Quadrantids Meteor Shoot

Ahh… celestial photography. A fun topic that I've rarely had time to explore. I've done occasional shots of the moon, usually to test a new long lens or stacked teleconverters, but have never tried to shoot a meteor shower or star trails.  I've done some other time lapse stuff lately, and other long exposure photography, so I've had it at the front of my mind. As I was surfing around the other day, I saw a post about the Quadrantids meteor shower, and how it was that night. I did a bit of surfing about where and when it would be visible but didn't think too much of it. As luck would have it, I got stuck at the office late after a fairly long day and noticed it was crisp and clear in Austin as I headed to the car.  On the drive home, tinkering with some long exposure photography seemed a great way to relax and unwind.

When I got home I went into the back yard and realized that a) I'm to the south of downtown Austin, so the views north to northeast from the back yard were polluted by light; and 2) [sic] that with the houses of my neighbors also cluttering up the sight lines, I'd be pretty much guaranteed to get squat for meteor shots.

Undaunted, I figured I could use this as a great way to tinker with exposures, apertures, ISOs, and lens selection. I soon had my 5D2 in the back yard with my 17-40L f/4 mounted atop my tripod and ballhead. I wanted to go for a longer exposure (figuring I'd go "simple" with my camera's shutter options) but didn't know what ISO, f-stop, etc. I ran a series of tests with the lens wide open at f/4, and thought I'd be happy with an 800 iso 25 second exposure @f/4, but ran a few other tests while I was at it.  I played with different shutter speeds at 400 and 1600 ISO, as well as halving the exposure time and bumping a full stop to 5.6.  I was a bit surprised at how much I'd liked the 800 ISO f/5.6. It was definitely sharper, and with some lingering humidity in the air (along with the light pollution to the north), the reduction in overall exposure made it all look so much crisper. I had thought I'd want to be a touch overexposed to ensure I caught every possible trail, but with the reality of the houses and lights, I figured this might be a better star trails exercise, so I leaned towards a slightly darker image.

As for which "exact" direction to point the camera, I leaned on (as I say it) the AKASG – all knowing all seeing Google – In this case – the Google Sky Map app on my Android based device (tho I'm pretty sure tis free for iOS and Blackberry devices). I figured I could use it to help ensure I knew which way was NNE, but I was surprised to see that meteor shower focal points (essentially the point at which it looks like the meteors are coming from, they radiate out from the focal point) is a selectable option to include in the view. So it was very easy to see where the shower currently was (at this point, it was bout 11:00 PM and the shower's focus was still below the horizon) but knowing where Polaris (the north star) was, I could figure out where the shower's radius would "rise" and how it would track across the sky.

I'll admit I got lazy and didn't over research the ability of the 5D2 to lock the mirror up and stay up between images. I thought I could "fool" it by going into Live View (which locks the mirror up so the sensor can read real time) but wasn't sure if I'd be wasting valuable battery juice powering the back LCD panel. As I thought through the mirror lockup, I decided that since the up and down of the mirror would be such a small portion time wise of the 25 second exposure, it wasn't worth fooling with. Overall battery life was indeed a concern as I'd no idea as to the duration of a gripped 5D2 with two batteries in the cold 35 degree Austin night, so I was trying to err on the side of caution. I wasn't sure if the cold and draw of the long images would run the battery out before my 16gb CF card filled up.

As for how to trigger the sequence. I did have a few options. I have a nice long USB cable with a repeater built in (for longer than standard) runs, and I could have run the cable from where the tripod was in the yard, through the dog door, and to my laptop on the counter, but – the dog door – that's the rub.  I didn't want the dogs rushing out in the middle of the night chasing some random noise and tearing into a cable… destroying either my camera, my laptop, or both. So I went (again – sense the theme for the evening yet?) easy… I just used my TC-80N3 timer control, but dumbed down. Rather than setting an interval, I simply set the camera on repetitive "rapid fire" (a bit humorous when doing 25 second exposures) and I just slid locked the trigger in the "on" position.  This would have the camera repeat 25 second exposures one after the other, knowing it would take shorter than 25 seconds to write the previous image to the card, so no fear of the buffer filling. It would just be a race – what would run out first? The battery (knowing it was hampered by the cold) or the card capacity?

