Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Geminid Meteor Shower 2014 in HD

Time-lapse video footage from the Geminid meteor shower on the nights of December 13 and 14, 2014. Shot at Topaz Lake in the Eastern Sierra region, on the California-Nevada border.

Here's a description of the Geminid meteor shower from NASA:

"Geminids are pieces of debris from an object called 3200 Phaethon. Long thought to be an asteroid, Phaethon is now classified as an extinct comet. Basically it is the rocky skeleton of a comet that lost its ice after too many close encounters with the sun. Earth runs into a stream of debris from 3200 Phaethon every year in mid-December, causing meteors to fly from the constellation Gemini. When the Geminids first appeared in the early 19th century, shortly before the U.S. Civil War, the shower was weak and attracted little attention. There was no hint that it would ever become a major display."

Composite photos showing multiple 2014 Geminid meteors
I'll be teaching photographers how to capture meteor showers in a photography workshop during the Geminid meteor shower in Death Valley in December 2015:

#Geminids #meteorshower #science #breakingnews #astronomy +Death Valley Workshops 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Leonid Meteor Shower: Timelapse HD Video

You should see two big ones top center, then a lot of little ones down near the horizon after that.

Assembled from 224 30 second photos taken last night from 1-3am in the Eastern Sierra, California, during the Leonid meteor shower in 2009.

All I can say now in 2014 is wow, my technique has progressed a lot since 2009!

Catch the Leonid Meteor Shower Nov 17/18!

The Leonid Meteor Shower, one of the best meteor showers of the year, is happening this week, peaking around November 17/18. The meteors appear to originate from the constellation Leo.  The radiant point that the meteors seem to originate from rises slightly north of due east shortly after after 11 pm.

Long, earth-grazing meteors could be visible coming out of the eastern horizon before the radiant point rises. You can download an app such as StarWalk to a smartphone or tablet to make identification of the constellation and radiant point easy. As night progresses the portion of the earth that you're standing on rotates around to the forward path of the planet hurtling through space, where it collides with more space debris.  The path of the earth is due east at midnight, so the sky and atmosphere above you acts like a big scoop collecting meteors and creating long fireball trails.  The eastern half of your sky can collide with slightly more debris at that point, and more and more of the sky above you is directly facing the direction the earth is travelling as dawn approaches.  That's why early morning hours are often advised for meteor shower watching.

For 2014 however the moon will rise around 3 am at mid northern latitudes, so the best viewing will be roughly midnight to 2:30 am. Adjust your shooting direction to accommodate the east to west movement of Leo as it seems to circle the North Star and rises towards nearly overhead and slightly northeast as dawn approaches.

Check the weather forecast and moon rise times in your area to fine tune your viewing experience. To find a prime viewing spot, travel east away from cities to put the light pollution at your back. Good luck!

Keep your Wordpress Content Fresh With Your Social Media Content

Social media is where a lot of the "action" is these days... new content and interaction (reshares, views, comments, likes, favorites). But posts on social media don't necessarily get seen, in part because your subscribers may not be watching at that moment, and because sites like Facebook and Google+ now filter content by what they predict people want to see, so many or most of your subscribers may never be presented with your content that they subscribed to see.  Social media posts can have a short half-life, getting buried quickly behind other content, so interaction falls off quickly.

Blogs offer a more rich publishing platform and people subscribe to see their content.  Many sponsors are accustomed to rating online influence by monthly traffic to a blog. So while some people have found success becoming "Internet famous" and are sponsored simply to post on social media, other corporate sponsors haven't broadened their criteria beyond more lasting content delivery platforms like +WordPress and +Blogger.

One of the ways they evaluate your content is using +Google Analytics to measure monthly visits to your blog.  So even if you've been  somewhat successful marketing though content, engagement and building a following on social media, you may find that the sponsors you'd like to connect with are using other metrics to evaluate potential marketing partners.

