Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Photographing the Lunar Eclipse

Early yesterday I morning went outside to photograph the lunar eclipse that was visible all across north America.  Although it was not my original plan, I ended up staying up all night and shooting over 400 images during the event. 

Since the moon was directly overhead for part of the time, I was unable to mount my lens on my tripod because it cannot be tilted that far upward without the long lens or the camera body hitting the top of the tripod.  Due to this, I hand-held my rig for a good portion of the time, and fired short bursts hoping to get a few sharp images out of each attempt.  Later when the moon was at a lower angle, I mounted my rig on the tripod and was able to just fire single shots every couple minutes.  One has to constantly adjust the camera aim since the moon actually moves rather quickly across the sky. 

What I have posted below is a sequence of 12 images that I believe summarizes what I saw over the four-hour period.   If you were not able to stay up all night, or if the weather prevented you from seeing it (as was the case in parts of the Western  United States) you can get a glimpse of what you missed below.

[Click on any image to see a larger view]
Image #1 of 12 - 12:58am

Image #2 of 12 - 1:59am

Image #3 of 12 - 2:15am

Image #4 of 12 - 2:39am

Image #5 of 12 - 3:22am

Image #6 of 12 - 3:46am

Image #7 of 12 - 3:52am

Image #8 of 12 - 3:56am

Image #9 of 12 - 4:14am

Image #10 of 12 - 4:32am

Image #11 of 12 - 4:53am

Image #12 of 12 - 5:03am

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Photographing the International Space Station

Ever since my curiosity led me to try photographing the International Space Station as it flew overhead one evening in June, I've had the desire for closer images with more detail than I got on my first attempt. Using the NASA website, it's easy to tell exactly when the ISS fill fly over any location you enter, and NASA's "skywatch" program calculates the times when it will actually be visible.  These are always in times of darkness, or in the early morning or late evening when light from the sun illuminates the space station in the dark sky.  Usually the biggest deal breaker to getting photos is the weather.  You need a clear sky with few clouds or ideally no clouds to get in the way.

This morning was one of the best opportunities yet for photography.  At it's closest point, the ISS was only going to be 221 miles overhead at exactly 6:44:52am.  It would come into view from the Northwest about 800 miles away, and be visible to the naked eye a little over 2 minutes prior to passing at its closest distance.  After passing almost directly overhead (89 degrees from my location) it would be visible for another 2 minutes or so as it sped away toward the Southeast. 

This morning I slept through my alarm and luckily got outside with my camera gear just in time to see it approaching.  Usually I find the moon and set my camera focus on it to get a good 'infinity' focus setting, and then switch to manual focus to shoot the ISS, being careful not to touch the focus ring on my 500mm lens.  Today I was rushed and there was no moon in sight so I had to use autofocus and hope for the best. 
Looking through a long lens and teleconverter at high magnification, it is difficult to even find the bright dot streaking across the dark sky, even though it is clearly visible to the naked eye.   And trying to get the camera to auto-focus on it under these conditions is iffy at best.

This morning I managed to get photos of the space station approaching, but unfortunately I lost it after it got closer than 270 miles away. When I found it again through the lens, I shot more photos as it sped away, but none of them were properly focused.   The solar arrays are clearly visible in the images of the ISS approaching but still not as close as I had hoped, since I was unable to get a shot of it when it was at its closest distance. 

