Friday, September 30, 2011

Astrophotography for June 2011

Can you say late? Well, after a 3 month delay, I finally managed to get June's astrophotos up in the gallery. Expect July's (it'll be a lot) to follow in the coming days.


M4 globular cluster in Scorpius.

M11 Wild Duck cluster in Scutum (right off Aquila's tail)

Not smoke, but clouds.

The Orion ED80 does not cover a FF sensor.

Jupiter and Capella in the morning.

Same day, a little later, can you find the Moon in this 105 degree field a 17mm lens offers on FF?




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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Camera Lenses 101: Kit Lenses

The Nikkor 18-55 AF-S VR: the epitome of the modern kit lens in taht it is a zoom with decent optics, modern features, but questionable build quality.
When many people think about buying a camera, surprisingly, they never really consider the lens, the very part that focuses the incoming light in order to create a picture. Fortunately (or perhaps not), camera makers often cover this oversight when packaging their cameras, especially the low to mid-level models, for market.

Way back when, as in the early 1980s and before, camera makers didn't skimp on bundled glass. Example, my Canon FTQL came with a 50 f1.8 optic as standard. Now the funny part: this “cheap” lens is better built than all but the most expensive of today's lenses and, on top of that, it takes good pictures. Stop it down and the corners are good, too. Yes, there were better lenses at the time but, by and large, the kit optics were no slouches, either.

Now, enter the zoom lens revolution.

Before the mid 1980s, zoom lenses were something that no serious photographer could be caught dead with. Why? As in the infancy of any given technology, the products were not all that good. For the first part of their existence, zooms offered flexibility at a lost of lousy optics. Result: serious photographers stuck with primes. However, by the middle 1980s, the zoom lens was maturing into a capable photographic tool at the same time that AF cameras were taking the photographic world by storm. By the end of the 80s, many people who would not have attempted photography otherwise, thanks to the convenience of AF, were snapping pictures. Obviously, people who get into photography because of a technological advance that makes the whole process easier are going to want convenience, and thus zoom lenses.

So, to satisfy the need of these beginning, convenience-orientated photographers, manufacturers stopped equipping their camera kits with “cheap” primes made of metal and containing good optics with cheap plastic zooms containing passable optics and sometimes second-rate AF mechanisms. Why? The public (actually, the influx of convenience-craving photographers) demanded it. AS for the high-end cameras, the manufacturers started selling them without lenses as the people who bought such models would know what lenses they wanted anyway (if they didn't own them already). So, in no time at all, the kit lens became synonymous with junk.

So, in 2011, is this still the case?

Fortunately, no. The great thing about a free market is that the consumer rules so, if people stop buying a product they consider of shoddy craftsmanship, the manufacturers will listen and make a better product. Case in point: the evolution from the kit lens from plastic, anything but fantastic, to a true, albeit still somewhat limited, photographic tool.

Right now, kit zooms are offering features that, even just a few years ago, would have seemed unthinkable. Fancy optics in the form of aspheric elements, low dispersion glass, and even coatings now come as standard on many kit lenses by many different manufacturers. Right now, Nikon offers sonic drive AF on its $200 18-55 kit model. Last year, Pentax came out with sub $250 lenses with rubber gaskets at the mount to protect against dust and moisture. Both Canon and Nikon (the big holdouts against in-body stabilization) both offer sub $200 lenses with stabilizers rated up to 4 stops effective. On top of all this, the optics themselves are getting better, with some lenses, at least at some of their focal settings, offering image quality comparable to much more expensive, pro-grade zooms.

Now, the big question may be, with all these pluses of kit zooms, why not just stick with them in the first place?

Well, some things don't seem to be changing anytime soon. Then as now, the build quality of kit zooms (apart from the weather-resistant Pentax lenses) is terrible. How shoddily are some of these lenses built? A few models don't even have metal mounts! An often cut ergonomic corner is that most kit zooms don't have a true manual focus ring. Instead, one has to turn the end of the lens itself for MF. AF mechanisms? Still often inferior to higher-grade models in that AF is slower and/or doesn't allow full time manual override. As a last note, to keep prices down, the apertures are still slow, typically in the f3.5-5.6 range.

Now, examination complete, when you buy a camera with a bundled lens, should you keep it or try to unload it on Craigslist or Ebay?