Posting to blogs adds yet another location to post to, and it is a good idea to have unique content there utilizing the added features such as the ability to include multiple images. But all of your work on social media doesn't have to go go waste.  To some degree your audience varies from site to site on social media, and who is online looking at your posts varies, so allowing your social media posts to aggregate to a blog can give your friends and followers a single place to see your recent content.  If you do a good job curating the site and attracting people to come back over time, your potential sponsor will like it as well.

I had a nice experience with the Google+ to Wordpress plugin for Wordpress this morning.  The founder of photo sharing site +500px+Evgeny Tchebotarev, tweeted to his 5000+ followers one of my Wordpress blog posts created from a Google+ post:
I experience decent results on Google+ when sharing individual photos, but for some reason the filtering algorithms on Google+ seem to demote my album shares somewhat, more heavily restrict shares of other posts, and severely restrict shares  of external links.  Worst of all, much of the interaction I see is from users far from my target customer base, so Google's current heavy and skewed filtering algorithm renders G+ practically worthless in my experience.  But I have a lot of confidence in Google to eventually correct course and get on a productive path.  So although my initial 4-5 posts per day for its first year dropped to 1 per day for the next year and again to more sporadic contributions this year as the site fails to deliver broad engagement, when it eventually does, I want to be there.  I've set up Google+ pages to use when they become fully functional, such as when they can connect with and follow (circle) more than a few users per day before maxing out some limit.

In the meantime, any work you invest to maintain a placeholder stake in G+, or to make posts such as URL shares which are likely to be barely distributed on G+, doesn't have to go to waste, since those posts can have a second life on your blog.

It's no small benefit that those blog posts aren't restricted by any severe filtering to hide them from your followers, as they might have been on the original social media site.  One good tweet of your blog post, and it may have more potential viewers than the original post had on the social media site.  And your social media sites may supply that traffic.  Even if there are few eyeballs on your G+ posts or they're not views from your target customers or subscribed (circling) G+ users, there's no reason why you can link to the resulting blog post and drive traffic there from Facebook, Twitter, and so on.

If you'd like to consider having your social media posts mirrored to a Wordpress blog, take a look at the Google+ to Wordpress plugin:  You'll also see the Twitter version there, Social Media 2 WordPress for Twitter.
Your G+ posts can appear on your blog
To see how they look on a blog, check out mine at  I just switched on the Twitter plugin, so I may have some fine tuning to do in the plugin settings before it works exactly the way I want it to, but you can get the gist of what it does.  Thanks to the developer +Daniel Treadwell.  He provides a free version of each plugin which imports the last 10 G+ posts, with comments, or the Twitter version with interaction as well, so you can try each of them out.  To make use of Wordpress plugins you'll need to have a "self-hosted" copy of Wordpress on your own Web site.  Other than the learning curve involved in setting that up, searching for the name of the plugins through your Wordpress installation, and installing and using them, is pretty straightforward.

Perhaps +Google will consider reporting our G+ activity in +Google Analytics so sponsors can see and recognize that as part of the value we offer.  But the filtering of the distribution of your G+ posts may still impede their visibility on G+, so having them available on an external blog enables you to make full use of the content, while you have full tracking and credit for how many people view it (at least directly on the blog).  It's surprising that Google didn't offer similar G+ to +Blogger post migration ages ago (and it's surprising that the existing Blogger to G+ posting capability suffers the same heavy filtering and reduced views that any other external link seems to experience).  Google Analytics could offer the unique strategic advantage of reporting of the combined views of the same post on G+ and Blogger, but a great baby step in the right direction would be any reporting of G+ posts at all.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Image buyers are using 500px Prime

I put about 50 photos into the +500px Prime licensing service when it was released a few months ago, and I didn't give it a second thought. I went back and checked yesterday, and I had $354 in royalties waiting for me. The average $7 per image won't buy me a new camera, but I did order a new tripod, and it will be arriving early next week.

 If I had uploaded a couple of high quality photos per day, the few hundred dollars might have been a few thousand. If you're a photographer on 500px who has put photos into Prime, I'll put the link to your 500px store in the description for this photo on 500px.

Here's the same photo on G+, in case that helps Blogger provide a thumbnail image when this blog post gets posted on G+...

