Monday, May 31, 2010

Five Years Of Astrophotography

My very first true astrophoto, taken May 31, 2005

For anyone who has even just breezed through this website while randomly surfing around, it should be readily apparent that I am an astrophotographer, just look at all the images (there are actually many, many more than posted, but to get them all here would take a year)! When it comes to shooting the stars, I am anything but alone in the pursuit of what is, for many, a lifelong obsession. While being an astropgotographer is anything but unique, how many astrophotographers can say exactly, where, when, and how it all began? Probably not many.

It was exactly 5 years ago today (at 9:42pm EDT to be specific) that I took what rightly can be called my first true astrophoto. Sure, I'd gotten pictures of the Moon before, buy anyone with any camera can do that, no special skill required. These were my first astro shots requiring special knowledge.

It was Tuesday, May 31, 2005. I was finishing up high school, and I was in a journalism class and had signed out one of the cameras (to cover what, I don't remember). That night I decided to turn the camera toward the stars. I had been reading up on astrophotography (of the film variety) for quite some time, however, I didn't have any camera besides an instant Polaroid at the time. Rats! So, knowing that this was probably my last chance to get my hands on a real camera for the foreseeable future, it was now or never to try some astrophotography.

The camera was an ancient (even in 2005) Sony Mavica, circa 2000. Long relegated to the bargain bin at local camera stores (and maybe to the garbage bin in the near future now that Sony is stopping production of floppy discs, which is this camera's storage medium), in their time, the big 14x zoom Mavicas set the standard for serious digital cameras. It was time to see what kind of astro cam one would be (it only had a 2 second minimum shutter speed).

Heading out into the driveway with the tripod, I set my sight on the brightest thing in the sky that night, Jupiter, then in the constellation of Virgo. The camera went on the tripod, I equipped the self-timer, zoomed in somewhat, focused on a far away light, then swung up the camera toward the king of the planets. The camera took the picture and sure enough, upon playback, Jupiter was captured as a perfect dot with two stars, Porrima (left) and Zaniah (right).

This was cool!

Not content with just Jupiter, I set my sights on some other celestial targets. Keeping with Jupiter, I zoomed in all the way and tried another shot. Much to my amazement, some of Jupiter's moons came out in the picture! Despite being my one of my first photos, this is still a favorite.

Before the night was out, I finished up by snagging Jupiter and Spica, Vega and Deneb, and lastly, Saturn with Pollux and Castor just above some shrubbery as they sat in the West. As a last astrophoto, I also managed to get the waning crescent Moon as I was getting dropped off for school the next morning.

Looking back, these photos are nothing in terms of technical quality, but everyone has to start somewhere and this is where I started five years, and thousands of photos ago.

Jupiter and Moons

Saturn, Pollux, and Castor

Spica and Jupiter
Deneb and Vega
Waning crescent Moon

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

My 4th Anniversary

It was 4 years ago yesterday that something very special for two reasons occurred: first, I managed to photograph a 19 hour old Moon, a rare event in itself. Second, I sent my picture in to just after making the twilight snap and guess what, the next day I was front page news! My photo was the headline image for Spaeweather's front page!
How cool is that?

Here's the image:

Here's the link to Spaceweather's archives (how cool is the fact taht they keep all this old stuff?)
And the best part of it all is that YOU can get on the front page of Spaceweather as well! See something cool? Shoot it and send it. You may just wind up making front page news, too. Good luck!

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

New Comet Coming To The Summer Sky

Northern Hemisphere observers may get a nice comet in the sky this summer. Discovered last year, Comet C/2009 R1 McNaught will be making an appearance in the pre-dawn sky this June and July. Some estimates are placing it at around +5 magnitude brightness, within the realm of naked-eye visibility.

So, keep your eyes on the sky and web, as comets are notoriously unpredictable. This fact is exemplified by the Comet Holmes outburst of 2007 and the great Comet McNaught of 2006-7.

Below is orbital data for the newest Comet McNaught

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Hubble Telescopes Catches Planet Eating Star In The Act

WASP-12b being devoured by its star. NASA image.

Old telescopes can learn new tricks and this fact was put in the spotlight recently by a new discovery made by the Hubble Space Telescope. Using instruments installed in 2009, Hubble has discovered a planet that is in the process of being devoured by its parent star.

The planet, WASP-12b, was first discovered in 2008 and has the highest recorded surface temperature of any planet to date, 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit. Why so hot? The planet is so close to its star (about 2 million miles away) that it orbits it in just over a day! Needless to say, we should look elsewhere for life. The planet is also about 40 times as massive as Jupiter. These discoveries were all and good until 2009, when some new gear was added to Hubble.

In the last service mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, due to be replaced in the near future, astronauts added an instrument called the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph. The new instrument immediately revealed some new information about WASP-12b:

The planet is doomed.

Using the new Hubble add-on, scientists quickly determined that the planet was being thrown into a highly eccentric (oval) orbit around its parent star. Even more remarkable is the fact that the planet is egg-shaped (from tidal forces) and that there is a huge cloud of material around the planet, which confirms a theory written in a paper last year stating that, as a planet gets too close to its star, its surface will be ripped away and it the atmosphere will expand, too. Using the spectrograph, scientists have found elements never seen outside our solar system before, too.

