Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Guest Photo of Star Color Comparison in NASA JPL Video

I was super excited when Jane Houston Jones contacted me about using one of my images in a video for the What's Up series: What's Up for January 2016. I'm feeling super cool to have my name listed in the image credits, and the video was coincidentally published today, on my birthday. Neato!

Back in 2013 I took some photos of Betelgeuse, Aldebaran, and Rigel to do a color comparison. One really simple technique to get a better look at the apparent color is to intentionally take a photo out of focus - this spreads the light of the star over more pixels on the image sensor, which not only makes the star look larger, but also helps to avoid undersampling with a Bayered sensor.

star color comparison
Out of focus star photos with 300mm lens showing star colors
In the video, the above composite is artfully cropped to make the stars Betelgeuse and Rigel appear to pop out of the constellation Orion, and then they are again compared to the hot blue base and relatively cooler upper flame of a candle. It was so cool to have these images used to help explain star color in a NASA JPL video.

nasa star color compare
In the video, my star images fly out from the constellation Orion, cool!
star temperature compare
Star color images compared to the parts of a candle flame in this screenshot from the video.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Christmas Full Moon with iPhone and DSLR Eyefi Wireless Card

We had clear skies for the Christmas full moon, incidentally the first full moon on Christmas day since 1977. Testing out two of my new Christmas presents on Christmas evening, I got this amazing universal smartphone tripod adapter mount. There are a lot of them on Amazon, it looks like some company is making them wholesale and other companies are stamping their logo on them. Either way, it's the only tripod adapter you'll need, it's so easy to pop my iPhone in and out without removing the case.

So let's check out the full moon on Christmas with both the iPhone on a tripod (with no additional lenses) compared to the Canon T5i (single frame no stacking) sent straight to my phone from the Eyefi wireless memory card

iphone moon compared to dslr
iPhone (Left) photo with no additional lenses vs. Canon T5i (right) single frame no stacking. Both pumped up using Instagram's Structure tool and a tiny bit of contrast.

Check it out! I got quite a bit of detail on the face of the moon with just the iPhone itself and no digiscoping or additional lenses or anything. I used the Manual camera app to adjust the exposure and focus similar to this description except this is just a single frame no stacking.

Here's a closer look at the tripod adapter. The top extends out to clip around larger phones and it has a spring in it that pulls the clamp back down for a snug grip. It's perfect for time lapses or ISS passes or anything else you need a tripod for. It's more convenient than this Glif mount because you don't have to take it out of the case.

smartphone tripod mountsmartphone tripod mount

The Eyefi wireless memory card is another cool gift I was excited about. It lets you transfer photos directly from the memory card to your phone over its own WiFi signal (you don't have to be on the internet at home, you can be in the middle of the desert).

For me, this means I can cut out the step of running to the computer to transfer images in iPhoto and then dropping them into Box just so I can tweet or Instagram something. I've done this a few times with eclipses when I wanted to share a lunar eclipse photo - I had to run in and transfer everything quick and run back out. With the Eyefi I can get the photo on my phone and cut out the middle man. I'm also looking forward to this for sports photography. I took photos of an intramural basketball championship and could have tweeted out the winners' photos right away rather than waiting.

eyefi card
The Eyefi memory card has its own wireless network signal it can use to transfer photos directly from your camera to your phone instantly without loading them onto a computer first.
canon wifi display
This symbol on the back of the camera (yellow) means I'm connected to the card with my phone. It was easy to set up, the only confusing part was that it didn't work in RAW, it only connects and transfers with JPEG so it's good for quick moon photos or sporting events, but not something that will replace a stack of RAW files.
iphone christmas moon
iPhone photo straight from the camera, 3x digital zoom, Manual app, iPhone 6, f/2.2, 1/670 sec, ISO 32, 4mm
canon dslr christmas moon
Canon T5i single frame, f/5.6, 1/500 sec, ISO 100, 300mm

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Quick DSLR Comet Catalina (C/2013 US10) with Stellarium

comet catalina 300mm
12/10/2015 Single frame Canon T5i, ISO 6400, 5 sec, f/5.6, 300mm - tweaked in Instagram

I missed the comet-moon-Venus conjunction the other day, so I've had my eye out for a clear morning to try to find Comet Catalina (C/2013 US10) rising in the Eastern morning sky. It was sort of a spontaneous morning so I ran out without looking up a sky map first. I swiveled around for a while with no luck, so I got my phone out and went to

comet catalina heavens above
Screen grab from - see how the field of view is slightly tilted so Venus and Spica look like they're at the same elevation. Totally didn't realize that at first!

