Saturday, December 30, 2017

More Around the Observaory

Griffith Park has been my only consistent walking area, just because, on many weeknights, I head up there early (to beat the traffic), then have hours to kill before my shift begins.
As the winter solstice approached, I thought it would be fun to try to catch the sun, setting near the Observatory. That meant finding a spot to the east.
All of these shots were from one of two hikes I took between the Observatory and Glendale Peak. According to the "Tom LaBonge" map, Glendale Peak is 1,184 feet tall. That's 400-500 feet shorter than the "top" peaks on Griffith Park, like Mount Hollywood (1625 ft), Mount Bell (182), Mt. Chapel (1614) or Mt. Lee (1680), so Glendale Peak doesn't exactly stand out from the crowd. In fact, standing at the Observatory, it doesn't look like much of a peak, at all.
Nonetheless, it is about fifty feet higher than the Observatory grounds, so, from Glendale Peak, you are looking slightly over the spot. Your altitude becomes somewhat apparently when you notice you can see the ocean over the Observatory lawn.

There are multiple routes between the Observatory and Glendale Peak, but none of them are direct. One way takes you up the Charlie Turner Trail, east, below Mount Hollywood, past Dante's View, then along teh East Ridge (Hogback) Trail. The spur to Glendale Peak is right after crossing the small metal bridge.

Route two from the Observatory would be down the Boy Scout Trail, across Vermont Canyon Road, along Commonwealth Canyon Drive, up to the Riverside Trail, then up around to Glendale Peak.
I'm pretty sure the latter route is shorter and has less altitude change, yet either seems pretty long when you're walking. It shouldn't seem that long, since I used to walk further than that all the time, but just not much of that, recently. Wild guess would be about two miles each way via the latter route, and 2.5 miles each way via the former. A loop makes it about 4.5 miles.
My first hike this loop was the Sunday before the Solstice. Wasn't sure if the spot would work, but it pretty much did. The sun set just a bit north of the Astronomers Monument, on the lawn of Griffith Observatory. I returned again the Friday after (the day after) the Solstice. The setting location must have differed, but not appreciably.

On that second trip, I knew a SpaceX launch was scheduled for shortly after sunset. My plan was to try to get back to the Hollywood Sign viewpoint on the Charlie Turner Trail. Figured I could set my small tripod on the seating area there, and get a somewhat more stabilized camera for my shots. But I didn't quite make it back there by the time I saw the rocket, steaming off into space. So I stopped, attached my long telephoto, and took some shots. I also took some with my wide angle. The launch was visible for several minutes from most of southern California, so I had time to make those switches.
The first two satellite photos here, by the way, are the same shot. The first one was just processed to show dimmer detail. All of the other shots are just .jpegs of the shots, as my Nikon D3400 recorded them. Obviously, I toggle the exposure settings around quite a bit during things like this. But, especially because I had no tripod, I knew I wanted to take relatively short exposures, to minimize camera shake. Under the circumstances, I was pretty happy with the result.

With the exception of the last shot in this post, all of the telephoto shots were taken with a Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 telephoto. It's a little heavy, even with a tripod. Still haven't decided if the extra weight is worth the extra 100mm of reach, as, it turns out, the difference between 300mm and 400mm doesn't seem that significant, through the viewfinder. But I haven't had a chance to try this on distant birds, so we'll see.
The superwide angle shots are with my Tokina 11-20mm f/2.8. Wanted speed, shooting in the dark. Still love this lens.
The last shot was with my Nikon 18-140mm f/3.5-5.6. That's pretty slow, but in daylight, it covers the most frequently needed ranges, except when I want to go macro, or long telephoto. Got that one as a Nikon refurbished lens (the Sigma was also a refurb, and, had I been patient, I could have gotten the Tokina from their refurbished "outlet" website, too). Obviously, these lenses are still not "cheap," but they're a lot cheaper as factory refurbished than they would be as new. Something for photo bugs to consider to stretch your budget.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Griffith Observatory Walks

Of course, now that we're coming up on the Winter solstice, sunset is now a little after 4:30pm. Since my shifts at the Observatory don't start until 6:15pm, I've got plenty of actual darkness to wander up to the big turn in the Charlie Turner trail and get some nice nighttime views of the Observatory, with the DTLA skyline as a backdrop.
I'd estimate it's only about 1/2 to maybe 3/4 of a mile from the trailhead to the turn. Add another 1/3 of a mile or so if you're walking from the building, which, of course, I am.
At the turn, there are a set of polished granite-covered seats. It's designed as an overlook towards the Hollywood sign. It's also a nice, flat place to set up my backpacking tripod.