Want to watch the planet get swallowed? Well, don't get too excited. This will be a long process that scientists estimate will fully take place in the next 10 million years. Oh yes, the action is taking place about 600 light years away.

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

In Depth Review: Olympus Stylus 550WP Rugged Compact

The Olympus Stylus 550WP Rugged Compact

Rugged compact cameras are nothing new, so at first glance, the Olympus Stylus 550WP doesn't seem to be anything special. However, that all changes upon seeing the price: sub $100. So with such a low price and big promise, the question obviously arises: is this cheap weatherproof camera any good or not? Continue reading to find out!

Tech Specs:
Max Resolution: 10Mp CCD
Sensor Size: 6.13 x 4.6mm
Pixel Density: 36Mp/sq. cm
Lens: 6.7-20.1mm f3.5-5.0 (38-114mm film equivalent)
Closest Focus: 2.75 in.
Digital Zoom: Yes, 5x
Stabilization: Digital
Shutter Speed: 1/1000th to 1/2 second (up to 4 sec. in night scene mode)
ISO: 64, 100-1600 in single stops
Exposure Compensation +/- 2 EV in 1/3 stop increments
Movie Mode: Yes, 640x480, 320x240, 15 or 30fps
Viewfinder: Live view LCD
LCD Screen: 2.5 inch, 230,000 dot
Noise Reduction: Auto on exposures over 1/2 second
Flash: Built in
Focus Modes: Auto, Face Detection
White Balance: Auto, 6 manual settings
File Format: JPEG, AVI motion JPEG (movie)
File Size Options: 7
Shooting Modes: 17
Self Timer: 12 sec.
Storage: xD card, Micro SD with adapter
USB Speed: 2.0
Power: lithium Ion rechargeable battery
Dimensions: 3.7 x 2.4 x 0.9 inches
Weight: 5.9 oz. loaded
Body Material: Metal

Those funny looking rubber things on the inside of compartment doors act as weather seals

Build Quality 5/5
The 550 is very "dense" feeling for a pocket camera. The camera is all metal in its construction, including the lens shield, which flips up diagonally to cover the lens itself. The real plus of this camera is, of course, it's "WP" water proof designation. To meet this promise, Olympus has installed a non-extending lens, locking compartment doors (top right for USB cable, bottom right for memory card and battery) with rubber seals, and, unseen to the eye, rubber seals inside the casing underneath all the buttons. The sealing is so strong that Olympus rates the camera as waterproof to 10 feet, perfect for shallow water snorkeling. While I have not used it underwater, I can say that this thing shrugs off rain without a problem, as it should.

The camera from front, back, and top
External Controls 4/5
All of the buttons on the Olympus Stylus 550WP are on the top and right side of the back. While not a control in itself, there is threading for a tripod on the bottom of the camera, slightly off set from the center and nowhere near the center point of the lens. The buttons are laid out in such a way that it is possible to operate the camera entirely with one hand. When it comes to the buttons, it's a mixed bag. Some of the buttons are quite large and well designed while others are tiny and require precision when pressing. On the top of the camera lies the power and shutter release button, which are perfect in illustrating the last statement. While the shutter release is large and well raised from the surface, the shutter release is tiny and almost flush with the camera.

Moving to the back, the Stylus 550WP has all of its buttons arranged to the right of its 2.5", 230,000 dot LCD screen. Again, the buttons are a mixed bag in terms of user-friendliness here, too. The zoom for the lens (top), display change, middle, and the four gray buttons (quick mode change, playback, menu, and delete) buttons are very nicely done in texture and size, as all are quite large and well raised from the camera itself. The other controls, the dual 4-way controller and the set button in the middle, are tiny by comparison and require precise pressing. This is a bare-hands only camera because of these buttons. Besides serving as the 4-way controller buttons while in the menu, these tiny, oval buttons have other functions, which are macro settings (off, macro, super macro), the 10 second self-timer, exposure compensation (+/- 2 stops in 1/3 stop increments), and flash (auto, off, fill, red eye reduction).

Menus 5/5
To access this menu, press the "menu" button on the rear of the camera. Upon pressing, one sees a screen with icons. Text at the top of the screen displays in words what the icon means so no one has to play guess and press. The options to choose from are image quality (resolution, compression), setup, shooting modes, and a reset option. Why the fifth, non-functioning option with the red line through it is there, I have no clue. Once a category of options is chosen, the menu becomes all text, with the highlighted option's menu box becoming yellow. To choose a setting, press the central, circular "ok" button. The nice thing about breaking the menu into 4 parts is the fact that this eliminates the seemingly endless scrolling required on other cameras where the menu is just a long, single string of options.

LCD Display 5/5
Besides serving as the viewfinder, the LCD screen on the Olympus Stylus 550WP does display some vital shooting settings. On the lower left of the LCD screen is a menu system that can be accessed without losing the live view function, a nice touch, indeed. This on-screen menu allows for controlling white balance, ISO, resolution, and compression. Press "Ok" to enter the menu. From there, use the up/down toggle buttons to select menu options, the highlighted option will appear in yellow text. Again, choosing entitles pressing the "ok" button at the center of the 4-way controller. Once chosen, use the toggle buttons again to select your desired setting, pressing "ok" to confirm the decision.

