Saturday, October 21, 2017

Remove Airplanes and Clean Up Star Trail Photos

I tried to catch the Orionid Meteor Shower last night, and while I saw about 3-4 with my own eyes, I didn't catch any in the camera. That's okay though! Because one of the best consolation prizes from a meteor hunt is the star trail photos you can make from stacking all your pics together. I took 400 individual photos, each 15 seconds long, between 9:45pm and 11:35pm last night. If you live in the Midwest like me, or anywhere near civilization really, you're bound to have an airplane muck up your star trails. While this isn't necessarily bad, sometimes it's interesting to see just how busy the sky is at night, it can distract from the beautiful swirl of the stars as the Earth turns.

before and after photoshop star trails
Star trails before and after with some easy touch-ups
If you don't already know how to do star trails, check out the free software called StarStaX. In short, you can stack of bunch of individual photos to create star trails without doing one big long exposure, which is the traditional route. If you're a star trail purist, your 2 hour long exposure could be ruined by someone bumping the tripod or a car passing by with bright headlights. With star trail stacking, you can throw out or edit a frame here and there and it doesn't ruin the entire batch.

The way stacking works is the software keeps the brightest pixel from each image. It's the same as the Lighten blend option in Photoshop. So anything dark will be replaced with something lighter, and things that are bright stick around. If the stars are the brightest pixels in their pathway, their light is kept. If something is brighter like a plane or clouds, those pixels are kept instead.

We can take advantage of this to edit out the planes and other junk in the photos because making things dark is the same as erasing them, and we don't have to worry about filling the empty space because there are plenty of brighter pixels in the other photos that will take its place.

remove bright area from star trails
Here's an example of a frame I edited. I want to keep the stars, but someone turned on the porch light which made the side of the house bright yellow. I did a very rough selection in Photoshop and made this area darker, knowing it would be replaced by the lighter section of the house in the other images. 
remove airplane from star trails
Here's another individual image. I remove 2 light trails from planes in this image by just coloring black over them. Since the ambient sky background in other images is lighter than the black, I know that the lighter pixels will be kept and these black pixels will be thrown out anyway - so it's the same as erasing them. I don't even have to have sharp edges or straight lines, the stacking averages out everything around it and you won't see the erase marks at all. 
star trails natural light
Here is the final image without planes. 400 images stacked, each 15 sec, ISO 800, f/4.0, 18mm. The image looks too yellow because of the light pollution in the area and in the neighborhood, so there's just a couple tweaks left to make in Photoshop. 
purple star trails in backyard
Here's my final product. Color balance and contrast is like cooking with spices, everyone will have their own taste. I like to go a little blue/purple to get rid of the gross yellow light - but not so purple that it looks like a disco blacklight party. I turned up the contrast a little bit to hide the yellow clouds that kinda smeared across the image, but again not too much because I don't want it to look completely fake. These 2 hour star trails are nice and long, and without the distracting planes, it looks much more peaceful. 

Well this really wasn't meant to be a tutorial, but I just wanted to document my process a little. Another star trail consolation prize to add to my collection, and a little bit of post processing work took it from neat to pretty cool.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Eerie Red Sun Through Clouds with Visible Sunspots

I know you're not supposed to look directly at the sun even through clouds, but it's so tempting when you step outside and see this eerie red sun glowing to the West through a layer of uniform clouds - especially when you've been seeing tweets all day about the huge active region (sun spots) on the face of the sun right now. What an easy opportunity to try to capture some sunspots and this weird red sun in a flat background of gray. I tried looking at it first with a pair of eclipse glasses, and couldn't see anything at all, so then I took a few sideways glances and set up my camera.

sunspots visible through clouds active region 2674 and 2673
Single frame Canon T5i 300mm, ISO 100, f/8, 1/500 sec very minor contrast tweak in iPhoto otherwise straight from the camera. Active regions visible in the middle (sunspots). 

Chris and Zack said they could see the sunspots with the naked eye. Eeeeeeh! I wasn't going to stare at it long enough to try to see them, but I could clearly see them through my eyepiece on the camera.

compare canon 300mm sunspots to nasa soho image of active regions
My photo vs. NASA SOHO to show the labeled active regions. I played with curves and sharpness to try to bring them out a little bit more. Had to remind myself it's through clouds so it's not going to be super sharp, but WOW look at the size of those things!