Answer: it's all about what you shoot. For most situations, I would say that the kit lenses are just fine. The only real situation where the stock kit lens falls flat is under low-light conditions where the slow apertures pretty much require using flash, which is not always desirable (or even allowed at some public venues). The good news is that the advent of image stabilization (whether in-body or in-lens) will offset this disadvantage if the subject is stationary, which makes such lenses great for nightscapes. Unfortunately, image stabilization does nothing to freeze action, only aperture can do that. My key to lens buying:

Action = aperture
Stationary = stabilizer

Basically, if you're shooting stationary subjects, just stick with the kit lens, it will do the job just fine in most situations. If action/low light photography is your thing, it may be a good idea to invest in a fast (f2 or faster, preferably) prime instead.



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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Examiner for weeks of 9/11, 9/18

Well, it's been a busy week on Examiner with all of the UARS stuff going on. Below you'll find all the non-UARS news, as well as a special UARS coverage list comprising articles from all of my columns.


Space News
9/11 from space
50 new planets, 16 super-Earths discovered
NASA unveils 400 foot rocket
Comet Elenin doomed
Real life Tatooine
Rocks indicate Mars was once warmer, wetter
UFO sightings on the rise



National Photography
9/11 memorial photo roundup
ACLU launches photographers' rights page
Scarlett Johansson photo hack, FBI gets involved
Grandparents with webcam
Camera lens falls through roof
Constitution day is today, picture taking a right
Glowing cats help with AIDS research
The Emmys in photos
Nicholas Cage a vampire?
Crooks use red lights cams to steal identities



Cleveland Astronomy
Featured sight for week of 9/11: Harvest Moon
Watch comet's death dive into Sun
'Doomsday' comet doomed
Real life Tatooine
They have landed!
Featured sight for week of 9/18: Autumnal Equinox
Take a ride aboard the ISS
Now is the best time for stargazing




Cleveland Photography
Cleveland Browns Stadium is photo-friendly
Nikon stocks on rise based on rumor





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Friday, September 23, 2011

UARS Update: Fall Zone Determined

Now, just hours before its scheduled fall, NASA has finally been able to pinpoint where the UARS satellite will be when it makes its uncontrolled plunge to Earth. Location: the satellite could fall over Canada, the Pacific Ocean, Australia, the Indian Ocean, or Africa. AS the fall time approaches, NASA may be able to narrow down the fall zone even more, but only time will tell.

Full UARS coverage:
Official NASA updates
Q&A with space junk expert
NASA begins to estimate fall zone
Re-entry fireball could be as bright as Full Moon
FEMA braces for the worst
Amateur's amazing UARS videoTrack the UARS on your Android

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UARS Update: Satellite Could Fall Over the United States Sometime Tonight

Feel free to ignore what I have written all week about the time/location of the fall of the UARS satellite as NASA has now announced that it doesn't expect the UARS to fall until sometime tonight or even as late as tomorrow morning. To boot, the space agency now says that a fall over the United States could be possible, too. This just goes to show just how hard it is to predict the fall of an uncontrolled satellite orbiting Earth at 17,500mph.

Full UARS coverage:
Official NASA updates
Q&A with space junk expert
NASA begins to estimate fall zone
Re-entry fireball could be as bright as Full Moon
FEMA braces for the worst
Amateur's amazing UARS videoTrack the UARS on your Android



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Today is All About the Fall

In a funny coincidence, the UARS satellite will fall to Earth on, you guessed it, the first day of fall.

Today, September 23, 2011, is in the news for two big, astronomical reasons: the fall of the Upper Atmospheric Research (UARS) satellite as well as the arrival of the Autumnal Equinox, which officially heralds the start of fall.




UARS Takes the Plunge
As for the UARS satellite fall, the official word from NASA is that they still do not know exactly where the fall will take place, other than it is expected to occur sometime between afternoon and evening, United States time. As for what can expected to be seen, optimistic estimates have the UARS producing a fireball as bright as the Full Moon.

Want to learn more about the UARS plunge? Well, here's complete UARS coverage from both my Examiner columns as well as other places.