(Click on the image below to see a full size composite showing 7 images of the ISS as it passed over this morning)

Distances listed in the image are calculated using tables from NASA's skywatch program, and interpolating the distances between the 20 second intervals listed.  Before doing this, I synchronized the time setting in my camera with an atomic clock to be sure time time stamp on each image was accurate.  This allowed me to determine the distance in each photo referencing the NASA charts.   You can clearly see that each successive image of the international space station is slightly larger than the previous one, since it is getting closer in each frame.   Even though it is difficult to keep the ISS in the viewfinder even at 1000 mm, I have pretty much decided that I need to stack teleconverters to get even more magnification if I ever hope to get a closer shot.  This will make it even more difficult to find in the viewfinder, but if I succeed the image will be 40% larger.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Camping in Denali National Park

Photographing Mt McKinley

Sunrise on Mt. McKinley - From Reflection Pond, Denali National Park
The highlight of my last few days in Alaska this year was camping at Wonder Lake, which is only 23 miles from Mt. McKinley.  We had driven almost all night to return to Denali from Seward, and this bought me a extra day since we had planned for Monday to be a travel day.  Arriving back in Denali in the early morning, we found that there was space available on the 2pm camper bus, so we unpacked our camping gear and dried out our tents, then repacked for Wonder Lake.  Since it rained the last day at Brooks Falls we had been forced to pack our tents wet before getting on a float plane to fly out.  We went for a good lunch before hopping on the bus. 

Panorama from Eielson Visitor Center - [Click to enlarge]

Wonder Lake is located at mile post 88 on the Denali Park Road - about 6 hours from the park entrance.  On a clear day there is breathtaking scenery along the way, especially at polychrome pass and at Eielsen Visitor Center. 

Our tents set up near Wonder Lake - Denali National Park
Upon arrival at Wonder Lake, we set up our tents and then cooked dinner before getting ready to hike up to Reflection pond to photograph the mountain.  We did not know it yet, but we were in for a special treat.   We heard there had not been a clear day there in the previous 3 weeks.  But we had arrived to a blue sky with a few puffy clouds that moved out during the evening leaving a clear view of Mt McKinley.  Our hope was to get photos with the reflections in the water.

The hike to the pond is about 2.5 miles, and it's mostly uphill.  We set out for the pond, carrying only minimal camera gear.  The bugs were pretty bad so we wore mosquito nets to keep them off our faces.   We arrived at the pond a little before 10pm, a good hour prior to sunset.  While we were at the pond, several others arrived, all with their cameras.  Most folks marvelled at the view, and I was no exception.   It is a rare sight to see the top of McKinley because it is usually shrouded by clouds.  Today it was clear and the lake that stood in front of us was icing on the cake.   We shot lots of photos and made plans to return around 4:30am to do it again when the light from the sunrise would first start hitting the top of the mountain.

Denali before sunset (10:24pm)

We arrived back at our tents around midnight planned to get back up at 3am.  We would need to take up camp and pack all our gear in the morning, before we could hike back up to the pond.  The hike had taken just short of an hour so we needed to budget at least that much time for the morning, since we would be carrying 40+ lbs of gear in each of our backpacks. 

In the morning the sky was clear, so we packed up our camping gear and left it at the bus pickup point and started out for the pond.  All went as planned, and we arrived at the pond at 4:30am.  We shot various photos of the mountain and had plenty of time to plan prior to the 5:08am sunrise.

We were fortunate that there was not much wind and this resulted on few ripples in the water to spoil the reflection.  I shot lots of photos, but my favorite one is the first one at the top of this post.  It was shot at 5:13am, just 5 minutes after the sunlight began to hit the top of the mountain.   It is repeated again below to show the progression from dark to light.

Pre-dawn McKinley (4:30am)

Just before Sunrise (5:01am)

Five minutes after sunrise (5:13am)

We started making our way back to the bus stop at 5:30am in order to catch the 6:30 bus.  Along the way, I couldn't resist photographing this scene, with the lush green meadow in the foreground and the mountain as a backdrop.

Denali through the meadow

We were back waiting for the bus with time to spare, and were able to relax on the long bus ride back.  I was really tired but it was well worth it.

This last photo was taken by a passerby on Monday evening. I'm the guy on the right, and the other guy is my friend, Ken Conger.   Ken is a park ranger at Denali National Park and he has captured amazing wildlife images all around Alaska and elsewhere.  You can see his website HERE.  

