Saturday, December 17, 2011

Night Two: On The Peak

Let's hit on which gear en used so far and what was good and bad about it.

First my backpack: this was the wrong thing. It stores a lot and is quite comfy, but in expanded mode it puts a lot of weight at a good fulcrum from your body. This isn't a good way to carry a lot and so my strength was my strength. Better choices, by far, for the volumes we were toting would have been things like the Osprey Mike had or the Gregory Marcus had. They distribute the load over a frame and run it vertically to minimize the cantilevered load.

The tarptent sublite: excellent. Effortless setup, very light, very compact, and very space conscious. Plenty of space inside too.

Hammock tent: Mike's setup was a little heavier but he said it was the most comfortable he has been for being on a frozen peak.

Arc'teryx cap and fleece: yes. Long underwear. Two pairs of socks. This tropical native was doing OK at least until nightfall.

Now back to story time. After the sun had given us a sufficient show I figured it was time to test out the astro rig. I packed a case, climbed and started to set up. A freezing mist blew over constantly while I did my best in the dark. Aimed at the north Star and clicked on the first shot

What?? Flashlight on. The entire rig and camera, lens included, covered in dew and frost. I tried to clean it off and give a few more tries but it was useless. I was shivering and there was no hope of a payout. I packed up and hiked back down to the camp.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Altitude Slickness

Mike hadn't fallen far behind, so when he rejoined us we took a few moments to giggle about the situation (both of us had shelter: me with my sublite and him with a camping hammock). Marcus 'decided' to cowboy camp it, meaning sleeping bag only. We knew we had at least a couple of days of good weather once the mist around us boiled off. After scouting around the three of us discovered there were some great spots between the boulders a few hundred feet down the southern face. A particularly nice spot had boulders on three sides and trees on the fourth perfect for hammocking.

(this was scouting, and getting distracted by the nice climbing things around us)

We set up in our spot and after a rest, dinner, and general shenanigans the sun crept down to the cloud line below us. We were treated to an amazing view:

All three made the trek back to the peak to get an open view of the colorful wonder of the glowing clouds below us rolling over the hilltops

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

To The Top

The rest of the ascent was very treacherous. The higher we climbed the more in to the clouds we found ourselves. The switchbacks got steeper and covered in damp leaves and mud. To say it was slick was an understatement. Normally I would bound up terrain like this with ease, but the weight had me stomping along, slipping every so often and relying on my reactions to keep me from needing that first aid kit. Finally we got to a point that the ground had been stripped to stone by the ice of winters past.
It was damp, sure, but firm. Marcus got his second wind and he and I picked up speed to near running pace and held on to it the rest of the way to the peak. There is a shelter cabin at the peak. Marcus had insisted we had no use for tents because we would be staying there.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

First Climb

We popped on our shoes, set up and went for it:

From Climbing trip, Thanksgiving 2011

I was a bit taken by how much less harsh on the hands natural rock seemed to be. I had really expected the opposite. There are definitely some new sensations though, such as moisture, plant-life, and gravel to be cautious of. Also the cold weather seems to make your hands more 'sticky' than normal, which is great for climbing but could also mean more damage if you slip off the wrong way.

From Climbing trip, Thanksgiving 2011

Here you can see how bad my form is. All upper body, dangling off the rock and putting the most on my hands that I have. Things I need to learn: keep the hips in and I won't get worn out as quickly.

From Climbing trip, Thanksgiving 2011

Mike managed a small head injury- A fall? Nope. Stood up at the top and whacked himself on an overhanging tree. Oops. No serious harm though.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Up, Up, and Away

This is the start of the trail; I like this silly picture a lot. The white marker ('blaze') is the standard marker for the Appalachian Trail. The sign is the marker for Blood Mountain (obviously), and the two goons in front are my co-climbers.

From Climbing trip, Thanksgiving 2011

The hike up is several miles of switchbacks, up and down rock, mud, slick leaves, and sometimes all three. It's a good place to either be sure footed or very durable. In my case, well without a pack I'm amazingly sure footed. You'd see me bouncing up the thing at a joggers pace like a graceful blonde gazelle. However, with 1/4 of my weight on my back? I'm pleased to be a barefoot runner. My ankles and bottoms of my feet are invincible. I can't tell you how many times I rolled my ankles or plodded on to a sharp rock without injury of any kind.