When you zoom in on the Observatory, you're looking just past a drop-off, and generally, there's no one to obscure the view. However, widen the view, and, yeah, there are usually people (often, with their own tripods set up). That just gives you more framing alternatives!
One problem I have is that if I zoom in on the Observatory, I get internal reflections from bright lights around the Observatory, showing up as ghost images in my shot. I need to frame wider, then crop, to get a decent close-up without the ghost images.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Point Imperial and Bison, North Rim, Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

These were taken the Sunday into the Grand Canyon Star Party (North Rim), in June 2017. I set up my telescopes and did astronomy outreach on the first Saturday and Sunday of the star party, then headed back home the next day.
The entire star party goes on for eight days, over two weekends (Saturday through the next Saturday). This year's ran the nights of June 17 through the 24th.

This was my second year volunteering at the North Rim. As mentioned in other posts, I enjoyed this party, as I do, most public outreach events in national parks. You generally get a better educated and appreciative crowd at these National Park events, although, I must admit, this may be changing. In particular, the spread of social media means that, especially for events near large urban centers (like Joshua Tree, which I may post of, later), you often get folks who don't really know what they're going to, but do know that it's "a happening," and they want to come.
Meanwhile, for the volunteer, part of the fun (besides looking at faint fuzzies from a dark sky location, and sharing that with the public) is being able to explore a bit of the park in the daylight hours.
The Grand Canyon is such a long drive from southern California that the time exploring is probably less than the time driving. I definitely didn't have time to see even the more accessible trails, last year. So I visited two new overlook areas, this year: Cape Royal, and Point Imperial. I posted about Cape Royal previously. The first two shots of this post were from Point Imperial.
Meanwhile, the third shot was from a burro ride along the rim and the last two were from the road to the north of the Rim, on my drive back home. Lots of bison live in this area. On occasion, they graze in numbers up to a few dozen.
I saw both bison and deer on both trips to the North Rim But this group was particularly photogenic.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Cedar Breaks, Mid-September 2017

Back in the old days of film, I used to shoot ASA 1000 film with a 50mm or 35mm lens, and got some pretty fair results, including of Comet Halley, back in 1986. Nowadays, you can do something similar with a dslr, but you do need something wide. On the crop sensors that are common on lower-end dslrs (like mine, a Nikon D3400), you need to go way wider than a 35mm lens to get something spacious. So, just a few months before my solar eclipse trip, I purchased a Tokina 11-20mm f/2.8 zoom. It ran about $450, at the time. It lists for a bit more, but if you have patience and go to their "outlet" site for refurbished lenses, you can get it for less. If you just want to cover the wide-end (11-16mm), you can go even cheaper.

Stuck this lens and camera set up on a rather heavy, old-style pan-and-tilt tripod head tripod, and here's what I got. Up to about 30 seconds at ISO 1600, and the stars hardly trail. But the lens was nice and sharp, and the conifers gave a nice foreground to the Milky Way. I also used the tripod on a few of the other shots, including the second to last one, which, as I recall, was a 30 second exposure, well after sunset and with the place getting pretty dark.
I wasn't able to go last fall for foliage, because of some major surgery. But this trip was a lot of fun. Didn't really try any new trails on this trip, but I did do some night photography. I'm pretty happy with the Tokina.

Trickiest thing is trying to get a sharp focus. In this case, on the Milky Way shot, I actually focused on the trees, when cars drove by. They were close enough to "infinity" that focusing on them gave me great depth of field, even at f/2.8.
Longer lens for the moon set shot.

Except for the first shot, which was from the parking lot near the visitor center, the other ones were all from the short trail (maybe 2 miles, each way) to the Ramparts Overlook. If I'm able to get there earlier in the summer, I may try shooting from the Northview Overlook, if I can time it for a little moonlight to strike the amphitheater. Not sure if that'll be feasible, though.
I'm also giving some thought to making some more Zion trips, trying to get some Milky Way shots there, too This one lens has got me really thinking about nightscapes. I tried some from Grand Canyon, in November I may post those, next.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve, Henderson NV

Not really a long hike, but it is a point of interest, if you happen to be in Henderson, and want to take a little walk.
From I-515/US95/US93, Exit at Galleria Street, and head approximately two miles east. The Bird Sanctuary will be on your left. There'll be a small sign indicating the turn. The address is 350 East Galleria Drive, in Henderson, of course.

It's surprisingly easy to not notice these ponds from the street, because of the relative flatness of this particular area, so watch for the sign.
These ponds are settling basins; reclaimed water slowly seeps into the ground here, to recharge the groundwater. So, obviously, these are not natural ponds. Still, they look nice, and provide migratory birds with a welcome resting area during their journey across the Mojave Desert.

