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Posts Tagged ‘Sunrise’

The Lunar Eclipse that Wasn’t

Posted by Tom Benedict on 23/12/2010

I had plans to photograph the lunar eclipse.  Ooooh, did I ever have plans!

This all started when a friend of mine mentioned that he needed a single image that said: “Time Lapse”.  This is no small feat since most time lapse work results in a video, not a still image.  Once he explained the use he had in mind, though, the video idea went out the window.  It really did need to be a still.  We tossed some ideas around, and finally I remembered a project I worked long and hard on, but never really made headway with.

Back when I was doing a lot more 4×5 photography than I am now, I was given a box of things that came from various sources inside the family.  One was a camera of my great grandfather’s, a “pocket” Kodak camera that pre-dated the Great Depression.  It took a roll film I couldn’t find any more, and it had what looked like a lens built along the tessar design (symmetric doublets on either side of an aperture stop) set in a wonderful old shutter.  It was dirty, gunky, and not looking so great, but I knew it was a diamond in the rough.  I couldn’t wait to remove it from the original camera and mount it in a 4×5 lens board.

At the time I worked in a chemistry lab that was making optics.  I was also learning machining at the time, so I was up to my elbows in tools and optical cleaning equipment.  I disassembled the lens (not a huge trick with a large format lens) and disassembled and cleaned the shutter.  Keep in mind this shutter dated from the 191x era.  I wouldn’t do this with a modern shutter, which looks a lot like a Swiss watch once you get the cover off.  This shutter had “Big Parts”, a term coined by a friend of mine the first time he popped the hood on a 1960’s era Mustang and compared it to his 2000’s era Mustang.  Yep, dem be bigparts!

Cleaning took almost no time, and once everything was back together I discovered the real joy with this lens and shutter: the cable release also cocked the shutter.  So once it was installed on the camera, you could make exposure after exposure on a single sheet of film without touching the camera.  This means diddly squat if you’re doing straight photography, but it’s seriously cool if you’re doing multiple exposures.

I mentioned I was working in a chemistry lab making optics.  We were making diffraction gratings, and part of my job was to document our work to the best of my ability.  Imagine you’re seeing me making wikkid sounding snickering noises and rubbing my hands together, because that’s exactly what I did when I learned this was a job function.  “To the best of my ability” meant, to me, “You get to have a truckload of fun photographing what you do, and get paid for it.”  Oh yeah!

One question we were trying to answer was how much light was diffracted into each order of the grating.  We came up with a pretty good setup for measuring this, though the setup built by the guy they hired after I left was far better.  But for fun, I aimed a HeNe laser at one of our gratings and photographed the light diffracting off of it using multiple exposures.  Here’s the sequence:

  1. Do a normal “lights on” exposure of the setup.
  2. Turn off the lights, open the shutter.
  3. “Paint” the incoming beam with an index card, your finger, a piece of paper, whatever.  Keep a consistent pace as you do this.
  4. Then “Paint” the outgoing beams coming off the grating with that same index card, finger, etc.  Again, keep a consistent pace as you do this.
  5. Close the shutter, and turn on the lights.

What you get are these beautiful light beams floating in space, casting all the right reflections, and looking entirely like a movie special effect.  It also did a great job of showing that we got most of our light in one order (we had the grating arranged in littrow for all tests) and that the other orders had very little light in them.

The lens and shutter worked like a champ!

That’s when I got the idea of photographing a sunrise.

My idea was to do something similar to the laser beam trick, but use the shutter to capture the sun at various times during the sunrise.  I figured five minute intervals would be about right.  The only difference from the camera’s perspective is that the sun is a lot brighter than our laser beam, so I had to dump a lot of light.  I couldn’t afford the neutral density filter I needed, so I used two sheets of Kodak TMX film, overexposed and developed, placed in front of the lens.  If I remember right, this dumped the sunlight down enough that I could use something approaching a normal exposure without burning a hole in my film.

Unfortunately it never happened.  I tried diligently for several months, but every sunrise session ended in disaster.  I even drove out into the country, but things still seemed to go wrong.  The idea works.  I’ve seen other people do it.  But I never managed it.

Still, nothing says time lapse like a dozen suns rising from the horizon in a single frame.  And doing this with a digital camera and Photoshop would be even easier than doing it with a single sheet of film.  I tested the idea out at the beach, and even though my focus was off and the images were fuzzy, I processed them anyway and proved to myself it would work.  I got ready for the eclipse.