Another feature of the LCD display is accessed through pressing the oval "disp" button located between the zoom and the rest of the buttons on the rear of the camera. By pressing the button, one can choose what is to appear on the LCD screen while in live view mode. Options include nothing at all, camera settings, or a combination of settings and a grid, which lends itself to the rule of thirds and getting horizons horizontal.

Autofocus Operation 3/5
Considering what it is, the Olympus Stylus 550WP does a respectable job in the autofocus department, just don't go shooting any moving subjects with it, after all, this is a P&S camera, not a SLR. Speed is not the fastest around, but accuracy at all but the closest distances is absolutely first rate. This camera is so good that I can use it for astrophotography by utilizing the self timer, aiming at distant trees (dusk) or lights (night), and then swinging the camera up to the sky for the shot. Focus is achieved through a single, non-moving box in the middle of the screen. Press the shutter half way to focus until the box blinks green, then press the shutter button all the way to take the picture. In operation, focus is quite quiet, as is shutter operation. The bad news is that there is no focus assist light anywhere on the camera. The good news is that the camera really doesn't need it, as it can be an astrocam. Now for the bad news. . .

The autofocus is truly hit or miss at close, macro distances. Whether this is a function of the AF mechanism itself (does not focus at closest focus and then focus out, but focuses far away and must focus down) or because of the large focus zone (not point) I cannot say. The result of this is that this camera misses focus by a lot a good percent of the time at macro distances. The good news is that the camera is either dead on or way off, off so much that the false focus lock is easily discernible just by looking at the LCD screen.

Optics 3/5
The Olympus Stylus 550WP comes with a 6.7-20.1mm (38-112 film equivalent) f3.5-5 zoom lens. Remarkably, the lens does not extend while zooming. Now it's time to look at its optical characteristics.
The lens is, strangely, at its overall best on the long end, the very point where most camera lenses are at their weakest. At all focal lengths, there is a large sweet spot in the center of the frame, a good start. First, center of the frame sharpness. At the center of the frame, the lens is equally sharp at wide angle and mid zoom. On the tele end, sharpness falloff in the center is slight. Moving half way to the corner, the story changes. The center is unquestionably the sharpest of the three tested zoom ranges. There is some sharpness falloff at mid zoom and a little more at the telephoto end. Now comes the telephoto end of the zoom, and a big surprise. Looking at the wide and mid focal length pattern, one would expect the corner sharpness pattern to be this: wide angle to be best, followed by the mid zoom, and finally the full tele end. Wrong. In a surprise finding, the telephoto end is by far the best in the extreme corners. Wide angle comes in a distant second and mid zoom a close third. Bottom line, center and mid frame sharpness is best at wide angle but the corners are the best at full zoom.

The full test shot

Center sharpness crops

Mid frame sharpness crops

Telephoto sharpness crops

The distortion of the lens in the Olympus Stylus 550WP goes through the full range of distortions. On the wide end, there is some bulge due to barrel distortion. By the middle of the range, pincushion distortion takes over, though it is nowhere near as obvious. At the tele end of the lens, distortion has effectively disappeared. Now, in regular shooting, this probably won't be obvious, just avoid putting straight lines at the top/bottom and sides of the frame at the wide end. After all, real photographers don't shoot graph paper of brick walls, do they?

Distortion crops (wide angle is top, mid zoom middle, and telephoto bottom)

Telescopes come with a warning stating that, basically, looking at the Sun with them can cause irreversible damage to one's eyes. This camera should come with a similar warning stating that, when pointed at bright point sources of light, irreversible damage to your pictures can result. Basically put, this thing flares, sometimes subtly, other times dramatically. Bottom line: avoid bright lights in and near the frame of your shot.

Try and avoid bright point sources of light in your photos

Still flaring with the light near the frame

Chromatic Aberration
CA is very well controlled in the lens. The below photo (or optical torture test) of dark tree against bright sky proves this fact explicitly.

The full shot

A really heavy crop

Noise 3/5
Yes, the Olympus Stylus 550WP is a small sensor camera, which means that it will not be characterized by low noise performance. ISO can be adjusted in single stop increments ranging from 100 to 1600. Instead of looking at how good the camera is across the ISO range, the tale here is about seeing just how far one can go before noise becomes objectionable.

ISO 100
At lowest manual ISO setting, the images from the Stylus 550WP are crisp and clean. All of those 10 million pixels are going to good use.

ISO 200
The tale is still the same at ISO 200 in regards to detail, but colors lose a bit of saturation.

ISO 400
By cranking up the sensitivity to 400, image quality starts to degrade a bit. Those fine details that made the images really 'pop' at 100 and 200 are starting to be smeared away by the in-camera noise reduction. However, for a small sensor P&S, things aren't that bad just yet. Colors deteriorate further.

ISO 800
There is a huge gap between IASO 400 and 800 in the detail department: at ISO 800, all the fine details are just about smeared away, leaving an out of focus-looking image. Color saturation is even worse than before.

ISO 1600
At the camera's top setting is ISO 1600, which should be regarded as for emergency use only. Even when viewed in full, IQ degradation is obvious. At full blowup, the images look like a smeared mess. Whatever little fine detail that was left at 800 is gone, grain in starting to really seep into the image, and color rendition is abysmal.
The full test shot (ISO 100)

Heavy crops at all ISOs

Auto White Balance: 4/5
The auto white balance setting does a respectable job in most situations that the camera will encounter. In addition to auto, the Olympus Stylus 550WP has six more settings: sunlight, cloudy, incandescent/tungsten lighting, and three fluorescent light settings. So how do they all work?