Both paved and dirt paths run between the ponds, of which there are around nine of them. There are a couple of "blinds" to watch the waterfowl through, and a platform or two.
I didn't bring my longer telephoto, and my wife wasn't going to take a really long walk, but we did want to see this place. It's a potentially nice-place to walk and bird watch. It can also get really humid in the summer, because all of that open water evaporates really fast in the desert.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Total Solar Eclipse, Rexburg, Idaho

I travelled up to Idaho Falls for the total eclipse of the sun. Me, my wife, and my Prius. We stayed two nights in Idaho Falls, then drove over to Rexburg on the morning of totality. Not really a hiking adventure, but it was highly cool. I may try to write a longer post, with more photos, at a later date.
The two total eclipse shots are crops of slightly compressed .jpegs, taken with a Nikon D3400, and a Tamron 70-300mm zoom, shot at 300mm. It was transferred to my phone using Nikon's Snapbridge, which resizes the files down to 2 gb. I then cropped using what ever basic photo editing software comes on a Samsung S5. It's possible I'll have a slightly sharper, and maybe better colored photo if I crop from the full-sized files. However, at the moment, I can'tell find that SD card. That's a story in itself.
Just tossed in one partial phase shot, from before totality. More details if I manage to do some editing. And I'll type on a laptop, which will be much quicker and easier.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Cape Royal, North Rim, Grand Canyon National Park

Short walk I took on the morning of Sunday, June 18. Cape Royal is at the end of the road that runs along the North Rim. Google maps says it's about a 46 minute drive to cover the 22.7 miles from the North Rim Lodge to the parking area. From the North Rim Lodge, you head north on AZ-67 about three miles, then make a right at the sign that points to Cape Royal and Point Imperial. Drive 5.4 miles more, then turn right (or stay right) towards Cape Royal. (The left would take you to Point Imperial). Continue about 14.2 miles to the end of the road.
There's a large parking area here. Vault toilets and a picnic area are also here.

From the parking area, there's a short, mostly paved trail, which the Park Service says is 1/4 mile, each way. I suspect if you do the detour on to the top of Angel's Window and the little area adjacent to the fenced overlook, it's more like 2/3 of a mile, roundtrip. It's also essentially flat, with no significant gain or loss of altitude along the way. In other words, yes, very short, but slightly longer than the distance implies.

I have a mixture of shots here, both from my cell phone and using my Tokina 11-20mm f/2.8 lens on my Nikon D3200 dslr. The 3200 is a 3-4 year old model; they're up to D3500 now, I think. The 11-20mm is newer, an upgrade Tokina brought out to succeed their 11-16mm. This one gives you a more standard "upper" end, but still has the superwide 11mm at the shorter end, which gives you those nice, panoramic landscapes, and capture those nifty Milky Way shots from dark sky locations. It was something around $500 when I bought it, but I really wanted the wide field and f/2.8 speed.

At the same time, I'm still amazed by how good the cell phone shots look. This is a Samsung S5, which, again, is about a 4 year old model. It can't do anything other than wide to super-wide angle shots, but it does those well, as long as the lighting is sufficient. To compare, the slightly wider-aspect shots are from the cell phone, while the more standard-shaped shots were with the dslr.

I hadn't managed to make it to Cape Royal last year, so I really wanted to see it, this time. I had to do it quick, because I had to be somewhere else, soon. But, as I said, it's a short walk. And it was definitely worth it. I would agree with many who say it's the best view from the North Rim.
Given the shortness, you'll probably want to hit the other sights on this segment of road. There's a very unimpressive foundation of a Pueblo dwelling, just a bit further back down the road, and an overlook, nearby. That's literally a five minute stop

For a longer (but still not very long) hike, you'll also have passed the trailhead for Cape Final, which I did hike last year. That one was 4.4 miles roundtrip.

The other option in this area is to drive over to Point Imperial (which I did, the next day, on my way out of the park). There are also some trails that run on either side from Point Imperial, and on back towards the Kaibab Trail and the North Rim Lodge area. I may try to hit some of those other trails, next year, if I'm able to make it back here, again.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Grand Canyon National Park, North Rim Star Party

Saturday, June 17. This is my second year on the North Rim for the opening of the star party, there. Last year, I was just there for the first night. This year, I stayed two nights. At this rate, I"ll be staying for the whole thing by the time I'm 60. :D

The Grand Canyon Star Party is an annual event, that takes place on both rims of the Canyon. The North Rim is much quieter, however. There's just a small veranda on the back of the Lodge, with room for maybe a dozen telescopes (depending on how large the telescopes might be). There are a few hundred guests at the various motel and cabins on the North Rim, and a few hundred more in the single campground on that rim. Obviously, not all come out to look through the telescopes, so it's usually a manageable number, spread out among those dozen telescopes.