My final setup was as follows: Gripped Canon 5D2, EF 17-40 f/4 – 17mm for 25 seconds @f/5.6 ISO 800

Hurry up and wait, I had topped off my spare pair of batteries as I was doing my tests, and then I kept them in my pockets to warm them in hopes of squeezing out every shot possible. I finally started the process about 1:30 AM Central time (the focus was just coming over the horizon and was still blocked by houses and trees), went off to bed, and figured I'd have at least 2 hours worth of exposures.

This morning, I found that the camera still had about 30% battery left, I'd filled up the memory card first. Yes, I had considered reducing the resolution, but not knowing how faint or bold the meteor streaks would be, I went for resolution. 683 images was the final tally.

(click to enlarge)

I took a quick peek after importing them into Lightroom, I did a quick scan and found some cool airplane traces but didn't have time to examine all the images. One that caught my eye (above) had an airline trace that curved; I can't recall seeing a curved trace in a sky shot of mine before. The images looked great, but I bumped the blacks to 15, and pulled the color temp back to 3750 (from an as shot of 4500 or so) which brought the tone from orange-y, and more like a nice cool toned night shot. The adjustments applied, I kicked off an export for some testing – 1600 pixel wide 70% quality jpg images.  I had some coffee, hopped in the car with the laptop on the passenger seat and motored up to the office. It took about an hour to render the images from the 21mp raw files.

On the drive, I figured I'd try two different ways to locate any meteor traces. I'd try a "star trails" stacking of the images, hoping that any non rotational trails would stand out better that way; or, alternatively, I could convert the sequence of images into a time lapse movie and look for the streaks by "scrubbing" the positional control back and forth as I looked at different areas of the screen.

Another visit to the AKASG brought me to a star trails action for PhotoShop CS4. A quick install later, I followed the instructions on the linked page and found what I thought to be the only meteor in my shot:

(it is diagonally up-left from the center of the swirl – click to enlarge)

Using Apple Quicktime to import my sequentially numbered sequence, I was soon happily scrubbing through a 6 fps frame rate version; watching the big dipper rise and set, as I looked for the meteor trail I'd seen in my stacked image. It wasn't hard to see that the image was near the end of my sequence. I referenced other more visible cues and soon knew it was after my neighbor switched on a light in a bathroom (which threw a vertical broad flare at about 1:44 in) and then right after a distinct long trail from chimney to tree to the right of the house. Within a minute or so, I'd found my image. Another "scrubbing" session showed another trail, a longer faint one just to the left of the tree (about 1:48).


After a bit of well timed research (thanks, via Google+, Jennifer Yu) seems to point towards my capture of one meteor (the first one I spotted), and one satellite (the longer, thinner trace). Jennifer's top tip – meteors are usually in just one frame, while satellites and other space junk will be in more than one. Also – meteors will usually be pointy at one or both ends while the satellite or other space junk will be a more even intensity across the length of the trace… Sorry to keep you in suspenders, but I've only the time and the energy to fight off the sandman long enough to post the images I've already referenced. I'll post a set of shots of the meteor and space junk later.

Thanks for reading, and please ask questions early and often either through comments on this post, or via the contact link in the header above!


First Thoughts: Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye Zoom

Well, with the holidays fast approaching, un-coincidentally a few new bits of gear have landed in my possession lately. I've finally replaced my beaten up old P&S with a Canon PowerShot S100, I've picked up some new (well – this hasn't been that recently) ThinkTank gear for hauling gear during a shoot, and most recently – a copy of the Canon EF 8-15mm f/4 Fisheye zoom.

So, why not start with the most recent… The FE Zoom… aka – the FEZ.

I've had a lot of fun with my tried and true EF 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye from Canon, but how could I resist an upgrade to L optics, and while the lens did slow down a bit, I gained the ability to zoom back out to 8mm – giving me a full 180 degree field of view. I'd never shot with a circular fisheye before, so I wasn't too sure I'd actually plunk down the greens to get this lens, but a deal came up on a used copy and I couldn't resist – figuring that I could always flip it and get my money back if it didn't work out.