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

CBS Features Bodie and America's Ghost Towns

America's Best Unrestored Ghost Town, Bodie
CBS aired an excellent segment on America's ghost towns last Sunday, including Bodie, California. Here's the segment featuring Bodie from their Sunday morning show:

The haunting remnants of America's ghost towns

Living not far from the park, I have the privilege of leading many dozens of photographers through Bodie each year, for special night access and to photograph building interiors.  Here are photos from our photo workshops, and visits to our favorite local ghost town:

Star trails and the Iridium 11 communications satellite are seen over the Bodie Church
Sunset in Bodie

Moon rise and moon beams over Bodie Bluff

A dusting of snow on Bodie in the spring

Inside the Boone General Store

The Miner's Union Hall in pre-dawn light

Milky Way rising over the Standard Mill

Bodie's 1937 Chevy coupe at dusk

Highlighting Bodie's landmarks under the Milky Way

The peaceful twilight hours in Bodie

Roulette wheel in the Sam Leon Bar

Evening golden hour in Bodie as the last warm rays of the sun touch the town
You can see over 200 of my photos of Bodie in an album on +Flickr :

We've raised roughly $25,000 for building stabilization in Bodie through our photo workshops there.  When we have dates for our interior access and night photography workshops in Bodie for 2015, we'll publish them on my Web site:

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks October 21-22!

Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks October 20/21!
An Orionid meteor next to the constellation Orion

The annual Orionid meteor shower is created when Earth passes through trails of comet debris left in space long ago by Halley's Comet as it orbits around the sun. The meteors, or "shooting stars", develop when pieces of rock typically no larger than a pea, and mostly the size of a grain of sand, vaporize in Earth's upper atmosphere.

This is a composite shot of the best meteors that I caught during the Orionid meteor shower in 2014 over the course of several hours in Central Nevada:

Orionid Meteor Shower 2014
I used a star-tracking mount to follow Orion and produce that composite, so when I created a time-lapse from the same footage, it turned out like this:


For a perspective fixed on the ground with the sky moving, here's a time-lapse video from chasing the Orionid meteor shower in 2012 in the Mono Basin in the Eastern Sierra:

In 2014 Liz Horton at +ABC11-WTVD in Raleigh for using this Orionid Meteor shower time-lapse video to inform viewers about the Orionid meteor shower.  Here's ABC11's report informing viewers of the upcoming shower:

My 2015 Orionids photo featuring Venus, Jupiter and Mars has done well  on +Twitter so far:

Where will you pursue this year's Orionids?  In 2015, I suspect that the morning of the 23rd could be good after the moon sets.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

How to Photograph Comet Siding Spring by Mars, October 18-19

Comet C/2013 R1 Lovejoy and a Geminid Meteor, December 2013
Comet Siding Spring will pass Mars tomorrow, Sunday October 19, 2014.  The Orionid meteor shower is also underway, so you might get lucky and catch a meteor as well, like I did with this Geminid meteor I caught with Comet C/2013 R1 Lovejoy last December.

I see that my exposure was 8 seconds at ISO 5000 on a 50mm lens. It was an f/1.4 lens, so I was able to shoot at f/1.6. No star tracking mount was needed for up to a 10 second exposure with that lens.  With that long of an exposure, shouldn't the stars appear to be moving across the sky?  Using the "500 Rule", as long as the focal length times the exposure in seconds doesn't exceed 500, you should be fine.  So 50 x 8 = 400, and you get no visible star movement.

If you try a 400 mm lens however your maximum exposure goes to 1.25 seconds, so you'd need a star tracking mount.  Most people don't have star tracking mounts, so a good compromise might be an 85 mm lens offering f/1.8 or wider, keep the exposure around 5-6 seconds or less, and boost the ISO a bit is necessary.  The comet is approaching Mars now, so try it tonight, Saturday, for practice.

Seen from mid northern latitudes this weekend, Mars will be visible to the southwest from the end of evening twilight until it sets around 9/9:30 pm or so.  Good luck!