:
Official NASA updates
Q&A with space junk expert
NASA begins to estimate fall zone
Re-entry fireball could be as bright as Full Moon
FEMA braces for the worst
Amateur's amazing UARS videoTrack the UARS on your Android



Fall Arrives

For anyone not keeping track, fall arrives (in fact, it has already arrived at my EST location) today, September 23, specifically at 5:05am. So, with the seasonal change, why do we have seasons at all?
Answer: it all has to do with the Earth’s 23 degree tilt. If the Earth were spinning on its axis with no tilt at all, everyone would be treated to days of identical length every day of the year, with latitudes nearer the equator having longer days than those nearer the poles. However, with the tilt, the angle of the Earth relative to the Sun changes as or planet moves about its orbit.
On the Autumnal Equinox, the Sun will rise/set exactly due East/West. The Sun will climb about 50 degrees high and the day and the night will be exactly 12 hours long (Equinox means 'equal night'). After the equinox, the Sun will never leave the Southern celestial hemisphere until the next Vernal (spring) Equinox.
After the Autumnal Equinox, the shortening of the days will continue until the Sun finally reaches its most Southerly rise/set on the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year., which is around December 20. On this day, the Sun will rise/set low in the Southeast, get only about 25 degrees high (at Cleveland's latitude) at local noon (at about 12:30 thanks to a return to Standard Time). The final result: a day that is only 9 hours long.
From that point on, the Sun will only get stronger, once again having an Equinox, the Vernal, around the 20th of March before culminating in its most Northerly rise of the year, the Summer Solstice, around June 20, at which point the Sun will peak at a height of about 72 degrees (Cleveland, again) at local noon (about 1:30pm). Result of the high-flying Sun, a 15+ hour long day.
So there it is, the mechanics of why we have the seasons.



Year-Long Photo Shoot
For anyone looking to have some fun with a camera, go out tonight and photograph the Sun just as the solar disc starts to dip below the horizon in order to minimize the glare. Now, take note of what lens you are using (use an ultrawide if you have one) and exactly where you are standing as, in the following months, you will return to the exact same spot to shoot the solstices in December and next June, thus giving yourself a complete picture of just how much the Sun's rise/set point moves along the horizon during the year.


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Thursday, September 22, 2011

UARS: Big Satellite, Little Reason for Worry

NASA's UARS satellite will probably fall back to Earth tomorrow.

The Upper Atmospheric Research Satellite (UARS) has been in the news a lot as of late, not for anything it's discovered, but for what it will soon be doing: making an uncontrolled plunge through Earth's atmosphere and, in all probability, surviving the complete descent in the form of 26 components weighing a combined total of nearly 1,200 pounds. The kicker: NASA has no idea where the500 mile stretch of debris will land until about 2 hours before the satellite's death plunge begins.

For people not familiar with space exploration, there is obviously a bit of concern as, after all, over 1,000 pounds of satellite parts will rain back down to Earth. Needless to say, if it were to hit someone or something, chances are that a part of the UARS would do a lot of damage. So, is there reason for one to worry?

According to NASA, not really.

In the 50+ years of the space age, no one has ever been hit by part of a falling satellite and no piece of property has ever sustained serious damage from such a fall, which should be cause for comfort as some really big things have come back down to Earth in an uncontrolled manner all the way from orbit.


It was way back in 1979 that the granddaddy of all uncontrolled satellite re-entries took place: the fall of the Skylab space station.

Launched in 1973 aboard a modified Saturn V rocket, Skylab was the first true space station in the modern sense of the word (the Russians launched a couple of tiny ones previously, but these were essentially one-man campers in orbit). Far bigger than anything ever put into orbit before, Skylab was, at its time, in the vanguard of space exploration and the proving ground for the long-dreamed of scenario of building cities in space. Crewed by 3 teams of astronauts throughout the mid 70s, the Skylab missions grew ever-longer in duration as astronauts set new space endurance records for each day they were aboard.

Finally, though, in the late 70s, NASA decided to change direction and move onto the space shuttle program, which promised a fast, economical, and safe way into space. Its mission complete, a permanently-vacated Skylab floated around in orbit, a cosmic ghost town, until 1979 when the fuel keeping the satellite aloft by way of small rocket bursts was depleted, thus dooming Skylab to a fiery destruction in Earth's atmosphere.

Problem: despite putting millions upon millions of dollars into Skylab and its design, NASA apparently never gave any thought as to what would happen when the satellite fell from orbit.

Result: a worldwide frenzy.