Short version – I'm not selling it…

The FEZ is a bit bigger than my 2.8, but I've also read that it is the smallest L grade lens… There has been much said about how easily the lens cap falls off with a bump in the right (or wrong) place, and many have raved about it but I'm not sure I've seen much on why folks like it… so here goes nothing. I'll start by saying this post will have more thoughts than empirical comparisons – I've taken some shots with both Canon fisheyes in a controlled space, but I'll save those for another day.

Capping it off

It seems that most folks are quick to knock the "easy to knock off" lens cap; I'll get this one out of the way so we can move on to the images. There is a lens hood that twist locks onto the front of the lens, you'll need to press a button to release it (much like the 70-200 2.8L IS II's lens hood). I've heard many reviewers kvetch about this hood – that it gets in the way when you zoom out… Um – hello – does 180 degree field of view mean anything to you? (chuckle)… The lens cap itself clips onto this hood when you press the release buttons along the edge of the cap. While it is true that this hood can fall if you bump just one of the two release buttons on the hood, I think I'm not sure there is much if any benefit to the lens hood itself (other than front element protection when around your neck, etc) so I think I'm going to tape them together. I found it much easier to just remove the pair together; pressing the button to rotate the hood off the front of the lens… this gets the lens hood out of the way for impromptu 8mm shots, and when taped together (got to love gaffer tape) the "cap" won't fall off the "hood" – they'll stay together either in my bag or on my lens.

I will throw out a caveat: I've not done much post processing to these. The office photo is right out of the camera (well – via Lightroom 3.6 default settings exported to a jpg and cropping square), and the other two have had a quick rotate to straighen them and maybe a quick whitebalance tweak and the aforementioned cropping to square, but not much else.

First Images:

I'll fall right into lockstep with the other reviews I've read and say that this lens if just plain fun… I found myself happily looking through the viewfinder of my 5D2, walking around the office, looking to see how the world looked different through it. Initially, however, I was struck by how I wasn't exactly sure what I would use it for. Soon I was shooting the daughter of someone at the office – it was fun to get the lens right in the baby's face and get the image filled by baby, carrier, blankets, toys and padding. The next image I shot was to hold the camera over my head to shoot down on all the folks gathered around the baby. Quite a fun perspective. "Vantage number one!" said the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake… - Kipling – the Just So Stories


Immersion Therapy:

That night I went out to an area of Austin called 37th street to shoot some of the holiday lights there. I'd been there years before but hadn't been back since, while the display wasn't close to what it had been, I was glad learn that some of the residents started this year to try to restore some of the glory of the display. As I shot at one house, the sweet spot of this lens hit me… immersion. I was able to get pretty close to a group of residents and their friends as they read letters to Santa that had been left at their house (they put a table out with pencils and paper next to a large box that viewers of the lights were encouraged to make use of during the evening). As they unwound from the evening (I was there pretty late) over an adult beverage and read the letters out loud, they were great about ignoring me as I shot. What resulted was a great shot that really immerses you in that scene. There is so much detail in the image, the web version does it little justice, and I'll prob post this in my Gallery for sale shortly, so sorry – I'm not giving the high res of this one away… From the leaf detail in the tree overhead, to the curve of the candy canes along the sidewalk, to the expressions on peoples faces and the motion from the blur, to the inflatable barrel of monkeys in the tree – just lots to soak in. I'll try to make the time to do a detailed post about this image soon, with some call-outs to the detail. "Vantage number two!"


Moving just down the sidewalk, I also like the image of the scooter in the other half of their yard. I paid better attention this time to aligning the image to ensure the candy canes at the edge of the yard would line the lower half of the image. I think this one works very well too – tho the one above is my favorite.


I've a few more posts in mind for this lens, but for now – I like it a lot!

As always, let me know of any questions via the comments below, or use the "contact" link in the header above.

Thanks for reading!