The morning of the eclipse I pulled up the GOES10 satellite feed to see what the weather in the Pacific was like.  Lo and behold, there was this continent-sized tropical storm bearing down on us like a freight train.  I felt like one of the agonized character drawings from Hyperbole and a Half!  I could feel my hair poking up and my eyes bugging out.  GAAAH!  “I could drive somewhere!” I thought.  So I started checking web cams all over the island, including those at the summit of Mauna Kea.  Hey, how cool would that be!  Photographing a lunar eclipse from the summit!  Nope, they were opaque, too, and the summit had snow warnings.  As the clock rolled forward, despair began to set in.

After dinner, we took the kids out to the driveway to look at the completely overcast sky.  We were all wailing to some degree at this point since the kids had been looking forward to it as much as I had, albeit for different reasons.  Sadly, my wife and I put the kids to bed and moped a little.  Eventually she went out to look, just in case.  I stumbled out after her.

Sometimes life has a way of slamming the door in your face, locking it, throwing the deadbolt, and sucker-punching you through the mail slot.  Earlier in the week I’d bruised my ankle putting my son’s bicycle away.  As I stepped out of the house this searing pain shot up my leg as I rammed my bruised ankle into the scooter he’d parked in front of the door.  I stumbled past that and stepped on the pile of… of… THINGS! the kids had left on the porch.  I careened away from the pile and whacked into a board they’d been using as a bike ramp.  I reached down with a trembling hand, trying to decide whether to put the board off to the side or just throw it in a fit of rage.  That’s when my glasses fell off.  In the dark.  At that point I knew if I moved I’d squish them.

I finally shuffled over to the house, found a book light, and used it to find my glasses.  Somehow they’d folded themselves neatly and were sitting on the ground lenses up.  Go figure.  I used the light to clear off the porch enough to navigate, and walked over to join my wife.

The only ray of light at the end of this story is that she didn’t turn to me and say, “The most wonderful hole opened up in the clouds, and ohMIGOD you should’ve SEEN it!”  That would’ve sent me over the edge.  Nope, she just shook her head and sighed.

We watched the dim light of the moon slowly fade behind the clouds as it went into eclipse, then walked back into the house to read a little before going to bed.

Ah well…  There’s always sunrise.

– Tom

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KAP in the Golden Hour

Posted by Tom Benedict on 30/08/2010

One of the things to look for in a photo club is honesty.  There are clubs where it’s all about the kudos and patting each other on the back.  In my mind these really don’t do a a photographer much good.  But then there are the ones where you get honest critique, whether it hurts or not.  If you’re really looking to improve, it shouldn’t hurt at all.  Honest critique, after all, is one of the best helping hands an artist can have extended to them.

At a recent photo club meeting, one of the members I respect highly, both for his artistry and for his honesty, gave me a critique on a set of images I showed.  It boiled down to this:  Great vantage point, rotten light.  Ouch?  Not really.  He’s right.

Until recently most of my KAP work has been done under the bright midday sun.  In the back of my mind I knew this.  Heck, all the work I put into finding the best way to make a panorama revolved around the notion of working in sunny-16 conditions.  And despite having most of John Shaw’s and Galen Rowell’s books on my shelves, I just didn’t manage to put two and two together and see that this was the wrong time to do photography of any sort, KAP or no KAP.  So the critique I got was a much-needed kick in the seat of the pants.  Want to improve my kite aerial photography?  Work in better light.

That “better light” happens during the half hour before and after sunrise or sunset.  It’s known as the “golden hour”, not just because of the color of the light but because of the quality that light brings to a photograph.  They simply look better.

Of course the “hour” part of the golden “hour” is subjective, and depends a great deal on location.  In far northern or southern latitudes, that “hour” can stretch on for hours and hours as the sun slowly sinks toward the horizon.  Here close to the equator it’s about fifteen minutes on either side of sunrise or sunset.  But the “golden half-hour” just doesn’t have that magical ring to it.  So “golden hour” it is.

On the ground, doing photography in the golden hour is only slightly different from doing it at any other time of the day.  Exposures are a little longer, or a lot longer, depending on how late you’re out.  But a tripod fixes that.  If the wind is blowing and you need a faster shutter speed, you can open up your aperture or bump up your ISO.  In the days of film, you loaded a faster film and had done with it.