I performed lens tests with Comet C/2-013 R1 Lovejoy in 2013. I've put together a time-lapse video today to show you how they did. I've uploaded the video to YouTube here:

+NASA Goddard has produced a cool visualization showing how Comet Siding Spring will pass Mars, in this video:

Friday, October 17, 2014

Fall Colors Report for Eastern Sierra Mono County October 16, 2014

Eastern Sierra fall colors, Mono County October 8, 2014
The latest reports are saying that many locations survived this week's wind storms better expected, and although there are many many bare trees at higher elevations, there are also colorful ones and others which still have green and will continue to change over the next 1-2 weeks. So it looks like we'll have prime conditions in Mono County this week, as good as it's going to get.

Here in Antelope Valley at 5000 feet elevation in the northern end of Mono County, the cottonwood trees are just starting to turn, so the Walker/Coleville/Topaz area could be nice for those in 1-3 weeks.   and I hope to get out to check current conditions further south in the county later today or tomorrow, and hopefully meet up with some of the folks we've met through photography in recent years.

These images of colorful aspen trees were taken in Mono County last week October 9, before the winds.

More fall colors photos from the Eastern Sierra:


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

500px Wants Your Feedback

How has the site 500px been for you lately?
Do you like their new Groups functionality?

They want your feedback, follow the link in their tweet to the questionnaire:
See you there!

Friday, September 26, 2014

Eastern Sierra Fall Colors Report September 2014

Fall colors near Bishop, CA Saturday, September 20, 2014
Fall colors are getting underway in the Eastern Sierra.  These are some of the better locations I found last weekend down in the Bishop area.  The aspen were still mainly green, especially nearly all of the larger trees off of steep hillsides, but for the next two weekends conditions should continue to spread the color to more trees at a wider diversity of elevations.

I say "should' because at this point in the transition to color, the big variable becomes wind.  If a storm blows through, the turned leaves can blow down.  Similarly, extreme cold can make the leaves go directly to brown.  So if you can only get up there on weekends, consider the next two for the Bishop area (especially Bishop Creek and Rock Creek), but do check the weather forecast and factor that in if you can only pick one.

The examples on this page were all taken Saturday, September 20.
Eastern Sierra Fall Colors 2014

Friday, September 19, 2014

California Landscape Photography Guide Book

Draft cover for my upcoming guide book to Southern California landscape photography
This is the draft cover for my upcoming guide book to landscape photography from Yosemite to San Diego.I started this journey in September 2006, putting whatever belongings I could fit in my SUV and dropping them off at a storage locker, before going on the road with a copy of "Photographing Southwest, Volume 1 - A guide to the natural landmarks of Southern Utah" by +Laurent Martres.  I went on the road full time as my divorce started. Landscape photography, and that book, got me through a lot of rough times in the next few years. In a sense you could say that they saved my life. Imagine my surprise when I started a Mono Lake and Yosemite regional guide, contacted Laurent since he didn't have a California book, and by coincidence he was just about to hire someone to write a book to cover those locations through San Diego!

I spent the next few years living out of the back of my car, returning to spend weeks with my kids, and to bring them out to explore America's incredible landscapes with me.  On one hand it killed me to be separated from them sometimes for weeks at at time, but on the other hand it was crystal clear that the days with them were precious, so I went out of my way to dedicate those days to them, and engage them in the exploration of places of unique geology and geography and almost overwhelming beauty.  I'm very fortunate that they seem to have developed some of the same curiosity and thirst for exploration and adventure that I enjoy.

All my life I've been drawn to nature and landscapes, growing up exploring the woods, ponds, mountains and coast of New England.  Our family hiked the peaks of Colorado and the boardwalks around Yellowstone's geyser basins curing our move to California, where the grand scale of the High Sierra, Mojave Desert and Pacific Ocean begged for attention.  In a sense my explorations over the years leading up to this project mirrored that legacy, as I shared with my children many of the same discoveries that my parents had led me to.  Custody days for me aren't a burden, they're a priceless privilege.  Gaining perspective on what's important in life is something that can never come too soon.  