EF 300mm f2.8L IS with (and without) Stacked Teleconverters

Okay – I'll admit it – up until recently, I've borrowed the 300mm f2.8L IS lenses I've shot with. It is (tho not as much as I thought it was) a specialty lens that was just what I needed for some projects (like any professional cycling race) that I hadn't committed to buying… till now.


When the lens arrived (I'll spare you typical set of pictures of every square inch of the lens – you all know what one looks like) my first question (as for most folks) was "how good is my copy?".  I managed to take a few shots around the office when I took delivery, but I had a busy day on tap, so I couldn't really play till I got home that evening. The moon was a day or two shy of being full, so I figured it would make a good test subject. In the shots I'd done at the office, I saw that I had no noticeable CA in my images at all… I decided to test with a 1.4x then 2x teleconverter handheld. I had great results (given that it was humid and fairly warm – lots of atmospheric "issues" making a great shot problematic).  Again – zero CA so far, very fortunate for me…

Handheld 5D2 w/ 300mm f2.8L IS – 2x TC = 600mm f7.1 1/400 iso 400

The next day had a criterium on tap at a nice course in an area of Dallas that has some older homes that have been converted to office space. The course is the bane of most of the area cyclists because there are no long straights – nothing but two squares connected at a corner, lots of turns.  This can be a challenge for a lens, but the 300 took it in stride… beautifully fast focus, with amazing bokeh.

1D3 – no TC – 300mm f2.8L IS – 1/1000 at f5.6 ISO 400

Stacked Success

So far – nothing was too out of the ordinary, but I was in for a surprise a few nights later. Some friends got together for a ride then dinner. As we left the restaurant I saw that the moon was just over the horizon and it was blood orange in color… Back at the house I grabbed my 1D3 and both my teleconverters.  I walked out into the cul-de-sac in front of my house, I raised the lens, half pressed the shutter, and was surprised to hear the AF kick in. It did dance a bit, but it wasn't blind hunting. It worked steadily in and locked on… 

5D2 – 300mm f2.8L IS – 2x TC II – 1.4x TC II = 840mm – 1/20th at f/8 (2.8 + 3 stops for the stacked TCs) iso 800

I snapped a few shots and wondered if it would work on my 5D2 as well. Lo and behold – it worked again. I shot a few more photos with the setup on my tripod. I knew they wouldn't be tack sharp (too much smoke, humidity, etc), but was curious just the same. I gave it an hour or so and shot some more; with the now brighter subject, the lens didn't hunt around – it just focused. In reviewing the images, I was impressed that it a) had focused, and b) had come out with just minimal CA in the images with the stacked TCs.  The CA wasn't evident in the orange photos (no color correction was done – this is how the moon looked – I think it was thanks to the wildfires in West Texas), but did show an hour or so later when the moon had climbed out of the smokey haze to shine brightly. Just a hint of cyan bleeding into the whites/grays.

5D2 – 300mm f2.8L IS – 2x TC II – 1.4x TC II = 840mm 1/200th at f/8 (2.8 + 3 stops for the stacked TCs) iso 400

The thing I should have checked (and will once I'm back in town and have my TCs at hand) was if my 70-200 2.8 will AF with the stacked set of TCs…  With the 1D3 and the 5D2 – I was using the center AF point selected, had spot metering (to help it get correct exposure on the moon) with no other special (that I know of) fn configuration.

The EXIF data on the images only show the effects of the 2x TC… they show a 600mm exposure at f5.6 – essentially two stops off the f2.8 of the lens; but it should read 840mm at f8 (with the extra 1.4x and the additional stop lost from the second TC).

Next up for the 300 – doing the AF microadjustment with my camera bodies…

As always – use the comments sections below for any questions, or use the "contact" link above.

Thanks for reading!


Canon EOS 5D Mark II – First Shots

I'd posted the other day about heading out with my Labrador to head to the canals for a swim (for him). I brought my 5D Mark II along with my EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS to see how the new body would perform. A surprise appearance by a Great Egret gave me a chance to check out the AF performance. Now it was flying from left to right (rather than the more difficult – towards me) and I'd already set to center point for the autofocus – AI Servo – but even the first shot was tack sharp.