In the air things are a little more difficult.  The kite is your tripod, and even the most stable kite will still move around.  I fought camera motion during the day by using a 1/1000 or faster exposure speed.  With my camera, that’s simply not available in the golden hour.  With a DSLR, it’s possible to bump the ISO to 200 or 400 without suffering much of a penalty with noise.  With my compact camera, ISO 100 is as fast as I can go and still get acceptable noise.  And unfortunately, during sunrise and sunset is when the wind is at its squirreliest.  On the West Side of Hawaii, the wind is largely thermal in origin.  Thermals collapse as the sun sets, so everything is in flux during the golden hour.

One other significant difference is that on the ground the photographer can make rational choices about metering in order to render a subject the way they intend.  In the air you have to set and forget.  In broad daylight, I came to the conclusion that using the sunny-16 rule was the right way to go: manual exposure mode, fixed aperture, and a fixed shutter speed based on a 1/ISO f/16 starting point.  Toward sunset the light is changing constantly, so a manual meter setting simply isn’t the right approach.  I had to come up with something else.

All of this makes life hard.  Hard, but not impossible.  I started off re-learning how to photograph during the golden hour from the ground.  I skipped the tripod, not wanting to lure myself into a false sense of security.  Several evenings of exposure tests toward sunset at Hapuna State Park got me going in the right direction.

The first thing I found was that metering toward the sun gave shutter speeds close to what I was using for sunny-16 conditions.  This meant doing foreground silhouette panoramas with a setting sun in the background could be done almost the same way I make broad-daylight panoramas.  Great no-brainer:

KAP Sunset

Next, I found that when photographing 180 degrees from the sun, I got the best results from metering 50/50 sky and horizon, and then re-composing the photograph:

180 Degrees from Sunset

The shutter times were longer, unfortunately, so my tried and true way of doing panoramas was out.  During the day, I’ll typically make a panorama by tripping the shutter and rotating the rig slowly around the pan axis as the camera continues to take pictures.  At 1/1250 second per exposure, this works fine.  At 1/100 second, this results in a bunch of blurred pictures.  So I used a different approach:  Set the camera to horizontal, meter, and compose each camera location individually while holding down the shutter.  The images that are made as the camera is moving will be blurred, but the ones where the camera is settled in a given orientation will mostly be sharp.

One problem I ran into was the balance between sky and foreground as the sun set.  As the light is falling, the sky actually stays quite bright.  It’s the ground that loses light first.  So the difference between illumination in the sky and on the ground eventually becomes so great the camera can’t capture both.  There are a number of fixes for this, including bracketing and HDR.  But from a strict photographic standpoint the best fix would be a graduated neutral density filter.  I grabbed my graduated ND filter set out of my DSLR bag and headed back out to the beach.

Graduated ND Test 1

The image on the left was done without the graduated ND filter, and the one on the right was with the filter.  The filter I used was an ND 0.6 (two-stop) hard-transition graduated filter from Hitec.  These are large, fragile, and expensive.  But I opted to test it in the air anyway, when I felt I was ready for it.

With all the results from metering, learning to fly in the shifty sunset wind, and the results of the ND filter test, I finally charged all my batteries, packed up all my gear, and put this to the test.

Hapuna + Graduated ND Filter

Compositionally this is quite weak, but it served to demonstrate the metering and filtering I came up with for doing golden hour kite aerial photography.  This panorama consists of nine images made with the camera held vertically.  It’s not without flaws: the rightmost pair of images is too bright, and needs to be brought into line.  But the sky isn’t blown and the shadows aren’t muddied.  All in all it’s a very workable image.

The only catch with all this is that I don’t want to fly my Hitec graduated ND filter again.  As I said, the filter is large, fragile, and expensive.  The filter holder is also quite heavy.  This serves to make my rig heavier, raise the minimum wind speed in which I can fly, and utterly unbalances the rig.  My tilt servo was working overtime to hold the camera in position, which increased battery draw.  No matter what I did, the filter got sand on it, and since it is made of acrylic, there is no easy way to clean the sand back off without scratching the filter.

But the results are compelling enough that I’m motivated to buy a screw-on graduated ND filter strictly for KAP.  I’m pleased with the results I’ve had so far.

The next step is to try all of this with a more photogenic subject with a little more altitude.  Worldwide KAP Week happens in less than two weeks, and is the perfect opportunity to really take all this out for a spin and see how it works out.

– Tom

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