In bright sun and under thick cloud cover, just leave the camera on the 'auto 'setting, as differences in color rendition is minimal. Why no pictures? It's just that hard to tell them apart.

Under fluorescent lighting, the camera continues to perform well, although you may, if picky, want to play with the settings a bit. For most though, 'auto' will be good enough if one can put up with a slight blue tinge. For those who demand the best, in my experience, fluorescent setting 2 is the best, as setting 1 can sometimes leave warm-looking images and three always, in my experience, leaves a pinkish cast.

Under incandescent lighting, the camera misses the white balance boat by a mile as pictures will have a very strong yellow hue to them. So when in this type of lighting environment, manual selection of white balance is a must, just don't forget to reset once you leave! With the incandescent/tungsten setting selected, the camera will render accurate colors without a problem.
White balance under incandescent lighting

White balance under fluorescent lighting

Responsiveness 2/5
Besides the ability to put out a great picture a camera needs to be responsive to its user, here, the Olympus Stylus 550WP is a bit of a slow poke. AF speed is on the leisurely side, but it is made up for by the incredible accuracy. Everything else follows suit. Once the shutter button is pressed, the LCD screen goes dark, and seemingly remains that way for an eternity. This is clearly a camera for slow shooting situations as this camera won't be winning any awards for shooting speed. The same is true of playback, both in getting the playback to start and then moving through the images. Shutter lag is a big problem. Want to dive into the menu? Be prepared to wait a moment while the LCD switches mode. However, while the afore mentioned issues of slow operation are minor pain, the real problem with this camera is the shutter lag. Besides taking its good old time to play back images and go into menu mode, the camera also takes its time taking pictures themselves, not good. Even on other P&S cams, picture taking is much faster than it is here. Now for some good news, the on screen control settings (ISO white balance, file size, compression, and display style itself) are very quick to go into action when the buttons are pressed. Overall though, this camera, even for its own class, is no speed demon.

Value 5/5
In a crowded field full of pocket cameras, the Olympus Stylus 550WP doesn't stand out in any particular way except for one thing: weather sealing. With that, the camera vaults from an also-ran to a best buy. This is the cheapest waterproof camera on the market, period. The nearest competition costs around $150. Sure, the Olympus has not always been so cheap, but it is now, sometimes selling for under $90. About the only way to go cheaper for this class of camera is to buy used.

Competition wise, the biggest threats to the Olympus Stylus 550WP come from the higher grade rugged compacts. Sure, this camera is a lot tougher than many of its pocket-sized cousins, but there are still tougher cameras above it, though. This camera is waterproof to 10 feet, but others can go about 3 times as deep. That, coupled with added toughness in more extreme temperature, shock/drop resistance, and even crush proofing to a degree suddenly makes the 550WP look a little on the wimpy side. However, that added durability comes at a cost, literally, with the toughest of the tough P&S cams costing around $400. The big question when buying a rugged compact is "how tough do I want it to be and how much am I willing to pay?" That's a question we all need to answer ourselves after considering our needs and before laying down the cash.

The good news first. The build quality is the headline feature here. The $100 P&S is better built than some $1,000 dSLRs! Think about it, this camera has full weather sealing and locking compartment doors. My Canon 30D ($1300 intro price) has no weather sealing and a flimsy rubber thing covering all the connection points! Frankly, it should be the other way around! Big selling point aside, there's a lot of other things to like. The menu system, broken into four main, short sections, is great because it prevents needless scrolling through a long, single menu. The on-screen settings are also a nice touch, as are the dual function 4-way controller buttons and the ability to change display options on the LCD screen while shooting. Another good point to the camera is the control layout, which makes it possible to operate the camera with a single hand, something that people on the go will appreciate. The non-extending lens is also a nice touch that also eliminates the extension motors needed to move the lens in and out as it zooms. These motors are typically the first thing to fail on such a camera. Last but not least, there's the unbeatable price, too.

Now to the bad stuff. While the layout of the camera is quite nice on paper, responsiveness is the biggest problem with the tough little Olympus. Basically, Olympus needed to, but failed to give these cameras a kick in the butt before they left the plant. Playback is slow, bringing up the menu is slow, and shutter lag is dreadful, as is screen blackout upon taking the picture. AF is a mixed bag: not so fast speed, stunning accuracy, but dreadful closeup performance. Optics are a mixed bag, too. Sharpness varies, resistance to chromatic aberration is high, but there is a strong tendency to flare, too. The good news is that most of these shortcomings can be avoided and/or are not relevant in most situations.

Conclusion 3.9/5:
Rating: Above Average
Taken as a whole, the Olympus Stylus 550WP is quite a camera, especially in light of its price point, but not without flaws. In conclusion, the Olympus Stylus 550WP is a camera where the benefits outweigh the costs, many of which (except sluggish responsiveness) can be overcome or ignored. For people who want a tough travel camera for any environment, this Olympus is well worth the look, especially considering its rock-bottom price tag. This price range is typically home to toy, not real cameras, which this one surely is. Personally, I love this camera. It goes where I go because I know that, when used with skill, it can deliver the goods every time and in any condition.
Where to Buy:
I bought mine at B&H Photo/Video, but they've since stopped carrying this camera
As of this writing (5/22/2010) you can still get one at Adorama for $99.99

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Meade LXD-55 RA Motor Goes Nuts: The Problem and the Fix

The Meade LXD-55 mount

As you noticed, April 2010 marked the first time in months since deep sky astrophotos appeared in the monthly gallery. Why? My Meade LXD-55 mount went nuts.

Four years ago, I bought a Meade LXD-55 mount/Orion ED80 combo on Ebay for about $500. How did I get it so cheap? The seller's friend did what was described as a "hyper tune" on the mount in an effort to improve performance. The result: the go-to got screwed up and no longer worked. However, the tracking motors worked perfectly, which was all I wanted in a mount at the time. In the intervening years, the LXD-55 has served as my trusty photographic platform for all the deep sky shots you see on this website. Then came November.

Without any warning, the right ascension (RA) motor, which compensates for the Earth's rotation during photography, started going nuts. The only speed the motor would move was on max (3 degrees a second) when I tried to move it with the controller pad. Even worse, the RA drive moved in a fast, jerky manner that made any photography impossible.

I seriously thought my mount might be toast.

Taking the mount inside, I began to wonder what could possibly be going wrong. My first thought was a stuck/bad button. Supporting this theory, my garage door opener never works as well in the cold as it does in the warm. My hope was that the controller was simply having a hard time getting used to the cold November nights. So the mount stayed inside a few nights to warm up before I took it back outside to try again.

The same thing happened. The problem was more serious.

Doing some research, I came across, and exhausted many options including: bad power sources, bad connections, and wiring problems. Nothing I did along these lines helped. That left me with the last option out there: computer issues.

At first, this didn't seem to make any sense as the computer had never been right in the first place. The mount with the messed up computer had worked perfectly fine for me for about four years so why would it go crazy now? It just didn't seem to make any sense. Despite that, I decided to go ahead and try a computer reset through the hand controller. This was the second to last option before pulling out the motors and risking screwing them up even more.

So I did the reset.

After the reset was done, a message came scrolling across the controller that the reset was finished and that the mount needed to be turned off. I did as instructed. Now I wondered if the mount was even going to work at all. Turing the mount on, the controller came to life, a good sign. Now for the real test: using the RA motor. I got the mount ready to go and nothing weird happened, so far so good. Finally, I selected a slew speed of a degree a second and hit the button to move the mount.

Success! It worked.

Now feeling that the problem was fixed, I set the mount to tracking speed and hit the button again. The result: the barely audible sound of the tracking motors operating returned. The mount was finally cured of the gremlins that had plagued it for months. It was time for deep sky astrophotography again!

Hopefully, this story of my Meade LXD-55 will find its way to someone experiencing a similar problem. A quick reset can do a lot without a costly trip back to Meade for factory service. In fact, I don't even know if Meade will service the LXD-55 now that it has been replaced by the LXD-75. Disclaimer: I am not an expert at fixing computerized mounts, I'm just a guy who likes to do astrophotography who had a mount go nuts. If you have a different kind of mount, it is important to do research based on your own equipment before trying anything drastic. However, for fellow LXD-55 users, this tale will hopefully come in handy.

Up next:
The Olympus Stylus 550WP review is almost done and should be up in a few days.

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

April 2010 Astrophotos

It's back: the Meade LXD-55 is working again (expect some information on the problem and the solution soon) and it's as good as ever. The result: for the first time in months, deep sky astrophotos of some early spring favorites. These, plus a couple of Moon shots constiture the astrophoto gallery for April. Be sure to check out the archive, too.

The Whirlpool Galaxy (M51)

The Leo Trio Galaxies (M65, M66, and NGC 3628)

The Sombrero Galaxy (M104)

Third Quarter Moon through the Tokina 100mm ATX-PRO Macro, image cropped

Rising Orange Moon with my Olympus Stylus 550WP

The Full Moon sporting spikes due to aperture blades. Taken with the Olympus again (duh, look at the noise!)

Up Next
The Stylus 550WP review is almost done, then there's the already mentioned LXD-55 saga, and who knows what else. Stay tuned, something cool is bound to show up in the next few days.

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Friday, May 14, 2010

Rare Young Moon Visible Tonight!

The sky as it will appear tonight at 8:50pm EDT

Tonight at dusk, peeking through the Sun's last rays at about 9pm EDT is a sight that many people never get to see: a young Moon, technically defined as a Moon 24 hours or less from new.

Spring is young Moon season, as the ecliptic is essentially vertical against the horizon, which means for high-flying Moons. After June, the ecliptic at dusk starts to flatten out to the point that by the time July rolls around, seeing a Moon less than a day old will become impossible. Of course, the rest of the variables have to line up just right, too. Well tonight, everything seems to be lining up just right for a chance to see one of the thinnest Moons possible.

To find the Moon, hands and a set of low to mid power binoculars (7-10x) are useful. First, the hand. Hold your fist out at arm's length. Your fist will span about 10 degrees of sky. Tonight, the Moon will be about 5 degrees up, it's low! Next, start scanning the low part of the sky with the binoculars. If you at first don't see the Moon, don't become discouraged! Stick it out and, if the horizon is good enough and haze doesn't interfere, a wire-thin Moon should eventually pop out of twilight.

Seeing is good, photographing is better. To learn about how to photograph a young Moon, go here.

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sigma 8-16 Review At Photozone

The Sigma 8-16mm f4.6-5.6 DG HSM Lens

Sigma finally proved the great equalizer in the field of view battle between full frame ad APS-C digital SLRs when it announced its ultra ultra wide 8-16mm lens for PMA 2010. For years, crop cam shooters have had to content themselves with a 15mm equivalent field of view (109 degrees) courtesy of 10-20ish zooms while full framers got to enjoy a 121 degree field courtesy of Sigma's 12-24mm lens.

Well, full frame wide angle supremacy is a thing of the past.

Priced at a competitive $700 (cheaper than both Canon and Nikon's widest APS-C zooms that only start at 10mm), the Sigma is sure to be a hit. Obviously, with such a one of a kind lens, potential buyers were sure to want an expert review on which to base buying decisions.

Enter Photozone, which scored a lens almost immediately upon release. What follows is a very basic summary of Photozone's findings. For the full review, go here.

Build quality: Photozone is very enthusiastic about the build of Sigma's 8-16mm, noting that it is mostly made of metal (yes, metal), the lens remains constant in length (though the inner tube moves a little), and that the bulbous front element is actually 'fairly well protected' by the built in hood.

Distortion: Being the widest angle rectilinear lens on the planet, the Sigma does distort quite a bit at 8mm, but after that, the distortion pretty much stops being noticeable.

Vignetting: The Sigma vignettes quite a bit, especially at widest apertures. Wide open at 8mm, there is almost a 2EV light falloff in the corners! Stopping down and zooming in, falloff decreases, but the center never gets less than 1EV.

Sharpness: A trade off for worse than usual vignetting is the above normal sharpness. At all tested focal lengths, the lens was sharpest in the center wide open. Wide opena t 8mm, it even out resolved the 15Mp sensor of the EOS 50D! Stopping down softens the center, but brings up the corners a little for more uniform sharpness across the field. Photozone recommends f8.

Chromatic aberration: Exceptional performance here, those FLD (imitation fluorite) elements really pay off in preventing false color!

Conclusion: Photozone really likes this lens, giving it a 4/5 for image and mechanical quality and a 5/5 for price to performance ratio. Biggest (and pretty much only) complaint: the vignetting. Positives: just about everything else.

More Good News:
Reviews of Canon's 70-200 2.8L IS Mark II are coming in as well. Result: universal praise noting that this lens is without question better than the old version. Check out the full details by following the links below.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

International Space Station Making Good Flybys Over North America This Week

Coming to a sky near you, the International Space Station (ISS). While it is always up in the sky (obviously), the times line up just right for the ISS to be making some good early evening flybys late enough for dark and early enough so no one should have to stay up much later than usual.

To find ISS flyby times over where you live, go to NASA's website and then select your state, then a nearby city. Upon doing this, a wealth of information will be displayed for your specific location. This data includes: local time, duration of flyby, maximum elevation, degree of first appearance, and degree of disappearance.

With this data, one can plan observations well in advance. The good news is that the ISS is very bright, typically at least -3 magnitude, which is right between Jupiter and Venus. In other words, you can't miss it unless you're standing in a supermarket parking lot.

When sighted, the ISS appears as a white light in the sky that moves slowly (but very clearly) through the sky against the background of fixed stars. Always fun to observe, the ISS can also be photographed with a digital SLR and tripod by following these simple suggestions.

Last but not least, should you decide to shoot the ISS, send the picture to, they already have a gallery going.

Want to see what the ISS looks like caught on camera? Go to my astrophoto archive and browse around, as there are sure to be some Shuttle/ISS pictures in there.

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Sunday, May 9, 2010

Penny Pincher Astrophotography

Fully automated P&S cameras like this Olympus Stylus 550WP (review coming soon) can't do astrophotography, or can they?

Think "astrophotography" and one word, besides "cool" will come to people's minds: "expensive." While dSLRs are the mainstay of serious astrophotographers, sub $100 point and shoots can take some pretty good pictures, too. Just be sure to keep your expectations grounded in reality.
So, how is this done?
First, grab the tripod, there's no way around it. Now, onto the camera itself.

Second: consider the camera setup. Unlike dSLRs, cheap P&S cams probably have no RAW capability, so set the quality setting to finest quality JPEG. Downsizing a 12MP image to 2MP will do wonders for reducing noise, which will be very prevalent.

Third: set the white balance. With no RAW, there is no longer the shoot it and fix it later option: white balance must be right from the get go. Usually, 'auto' will work just fine for dusk. If you live in an area with a lot of lights around, 'tungsten' or 'incandescent' may be the better way to go, as this setting will introduce a bluish cast to offset all the yellow light. Play around to see what works.

Fourth: ISO is the next concern. To put it plainly, P&S cameras are rarely any good at ISO 400 or higher. To start, set the ISO at its base level, only bumping it up if the picture is underexposed.

Fifth: use the self timer. Even the cheapest P&S cams come with this function, which is normally 10 seconds. Be sure to enable the timer to avoid camera shake from hitting the shutter button.

Sixth (and most important) focus: what good is a picture if it's not properly focused? Some P&S cams allow for manual focus while others have focus settings. Either way, if your camera allows, set focus to 'infinity' to guarantee in-focus stars. If the camera has no manual focus options, you're not done. Instead, enable the self timer, focus on a distant object, then quickly swing the camera into the sky so that, when the shutter goes off, it will be taking a picture of the desired astronomical target.

Final considerations: experiment, play around with your camera to see what works best for you and don't forget to download software like Neatimage to clean up that ugly noise in your pictures.

As always, click for bigger versions
Daylight Moons are easy.

Twilight planets and Moons are still easy, but the closer to sunset, the better (Moon and Venus)

Having a well-lit terrestrial background to your astrophotos is good for focus and minimizing noise (good illustration of the Moon illusion)

Mostly sky shots can get noisy (Moon and Jupiter)

Neatimage can get a lot of that noise to go away (50% lum, 100% chroma eliminated)

So here it is, proof that astrophotography does not require expensive cameras to bring home the photos.

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Friday, May 7, 2010

"Zombiesat" On The Loose!

Bad satellite! Last month, the Galaxy 15 communications satellite stopped responding to commands from Earth. After a month of attempts to regain control, operators finally got desperate and attempted to shut down the satellite's electronics completely.

It didn't work.

Now, a month after it first stopped working properly, Galaxy 15 is still in an out-of-control orbit that will eventually take it into orbits occupied by other satellites. Right now, if the Galaxy 15 stays on its expected course, it will be approaching another satellite, the AMC-11 communications satellite, and massive interference could result, at least according to AMC-11's operators. Unfortunately, sending radio signals to kill Galaxy 15 could also zap nearby satellites, too. So forget the two week window when the satellites pass.

After Galaxy 15 passes by AMC-11 in early June, it should be headed for a region of space devoid of other communications satellites until around early July, which should give operators some time to come up with another plan to try and shut down the rogue space vehicle. So far though, Galaxy 15 operators admit that they don't have a solution.

According to satellite experts, a runaway satellite operating at full payload like Galaxy 15 is currently doing is unprecedented in the history of space exploration. Intelsat, which operates Galaxy 15, is already soliciting outside advice to try and come up with a solution to the runaway satellite problem.

The good news is that, given enough time, the satellite could shut itself down as it loses Earth-orientation. When that happens, the satellite should also lose its lock on the Sun, which means that its power-generating solar panels will have no energy coming in and the batteries can't be charged. Once that happens, the satellite will power down and any risk for electronic interference with other satellites will end.

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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Sigma 8-16 Has Shipped!

Sigma created quite a stir when it announced its new, groundbreaking 8-16mm lens. Why? The first digital SLRs had sub frame, crop sensors, which resulted in lenses giving different fields of view than their actual millimeter measurement, usually of a 1.5x factor. For example, a 100mm lens would have the equivalent field of view of a 150mm optic when mounted on a digital SLR. While the extra reach on the tele end was nice, headaches resulted on the wide end of the focal range.

With the crop factor, wide angle lenses lost their wideness. Standard 28mm lenses essentially became 42mm. Even ultrawide lenses such as Canon's 16-35L or Nikon's 17-35 morphed into standard lenses at the wide end. To make up for this problem, manufacturers started doing two things: making dSLRs with 35mm film-zised (full frame) sensors and pushing the focal lengths farther and farther back for crop cam only lenses.

The options: no perfect solution.

First option: the full frame dSLR. FF digital SLRs were expensive, first $8,000 with Canon's original EOS 1Ds, then $3,500 with Canon's EOS 5D. Even now, the cheapest FF dSLR, Sony's A850, still costs $2,000 for the body alone. Going FF digital is expensive even today.

Option two: crop specific lenses. Realizing that film lenses just wouldn't cut it at the wide end on digital, manufacturers started pulling back the focal length on digital only lenses. Why digital only? Simple, because on FF, the imaging circles of these lenses are so small that they will produce a tunnel effect (vignetting is too mild a term here). So back the focal lengths went. First came 12mm, then 10mm. Still, despite being wide, these new lenses still couldn't match the widest 35mm/full frame digital offering: Sigma's FF capable 12-24mm that came with a stunning 121 degree field of view. It appeared as though croppers were forever doomed to lack the ultra-ultra-wide capabilities film/FF digital users would experience.

Then came PMA 2010.

As a last minute announcement, Sigma rolled out 5 new lenses. While all promising in their own way, 4 of them were nothing revolutionary. However, the 5th more than made up for this fact because it was a 8-16mm model, which will offer the same, stunning 121 degree field as Sigma's own FF capable 12-24 (2003 release).

Croppers rejoice!

The Sigma 8-16 finally appeared on Sigma's website two weeks ago with an inflated $1,100 MSRP. With that, all the signs were pointing toward an imminent release. Now, just after surfing around the Web this weekend, I noticed that the Sigma 8-16 was available at Adorama in Canon, Sigma, and Sony/Minolta mounts and was expected in Nikon and Pentax shortly. It was also available as a preorder at Amazon, too. Price: $700. So now that the floodgate has been breached, expect it to swing open and the new lens to start showing up all over the web at different retailers.

By the way, Photozone was the first to get a hold of this lens for a review. Conclusion: highly recommended.

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Saturday, May 1, 2010

Quick Review: Canon 28-135mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM Lens

Tech. Specs
Focal Length: 28-135mm (37-168 APS-H, 45-216mm APS-C)
Dimensions: 3.1 by 3.8 inches
Weight: 18.9 ounces
Maximum aperture: f3.5 (wide) and f5.6 (tele)
Minimum aperture: f22 (wide) and f36 (tele)
Diaphragm Blades: 6Lens
Elements: 16 elements, 12 groups
Front element: non-extending, non-rotating
Autofocus Mechanism: Ring USM
Closest focus: 1.6 feet
Maximum magnification: 0.19x life size
Filter: 72mm
Other: Image Stabilization

Released way back in 1998, the 28-135 IS was Canon's first standard zoom lens to sport image stabilization, marketed as having a 2-stop effectiveness. This lens followed the earlier (1995), successful 75-300 IS, which was Canon's first lens to sport image stabilization. With the stabilizer, the lens essentially became a f1.8-2.8 zoom, that is if the subject was stationary. This condition aside, the 28-135 IS quickly became one of Canon's most popular lenses and is, 12 years after release, often bundled with a mid level Canon dSLR (it came bundled as a kit lens with my 30D), easily transitioning from the film to digital age of photography. So, is this oldie a goody?

Build: 3/5
When it comes to build quality, the Canon 28-135 IS USM is typical consumer grade Canon fare: plastic lens built on a metal mount. Upon picking it up, the lens doesn't feel overly solid, or fragile, either. Mechanically, the lens is a mixed bag. Both zoom (outer) and focus (inner) rings are silky smooth in motion. Both rings are rubberized for a comfortable feel, too. The focus ring (to me anyway) is too small. Of course, being a USM lens, the focus ring does not spin during AF and can be turned any time while in AF mode for instant manual over ride without damaging the lens. When zooming, the lens extends quite a bit via dual inner cam. Herein lies the lens' major weakness. On my copy at least, there was obvious wobble in the cams. The good news is that zoom creep was never an issue.

Autofocus Operation: 5/5
This is a Canon USM lens. Being sonic driven, focus is fast, virtually silent, and accurate. The lens also features full time manual focus, which eliminates the need to flip switches to go from AF to MF. The switch could be thought of more as a AF disable in function.

Focus is spot-on even in low light

Optics: 4/5

Optically, the Canon 28-135 IS falls on the good side of the spectrum. Sharpness is good, but it does improve when stopped down a f-stop. Despite its relatively large focal range, this lens really has no weak spots, but is consistently solid cross the zoom range. Sure, other lenses are sharper, but many of these lenses (especially the zooms) cost more. Distortion at the wide end of the range is only moderate and disappears by 35mm. Chromatic aberration, at least in my experience, is non existent. Also, the IS works as advertised. It takes a moment to power up and sounds (to me) like the ocean via shell. Flare resistance, in my brief experience, was good, as was chromatic aberration control (only slight CA). The big unknown, not having a FF camera, is how the corners would be on a larger sensor. On the APS-C 30D however, they are fine.

Full Shot

Center of Frame, 28mm, f3.5, decent sharpness wide open

Upper Right Corner, 28mm, f3.5, sharpness is still quite good (APS-C at least)

Value: 5 and 3 (FF, crop, respectively)
When looking at value, one has to look at this $450 lens from two perspectives: FF and APS-C. For Ff users, this lens is very attractive, offering wide angle to short telephoto coverage. This, coupled with the IS makes this lens an ideal choice for FF shooters on a budget (if there is such a thing). As of this writing, it is possible to score a 5D Mark I and this lens (both used) for under $1,500 together. The only shortfalls are the slow aperture and inner barrel wobble. For crop shooters, this lens is a big trade off. The extra reach at the long end is nice, but this comes at the cost of wide angle capability. The 45mm equivalent field of view is not wide angle. For crop shooters who want a true walk around optic (as this lens is marketed as being), look elsewhere.

No, this lens will not substitute for a macro, but it's still good enough for large blooms, especially with all the pixels we have on today's cameras.

The biggest competitors for the 28-135 IS are from camp Canon, at least on crop, for which Canon has a lot of choices. Canon's new 18-135 IS is the biggest head-to-head competitor. Priced just a little more, this lens adds 10mm (huge) on the wide and a 4 stop stabilizer. On the down side, it loses the USM. The 17-85 IS USM and more expensive 15-85 IS USM are also strong competition, offering a similar field of view as the 28-135 IS does of FF cameras. Choices abound. On FF, the 24-105 f4L IS USM is the most direct competition. This lens has wider aperture, higher build quality, and weather sealing. Unfortunately, it costs about two and a half times more than the 28-135 IS. Sigma and Tamron also make lenses in this range, too.

Conclusion: 4/5
So what of the canon 28-135 IS USM? It's all about perspective. If you're a cropper who wants a true general purpose lens, skip it, there are better alternatives. For everyone else, this lens is worth a look. True, it's not the best out there, but it is an all-around solid performer. Focus is top-notch, optics are good, and build decent for the most part. Add these positive attributes to the $450ish price and you have a lens that, while it won't blow other lenses away, shouldn't disappoint, either. A definite "yes" recommendation, especially for FF shooters on a budget.

In all, an above average lens that, in the right hands, can produce stunning pictures.

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