They had a pretty good star chart posted (below), but it was a little misleading. Maybe I'm just out of practice. At first glance it looked like the comet should be directly above Venus and directly to the left of Mars. This led to me looking way too high. The Heavens-Above chart is slightly tilted but accurate. I found Stellarium to be much more intuitive.

comet catalina stellarium
See how in Stellarium Spica is clearly higher than Venus, Stellarium feels more intuitive to me.

comet catalina stellarium

Of course I had to add Comet Catalina to Stellarium first - and it had been so long I forgot how. So then I found this helpful How To article left over from Comet ISON. It was really simple, but I was still annoyed because I was racing the rising sun!

dslr comet catalina
Photo at the top straight out of the camera; ISO 6400, 5 sec, f/5.6, 300mm

I'm used to finding things with Stellarium, so once I knew to look to the top left of Venus, it was a pretty quick find. I got that familiar rush of excitement when I first saw that little green fuzzy blob. I think I'll wait to see if it gets brighter before trying to do a tracking stack of images - but blobs count! This is another confirmed comet photo!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Quick Nebula Processing with Instagram's Surprisingly Powerful 'Structure' Tool

I spent hours in Photoshop working on my first processing pass of this Orion nebula photo I took last year. It was my pride and joy and I even printed out a hard copy of it to have framed. While I still love the look of the photo, I tried punching it up a bit for a new Instagram post - and I was pleasantly surprised how powerful the 'structure' Instagram tool was for enhancing the dust clouds in this nebula photo. It does go a little beyond the more natural look I'm going for in my nebula processing, but it didn't take it too far into cartoon world.

nebula astrophoto edit in instagram
Orion nebula photo from this post, before and after a super quick Instagram edit with the 'structure' tool
While Instagram really isn't suited to do the heavy lifting for astrophotography processing, this quick tweak was definitely a little icing on the cake before posting the image to social media. I used the editing tools 'structure' and added some saturation and darkened the edges with vignetting. It took like 30 seconds!

orion nebula in instagram
Instagram has the right amount of editing tools, very powerful tweaks and not overwhelming options

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

500th Blog Post Stats Spectacular!

It's my 500th post on Stellar Neophyte Astronomy Blog! I thought I'd mark the occasion with some unnecessarily detailed stats about the journey so far.

I published post #1 on April 26, 2012 - that was 3 years 6 months and 30 days ago. OMG I was in my 20's back then!

My longest hiatus was 99 days starting May 9, 2015 when I returned the lenses I was borrowing from my mother-in-law so she could take them on vacation.

My second longest hiatus was 47 days starting September 23, 2012 and coincides with when we got our first puppy. I've only had a total of 4 breaks longer than 20 days - not too bad! I think it's safe to say I found a hobby with some staying power.

I've photographed 5 comets:
Out of 256 different label tags, my most-used label is Moon with 118 posts tagged.

I photographed (often very poorly) 64 out of 110 of the Messier objects catalog. Little fuzzy gray blobs still count as long as you can identify them!

I photographed the 2012 transit of Venus, 2 total lunar eclipses, and 1 partial solar eclipse.

In almost 4 years I generated 409GB of data in approximately 48,403 shutter actuations across 2 camera bodies.

My blog has received 374,581 all-time pageviews. My most popular post was How to Photograph the Moon on an iPhone using Exposure Lock, which received 54,760 of those pageviews.

blog traffic graph
Traffic spikes during months with newsworthy astronomical events

I noticed a while ago that my blog traffic follows the lunar cycle, and also spikes whenever astronomical events are in the news. The biggest spike was during the September 27 super blood moon lunar eclipse with 7,250 sessions in one day.

blog traffic graph
Traffic spikes during the full moon

In case you're curious, I've made $383.77 with Google Adsense so far, which comes out to just over $0.75 per post - a fact that I probably won't share with my husband who gets annoyed by the amount of time I spend blogging :)

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Pink and Purple Sunset in the Suburbs

This is my favorite little piece of roofline in my sub development (is it weird to have a favorite roofline?). I use the chimney in shots with the moon all the time, and I love that I can just barely see the top of the silo across the street. It makes me feel less walled in knowing I can see something on the outside.