I tried to get some context photos, and I've found that the DirectTV dish on the roof makes a convenient foreground target, and it's vaguely space-ey so I guess it works haha.

red sun through gray clouds with direct tv dish in foreground
If you look closely you can see the sunspots even in this wider shot. Single frame with Canon T5i at 75mm, ISO 100, f/8, 1/500 sec

And yet another context shot, with my iPhone before I ran inside to get my tripod. I think this weird red sun through clouds beats out my eerie yellow sun from a few years ago. What do you think?

iphone photo sun through gray clouds
iPhone photo wide angle showing the sun in the sky with the solid gray clouds

I guess I had HDR turned on because the roofline has a glow around it, but this wasn't meant to be a cool iPhone photo of the sun just an example of the setting with the weird gray sky and red sun high in the sky. It's like the color of a sunset but much higher away from the horizon. The iPhone photo makes it look a little darker than it really was because I was trying to properly expose the sun.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

6.4% Waxing Crescent Moon at Sunset

When Karin and I left Indianapolis for our solar eclipse excursion we saw the slim crescent moon just before sunrise. It was cool because it was like seeing the moon on its journey toward the sun. Now tonight I looked outside and saw the waxing crescent moon at sunset - the first crescent after the eclipse.

crescent moon at sunset
Waxing crescent moon, single frame Canon T5i, ISO 100, 120mm, f/4.5, 1/3 sec

I was supervising the dogs outside so they don't eat mushrooms growing in the mulch, and I noticed the golden crescent sliding between the houses to the West. I literally ran through my house grabbing my camera, tripod, and shutter release so I could go outside and take some quick photos. I felt re-energized. I feel like I haven't been as enthusiastic for take boring old moon photos lately, but this time felt like doing it for the first time.

crescent moon f/5
Waxing crescent moon 6.4%, single frame Canon T5i, ISO 100, 230mm, f/5, 1.3 sec

I'm so glad I've had so many visitors to my blog this past couple months gearing up for the eclipse. I also got a few direct emails asking my opinion of different solar filters and eclipse glasses. It's really nice to hear from people who come check out my site!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Personal Account of the Total Solar Eclipse from St. Joseph, Missouri August 21, 2017

I saw the Great American Eclipse on Monday, August 21, 2017 from St. Joseph, Missouri. I saw totality, the total phase of the eclipse, for a fleeting 10 seconds in a lucky break in the clouds during otherwise overcast and even rainy skies. The location experienced 2 minutes and 38 seconds of totality, which I felt and observed in the change in ambient light and glowing orange horizon, but only about 10 seconds standing in awe, eyes to the alien black hole in the sky. I wanted to write this longer post to get my recollection of the event down into text because I think it's the kind of thing I'll want to revisit later.

portrait with camera and gear at eclipse tailgate
I love this photo, it really captures the day and the atmosphere at the event

On Monday, August 20 my sister Karin and I set out from Indianapolis, IN at 6:30am ET and although it was early, the time passed quickly on our way to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. I had never been to St. Louis before, never seen the Arch in person. This was going to be something of a consolation prize because we were already watching the pessimistic weather forecasts coming out of NW Missouri. I kept telling myself, at least I will have done something new and experienced something that would make the trip worthwhile, even if I didn't see ANY of the eclipse.

stainless steel detail gateway arch bottom
Had to touch the actual arch to say I did. We didn't go inside because it was a 3 hour wait to the top.

under the gateway arch
The arch was very cool, felt like a mix between the Washington Monument and an alien spaceship

We continued on to Kansas City, the location of our hotel. I chose a hotel by the Kansas City airport inside the path of totality, thinking that even if traffic was so apocalyptic that we literally don't make it out of the parking lot, we would still experience totality. We got to the hotel and saw license plates from Minnesota to Washington to Texas, and saw a couple guys testing out solar filters on DSLR cameras in the parking lot on our way to dinner in Kansas (checking another state off the list).

hotel parking lot 5:30am
Not the mad rush I was expecting in the hotel parking lot at 5:30am, traffic was a breeze actually. We parked facing out right by the exit as to make a quick get-away if needed. 

The plan was to wake up at 5am and be on the road to St. Joseph by 5:30am to beat the rush. We woke up to crickets chirping and a clear sky with stars overhead, but no crowds of people. I guess we beat the traffic, and I guess a few people had canceled their hotel rooms (I overhead the employees discussing as we were checking in). Either way, we had clear skies and we were on our way to the event at Rosecrans Memorial Airport.

solar eclipse road signs
Just about all roads west of St. Louis included these solar eclipse traffic warnings

We passed flashing LED construction signs every 2 miles or so warning of anticipated traffic delays due to the solar eclipse, one that said "SOLAR ECLIPSE AUG 21 HEADLIGHTS ON," and clever traffic safety signs that read "ECLIPSE YOUR PHONE, JUST DRIVE," all along the path of totality.

snapchat solar eclipse geo filter
Snapchat had fun solar eclipse geo filters all along the path of totality

We got to the airport among the first hundred cars or so parking for the day. A number of campers and media vans were already there from the days before, and we followed a winding dirt road through the restricted part of the airport. The restricted area signs were covered with hand made posterboard signs directing traffic forward. Volunteers in orange shirts were stationed at each fork in the road making sure we didn't end up on a runway. It looked like we actually drove down an out-of-use runway for a portion of the route.