I could travel the world in search of soaring mountains, searing deserts with massive sand dunes, wave-pounded seashores or forests with astonishingly massive trees, but that's all within a day's drive.  You can search the world or Oz to fill some perceived need, but for anyone lucky enough to have both family and Southern California nearby, there's truly no place like home.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What Lights Are in Your Light Painting Bag?

What's in your light painting bag?
A lot of my lights are re-purposed from camping, backpacking, cycling, astronomy, and so on.  A lot of the colored lights I use are from Dollar Tree or  I get asked a lot about what gear I used for a particular shot, so I store a lot of my purchases in an "Astore" on +Amazon.com
Your use of that link supports my work and blog.

What lights do you use?

Here are some of mine, shown above:

A. - Glow stick light wands - They are available in at least 6 colors plus a color-changing variety.  About $5 each.  Move them through the air or hide them inside things ot color the interior.

B. - Book reading lights - When you tie them to a string, spin them in a circle then rotate the circle to trace an orb sphere in the air, the plastic color shines through.  $1 each at +Dollar Tree@DollarTree
C. - Electroluminescent wire, also known as "El wire" - 9 foot sections of wire which glow in the dark.  About $5-10.  Whip it up and down to make "fire", move it along the ground to make "smoke".

D. - Stanley FatMax spotlight or Black&Decker - Millions of candlepower, two beam widths, very long battery life (haven't had to recharge it in months).  Great for chasing bears out of your yard or campsite.  About $50.

E. - Inova LED light - Great for light orbs, also for projecting small amounts of colored light onto objects.  About $7-9 each.
F. - LED Lenser RGB LED flashlight - Four on/off switches so you can mix and match colors.  About $40, may be marketed under Coast brand now.  Paint different areas of a scene with different colors.

G. - LED tea lights - The waterproof ones are very bright, either cool white or amber (orange).  The fake flame ones have more reasonable illumination on dark nights, and come in a warm yellow or a slightly warm white.  About $1 each in small quantities, but as little as $0.50 in larger quantities.

H. - LED under-cabinet lights - For your kitchen, or anywhere else you want a beam of light.  $1 each at Dollar Tree.I. - Green laser - Super bright, potentially dangerous to the eyes, not a toy.  Shines a bright beam for miles.  If an airplane thinks you're pointing it at them, you'll be reported to Homeland Security as a terrorist.  I bought mine at +Fry's Electronics, should be available at as well

J. - A Brinkman model, runs on AAA batteries.

K. - Small LED camping lantern.  About $10.

L. - Kukoda Track solar charging LED panels - Manufactured by +Flexiway Solar Solutions for the Kokoda Track Foundation, which is replacing kerosene lamps for residents of Papua New Guinea.  

M. - Colorful plastic film for coloring white lights - $1 at Dollar Tree.

N. - Cool white LED lights - I found these for $1 each in a 6-pack at +The Home Depot.

O. - Bike LED lights, white and red - Removable so they don't get stolen.  I bought mine at the Reno Bike Project, about $5-10 each.

P. - LED Light wand - Very bright, with the notable feature of having a magnetic side opposite the lights, so you can position this light firmly inside of rusty metal objects.  About $10 at Fry's Electronics,

Q. - MiniMag flashlight - Classic warm, incandescent bulb.  Easy to manage (enclose front in your hand) for adjusting camera settings, walking and only shining where your footsteps need to go, without spilling light all over town (like a headlamp).  A value leader at $10.
R. - LED MiniMag flashlight - Very bright, cool white.  About $30.

S. - Small "kids" headlamp - Small, light, compact, bright.  Thankfully no red mode which destroys everyone's foreground nearby if you accidentally turn it on.  About $12 as sale item in the clearance section of  +Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI)

T. - Mini-LED headlamp - Super small and light, I use this for hands-free use around camp when backpacking.

U. - UV headlamp - also has white and green modes.  I specifically bought this for hunting scoprions in the dunes in Death Valley.  Use UV-blocking eye protection.