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Grizzly Bears at Brooks Falls

It was very interesting and sometimes entertaining observing the behaviour of the grizzly bears at Brooks Falls.  Some bears seemed to be frequently catching salmon either swimming in the river or jumping at the falls while other bears seemed less fortunate.  And there seemed to be an established pecking order among the bears who were all trying to catch enough fish to satisfy themselves and fatten up prior to winter.   When one bear caught a fish, there was another particular bear that would chase after him and try to intimidate him into giving up the fish.  It seemed that this "bully bear" would almost always succeed in getting the fish away from the bear who had actually caught it.  This bear may have been too big and fat to be catching his own fish, but he got plenty to eat nonetheless by harassing all the other bears.
The tougher bears took the best fishing locations at the top of the falls, and were willing to fight other bears to keep their position.  There were usually lots of bears in the water in front of us.   One evening there were 19 bears there at the same time.

Soon we found ourselves giving the various bears nicknames based on their behaviour.  We were particularly entertained by a bear that I labelled 'beggar bear', who would frequently approach a bear that had just caught a fish.  But unlike the 'bully bear', beggar bear would approach within a foot or two and put his paws and head on the surface of the water, and gaze at the bear eating the fish, hoping the other bear would share some of the catch.  This bear was never aggressive and I never saw him try to steal the fish. This approach apparently worked because we often observed bears saving a small portion of their catch for him.

Another bear seemed to always stay in the swirling waters and bubbles just below the falls, and we appropriately named him "jacuzzi bear".

I tried to get a photo of a bear catching a fish, just before he closed his jaws on it. but I never exactly manged to get the shot I had in mind.  It was about 2 weeks past the peak of the salmon run, and fish were not jumping very often.  

As the bears would devour the fish, several gulls were always wading just a couple feet away, waiting for the scraps.  On one occasion, a gull went up and pecked away a piece of a fish while a bear was eating it.  That was one brave gull. 

Visiting Brooks Falls was nothing short of amazing.  I had never been here before, and I wouldn't hesitate to return if given the opportunity.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Grizzly Sow with Cubs

Katmai National Park, Alaska

Camping five days at Brooks Falls provided some great photo opportunities, but I think Thursday was the best day of all.  We had seen a sow with four cubs on the beach Wednesday morning, but not in time to try to get in position for photos.  Since my main photo goal on this trip was bear cubs, I was determined to be on the beach again early Thursday to look for them.  We headed to the beach first thing the next morning before going up to the falls, and sure enough she was there again with her 4 cubs. 

Seeing a sow with 4 cubs is a pretty amazing sight by itself because usually they have just 2 or 3.  Having the opportunity to photograph them was like a dream.  The sun was not yet popping through the cloudy sky at 6:45am, so I was forced to use make some compromises on camera settings.  I was fortunate to still get sharp photos.  

We watched as the mother left the cubs to look for fish in the lake, always keeping an eye on them to guard them from any danger.  At one point another bear approached, and in the top photo above it is this other bear that the cubs are watching.   Bears have been known to attack and kill cubs if the mother leaves them unprotected.  I believe this particular bear was quite capable of protecting her new family, and when she stood on her hind feet, she showed us just how big she is. 


The cubs are really cute as they play around and discover more and more of the world around them, and they are a joy to watch.

Dancing Bears?

It was really entertaining watching the cubs stand on their hind feet to get a better look at their surroundings.    They look like they are dancing.  

The next post will explore grizzly bears catching salmon in the falls. 

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Brooks Falls - Katmai National Park

It's been a while since I've posted, but having just returned from 10 days of hiking and camping in several National Parks in Alaska, I finally have some material I feel is worth sharing.  After meeting my friend Ken Conger in Anchorage, we flew to King Salmon and then took a float plane over to Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park.   The flight itself on the float plane was a treat, as I had the privilege of sitting in the cockpit for the short hop down to Brooks.   It's a shame the weather was not good for photos that morning, but I did snap a few anyway, especially as we prepared to land on Naknek Lake.