Partway up we found our first climbable boulder:

From Climbing trip, Thanksgiving 2011

Certainly not huge, but we were camels just out of the desert. This is the first time any of us had the opportunity to climb natural rock.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Pre Gaming: Neel's Gap

The first stop was here, which is the lovely brook near Neels Gap:

From Climbing trip, Thanksgiving 2011

We decided to fill up with some local water (Katadyn filter pump) before packing up to set off on our way.

From Climbing trip, Thanksgiving 2011

It took everyone a bit to hoist up their packs and get moving. There was also a short debate about whether to bring the crash pad with us in one trip versus me having a sprint down the mountain and back up again. I trusted Marcus's expertise on the matter, and so we hoisted it above our heads and swapped carriers at intervals.

From Climbing trip, Thanksgiving 2011

Which is how you can tell I was both carrying and taking pictures on the first section. Since longer term parking is down the road from the trailhead a ways we had to hike a bit before we could hike a bit...

Monday, December 5, 2011

The First Night

In order to maximize the trip and minimize the vacation use we left after work. A quick stop by Subway and we were off for a long drive through the night. And really that's all it was. A long, long drive. By the time we passed through Atlanta the roads were quiet. From there, however, the sky just kept getting less and less orange. It was still very cloudy, but at the moments the stars shone through they were crisp and bright. I was definitely more excited than the rest at this, but you know how it is being a huge nerd. I get excited at things others don't. As we picked up altitude this started to become the sign of the night:

From Climbing trip, Thanksgiving 2011

Once we got to the base of the trail it was a park and sleep. Well...for the other two. Just a park and rest for me. There simply wasn't enough time left in the night for an insomniac to actually fall asleep, but no worries. I wandered out of the car for a bit just to marvel at the darkness. The sky was a complete cloud cover, and so there was really little to no source of light. Again, something only a certain class of nerd will revel in.

Once daylight cracked through the trees we climbed out and started setting up. This was "basecamp one:"

From Climbing trip, Thanksgiving 2011

Sunday, November 27, 2011

"More people drop out of distance races due to stomach issues than do from injury"

These words would turn out to be prophetic, but the trip actually went very well otherwise. We had about three and a half days out on the mountain, lots of climbing, a good stopover on the way home, and much much more. No major injuries (cuts, scrapes, bruises: the sort of thing you expect from a climbing adventure). Most of the gear worked out wonderfully. There is a lot of story to be told, but first I'll introduce our crew:

Mike: Brother. Filmmaker. 32lbs of gear, including a portable articulated camera crane system he made in the weeks before. Probably the most ambitious project of the trip.

Marcus: Friend, filmmaker, professional adventurer, maker of goofy faces. 31lbs of gear, not including some of his camera gear and dolly rail. I suspect closer to 40lbs.

Me: ex wildlife photographer. 30.6lbs of gear, including all camera gear and astrophotography equipment. Wearing the wrong kind of backpack, last minute change-up.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

It starts now...

No chance to post the gear pics, but at this moment we are embarking on the long drive.  Full tank of gas, half a subway sandwich, it's dark and we are wearing sunglasses. Hit it.

Monday, November 21, 2011 here we are...

This might be my last post before we dash off for this trip. Hoping to have one more showing off everyone's gear and inventions, but we shall see...

This morning was one of those silent drives in to work despite having the radio on. Something about having the air conditioning come at you full blast on an already cool morning, a bit less sleep than normal, and then climbing out of your car to put on a backpack that has both work stuff and dead weight in it while trying to avoid aggravating the cut up hand so it has time to heal that makes you think a bit. I think some get the impression that these things start at the trail-head.

I was up late last night chatting, having the best distraction I could think of, but my head is in the game this morning. Prior to that we made our last trip to Aiguille. Both Mike and I did a little hand damage which I hope will be completely healed before we hit the natural rocks.

I realize I did not get everything accomplished that I had set out to. In fact I have not even finished putting an enclosure and battery pack around my astro rig just yet, which I absolutely need to do. It would be pretty lousy to get out there and have some wire pull loose because it snagged on something during setup.

I never got to dive in to the cable dolly project. I'm hoping I still have cause and drive for this when I get back so that it can be ready long before the next trip.

Also... I'm recognizing that I'm carrying a heavy load on this trip both physically and metaphorically. I still need to do a final weight, but I think it's right around the goal 25lbs. Maybe a little over. This actually feels pretty heavy to me for whatever reason. I'm glad I set the goal there and not higher. On the metaphorical front: I have always been the caretaker of others. I may be the team medic on hand, which is ironic considering my propensity to injury. Additionally I have decided that I will be the one who doubles back alone to pick up the crash pad while the rest get settled. I'm a distance runner and the pad is only 9lbs, so I am far and away best fit for this job. Should be clocking some altitude training on this.