Sunrise at Rosecrans Memorial Airport
Sunrise at Rosecrans Memorial Airport morning August 21, 2017

We got to the parking field and felt lucky to have an SUV to drive along the grass. Port-o-potties were stationed every 200 feet or so and doubled as parking area signs. We were by P-2 which apparently was hilarious to everyone in line for the toilet because everyone kept making stupid jokes like "P-2, do we have to pick?" and "They should call it a 'U Can' then it could be 'u can pee 2' get it?" (eye roll) all part of the experience!

Hill between the food trucks and parking field

Clouds can't make up their mind, but the sun was a welcome sight

selfie with eclipse glasses
Finally got to put the eclipse glasses to good use on the partial eclipse leading up to totality, before the wave of rain clouds rolled in.

The crowd was an interesting group. I was trying to figure out how to describe them. It was like a combination of people who didn't necessarily seem that into astronomy but were just up for doing stuff, like "might as well" drive down to see the eclipse. There were a fair number of dads in eclipse shirts and strap on sandals, retirees, bucket-listers, families with huge cruising vans and 4 teenagers, and then a few more extreme observers with fancy auto-guided rigs and telescopes set up in the grass. It was like a music fest without the music, or I guess like an astronomy club meeting on steroids.

row of eclipse tailgaters
Row of eclipse tailgaters and some of the nicer telescopes I saw at the event

The guy parked next to us was by himself, his name was either Christo or Christoff and he was originally from South Africa but living in the Netherlands. He said he flew in just for the eclipse and was flying out again the next morning. He said it was a bucket list item, and that he also wanted to see the Northern Lights one day, but that he wasn't necessarily an astronomy buff. He had a great attitude about the possibility of cloudy skies, and he kept saying "thaaats naature I guess" in a South African accent.

photographing the eclipse
Waiting for the sun to poke through the clouds

photographing the eclipse
You can tell by the lens flare that the eclipse hasn't started yet, but I'm testing out my filter and practicing trying to focus

We set up our tailgate in front of the car facing the sunrise to the East NE. Just about everyone set up chairs and tents outside their car like a tailgate, rather than going over to the designated viewing area. This meant that cars were basically trapped in their rows and it would be difficult to leave if anyone wanted to leave. Only 1 or 2 cars ended up leaving down our row before the eclipse, presumably chasing better conditions. Medics and police patrolled up and down the rows in Gator carts and could easily maneuver the tents and tables.

Eclipse tailgate

Sun trying to poke through the clouds

There's still hope! A patch of blue sky!

We ventured over to the food trucks and to take in the crowd, do some people watching, before heading back and setting up the camera in time for the partial phase of the eclipse to begin. It was cloudy right when it started, but the clouds were moving quick and we would see the Pac Man sun through the clouds and got to observe it with our eclipse glasses and I got as many pictures as I could!

partial phase eclipse sequence
Partial phase sequence through the clouds, last photo (12:06pm) exactly 1 hour prior to totality

eclipse sequence square


After getting some photos of the partial eclipse, the clouds really rolled in, and we heard thunder coming from the NW. Great! At this point we start rationalizing our disappointment. "Well, at least we can say we were in the path of totality. At least it should still get dark, so we can experience that." It started raining for real and we got back in the car with everything packed up. Christoff our parking lot neighbor was listening to live coverage on the radio, and I took some photos of the rain 15 minutes before totality to document the lousy weather.

rain before solar eclipse
Feeling very distressed a few minutes before totality! Photo from 12:50pm with totality coming up at 1:06pm.

My sister and I agreed that for totality we would stand outside the car even if it was raining so we could really experience it. We'd read about listening for crickets and watching the sky darken even if it's cloudy. It was still sprinkling when we got out of the car and stood under the tailgate. I put my iPhone on a small tripod to film the ambient changes and record our reaction to totality.



The video speaks for itself, but we saw through the clouds not a thumbnail crescent sun, but an eyelash sun, just a thin line of burning white light through the clouds. It was so tantalizing and tempting to look at it without eclipse glasses. We dared a few peeks through the clouds and tried to watch with our glasses on when it got too bright. I didn't dare get my camera out because I didn't want to miss a chance to see something through holes in the clouds. Actually, holes might be a bit generous, it was more like thin spots in the clouds. It was solid overcast.

mammatus clouds in missouri
On our drive out of Missouri we saw these weird clouds. Karin looked them up and they are called mammatus clouds (as in mammary) and they are supposedly pretty rare, and usually associated with extreme weather.