As always – click to enlarge the photos (with full EXIF).

Enjoy and thanks for reading!





Canon Crop Comparison: FF vs 1.3x vs 1.6x – Bokeh

Who hasn't wondered what the hubbub is all about. All this "crop factor" talk. Full frame, 1.3x, and 1.6x (well – for the Canon-ites out there).  I think we all understand how it effects the reach of our lenses, but how does it effect the bokeh of our images?

A Quick Re-wind…

For those who may not know the first part of that, it is pretty straight forward.  The crop factor, multiplied times the focal length of your lens, yields an "effective" focal length number, or "35mm film equivalent" number.  A full frame sensor – sized the same as a negative – has a no crop factor, or really a value of one. For Canon, this would be the 5D, and the "s" flavors of the 1D series – the 1Ds, 1Ds Mark II, and the 1Ds Mark III.  Most of the entry level (and again – I'm typing "Canon" speak here) and mid level cameras are 1.6x, (Digital Rebel, 400D, 20D, 30D, 40D, 50D, etc) while the Canon 1D (non "s") cameras toe the line at 1.3x (the 1D, 1D Mark II, and 1D Mark III).

So – in practical numbers (and an easy one at that) if you put a 100-400mm zoom on each of the different crop factor cameras, set it as wide as it could go (at the 100mm position), you would get photos out of them that appeared to be taken at 100mm (the full frame), 130mm (the 1.3x), and 160mm (the 1.6).  This can be a bonus if you are looking for extra reach out of your lens, but can be a detriment if you are looking to get wider angle shots.

Back to the Point of Today's Post…

Okay – the sharp end of today is what about those middle zones… what really is the difference? Does the crop factor make any difference to the photos that would be framed the same in all three ratios?

Let's say three people, one with each crop factor type, see the same subject and want to photograph it. We'll also say that all three people stand the same distance away from that subject and frame their shots the same way through their viewfinders. Okay – and – miraculously enough, all three are using the same lens and decide upon the same settings for f-stop and shutter speed. How will their pictures be different?

Sure – we need to throw out the differences in the sensor's sensitivities, color saturation, etc… those really are not a factor of the crop factor itself, just a part of the construction of the sensor elements and image processing software and firmware.

How the Test was Done…

I have a 1D Mark II N and a 50D, so I had the 1.3x and 1.6x covered; luckily a friend – Kevin – just picked up a 5D. Voila – gotta love a plethora of bodies to test with. Now that the gear was covered, it was pretty easy to configure a test that would minimize differences and allow for valid comparisons.

A few of my vintage cameras soon were on a table with a magazine propped up against the wall to serve as a more defined thing to get out of focus in the background. I mounted my 70-200 f/2.8 L IS to my tripod, and switched off the IS.  To get the same net image, the effective focal lengths had to be the same. For the FF and 1.6, the math was easy, shoot the 1.6 at 100mm shown on the lens, and shoot the FF at 160mm. Some quick math (160/1.3) yielded 123mm for the 1.3x.  We ended up shooting w/ the 50D first, so we metered with it and chose the exposure of 1/10th at f/2.8 (we chose the f stop to minimize the depth of field). Other tidbits – all the cameras were set to "neutral" picture style; RAW;  I shot gray cards to set custom white balance for all three cameras; all were set for mirror lockup and a remote trigger (wired) was used.

After shooting, the images were brought into Lightroom, I did boost the vibrance on the shots from the 50D as the colors looked very different from the other two bodies (more on that later - as in another post). They were then exported as 800px wide images, 70% quality, sharpen for screen (for the "full image" pictures posted here); and as 100% quality, scaled to match the smallest (the 1D) image dimension so that when cropped, they would all be the same size, no sharpening.

The Results…

The three photos below (click to enlarge) are the three "as they filled the viewfinder" images. The 1.6x (50D) at the top; the 1.3x (1D Mark II N) in the middle, and the full frame (5D) at the bottom.