Every once in a while the body decides to remind me of the life I live: last week I started getting an unfortunately familiar itch on my chin. A couple days later a small piece of gravel worked its way out. I cannot specifically say which injury embedded that piece in my face.

Sharks and squids swimming around in my head...

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Get Sirius...

Tonight's test was all about not having to calibrate. Due to location I couldn't actually see Polaris, I just pointed north and guessed. Tracking? Leave that to the math. First shot was just to pick out the brightest thing in the sky and see how close I was. Note that these are untouched single frames, no processing at all:

(30 second exposure @ 300mm)

(Another 30 second exposure)

This image is a reminder to me about why it's important to go where there are dark skies. This is 180 seconds (to take some longer exposures and see what I could get). Perfect tracking, can even start to see some of the milky way in there. However the local light pollution is what's really limiting me from having some fun. I tried a couple of 5 and 10 minute shots just to see if I was staying accurate, but they were completely blown out with the orange glow. They still were useful though, I could tell the only error was in alignment (which was surprisingly low considering the careless approach)

Friday, November 18, 2011


From the moment I received the celestron motor drive I was slightly disappointed. I immediately had to file out the case so that the switches could swing full from side to side, and as soon as it powered up and I realized it was a simple DC motor with a dimmer...well, I knew it would mean more field calibration. And calibration there is no way I could make perfect without spending a lot of time watching the camera drift, wasting precious battery and dark time.

I'm a motion control guy. This doesn't seem like a difficult thing. The earth turns at a very predictable rate. A sidereal year is 365 days, 6 hours, 9 minutes, and 9.54 seconds (if we're being overly accurate.) That means there are 31,558,149.54 seconds a year, therefore it takes 86,164.09 seconds for the sky to come full circle once. It would be easy and cheap to use something that is positionally accurate, gear it a bit, and make a controller... -a real controller- that tracks properly and without need of calibration for my purposes.

So I broke out a classic: the arduino clone known as the boarduino, of which I don't bother with a lot of the components but make use of their lovely printed boards (Thanks Adafruit!). In total it cost me about $7 in components to build the controller. Ebay was also full of miniature geared stepper motors (85:1 gearing, 5v native, etc, etc). If you have the patience to get one from Hong Kong it will cost just a couple of dollars. If not (I'm running out of time) it will cost you $6-12.

After some creative programming I calculated the potential accuracy of my setup. The oscillator isn't perfect, and neither is my code, but in total the maximum error seems to be around the equivalent of 5.6 seconds of missing sky per hour. This would just barely show up at my longest lens if I were taking hour long exposures. I don't honestly see myself taking single frames anywhere near that kind of time. Perhaps a couple minutes per exposure at best. Chances of me hand calibrating a DC motor to this level of accuracy? Nill. If I thought it needed to be more accurate I could adjust for the oscillator and coding errors- but who cares?

Now to make a mount for it...

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Update; Celestron tracking mount

Bronze bearings, chromoly axle shaft, and is that a stepper motor? Now we're getting somewhere...

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Very busy, but here's the answer to a previous question: Henry Shires Tarptent Sublite. 19.5oz, plus another 5oz in poles (I don't do trekking poles). Packs down to 14x4" roll and apparently is pretty good even in heavy weather.

I also had a chance to throw most of the other stuff in the bag and get an idea of the weight involved. I'm not sure if I weighed things incorrectly at some point, forgot stuff, or what but everything I thought was on my list plus an extra lens came out to 16.2lbs. Which would be very, very nice.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Improving the Celestron CG2 tracking mount

When you take something apart and put it back together a few times you start to question just why the designer did some of the things they did. There are probably good reasons (some of which would be out of the designer’s control, like price, production formats, assembly costs, etc). However when you’re not so limited by these things…some of the results really stand out. No hate on the designer, they did make a tracking mount that wasn't all bad for wonderfully cheap.

So allow me to present the problem:

If you have a looksie at this diagram you’ll see that because the main barrel of the tracking mount is cast the tolerances on certain sections are not very good. Even if they were it would still be difficult to get exactly what is needed using soft aluminum.

Rotation in direction A there is the enemy of tracking (well there are other things too, of course, but this is the one I’m poking at). The way the original mount is designed this play is controlled either by tension in direction B, or the tolerances between the axle shaft and the walls of the cast tube it resides in. Since there are no bearings B cannot be very good, and because this is cast A cannot be very good.