It got dimmer and we looked to the West to see what looked like sunset approaching. The sky on the western horizon was first to turn orange, and then rather quickly the rest of the sky got dark too. Not just a little dark. DARK. Probably exaggerated even more so by the overcast sky. The orange alien glow was on all horizons and the clouds overhead were purple and wispy light blue/green. The darkness itself was bizarre enough to make the trip worthwhile to be on the line of totality, but then in a break in the clouds I saw something. I saw a solid edge and thought that was too clean a line to be from the clouds itself, and an instant later the total eclipse revealed itself. First through a thin wisp of clouds that were moving, and then almost completely revealed (or very very thin clouds).

how dark does it get at totality
Compare a few minutes before totality to the darkness of totality, screenshots from the iPhone video above

The total eclipse was light blue through the thin clouds, and white corona clearly visible around a black sphere. It looked like an artist rendering of a black hole with some sense of depth and volume and spitting out etherial white flames. It back lit the clouds around it like a full moon, and stood starring back at us in silence. I thought I had seen it for about 7 seconds, but then watching the video I believe it must have been longer. I found other videos on Instagram tagged at that location and it could have been 10-15 seconds easily.

The first thing I remember when it went back behind the clouds was that it looked different than any photo I had ever seen of it. Because of the clouds, I think it validated for me that this wasn't a false memory, I wasn't just remembering other photos I'd seen and convincing myself I'd seen it, I felt like I had proof in my mind that I had really seen it. Every photo I've seen has the stark white contrast, but this had a blue/green glow from the clouds and the white corona stood out against the clean line of the moon. It felt so unnatural, it looked like an alien spaceship, in my mind it seemed almost egg shaped which is probably my memory already distorting my experience or maybe an artifact of the shape of the hole in the clouds, it's hard to say but I remember thinking that it was "O" shaped and not a sphere for some reason. Maybe just my irrational mind overwhelmed by what I was looking at.

When the lights came back on, we again saw the eyelash thin sun coming out from behind the moon. I decided to get my camera and try to get some photos, sort of regretting not already having my camera on auto pilot snapping photos during totality - but then again it was raining just 10 minutes before. I watched with eclipse glasses a few more minutes, and then managed to snag some photos of the crescent sun appearing through the clouds. It was hard to find good exposure because the thickness of the clouds was constantly changing.

crescent sun in clouds
Crescent sun after totality (1:17pm) ISO 100, 300mm, f/7.1, 1/2500

I like these photos because the crescent sun without a solar filter is only something you can get with cloud cover, so this makes it more unique because no one would wish for clouds during the peek of the eclipse, but if you get them it makes some nice variety. So all in all, I think my friends and family were expecting more epic eclipse photos during totality, but I came away with some souvenir shots, a great video memory of totality, and a brief moment of ecstasy after days of anxiety and worry. Now that I've officially witnessed totality, the pressure is off for 2024. It will be easy for 2024 to be the best solar eclipse because the bar is set very low with only seeing 10 seconds of totality, however if I don't see it at all in 2024 I will always have these brief moments from 2017 to remember forever.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Packing for St. Joseph, MO Eclipse Event

I'm getting anxious, I'm packing tonight and then going into work until about midnight, and then hitting the road with my sister at 6am tomorrow morning. Driving from Indianapolis to Kansas City, spending the night and making sure battery packs are charged up, and then driving to St. Joseph bright and early for the gates to open at the viewing location at 6am Monday.

eclipse supplies
My gear, packing light with just the DSLR tripod, tool kit full of batteries various do-hickeys, tape, cardboard, my home made solar filter, welding glasses, solar binoculars, and eclipse glasses. Not pictured: Coolers, lawn chairs, blankets, bottled water. 

It feels bizarre to be packing both sun screen and a poncho! The weather forecast is all over the place for NW Missouri, and I have to keep reminding myself that worst case scenario I don't see the sun at all, it will still get super dark in the middle of the day, and that's part of the experience. The event is more than just observing the sun, we'll be part of a mass migration following a celestial event - so that's my consolation prize if we don't see the sun at all.

Cloud cover forecast as of today. Hoping for thin clouds or plenty of holes!

If it's partly cloudy, I'd like to at least get some photos of the eclipsed sun at any stage. I've been looking up eclipse photos through clouds and they actually make the eclipse more interesting in terms of photo composition, so I'll definitely take what I can get!

eclipse gum
Didn't even realize the brand of car gum I've been using for years is eclipse gum, heh heh, I wonder if they are planning some big ad campaign or something

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