As soon as it was announced that parts of Skylab would survive the complete descent to Earth's surface, people reacted in all sorts of ways. Naturally, most of the reaction was worry about being hit by falling Skylab parts. On the other hand, some enterprising individuals resolved to try and grab pieces of the fallen space station and then put them up for sale. In what was the biggest publicity stunt of the whole Skylab fall affair, the San Francisco Examiner offered a $10,000 bounty for the first verifiable piece of Skylab brought to their office (the prize went to an Australian).

In the end, though, the worry was for nothing as even something as large as Skylab, which shed a ton of debris on its way down, didn't produce a trail of destruction in its wake. The same could be said for the space shuttle Columbia, which broke apart on re-entry in 2003, killing all 7 astronauts aboard. The shuttle debris was so thick that it produced a very strong signal on Texas weather radars. Still, despite the vast amount of debris that fell to Earth, no one was hit and no property damaged.

Now, this is not saying that someone/something couldn't be hit by a piece of the UARS but, if past history is an indication, the chances of getting hit by a satellite part (NASA goes with 1:3,200 odds) are very, very small, as should be the reason for worry.

For more on UARS
NASA's UARS Update Page
North America out of the danger Zone
FEMA Braces for the Worst
Amazing Video of UARS Tumbling



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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Nikon's 1-Series CX Cameras: the Best Thing to Ever Fit into a Pocket Since the Wallet

Nikon's V1 mirrorless compact with the 10-100mm lens.

Today, Nikon announced a completely new type of camera, its mirrorless 'CX' format Nikon 1-series cameras, which are designed to go head-to-head with the already successful Olympus Pen, Panasonic GF, and Sony NEX lines. The current lineup: an entry-level J1 and a tougher, slightly more capable V1. For some, the decision to go with a whole new mount and sensor seemed a bit odd but, when one looks deeper, it makes good sense.

First of all, Nikon has not made its new cameras incompatible with F-mount lenses. According to Nikon, there will be a F-mount adapter coming to market soon, in addition to its 4 CX format lenses, a 10-30, 10-100 (video only), 30-110, and a 10mm pancake. This way, current Nikonians can buy the cameras without needing to invest more money in CX lenses, only the adapter. So far, there's no word on whether the adapter will allow for AF or not.

Second, the decision to use a 10Mp, 2.7x crop factor seemed a bit odd as nothing like this had ever been used before. Until Nikon's announcement, it was a 2x crop factor Four Thirds chip or a tiny P&S camera sensor, nothing in between. However, by going smaller and keeping the pixel count reasonable (the new sensors are only 10Mp vs. the current 16Mp APS-C Nikon chips), Nikon made a move that serious photographers will appreciate while living up to the promise of a compact system, too.

By using a small sensor, that means that the imaging circle of a given lens can be smaller, which can make for a small lens, which is good. Ever since the dawn of the modern digital era with the Nikon D1, the promise with smaller than film sensor digital cameras has been that small sensor equals smaller cameras and smaller lenses. Now, by picking up, say, a Nikon D300, Canon 7D, or Olympus E-5, one can see that small sensor does not equate to small gear. When Olympus launched its first Digital Pen, the promise of a small camera with small lenses was closer to being fulfilled.

With Nikon's 1-series, the promise is at its closest to being kept.

At a truly diminutive 4.2 x 1.2 inches, Nikon's J1 model is, by far, the smallest, large sensor interchangeable lens camera around, as the body is about the size of a large cell phone, which means that it is easily pocketable in of itself. Naturally, with the zoom lenses attached, the cameras will lose some of their portability but, on the other hand, they are still appreciably smaller that the competition, which is good for IQ-hungry photographers on the go. For anyone content to use a prime lens, either camera, the J1 or slightly larger V1, easily fits into a pocket. In fact, the body of the J1 is about the same size as that of my Olympus pocket cam.

The small size, combined with the modest Mp count and the hybrid AF system could, quite possibly, make Nikon's 1-series cameras the best thing around for serious photographers on the go. The cameras are slated to ship around October 20 at a cost of $650 for the J1/10-30 kit and $850 for the V1/10-30 kit. As for differences, the V1 has magnesium alloy body, a viewfinder, and an extra accessory port, other than that, the cameras are essentially identical.

Personally, I think shooting with one of these cameras could be a lot of fun.




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Thursday, September 15, 2011

NASA Unveils SLS Deep Space Rocket

Computer animation of the SLS rocket in action.
It has been two months since the space shuttle retired and # years since the end of the shuttle program was announced. Now, finally (and in the opinion of many about # years too late), NASA has officially announced a new space vehicle that will not only take Americans back into the cosmos, but deeper into space than any humans have ever gone before. Cue the Space Launch System (SLS).