I couldn't resist looking back and snapping a photo inside the plane before we took off, since I figure it will be while if ever before I am able to enjoy an experience like this again.  You can't help but notice the looks of excitement of the faces of everyone in this photo.

The float plane landing is remarkably smooth and this really surprised me. I thought there would be a thud when the plane began to touch down on the water, but in reality a water landing in this type of plane is smoother than a typical runway landing.

In only about 25 minutes, we were preparing to land on the lake.   We saw 5 grizzly bears on the beach as we made our  descent to the water.

After getting off the float plane we saw grizzly bears roaming the beach within about 100 yards of us.  To me this was a remarkable sight.  I have never been to Brooks Falls before, and if this was any indication of what was in store for the next 5 days, it was going to be great. 

Our first task was attending bear etiquette training, so that we would be prepared to act safely in case we came in close proximity to bears during our stay. Next, we would get our gear over to the camping area and set up our tents. We felt fortunate to have arrived at Brooks by 10am, because the visibility had been much worse in Anchorage earlier that morning. It was clearer in King Salmon where we got on the float plane.
After taking a few minutes to set up camp, we grabbed our camera gear and headed up to the falls, about 1.5 miles hike.    When we arrived at the falls, there were about a dozen grizzly bears there.  

[click on the image above to see a larger view]

In the next post, we'll take a lot closer look at the grizzly bears, including a sow and 4 very cute spring cubs that I photographed on Thursday morning.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The International Space Station

(Photography "outside the box")

[click on the image for a larger view]
I have been curious for a long time whether it would be possible to photograph the international space station as it passed overhead. I had been watching the NASA website and making notes of when an opportunity might come with the ISS passing in close proximity to my location. It is only visible if it passes close by, and then only when it's dark outside and the ISS is illuminated by the sun.  On Thursday evening 6/24/10 at 9:54pm that opportunity came, and it was supposed to be visible for around 4 minutes starting when it was about 800 miles away and eventually passing as close as 227 miles.

Since the weather was clear, I went outside about 5 minutes prior to the beginning of the viewing window with a 500mm f4 lens and 1.4x teleconverter mounted on a Canon 40d body. My plan was to try and hand hold the rig using autofocus and see if I could lock onto the 'dot' as it passed overhead.  I made some practice shots of the moon to try 'guestimate' the correct exposure, and I decided on 1/250, f8, iso 400. I would be using manual exposure, but with autofocus and image stabilization mode 1, since it would be more of a 'hold it steady' motion than a panning motion. The ISS was easy to see with the naked eye as it approached, and I was able to locate it in the camera viewfinder and fire off some shots while trying very hard to keep the bright dot in the center of the frame as it streaked across the sky. I was surprised that the 40d actually locked focus very easily most of the time.

Of a couple dozen shots, only a few taken when the subject was the closest showed any real detail. The image shown above was my best shot.  It is shown here as a 100% crop, but it is actually about 1.58 times actual size due to opening it in photoshop at a resolution higher than the native resolution of the camera.  (You must click on the photo to see it actual size).

I tried a second attempt Sunday morning at 4:57am, but this time with stacked teleconverters hoping to get an image twice as large with my 1400mm rig.  Since autofocus is not an option when using 2 teleconverers, I used manual focus and pre-focused on the moon in order to accurately set the focus at infinity. When the ISS came into view, I found it in the camera viewfiner and took some shots.  But as it got closer and near the sweet spot where I could get a closer photo, I lost it and was unable to find it again looking through the camera even though it was clearly visible to the naked eye.  The added focal length meant that I was looking at a much narrower slice of the sky when looking through the lens than on my first attempt.  This proved very frustrating, but at the same time it was a learning experience.  Hopefully I can do better next time.
[click on the moon image below for a larger view]