There was a pretty good sunset on the November 6, 2015 and I captured the changing light with every frame. It went from orange to magenta to purple.

sunset roof line
f/7.1, 1/160 sec, ISO 1600, 300mm

purple sunset
f/7.1, 1/4 sec, ISO 200, 300mm

purple sunset
f/7.1, 1/5 sec, ISO 200, 300m

Crescent Moon (5%) Setting over Roof with Chimney

I saw the slim crescent moon last night as Chris and I were walking out of O'Charley's (which is a totally great and totally under-rated restaurant by the way). I looked it up on PhotoPills to see what percent illuminated it was, and it was about 5% - so now my slimmest but still worthwhile for a photo.

I made a timelapse of the moon setting behind the roof of my neighbor's house, and also pulled some individual frames out. There was some great earthshine on the dark side of the moon, and I'm glad the chimney across the way provided a little bit of foreground interest.

crescent moon
Single frame Canon T5i, f/9, 1 sec, ISO 1600, 205mm

crescent moon
Single frame Canon T5i, f/10, 1.3 sec, ISO 3200, 300mm

crescent moon
Single frame Canon T5i, f/9, 1.3 sec, ISO 1600, 300mm

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Canon DSLR Astrophotography: Andromeda Galaxy Improvements

The last time I tried to image the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), I was still just testing out my Orion EQ-1 mount and trying to learn how to align and how it all worked. That time I only took 9 light frames and got my (at the time) best image stacked. Just 9 frames! That shows the benefit of the motor-driven mount for sure. But since then my Canon DSLR astrophotography has gotten a little better.

After I learned the mount a little, I imaged the Orion Nebula (every beginner's favorite target I'm pretty sure), but didn't go back to Andromeda.... UNTIL NOW! Last night I did a proper treatment of M31 high in the sky directly overhead and with very favorable conditions. Here's how it went down.

Canon DSLR astrophotography
Sometimes you don't realize how far you've come until you look back.

I aligned slightly to the bottom left of Polaris. Without cross hairs or a finder scope, I'm really just aiming at the center focal point through the viewfinder and hoping for an approximate alignment. I think my best is about 20 seconds, but that night I got 13 seconds without star trails. Not great, but not bad for a simple motor. I bumped it a few times and I'm sure I knocked it out of focus a bit, especially with this lens that seems to jump if you touch it.

Next I had to find Andromeda, but since it was directly overhead, I couldn't do my usual technique of star hopping through the viewfinder. In fact, I couldn't even get my head under the viewfinder. I pulled out the folding screen (this thing has saved my butt a few times) and just started firing off test shots in the general direction. It only took me 16 shots to find the fuzzy blob and then I zeroed in on it.

Canon DSLR astrophotography
Canon T5i on Orion EQ-1 motorized mount (single speed, no tracking)
canon DSLR on motor tripod mount
If it looks awkward, that's because it was! I couldn't even see through the viewfinder, I had to just guess and click around for a little while to find my target.
I wanted to at least give M31 equal treatment compared to my Orion shot that I love so much, so I let it click away for about 30 minutes doing 160 or so 13 second exposures. Individual frames look like this one (although not all have an airplane buzzing the fuzzy galaxy blob). Quite a close approach considering the field of view is around 5 degrees.

andromeda airplane
One of the frames I had to throw out, but kind of a unique image that shows what Andromeda looks like in a single 13 second exposure, and a near miss from an airplane. 

The first thing I did after stacking in DSS (total exposure time 31 min 24 sec) was to crank the curves all the way up just to see what might be hiding in there. I don't use this as a final product, but it is a quick way to see what to shoot for in Photoshop teasing it out bit by bit with curves to avoid the grain of this rough pass. This also proves that I'm not just drawing an oval around the center and turning up the brightness! It really is that bright compared to the surrounding sky. It looks like I just drew a ring around it, but that's really the galaxy itself!

canon dslr andromeda galaxy
Cranked the curves all the way up in DSS just to get an idea of what might be hiding in the pixels. It's too grainy to use, but gives me something to shoot for in Photoshop where I have to tease it out bit by bit to avoid the quick-and-dirty grain from the DSS pass at it.
I'm a little rusty at deep sky stuff. I used curves in Photoshop to tease out the contrast between the dust trails and the brighter parts. I spent about 2 hours on it. My best Andromeda Galaxy (M31) by far! I'm a little rusty on the post processing, but the motor driven mount is night and day compared to a fixed tripod. Really pleased! Might even get a print!

canon dslr andromeda galaxy
Canon T5i on Orion EQ-1 mount, stacked in DSS, 159 subs at 13 sec, f/5.6, ISO 1600, 300mm; 27 dark frames, 24 bias, and 15 flat frames (re-used the ones from last year and they seemed to work just fine).
Take your vitamins and don't skip the flat frames! I'll never go back to not using flat frames on anything that I'm seriously trying to improve on.