I'll have to work on posts which illustrate more sample uses for many of these types of lights.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Chrome Extension Shows Klout Scores in Your Twitter Feed

Sometimes when new people start interacting with you on social media you don't have a lot of context.  Or with people you may have been connected to for a while, how active are they?  You can only keep track of roughly up to 150 relationships in your life, so for online interaction, a number of tools have been developed to help you make sense of the rest.

You may be familiar with +Klout, which ranks people for their activity and interactions online.  It has some drawbacks, like over-ranking people for activity volume rather than content quality, and failing to demote serial copyright violators who mainly re-upload others' images, but for a brief glimpse it at least tells you if they are active on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Google+.  A Klout score of 70 or above for example indicates a ranking in the top 10% of social media users.

Here are a couple of examples, the one above looking at +Andy Hawbaker's Twitter feed and  the one below looking at the feed for +Sierra Trading Post:
I took a look at their Twitter feeds after Sierra Trading Post licensed one of my photos for an article on night photography.  I like giving back, so I went to Sierra Trading Post and bought clothing from +Columbia Sportswear and fishing gear from +Ross Reels , +Umpqua Feather Merchants+frogg toggs and others.  Thanks Sierra Trading Post for using my photo, for helping me upgrade my clothing and gear!

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Mars, Saturn and Moon Conjunction Over Bodie's 1937 Chevy August 30

Mars, Saturn and the moon over Bodie's 1937 Chevy on August 30
I wrote a blog post last week about the opportunity to capture the moon, Mars and Saturn on the evenings of August 30 and 31.  This is the shot I planned with +The Photographer's Ephemeris to place them over the rusty 1937 Chevy in California's Bodie State Historic Park.

Moments earlier I had been catching sunset on Main Street, and Mars and Saturn were just becoming visible over the DeChambeau Hotel:

Mars and Saturn become visible to the left of the Moon over Main Street in Bodie 

It's fairly easy to plan for interesting photos to capture these astronomical events if you use any one of a number of astronomy or astrophotography planning applications to anticipate potential compositions.  I mentioned several in my blog post last week:
For The Photographer's Ephemeris, check out the new Web version of TPE, since Google has retired the version of Google Maps used in the prior desktop app.

Monday, September 01, 2014

The Redemption of High Dynamic Range (HDR) Software

Joshua tree in Hidden Valley, Joshua Tree National Park
When I captured the image above in early 2009, I used a Canon EOS 40D.  Although that was the first Canon camera marketed as producing 14-bit RAW files, it wasn't always clear from the results that it was producing the implied 4X more color resolution compared to prior models producing RAW files with 12-bits of information.  This is the original single exposure image, fully post-processed recently in Adobe Lightroom 5.  In that single exposure result I was frustrated by the relative lack of detail in the shadows, and the highlights are lacking in detail as well, so the dynamic range, the ability of the camera to capture a wide range of bright to dark light values, is clearly inadequate.

Fortunately the image was captured in a 3-exposure sequence, so as I revisit the images from that day now, over 5 years later, I can try post-processing it using a current version of Photomatix HDR software which offers a "natural" mode which produces fewer artifacts than prior versions did..  One thing that is clear is that there is a significant amount of shadow and highlight detail present in the scene which is brought back into the HDR result.

3 exposures post-processed in Photomatix HDR software

I had been unable to produce an acceptable result for this image in 2009, but using current tools, significant highlight and shadow detail can be recovered.  High Dynamic Range software is finally getting to the point where it can produce high dynamic range.

Six days before I had captured this photo, I had written a blog post including the following:
"Many people vilify HDR; I don't get it. Most people play guitar poorly, but that won't keep me from enjoying the work of many talented guitarists. Of course everyone's entitled to their opinion and their own tastes. If classical music fans want to say, 'Ugh, I think I hear a guitar in that piece!', or photography fans want to say 'Ugh, Galen Rowell used graduated neutral density filters!', that's their privilege. Surely HDR software will get better and better at expanding dynamic range while producing unobtrusive results, and as that value is delivered for more and more shots, I'll have terabytes of exposure-bracketed images to draw upon."
Why Would Anyone Use HDR? It's Unreal!
While the degree to which the HDR processing itself is still noticeable is open for discussion, I didn't care for the original which was overly light and dark at the same time, so this strikes me as an improvement.  It is also a good example of that concept I proposed which proposes that future advances in software may help us overcome current limitations in hardware, provided that you record more data than your camera can capture in a single exposure.  The way to do that is to capture an exposure-bracketed sequence, where you capture both darker and lighter exposures than your best attempt at a single exposure.