What really strikes me about this is that they cast this long tube, which if they had made use of could have helped this issue a great deal. My solution will add a little more weight back in to the fixture but I think it’s worth the sacrifice:

Longer shaft means play has less effect, and tighter tolerances are made by using pre-made bronze sleeve bearings on either end. As much as I’d love to put in precision tapered needle bearings? This is not the place for that. In total it will cost me $7 to change these parts out, and I will need to do a small amount of machine work. Parts are on order…

Double rainbow

All the way across the sky. For rizzle. It was an intense morning.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

More weight savings- the old fashioned way...

Replacing gear with lighter gear is both expensive and doesn't work for everything. Especially when there is no equivalent that was ever intended to be light and packable. This is where it's nice to have a CNC machine and a lathe on hand:

I attacked my poor star tracker again; this time with the above tools. I cut sections out, lathed down the worm gear center, shaved whole sections off, and even hollowed out the heavy elevation studs. Total I managed to cut another 155 grams out of the assembly, or 0.34lbs. There will be more coming out when I change out the tracking assembly for one of my own design, but for now this is no longer the heaviest thing in my pack. That might be more of a mental win than anything. Actually it now weighs less than my sleeping bag. Oh, and it looks much cooler too:

(tracking motor not attached in this particular photo, but accounted for in weight)

Friday, November 4, 2011

Off Topic: Sleep Data

Random, off topic post for a Friday; I got some results back from a sleep study and I thought I would share. Or at least share the data; I'm not sure what the data means yet.

  • A normal sleep cycle (REM -> slow wave -> REM) averages about 90 minutes. My sleep cycles are more than double that.
  • The majority of my REM time happens after the alarm. While it's not unusual to have some REM time in those early moments...long term waking dreams is kind of a strange thing.
  • REM did not transition to waking state before the gear was turned off. Which sort of makes me wonder how long after "wake-up" I'm still in a waking dream state.
  • Actual sleep time is way below average. Much of this has to do with very long time to fall asleep.
  • Proportions are pretty far off too: very little deep sleep proportional to the statistical mean.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

And there you go....

Total we clipped a bit less than half a pound out of the rail. Not amazing, but definitely noticeable. looks really cool.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Do unto others..

Last night was about working on one of the other people's camera hardware. He purchased an aluminum linear rail system that he wants to modify to be a portable rig. Unfortunately it was made to be extremely heavy; presumably to give it some dampening power. Wonderful on a set, but a huge pain for what we have in mind.

We've started shaving some weight out of it using the CNC:

The rail is 5/16" thick for the center support. Really, really overkill, but he wants to be careful to reduce the stiffness as little as possible. My solution is to cut grid out of the areas between bolt holes. How far he wants to take it from there I'm not sure, but it's a good start:

We finished two of the sections last night, plan is to do the other two tonight. Always pleased to have the CNC fire up and do everything it's supposed to. That's one of those projects that keeps coming back to me and letting us do things we would not have considered before.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

first shot at saving some weight...

It seems strange to me that my tools section is more than my survival section. I'm starting there.

Tools, 1856 grams:
  • Gerber Multitool, 170 grams
  • Modified Gerber FAST pocket knife, 87 grams
  • Fenix E21 flashlight, 139 grams
  • 100 Feet of ParaCord, 180 grams
  • Mission Workshop Rambler backpack, 1280 grams
I've had that same multitool for about 15 years; it's not heavy, but it's not light either. Plus most of what I need out of it is the pliers, and a little flexability in case something doesn't go well in the field. It actually has another knife that I don't use because, well, it isn't very good and the FAST is very good.

So Item 1: Leatherman Style PS-8. Clocking in at just 45 grams.

Second item, the FAST knife. I'm keeping this, but I might shave a little more weight out of it. Will come back to that.

Third item: flashlight. Fenix for Fenix, this is the LD01 at 28 grams including battery:

Fourth Item, paracord: I can't see myself needing more than 50 feet. Cut that weight in half.

And last, and most painfully, I love my Mission Workshop backpack. It's a fantastic bag. I can't say enough about it, except that for the volume it weighs too much. That makes it the perfect bag for everything except this. Sadly I think it will have to stay home.
GoLite Peak, 625 grams without the hip straps (which drive me crazy on every bag I've ever had with them).

Total savings? 981 grams, or 2.1lbs. I wish I could have that kind percent savings across the board, but something tells me this is the easy one...