400 feet tall in one configuration and 20% more powerful than the Saturn Vs that took Americans to the Moon four decades ago, the SLS is the vehicle NASA will use to take Americans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars by the mid 2030s. Right now, the target date for the first test flight in sometime in 2017. As for the rocket itself, it is a combination of old and new technology that takes advantage of, according to NASA chief Charles Bolden, proven hardware and the latest innovations.

For NASA, this could be just the shot in the arm the ailing (at least in terms of human spaceflight) agency needs as, until now, there was simply nothing to be all that excited about. Now, with a rocket design finalized and timetables set, NASA has some clear-cut goals to live up to, so long as politicians don't decide to pull the rug out from the funding.

For more on the SLS:
My Examiner page
NASA press release
SLS website




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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

ACLU Launches Photographers' Rights Page, Bookmark It!


The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) just created
a web page detailing photographers' rights. No doubt this web page was created in order to combat all of the rampant ideas among both the general public and law enforcement that taking pictures in public is illegal, which it certainly is not. For the quick version, read on, for the extended version, follow the link above.

It is legal to . . .
Photograph anything/anyone visible from a public space
Photograph police/government workers on the job
Take pictures inside of any public buildings like airports
If stopped by police, ask if you can go
Ask a police officer what crime you're accused of if detained
Refuse to show police your pictures

It is illegal to . . .

Take pictures on private property without owner's approval
Take pictures that physically interfere with police business

It is illegal for police to . . .
Delete your images/destroy your film
Tell you to delete images/destroy film
Take your camera and search it (taking legal, search without warrant is not)

Al in all, this new web page on the ACLU's site is a valuable resource all photographers should bookmark as, the unfortunate truth is that many law enforcement officials do not have a very solid grasp of laws involving photography and will often interpret taking pictures as a crime in the post-9/11 world.

Needless to say, if you feel that your rights as a photographer have been violated, do not hesitate to make a formal complaint to the law enforcement agency who you feel committed the violation or contact the ACLU and/or the media.


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Monday, September 12, 2011

Monday, September 5, 2011

Examiner for weeks of 8/21, 8/28

Well, it's two for one this week as I've rounded up all of my Examiner stuff for the past 14 days. Check this stuff out, a lot of interesting stuff has been going on, especially in regards to space.

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Saturday, September 3, 2011

Captured: Comet Garradd and the Coathanger Cluster




Here it is, hot off the 'press' if you will: Comet Garradd and the Coathanger cluster from this morning. Again, this is another hack job done out of an ISO 6400, 10 second exposure. The good news is that, this time around, I've got about an hour's worth of images to stack together for what should be a truly great picture for the AP galleries.



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Friday, September 2, 2011

The Comet and the Coathanger

Tonight is going to feature quite a sight: Comet Garradd and the Coathanger cluster. Tonight and tonight only, the comet will be right at the tip of the Coathanger's hook, a perfect photo-op for any astrophotographer with a short to medium length scope or even a long telephoto camera lens.

Here's a map of where things are going to be tonight:



And here's a quickie picture from last week when the comet was right by the M71 globular cluster in Saggita. A better one is on the way, but I haven't had time to process the RAW files yet.


Good luck and clear skies to all!



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Apollo 18 Hits Theaters: Don't Believe the Fiction



Promotional material for Apollo 18 hints that aliens had something to do with the end of lunar exploration.

 
Today, a movie called Apollo 18 hits theaters all across the world after a slew of production delays that pushed back the film's release by nearly a year. For anyone reading this who is somewhat well-versed in the history of NASA, one thing comes to mind: the Apollo Program ended after 17 missions. Well, according to the film, there was an 18th, top-secret Apollo flight to the Moon that led to the discovery of something so horrible that NASA decided to abandon its Moon missions entirely.

Needless to say, the film is fiction, involves a truly impossible scenario, and should be taken as entertainment only.

Unfortunately, thanks to the Internet, groundless conspiracy theories can gain a foothold in the public mind like never before thanks to the 'if I hear it enough, it must be true' idea. Hopefully, tough, a conspiracy-hungry, government-wary public will be able to tell this film for what it really is: fantasy, pure and simple.


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