Active Sunspot Region 2443

Had thin clouds on Sunday but I wanted to try to get a photo of active sunspot region 2443 that I've been hearing so much about. I haven't taken many sun photos with my DIY solar filter for my DSLR, but when there is an especially large active region they are fun to catch.

I had a little haze - well, more than haze, I had thin clouds I was trying to shoot through. The sunspot active region was large enough to see even though the clouds without a telescope. I just used a 300mm lens with the DIY solar filter over the top.

The hardest part is focusing with the additional filter over the lens and the glare of trying to look at the camera display screen in the daylight. Auto focus doesn't quite do it with the additional layer over it, of course the clouds don't help either.

November is looking good for some stargazing, but I don't think I'll be taking many more solar images during the week. By the time I get home it's already getting dark!

sunspot through clouds
Active sunspot region 2443 on Sunday, November 1, 2015 - Single shot with Canon T5i edited in Instagram
Instagram actually does a good job bringing out the contrast in sunspot images. I didn't list the acquisition details under the image above because I cheated it too much. Below is the original image out of the camera, which in this case is my trusty Canon T5i.

300mm sun image
Canon T5i single frame at f/7.1, 1/30 sec, ISO 100, 300mm

For comparison, here is a look at what the face of the sun looked like at the same time, but through much better gear from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO).

soho image

And if you were wondering, this is what my setup looked like. Identical to my setup last year, but with worse atmospheric conditions. In both cases, stacking actually didn't do much good and I ended up using single images.

canon solar filter
Canon T5i and home made solar filter attachment

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Traffic Jam of Planets in Morning Rush Hour Sky

Look to the East just before sunrise to see a veritable traffic jam of planets rising above the horizon. I snapped this photo of 4 planets all in one shot yesterday at 7:09am in Indiana. Quite the collection! I believe 4 planets in one shot is my record (5 if you count the houses that are here on planet Earth).

Keep an eye on this group over the next few weeks. Jupiter, Venus, and Mars will get closer together and will be joined again by the moon on November 6 - November 7, 2015.

4 planets in one shot with labels

morning conjunction
Canon T5i, ISO 400, 24mm, f/5.6, 5 sec

The moon will join the party again on the mornings of November 6th and 7th but by then Mercury will tuck back down below the horizon. See ya later Mercury!

november 2015 conjunction
Moon joins the conjunction of Jupiter, Mars, and Venus on November 6-7, 2015

Crop and Zoom Your Way to Better Sunset Photos Without Photoshop

This might seem obvious after you hear it, but I have been playing around with my sunset photos and I noticed that the very best sunsets are the ones that fill the entire sky with eerie wisps of colorful feathery fire. Sometimes the area near the horizon is gorgeous, but snapping a wide angle photo just doesn't do it justice. Wide angle sunset photos clog up Instagram and *totally get like zero likes, amiright!?* - eh hem. So what can be done?

I like to use a zoom lens to fill the entire frame with the good stuff and crop out the boring regular clouds. This gives the impression of a sky filled with amazing color floor to ceiling, when really it could just be a thin band of color near the horizon. It's not cheating, it's composition!

You can use this technique to get some amazing sunset shots without being tempted to juice up the magic in Photoshop. Don't touch the saturation or contrast, just adjust the framing.

I went back in time through my archives to look for wide angle versions of my favorite sunset photos to show the difference. It's sort of a behind the scenes look at what the sky 'really' looked like. 

blue and red sunset
Canon T5i aperture priority mode (Av), ISO 400, 33mm cropped, f/4.5, 1/200 sec
gray and red sunset
Canon T5i aperture priority mode (Av), ISO 400, 18mm, f/4, 1/50 sec

Now you might be thinking, "come on Eric, you aren't using the same camera settings, that's not fair to attribute the better photo to the focal length and not the exposure." To which I would say I was shooting in aperture priority (Av) mode which means the camera is doing the work calculating the best exposure for what is in frame - so when I have more gray clouds in frame it tries to accommodate those as well. Tightening the shot by zooming in was the easiest and fastest way to get a better sunset photo. 