This may be one of my favorite events of the year, just because of the location, and the crowd. It's a large, but generally well-behaved and well-informed crowd. Obviously, I do a lot of public astronomy, and some nights go better than others. Some nights, you feel like you're talking to yourself, because you're describing the object to the people in line, but as soon as you finish talking, someone in line asks, "What are we looking at?" Just last night, I had someone ask me three times, "What are we looking at?" and I said, "Saturn," and, "This telescope is pointed at Saturn, the one over to the right is pointed at Jupiter, and the one to the left is on the moon." But he kept asking what we were looking at. So I said, slower, louder, and more clearly, "This telescope is pointed at Saturn." And he asks, "So you're looking at a star?" "NO," I say, "This telescope is looking at Saturn." "So you're looking at a star?" "NO, WE ARE LOOKING AT SATURN."
To some extent, yes, it's my job to "interpret" the object to the level of knowledge of the viewer. But if you don't know that Saturn is a planet, then why bother asking what we're looking at? There's no possibility that you'll know what we're looking at, if a simple answer like, "Saturn" makes no sense to you. But that's at a different location, with a different crowd. That doesn't happen at the Grand Canyon.
Took a short walk around the North Rim area before the star party on Saturday. Did a few other short hikes, as well. But the main point of the trip is to volunteer with the telescope. People at these sorts of events really appreciate the views, and we have a lot of fun showing them things we can't see from home that we can see a dark sky location, like Grand Canyon National Park.
I picked up Jupiter about an hour before sunset on Saturday, and stayed on that until the sky got darker. Swung over to Saturn, once it cleared a tree. Then, once it was really dark, swung to the southern horizon for Omega Centauri, which is an amazing sight, even from 36 degrees north latitude, if the sky is dark. It's far larger and star-studded than M13, the Hercules globular cluster, but lies so far south that you need a low, clear, dark southern horizon to have any chance to see, and, even then, you've only got a few hours during any given May or June night to catch it (or maybe really late in April or March!).
That's my C11 in the previous picture. Here, I'm just shooting over the Canyon. The airport lights are red and run along the horizon. There was also a fire, burning in the mountains beyond the South Rim. But the Milky Way still looked nice. In this shot, the flashing lights of an aircraft appear to be an arrow, shot by the centaur, Sagittarius. Probably around ISO 1600, f/2.8, and 15 or 20 seconds.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Mojave National Preserve Spring 2017 Star Party, Memorial Day Weekend 2017

Although I was already off Xeloda (I'm a middle-aged male, so if you're curious, you can do a google search and get a pretty good idea of what I was being treated for) for several weeks when I took this trip, the side effects have not yet worn off. After going off, I am still very sensitive to sunlight. I also got a blister on each of my big toes (like an ingrown toenail). After brief search of side effects for that drug, I found it was also a common side effect.
I started this post to talk about the side effects, but decided against delving into so much detail. Suffice to say at this point that I still have not been able to do much hiking, but I remain confident that I'll be able to start that up later in the summer. For now, this is just about the night sky landscapes I shot, while at the Spring 2017 Mojave National Preserve star party. The Mojave National Preserve Conservancy and the Preserve administration co-sponsor these twice a year at the Black Canyon Group and Equestrian campground, near the Hole in the Wall visitor center and campground. Telescopes are provided by Old Town Sidewalk Astronomers.
All the Milky Way shots here are with my Tokina AT-X Pro DX, 11-20mm f2.8 lens, attached to my Nikon D3200. The camera is probably about four years old. Since it came out, Nikon has rolled out a D3300 and D3400, among others. So it's by far NOT the latest in dslr technology. It's possible newer cameras would have higher iso capabilities and better noise reduction technology applied. The lens, however, is relatively new, and brand new to me.
For those of you who aren't dslr shooters, the f2.8 means it's a pretty fast lens. the 11mm at the lower end means it's an extremely wide angle lens. It's not as wide a few as if I was shooting the FX format, but my camera is DX, meaning it's a smaller sensor that detects the picture. It would be about the equivalent of a 16mm lens on an old 35mm film camera.
I shot wide open, at f2.8, and 11mm to get the full breadth of the Milky Way. The first two shots were at ISO 1600 and 25 seconds. The latter two were at ISO 3200 and at 20 seconds, or less. These were shot as .jpegs, with the only processing being the resizing to smaller sized files, for faster loading. I'm using a relatively stable tripod, with no clock drive. The camera's just sitting on the tripod. If the shot were blown up enough, you'd see some star trailing. However, at reasonable computer sizes, the shot looks pretty clear. I could probably have exposed for nearly a minute with relatively minimal trailing. Definitely could have shot 30 seconds.
The point of this is, with this lens and not the latest camera set up, anyone can get some pretty interesting astrophotographs. Cameras are sensitive enough to get Milky Way shots that would have taken real practice and processing, not so long ago. Play around with different foreground lighting and framing, different exposure lengths, etc., and you can definitely get shots worth sharing.

The first two shots are of the central Milky Way, near Scorpios and Sagittarius. The third is of the northern Milky Way, near Cygnus and Lyra. The fourth was to the northwest. The Las Vegas light dome is incredibly obvious in that direction.