Monday, October 31, 2011

Food and Shelter

I'm struggling with choices. Conventional tent? Bivvy? Hammock? All three can provide rain shelter. The bivvy would be the most portable, and provide the most warmth. The hammock needs least consideration for ground area. The tent...well a tent is just a normal all around good idea and is least likely to have condensation issues. The hammock is also the heaviest.

It would seem that I am at an impasse. I see a spreadsheet in my future.

Foods are a little easier, and let me touch on that as a preparation item: more people drop out of distance races due to stomach issues than do from injury. That's frightening. The key? Pick out your foods well before your event, and get used to eating/drinking them, and get used to doing it at the level of activity you intend to partake in.

The only real issue is that I'm a meat and fresh fruits and vegetable kind of guy. These are not good trail foods, and the dehydrated versions of them are pretty far from the real thing. Over the next month I need to decide exactly what is best and make that a regular part of my diet, as well as pick up my endurance type things again. I was up to some regular long runs and bike rides before, but I've been slacking terribly at that for the last couple of months. Time to get back on it...

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Tie Downs

I've heard enough stories about cameras being blown over in heavy winds on lightweight tripods. I envy the guys who can shrug off the loss of their SLR and often run with backups for everything, but I, unfortunately, am not one of those. I'm the sort who puts my poor camera through tens of thousands of shutter cycles over many years, trudging through swamps, car races, helicopter flights, and other adventures without getting more than a few scuffs to it before the charging system finally dies or some such. Actually: My last DSLR still works well but eats batteries. I bought it in 2001, and used it for most of my nature photography until the Nikon D90 in 2010. The grip is worn down and it smells like a wildlife refuge.

So between that record and the realization that with such a lightweight system even a mild breeze could cause camera shake as is the system needs mass to keep it steady. Except of course I don't want to carry much extra mass.

Couple of ways I could think to solve this would be to fill a bag with rocks, sand, etc when we got there, or to hang one of our packs off the bottom of the tripod. At most we're talking 25ish lbs of force though, and at night a pack would have to be unloaded of food so as not to attract animals.

Solution? There's a whole lot of mass straight down to anchor in to. So this afternoon I spend part of the day with a torch and welder making a ground stake system that screws in to the firm earth:

At first I thought I would use a couple of pulleys and paracord to pull the tripod tight to the anchor, but it proved messy. I couldn't get a consistent pull on the cord, and even when everything went well the force was lower than I had hoped. Solution? Ratchet strap. This allowed me to put a couple hundred pounds of hold down force, even in the soft grass/turf in my front yard. The results were a platform that is rock solid; I think it would still be standing after a tornado.

I will already need the ratchet strap system for my cable dolly, so nothing added there. The anchor itself clocks in at 115 grams, or about a 1/4lb. It's really overkill, so I may remake it, but in the mean time it's making me comfortable about my camera's safety should there be much wind involved. Plus it will assure a steady sky tracking.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Location location location?

One of the big challenges here is bringing everything out to the middle of nowhere. I remember Shunryu Suzuki talking about the idea that we focus so much on matter, but it's the space that really defines things. This is definitely a good reminder of that.

What he meant was, for example, that if the summit was in my back yard then it wouldn't have most of the challenges involved at all. Instead it's a long hike up a mountainside. All that space in between is what makes it what it is.

And me? I'm a small guy. Strong for my size is one thing, but at 135lbs that still puts me at a disadvantage when it comes to towing capacity. Optimally I'd like my pack weight to be around 25lbs. Optimally. With a bit over four days in the wilderness and all the things we intend to achieve I'm not sure I can pull that off, but that's the goal. Additionally my backpack is less than optimal; it's an excellent pack, just not necessarily for this purpose. I've started picking up some backpacking-appropriate equipment.

(Camera not pictured, cause it was busy picturing)