At that point in 2009 I was using HDR software roughly 80% of the time, in spite of its crude state and sometimes objectionable artifacts.  Shortly after upgrading to a Canon 5D Mark II, with a full frame sensor and much better dynamic range,  I was able to quickly drive my HDR usage down to 10% and then 2-3%.  HDR could still rescue images which could not be salvaged in single exposure form, so it remained one of many tools at my disposal, but it became more of a tool of last resort than a key piece of my workflow.  

Unfortunately by that point the use of HDR had developed negative connotations with many photographers, so in 2011 I felt the need to explain my rationale for using it at all:
"Some photographers have fallen in love with High Dynamic Range (HDR) post-processing, producing dramatic but strange results. Other photographers dismiss the often wacky-looking HDR results as 'technicolor vomit' and note that any monkey can move a slider in software to make a scene look strange, the talent lies in making a single, flat camera exposure look more like what we experienced onsite. Unfortunately, the range of light present, the dynamic range of the scene, is often far beyond what a single camera exposure can capture. So like so many polarized debates these days, the prudent path may lie somewhere in between. " 
HDR Isn't Just a Crutch, or a Crime 
As I look back now, with improved HDR software providing even more useful utility, as I try to process photos from my pre-2009 cameras I still have challenges producing excellent results from some of the lighting conditions I found myself shooting in.  So although my own pendulum of HDR use swung from strong support to a bias against it, as my use is rising again it's still a centrist view: I'll use it when it's useful, and it is becoming more useful.

Merced River Calm
HDR 2014, Canon Digital Rebel XTi photo captured November 2006
If you decide to buy Photomatix, you can get a 15% discount by using the coupon code JeffSullivan when you by it from its publisher HDRsoft:

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Racetrack "Sailing Stones" Witnessed... Mystery Solved!

"Sailing stone" on the Racetrack, Death Valley
In one of the enduring mysteries of the world, people have long wondered how rocks move across a horizontal dry lake bed surface in Death Valley National Park.

People have offered a variety of theories on how the rocks moved, with the first scientific study in 1948 suggesting dust devils.

More recently, high winds were suggested:

Using Differential GPS to Map the "Sliding" Rocks of Racetrack Playa
"So the evidence suggests that strong gusts of wind and swirling dust devils, in combination with a slick playa surface may set even the heaviest the rocks in motion. Off they go, scooting along downwind until friction slows them down and they come to rest. There the stones wait for the next time when slippery mud and wind spur them into action again."

In 2008 Ralph Lorenz of Johns Hopkins University proposed that the rocks moved when embedded in bouyant "ice cakes", as had been witnessed in tidal areas in the arctic.
"The stones partially embedded in the floating ice rise slightly above the bottom with the increasing level of water. Both the friction between the ice and water and between the stones and the bed are very small, so that blowing wind with some intensity pushes the ice (and the rocks embedded). If the stones and mud at the bottom have a light touch, the dragged stones leave a trail that remains once the ice has melted and the water has evaporated."

Would magically energetic rocks look like this when moving?
Having seen many of the prior theories, I offered the following explanation on April 1, 2010:
"Their secret... an internal power source!  They glow as they move.  Who knew?"

My April Fools Day theory didn't gain much traction. It was fun to illustrate though!