Let's try another one, here we see an unusual sky color - on it's own not bad. But next we see it being used as an abstract background that fills the entire frame.

meh sunset
Canon T5i, ISO 800, 53mm, f/5.6, 1/800 sec
abstract sunset
Canon T5i, ISO 800, 300mm, f/5.6, 1/250 sec

Ok, I saved my best for third - this example really drives home the point because both the wide and tight shot use the same ISO and shutter speed. You can clearly see in the wide angle shot that the sunset is neat but nowhere near as mind blowing as the tighter shot leads you to believe. It looks like the entire sky is blood red, when really it's just a strip near the horizon. Nevertheless, it makes a nice backdrop for the utility pole - can you spot the pole down by the horizon in the wide angle shot?

sunset wide angle not impressive
Canon Rebel XT, ISO 400, 18mm, f/4.5, 1/50 sec

red sunset
Canon Rebel XT, ISO 400, 300mm, f/5.6, 1/50 sec

So there you have it - some examples of how shooting sunsets close to the horizon can make a thin strip of color look like a magical magnificent sunset.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

October 9, 2015 Conjunction: Moon, Mars, Venus, Jupiter

Chris texted me to go outside and look at the moon and a bunch of stars. When I got out there I noticed a conjunction between the crescent moon, Venus and Jupiter, and I didn't notice until I looked it up in my StarWalk app that Mars was in the mix as well!

The 3 planets show up well in photos, and the white/blue star Regulus is a nice addition as well. I had some thin clouds obstructing my view, but that made for an interesting glowing orb effect in the longer exposures. Venus looks like a smaller second moon glowing in the morning sky!

october 9 2015 conjunction
Cropped single shot from Canon T5i - f/5.6, 6 sec, ISO 800, 34mm

moon and planets over houses
Single shot Canon T5i, f/5.6, 6 sec, ISO 800, 34mm

moon mars venus jupiter conjunction
Single shot Canon T5i, f/5.6, ISO 400, 55mm, 1.3 sec

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Photos from Super Blood Moon Total Lunar Eclipse September 27, 2015

Here are my quick total lunar eclipse photos before I go to bed, I wanted to at least get something up from my DSLR and not just photos from my iPhone taking pics of the back of the display. Here are a few keepers, and a few that set the scene.

super blood moon lunar eclipse photo
Canon T5i, stack of 10 frames in Registax, each at 300mm, ISO 1600, f/5.6, 1 sec
super blood moon photo
(Left) Image straight from camera (Right) Resulting image after stacking and High Pass layer in Photoshop

total lunar eclipse sequence
Eclipse sequence composite! The haze kinda messes up my layout, but it's still a nice collection in spite of the clouds.

You can see how, especially with a dim subject like the fully eclipsed moon, stacking layers to reduce noise really cleans things up! I havne't done that for all my eclipse phases yet, but I wanted to get some of these posted quickly. Also, the thin layer of clouds might make it a waste to try to mess with stacking when there is already haze covering everything.

The haze did make for some interesting features, compared to the typical straight forward eclipse photos you see online.

september 27 eclipse clouds
Things were off to a rough start, and I was worried I wouldn't get to see any of the eclipse. I even put my telescope back inside and just focused on my DSLR because I knew I wouldn't have a lot of leisure time to mess around. Single shot Canon T5i, ISO 800, 75mm, f/5.6, 4 sec

super moon through clouds
This gives you an idea of just how much haze was in the sky. I could see the disc of the moon, but would I be able to see the shadow of the eclipse at all? Single shot Canon T5i, ISO 100, 300mm, f/5.6, 1/3 sec

penumbral eclipse
Pretty sure this is penumbral eclipse and not just a cloud. The moon was clear of any thick clouds, and was uniformly blocked by haze, so I believe the dimming on the left is the shadow from the Earth's penumbra. Single shot Canon T5i, ISO 100, 300mm, f/5.6, 1/400 sec

lunar eclipse through clouds
Clouds moving fast creating an interesting effect around the partially eclipsed moon. At 2 sec, I should have had more blur of the moon itself, but it turned out kinda neat. Single shot Canon T5i, ISO 100, 300mm, f/5.6, 2 sec

september 27 eclipse photos
Partial eclipse with appropriately exposed lunar surface. Single shot Canon T5i, ISO 100, 300mm, f/5.6, 1/400 sec

september 27 eclipse photos
More cloudy halo around the moon. Single shot Canon T5i, ISO 100, 300mm, f/5.6, 1 sec

september 27 blood moon eclipse
Almost total, the moon was a tiny sliver in a bizarre shape it never makes on its own going through the regular phases. Single shot Canon T5i, ISO 800, 300mm, f/5.6, 1/2 sec

september 27 blood moon eclipse
Total eclipse but still rather bright on the right side. Single shot Canon T5i, ISO 800, 300mm, f/5.6, 1.3 sec