Okay – to sum it up – there is a very noticeable difference between the three photos. Now the distance for these was about 7 feet from the camera to the cameras, and another 8 inches or so to the magazine. The two areas that seem to illustrate the bokeh difference for me are the forearm of the rider and the lettering of Velo News.

On the forearm, the word GARMIN is sorta readable in the 50D (1.6x crop), is a bit blurrier on 1D (1.3x crop) and is darn near un-readable on the 5D (full frame).  In the lettering of the N, you can see how much the orange color expands and blurs as the crop factor gets smaller.

Now, some might think – wow – what if I don't want that much bokeh… I should avoid full frame… Nope – just don't shoot at f/2.8.  You can add depth of field by going to f/4 or f/5.6.

The key thing here is, if you are looking for MORE bokeh, moving to a full frame sensor camera body will do the trick. It isn't just buzz… it is very noticeable.

Thanks for reading!

Canon EOS 1D Mark II N – First Impressions…

Well, it has been far too long since I've posted to my blog. What better occasion than to discuss some new gear.

I've been toying with which "Pro" body to step up to for quite a while. I've jonesed for both of Canon's 1D Mark III variants – one for sports, the S for architectural work and portraits, but just couldn't rationalize the money for a) the amount of shooting – my photog biz is steady, but not my main gig; and 2) [sic] because technology is changing soooo quickly right now, I didn't want to jump on the bandwagon and have buyer's remorse.

I know waiting was the right decision, primarily as the 5D Mark II has whet my appetite for the next gen of sensors from Canon, and because of the (you make the call about the severity of the) focusing "thing" with the 1D Mark III.

What I did need was better AF performance at the velodrome. With racers coming at me at varying angles and ever changing relative speeds (the joys of tracking fast folk flying by from one spot on the track's apron), the 40D was okay, the 50D had been a bit better; but I wasn't getting the raved about 1D Mark II "best of breed" AF performance.

As I mulled over my decision, I'd kept my eyes peeled on prices, and recently a friend sent me a link to a 1D Mk II N that I couldn't resist. After you take out the included 2 day air, the included L-bracket (no – not a RRS – but a nice Kirk none the less) and the extra battery's cost - the body only set me back around $1200 or so – a screamin' deal as I've seen abused bodies sell on eBay for well over $1,600.

As advertised, the body is in great shape cosmetically, has (according to exif data - which isn't infallible – but I trust the seller's rep – so I still think it is accurate) about 46k actuations, and other than a wee bit of dust on the sensor, is in amazing shape.

I've had it since Friday, and started learning it Saturday; so far about 500 shots in the "cards" so to speak…

A few obvious (and some not so) tidbits so far:

  • AF is worlds better than anything I've shot before - can't wait to get to my first race
  • Faster to pick up new menu/controls after initial "this is nothing like my xxD series controls at all – I'll never learn this" impression – LOL
  • Need to use firewire cable, not USB, to control or config this camera. This changed for the Mk III series, but seems the driver isn't windows 64 bit compatible either. So I've had to put a fw card in my old desktop to adjust the personal settings on the camera
  • The heft to this thing just feels substantial and bomb-proof
  • I dig the ability to make my own file prefix (subtle and geeky, I  know… but I do dig it)
  • Looking forward to 5 and 7 shot brackets (xxD limited you to 3)
  • The sound of the shutter is mesmerizing
  • IQ at 1600 is (as I understood from research) pretty amazing and very usable, haven't tried the 3200 push yet.
  • There is a richness to the images that just isn't there in the xxD bodies I've shot. Suffice to say – you get what you pay for!
  • Sharpness of my L glass is more apparent with this body.

That's about it for now. I'll be blogging about my reasons for buying used (I've been a new gear guy, for my bodies at least, in the past), comparisons (as unfair as they may be) to my 40D (while it lasts) and my 50D; bokeh diffs between a 1.6 and 1.3 crop (and I'll have FF to work with as well on loan); and whatever else may come up from the next few weeks of learning this beast. I've also just picked up a nice copy of the EF 17-40 f/4 L – so there will be info about it as well.

Thanks for reading!