Fortunately there were some much more serious people working on the case, so on December 21, 2013, Richard and James Norris were present to see standing water frozen on the lake bed, and to see and hear the ice cracking as the ice started to melt, then wind blew the ice sheet with the rocks embedded.  You can read the full account in today's story in the +Los Angeles Times:

Mystery of how rocks move across Death Valley lake bed solved

I had actually predicted that mode of movement after reading an article on the stones in +National Geographic seven years ago, as I mentioned in this comment on +Flickr:
"I don't believe that 700 pound rocks can move by wind alone; I think they need to be trapped in floating ice, melting along the shore, that far outweighs them and which also catches the wind. Even the heaviest rocks are inconsequential when a solid lake surface that weighs many tons starts shifting in the wind."

I didn't exactly run up there to photograph it... Ice, high winds, while access to the area may be limited, what's not to like about that?   There are some good reasons why no one has been there to see it!

Z truth is out there...
Now that the mystery is solved, will this end the pilgrimage of people wanting to see these rocks, now that the mystery is gone?  The National Park Service worries that the news may actually increase traffic.

Will the end to the mystery stop people from stealing the rocks, with the hope that they have magical powers?

Of course not.  The proposal that the rocks don't have magical powers could simply be a government cover-up, right?  The sale of tinfoil hats to Death Valley visitors will be greater than ever.

Update 7 pm:
Here's a video which includes a sequence showing a rock moving.  Jump forward to 2:58 if you want to go straight there:

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Plan Your Moon, Mars, Saturn Conjunction Photo August 30 & 31

Shooting the moon, Mars and Saturn over Bodie's 1937 Chevy at 9 pm, Saturday August 30, 2014
Last weekend offered the opportunity to shoot the crescent moon near Jupiter and Venus.  Now that the new moon has passed, as the crescent moon moves into the evening sky, we have the opportunity to catch the moon with Mars and Saturn on consecutive nights.  The first night will be August 30, when the moon will be roughly 11 degrees high at 9 pm (here at 38 degrees latitude) as the sky gets dark, near bright star Spica and west of the two planets.  The screen shot from +The Photographer's Ephemeris ("TPE", free on a PC) shows a possible composition shooting over the 1937 Chevy in Bodie State Historic Park.  The park closes after 6 pm, but we're bringing a group in for a night photography workshop, so the crescent moon and planet conjunction event is a nice bonus opportunity for us.

The even tighter and more interesting configuration will be on the following night August 31 when the moon joins Saturn and Mars to form a close triangle.  At 9 o'clock for mid-northern latitudes the moon will be southwest and roughly 17 degrees high, moving westward and setting over the next hour.

To plan some shots for this celestial event, you can use apps such as The Photographer's Ephemeris, +PhotoPills , StarWalk and Sky Safari+:
StarWalk Screen showing conjunction August 31
Here's a screen shot from the StarWalk app showing the relative positions of Mars, Saturn and the moon. (The appearance of them on the screen is not to scale.)  Using this app to see the relative position of the three objects, then using TPE or PhotoPills to pick natural landmarks on the horizon or man-made objects in your foreground to place them over, you can plan for some interesting compositions well in advance.  A wide shot to capture a foreground subject might work well at 14-24mm, while a telephoto composition might range from 50 mm to 200mm.  You can capture individual planets or the moon at longer focal lengths.  I may use my crop sensor Canon 70D to get an extra effective 1.6X magnification, so my 70-200 mm lens with 2X teleconverter shooting at 400 mm will produce an effective 640 mm.

Saturn over Mars (upper right)
You can scout potential locations for your shot all week, just look for the red light of Mars to the southwest as darkness falls, in the evening about an hour after sunset, and Saturn is the bright planet just to the right of Mars.  This is a location I scouted and ruled out earlier this week due in part to excessive light pollution just out of frame to the right.  Mars is the red planet in the upper right (and even easier to see in the reflection), while Saturn is just to the right.  The crescent moon between and above them will make a tight grouping, so I should bring my Canon 50 mm f/1.4 and 85 mm f/1.8 lenses to be able to use wider apertures and lower ISO settings for less noisy results.

A handy planning site for the Moon, Mars, Saturn conjunction event on August 31 tries to recognize your location to be able to give accurate times for visibility of Saturn in the evening, as well as set times for Saturn, the moon and Mars: