Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Nikon D700 Running Review: Build Quality/Ergonomics

The Nikon D700

Well, I've had the camera going on a month and a half and, as promised, the D700 running review has begun. Look for further installments dealing with other aspects of the camera to come inthe coming days, in addition to the other stuff.



When looking to buy a Nikon D700, the first thing you'll notice is the price, which is $2700 as of March, 2011. So, for that price, one has a reasonable expectation that, in addition to being able to take good pictures, a camera should be a bit tougher than average and comfortable, too. Good news: the D700 fits this bill nicely.

If you're in a cool environment, the first thing you'll notice about the D700 is that it is unusually cold to the touch. This is good, as it signifies that the camera has a solid magnesium alloy body, which also happens to be riding on a similarly solid metal chassis, which means double the toughness (some metal-bodied cameras are actually plastic inside). If you're in a warm environment, the D700 is very sense-feeling, far more so than my old Canon 30D

Getting under the D700's skin, there is more good news. First of all, there are weather seals around the buttons, at the joints, and around all the compartments. These features are designed to keep all kinds of external crud (water, dust, you name it) out of the camera. However, there is an important “but” to this weather-resistance: the weather resistance chain is only as strong as its weakest link, which happens to be the lens mount. So, for a truly weather/junk-resistance camera, one needs to have a lens that comes with a gasket at the mount. The only questionable area of true crud resistance is the left side port cover, which is actually pretty flimsy in my humble opinion Hopefully, the D800 will solve this one shortcoming by adding a real door like the one that covers the CF card compartment.

Between the metal body and the weather seals, the D700 is a well-built camera designed for use in the harshest of conditions, fully befitting the working pro or serious amateur.

In hand, the D700 is extremely comfortable, provided you have large hands and/or long fingers. Small hands? Well, once you see what the camera can do, you'll learn to adjust. The real advantage of the large size (the D700 is 5.8” wide) is the fact that there is lots of room between the grip and lens mount, which means your hands won't get in each other's way when you're fiddling with your lens, especially a big one like a constant f2.8 zoom or a large prime. Speaking of the grip, it is covered with soft rubber, just the right depth, it provides a solid hold whenever you venture out with the camera.

Playing around with the buttons, you'll quickly come to appreciate how well thought-out the D700 is. All of the buttons are easily accessible, single function, and, once you get to know the camera, allow one to do just about anything without ever taking one's eye from the viewfinder, which is really, really nice for changing settings on the fly.



Next up: User Interface Review




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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Examiner for Weeks of 3/20, 3/27

It's been two weeks since I've done an Examiner roundup, so here's what's been going on for the last 14 days. You will notice another listing too, one for space news, so be sure to check out my new column while you're at it!

Old Links Don't Work
Last year, Examiner.com changed the look of its website, which extended into altering all of the individual users' URLs, too. For months, however, the old URLs continued working. Now, come March, 2011, 7 months after the switch, the old URLs no longer work. So, for anyone who has me bookmarked with old web addresses, it's time to update.
My “new” URLs are as follows, so be sure to save them if you want to keep reading my stuff without having to go through this website first!

Photographyhttp://www.examiner.com/photography-in-cleveland/dennis-bodzash

Now for the roundup . . .
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Friday, March 25, 2011

Good Times Galore!


The past two weeks have been pretty good, to day the least. First, I got another column on Examiner, this time in the National (yes, National) Edition. The topic: Space News, which is to cover all kinds of newsworthy space-related events. If you're more into the hobby of astronomy itself, check out my Cleveland Astronomy Examiner column or, better yet, both plus my Cleveland Photography Examiner column.

Next, ever since snagging a Nikon D700 for the bargain basement price of $1,500 earlier this year, I've been looking to build up a kit of lenses again in addition to my 50mm f1.4 AF-D Nikkor. To this end, I snagged a Tokina 80-400 and a rather rare Tokina 17mm f3.5. Needless to say, look for reviews to be on the way, as well as one for the D700 itself, which is just about done and that will probably appear as a series of running reviews focused on individual aspects of Nikon's wonder camera.

Third bit of good news: the snow has finally melted, which means that it will be possible to take more than stationary tripod astrophotos for the first time in nearly 4 months! Obviously, with the change from a crop to a FF camera, it will be interesting to see how good my original Orion ED80 really is, plus my new lenses, when turned to the stars.

This upcoming year should be a lot of fun!
 
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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Camera Lenses 101: Standard Zooms

The Tokina 28-70 f2.6-2.8 ATX-PRO: a standard zoom for FF/film cameras.

Of all the niches in the camera lens market, that of the standard zoom is by far the most crowded for the simple reason that these are the lenses that most people want to own and therefore, offer a lot of money-making potential to manufacturers, who produce accordingly. And this is already on top of the already dime a dozen kit lenses populating the world.

Question: why do so many kit optics show up on Craigslist, Ebay, and the like? Answer, people simply want to upgrade to better glass. So, hat's out there?

The standard zoom covers the most popular focal lengths in a single optic, typically in the 16-55ish range for crop and 24-70ish for full frame/film. So, whenever addressing the standard zoom, now you know what kind of lens I'm talking about. That issue settled, let's examine why people would want to dump their kit lenses in the first place.

First up: all kit lenses are slow aperture, typically f3.5-5.6. While this aperture is fine outdoors, inside, its dark and, especially on the long end, just about mandates the use of flash, which is not always desirable. On top of that, the vast majority of bundled kit optics are of poor, sometimes all plastic, build quality, not exactly the thing that inspires confidence. For these two reasons alone, many serious photographers will, in time, want to upgrade their kit zoom lens to something sturdier. So, what's out there?

The first class of standard zoom is the fast, constant f2.8 model. Made by everyone, such lenses are far better than the kit variety for use indoors. While going from f3.5 to f2.8 on the wide end isn't much of an adjustment, getting 2 extra stops of aperture in going from f5.6 to f2.8 on the long end is a true liberation for those looking to shoot without a flash. When it comes to bells and whistles, there is an endless range of add-ons that can include stabilization, weather seals, sonic drive AF, or any combination of the three. Naturally, price reflects these extras determine price. Speaking of price, they can range from the $400s for third-party, no add-on versions to around $1,800 for top manufacturer glass.

For people who don't want to spend so much, there are the in between models, typically sporting f2.8-4 or constant f4 apertures. Like the 2.8 lenses, these can vary greatly in price depending on how dressed up with extras they are. However, in all cases, they're not going to be as expensive as the f2.8s, typically selling for $300 to $1,200.

In all, the questions for anyone looking up upgrade their kit zoom are the following: what features do I want and how much am I willing to pay? In the end, only you, the buyer, can answer.


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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Happy Spring and the Sad Irony of Tourism

The Sun: it moves in more ways than one!
First of all, a happy Vernal Equinox to all! In layman's terms, happy spring. Today marks just one of two days in the entire year were the Sun rises/sets exactly due East/West, respectively. Every other day, the Sun will rise/set, to varying degrees, North/South of the cardinal directions. For the photographically-inclined, this is a great time for a photo shoot. To see how one can do what I did above, go here.

Now, for a bit of irony and a lesson in historic preservation.

For people interested in astronomical history, it is no secret that the Maya were probably the best astronomers the ancient world produced when it came to practical, real life observing. Over the course of centuries, the Maya made advances in astronomy that still leave modern experts astounded. Perhaps the most surprising this about the Maya is the paradox of their achievements vs. the things they didn't have: Example: the Maya came up with a perfectly interlocking series of 3 calendars that cycled for 5,125 years yet didn't grasp the concept of the wheel or ever use metal tools.


Perhaps more than any other civilization, the Maya set their record of astronomical achievement in stone. Of all these astronomically-themed buildings, the pyramid of Kukulkan in Chichin Itza is probably the most dramatic. The fact that thousands of people still gather on the equinoxes to watch the play of light and shadow is testament to this fact.

Besides being a calendar in stone (91 steps on 4 sides plus the temple on top make 365), the pyramid was orientated so that, only on the equinoxes, a play of light and dark would combine to create the illusion of a serpent (Kukalkan was depicted as a snake) slithering its way down the pyramid. Obviously, the combination of planning for such a show and then constructing it so flawlessly into the design of a building took a lot of brains on the part of the Maya.

Now, over a thousand years later, people still stand in awe, at least for a day, of the people who built this amazing structure over a millennium ago, and this is what has some people concerned.

Recently, as reported by Fox News, authorities have grown very concerned about the fact that thousands of people are crowding the fragile ancient sites. The big fear: eager believers in 'pyramid power' will climb and potentially damage the ancient structures. As a result, Mexico's National Anthropology and History Institute will launch Project Equinox, which is designed to keep visitors safe distances from the ancient monuments and controlling what people bring with them to the gatherings.

This story perfectly illustrates the fact that eager tourists are damaging the sites they come to enjoy all the time. Here are just a few examples:

In Nepal, Mt. Everest has become the world's highest garbage dump since it was first conquered by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. An addition to the old Arab proverb “man fears time, time fears the pyramids,” could be that “but the pyramids fear smog.” As a show of how commercialization can destroy ancient sites, who reading this knew that Peru's famous Hitching Post of the Sun was damaged during filming of, of all things, a beer commercial? Well, it's happened. In fact, many world wonders are threatened, as well.

Now, this isn't saying that we humans should abandon our travels to see famous ancient/natural sights, but our curiosity needs to be tempered with restraint so that we take care to leave ancient wonders as we find them.



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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Why We Would Miss the Moon if it Blew Up

The Moon: if it disappeared, we'd miss it in a hurry!


This week, with the focus being on the upcoming 'supermoon,' why not take a look at why the Moon matters to us here on Earth and why, contrary to the 'who cares?' attitude expressed at the thought of blowing Luna to smithereens in the second Austin Powers movie, we should care if the Moon were to suddenly vanish from our sky. .

On the surface of the issue, the Moon seems very distant and unimportant. Yes, it lights the sky for us on some nights but, being the advanced civilization we are, we no longer depend on the Moon as a timekeeping device or extra source of light during the fall harvest season. In fact, many amateur astronomers (and especially astrophotographers) consider the bright Moon to be a real pain in the neck. However, as detached or as hostile to the Moon as we may be, there would be plenty of consequences that would lead people all over the world to start missing the Moon if it were to disappear, and miss it in a hurry, too.

First up, the tides would stop. The ocean's daily tides are caused by the Moon's gravity tugging on the Earth. Every day on the side of the Earth facing the Moon, the tide recedes as the Earth is slightly pulled toward the Moon while the water remains in place, thus, sea levels drop. On the opposite side of the Earth, the water still stays put but it appears to rise as the Earth is pulled away in the opposite direction. Either way, should the tides stop, people will be unhappy with where the water settles.

On a much more global scale, the seasons would be impacted, big time. Right now, the Earth goes through a 26,000 year cycle in which the planet wobbles as though it were a giant top about to stop spinning. This cycle is called precession of the equinoxes. To visualize, go out tonight and find the Little Dipper, specifically the North Star, Polaris. Now, look into the Western sky to find Vega, the brightest star in the Summer Triangle. In about 13,000 years from now, Vega, as seen from Earth, will be located very near where Polaris is situated today. Obviously, such a wobble of the Earth, and thus, its inclination to the Sun, will have an impact on climate, albeit a slow one that is imperceptible over the course of a human lifetime.

Yes, the Earth wobbles, but the Moon acts as a break, its gravitational tug keeping the Earth on this slow, regular, 26,000 year cycle. Take the Moon away and the situation would change. With no satellite to act as a gravitational chain, the Earth could begin to tumble wildly in space. The inclination, and therefore climate, could change dramatically within the average person's lifetime. In fact, it would not be unrealistic to go from an ice age to a tropical climate in a few thousand years, and then, potentially right back again. Needless to say, such huge climatic shifts in such a short time would doom many species to extinction as they, unlike humans, could not readily adapt to the changing weather patterns. Oh yes, humans would be indirectly impacted too as the impact on farming would be huge.

Last but not least, eclipses, both solar and lunar, would be a thing of the past as, obviously, no Moon means no eclipse. Both types of eclipses are among those rare opportunities where the public as a whole and not just astronomers take notice of the night sky. As a result, a lot less people would find anything of interest in the night sky.

So yes, if the Moon were to suddenly disappear, we humans would be missing it in a hurry!
 
 

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Examiner, Daylight Savings Time, and Benjamin Franklin


Daylight Savings Time
Yes, it's that time that astronomers dread once again: time to spring ahead into Daylight Savings Time. So, unless you are one of the lucky peole who just happens to live in Arizona or Hawaii, don't forget to set those clocks ahead an hour before you go to sleep tonight.

Examiner Roundup
Abnother week finished, another Examiner roundup arrived.

Astronomy
Featured sight for week of 3/6: the X-37b and the ISS
Standard Time: enjoy it while you can!
Alien life on meteorites? Maybe
March featured sight: Messier Marathon
A brief history of Daylight Savings Time


Photography
Photorama comes to town
Funny gas price pictures
Amazing Discovery photos
Japan's tsunami and Nikon prices



Benjamin Franklin
While many people are quick to blame Benjamin Franklin, one of our founding fathers, for DST, this assignment of blame is in error. Yes, Franklin was perhaps the first man in history to challenge ordinary people to live more in-sync with the Sun, but he certainly didn't suggest a setting the clocks ahead an hour. In contrast, in an essay, which happens to be quite humorous at times, Franklin merely urges people to get up earlier (and thus go to bed earlier) during the summer months to save money on candles, thus arguing that natural light is cheaper than artificial light (which it is).

Needless to say, people didn't listen to the great man's wisdom.

Instead, when WWI started, causing combatants' governments to worry about energy usage, policymakes decided to make nature subservient to man and set time ahead, essentially delaying sunrise/set an hour. After all, how dare we humans, masters of the universe, have to live in rhythm with our life-giving star!




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Thursday, March 10, 2011

With Space Shuttle Discovery's Final Landing, the End of an Era Begins




Yesterday, Space Shuttle Discovery landed for the final time at Kennedy Space Center, thus closing out its 39th and final mission of a career that began way back on August 30, 1984. When Discovery landed yesterday, the first of the last shuttle flights was completed. Now, back on Earth, Discovery will go in for a refurbishment that will prep the shuttle for its truly final mission as a main exhibit at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum.

After Discovery landed for the first time, there was the customary press conference. Commenting on the ageless shuttle, mission commander Steve Lindsey stated that “if you think of a vehicle that’s 27 years old, you never see a vehicle that age that never comes back with no flaws, however Discovery did just that, she functioned flawlessly.” NASA chief Charles Bolden also went on to praise Discovery, saying that “Discovery is an amazing spacecraft and she has served her country well.”

Perhaps that was a bit of an understatement. Of all the space shuttles, Discovery is the most historic as its accomplishments read like a shopping list.

Visited two space stations (Russian Mir and the ISS)
Last shuttle to visit Mir
First shuttle to visit ISS and would make the most trips (13) there
First shuttle to retrieve satellite and bring it back to Earth
Was first in flight after both the Challenger and Columbia disasters
Launched the Hubble Space Telescope
Flew more flights, traveled more miles, and carried more astronauts into space than any other shuttle
First American spacecraft to take a foreigner, cosmonaut Sergei Kirkalev, into space
Featured first female pilot, Eileen Collins
Only shuttle to fly 4 times in a year
Featured first African American to walk in space
Flew 100th shuttle mission
Carried first sitting member of Congress into space
Took space legend John Glenn back into orbit at age 77

Needless to say, in 27 years of flight, Discovery did America proud.

Now, the focus at NASA is on the final two space shuttle missions. Endeavor, the youngest shuttle in the fleet, is set to launch for the last time in April while Atlantis, which was intended to have flown its final mission last year, will get one last ride into space come June.



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Monday, March 7, 2011

Astrophotography for February 2011

February saw my "observatory" completely buried in snow all month long, which means no deep sky photos this month, sorry. However, the month did afford some pretty impressive wide angle shots. Also, February saw the first astro light for my Nikon D700. Needless to say, I'm very impressed with this camera as, thanks to its stunning high ISO capability plus my usage of a f1.4 lens, it can do things that, just a few years ago, would have been impossible without a tripod. Enjoy!


Stunning lunar reflection.

Luna and an ice-covered tree.

The Big Dipper, hand held!

Orion, 10 seconds.

Cloudy Moon, hand-held!

More glass-like snow with Luna.

Canis Major, 10 seconds.

Leo, 10 seconds.

Yet more Luna. Notice the ground and the trees, a cool time exposure effect.



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Friday, March 4, 2011

“Old” Moon Yesterday, “Young” Moon Tomorrow

The Moon, 33 hours before New, yesteray morning.

Today is Friday, March 4, 2011, which also happens to be the day of New Moon for the month. If one wants to be really specific about it, New Moon occurs at 3:46pm EST today, which makes for an unusual viewing opportunity in that it is possible to view the Moon both the day before and after new. Normally, because of New Moon timing, the Moon is usually invisible one of the days. This month is the exception.

Yesterday, the morning of March 3, a 33 hours from new near Old Moon (to be a true Old Moon, it must be less that 24 hours from New) was visible in the sky just ahead of sunrise. While not an overly challenging target for lunar observers thanks to both the amount of illumination and the fact that it was in the morning (and thus no risk for haze), the Moon was still a pretty sight that deserved a look. If you missed it, don't fret, there is an encore tomorrow.

Just after sunset on Saturday, due West, and very low, there will be a near “Young” Moon that will be 27 hours old at the time it pops out of the twilight sky. Thinner (and more spectacular than the 33 hours before New Moon on Thursday morning), sighting Luna this time will be more challenging thanks to the fact that it is 6 hours closer to New (and therefore not as well lit) and, the bane of Young Moon hunters' existence, haze, will be a factor. Believe it or not, haze can appear in winter just like in summer, you're never safe from it!

If you're an experienced Young Moon hunter, feel free to stop reading right here. New to the Young Moon hunt? Read on.

To increase one's odds of seeing the Young Moon (yes, I know, it's not a true Young Moon), three things are musts:

1. Binoculars are a good idea. For a Moon as well lit as one that's 27 hours old, even small binoculars, say 5-7x magnification, should work just fine.

2. Your binoculars' field of view. Knowing the field of view in binoculars will help you in knowing how far off the horizon to scan. Generally speaking, with 5-7x binoculars, you should be able to get the horizon at the bottom of your field while still sweeping up the Moon.

3. Location. Scout out a location early, with the emphasis being on two important factors: horizon and direction. First, as low a horizon as possible is good as the Moon will be only about 5 degrees (about 5 little finger widths held at arm's length) above the horizon. Second, direction. Since you want to look West, it's important to know where the cardinal directions are so you know where to look.

Now, armed with the knowledge to be a successful Young Moon hunter, go out Friday night and scan the hopefully cloud and haze free horizon and bag yourself a near Young Moon in a dry run for what is the Holy Grail to lunar observers: a true Young Moon, which will come on Tuesday, May 3 in the form of a 17 hour old sliver.

The sky set for about 6:36pm EST on Saturday, March 5.



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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Finding the Holy Grail

Everyone is familiar with the story of the Holy Grail, the legendary cup from the Last Supper that, according to some accounts, has mystical properties that have driven men throughout the ages to try and find it. Astronomers, specifically lunar observers, have their own Holy Grail: Young Moons, or ones less than 24 hours old. However, unlike the “real” Grail, this is one that can actually be found and the coming months present the only time of year to do it, too.

Right now, thanks to the near-vertical ecliptic plane at sunset, the Moon will be riding as high as is possible, at least as seen from Earth. Result, this is the time of year to go looking for wire-thin crescents just after sunset.

Obviously, when looking for Moons less than 2% lit, there are going to be a lot of challenges. However, above all others, one really stands out, haze. It is the prevalence of haze just after sunset that, single-handedly, ruins many Young Moon hunts by turning a crystal-clear evening into a twilight sky full of dark haze, even in the winter. The tendency to have haze at night is why Young Moons are so hard to see. Old Moons in the fall morning? That's easy, the haze has all long-since burned off.

So, with spring upon us (it arrives on the 20th), Young Moon season is here, too. So, with 4 good chances this year (March-June), hopefully we will all be treated to clear, hazeless skies and thus the chance to see the thinnest of Moons, including a true Young Moon in May.

Future Thin Moons:
Saturday, March 5, 28 hours old
Monday, April 4, 32 hours old
Tuesday, May 3, 17 hours (a true Young Moon!)
Thursday, June 2, 26 hours old

As some inspiration, here are some true Young Moons I've captured through the years. Note, there are only three of them, thus showcasing the rarity of everything going just right!


 17 hour Moon through Orion ED80, February, 2010

19 hour Moon, 300mm equivalent, May, 2006.


 23 hour Moon, heavily cropped 10Mp image, May, 2010




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