market, the EOS 20Da and 60Da, with this special filter.

Below, one can see the results of using modified, and unmodified cameras and relatively small telescopes…