Clothing, 1181 grams:
  • Gortex Jacket, 251 grams
  • Arc'Teryx Fleece Jacket, 367 grams
  • long sleeve wicking shirt, 140 grams
  • long undies, 116 grams
  • socks, UW, misc other, 170 grams
  • seal skinz gloves, 77 grams
  • Arc'Teryx beanie cap, 60
Camera Gear, 4476 grams:
  • Modified Ravelli Carbon Fiber Tripod, 948 grams
  • Tracking Mount, 1033 grams
  • Ballhead, 267 grams
  • Nikon D90 Body, 770 grams
  • Tokina 11-16 Wide Angle, 575 grams
  • Nikkor 70-300 Telephoto, 775 grams
  • Aputure controller, 108 grams
Rock Climbing Gear, 500 grams:
  • Mad Rock shoes, 400 grams
  • Chalk Bag, 100 grams
  • Serious Gumption, 0 grams
Tools, 1856 grams:
  • Gerber Multitool, 170 grams
  • Modified Gerber FAST pocket knife, 87 grams
  • Fenix E21 flashlight, 139 grams
  • 100 Feet of ParaCord, 180 grams
  • Mission Workshop Rambler backpack, 1280 grams
Survival, 1515 grams:
  • Lafuma Extreme 950 Pro 30 degree sleeping bag, 891 grams
  • My version of a first aid kit (the kind that lets you sew a person up in the field), 190 grams
  • meds, 45 grams
  • Mini Trangia alcohol stove, 350 grams
  • magnesium firestarter, 39 grams
And missing from this list are food, water, tent, camera tie down, and the cable dolly system I've yet to invent. Total? 9,528 grams, or 21.01 lbs. For my disadvantages I have a couple of advantages- for example I require less food than most due to the lighter weight, an my time living the sub-monastic life means sleeping on a hard or uneven surface won't effect me at all so sleeping pad isn't required.

The other hard part is getting everything to fit safely in the bag...which I don't yet know how to do. This is an added problem with the camera gear: it must be protected from water and abuse.

This is version 1 so far. Chances are I won't take the full 100 feet of paracord with me, since I need about 3 feet of it for the camera anchor and maybe 15-25 feet for the cable dolly. Some might also not count any clothing items (I didn't count shoes, jeans, or a t-shirt; going for things I would not normally have on).

As it stands there is no way I'm going to make 25lbs. I have to do some thinking...

Friday, October 28, 2011

About image post-processing

Processing photos is touchy subject. Yes, you want to show off how amazing the sky is, but as you do things people really start to wonder what is "real." Are the colors real? What do you really see when you look? Do you want to highlight things to make it better than you would because you have a good idea of what it would look like without the atmosphere in between?

Here's my philosophy, so before I go in to how you can understand the why:
  • Show what is real
  • Don't process more than you have to
  • Get rid of artifacts of photography, pollution, and conditions where it doesn't add anything
  • Don't edit the color, even though that's generally not what you see through the scope.
The last bullet: your eyes aren't sensitive to color in dim conditions (the whole cones/rods thing, google it). So generally what you see when you look through a scope appears very desaturated. What you get back through the camera (because it doesn't have this affliction) does have color data. Blues, oranges, reds, and more seem much more prominent on the screen after the fact than they did through the lens when out in the field. This has less to do with the camera and the processing and more way your eyes are built.

That said, your eyes are better at seeing light and dark than not, so I'm ok with cheating a little bit to give a better representation...

My tool of choice is Deep Sky Stacker, a freeware astro tool just for this purpose. What it does is to take the data from multiple photographs garner detail and quality that no single frame captured. This also allows a certain amount of flexibility the final output as well, meaning you can push an image to be more dramatic or more realistic.
Let me start by saying the image from the previous post is similar to what you would expect to see through a 12" telescope, but with bolder colors and a bit less definition.

But, of course I think disclosure is disclosure; here is a completely unprocessed image from the set, exactly as it came off of the camera:

Not exactly magic; good source images still make all the difference.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Taking the night off to go dancing. At least metaphorically.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Trimming things up

Now that I know the astro rig works it's time to start cutting. The thing was made to hoist a telescope, which means it had space for counterweights, an extra axis, and of course was meant for the (relatively) hefty tripod that it came with. I lathed, chopped, and heli-coiled the poor bastard until it was just what I needed (and stronger at all the attachment points), and mounted it to a carbon fiber tripod:

Carbon fiber is a lovely material, very strong and stiff, but this not-too-expensive tripod sacrifices strength for weight. It's light, but not as light as it could be. It's strong, but not as strong as it could be. My plan? Tension it to the ground so that it gets the most out of the linear strength of the legs. First step was to remove two of the telescoping sections from each leg and then create a ground spike to keep the legs from spreading since I intend to put a pretty substantial amount of force to pull it to the ground:

The flats are lathed from 6061 aluminum and tightened in the same way the original legs were, so there is no issue swapping back to the stock configuration when I want to use this tripod for more...conventional things. All in all I cut about a pound out of the whole rig and it's come up stiffer and stronger than it was. Can't wait to see how solid it gets when it's properly anchored to the ground.

Not everyone is excited about this setup. The brother thinks I'm taking too much flexibility out of my tripod setup. I don't see this being an issue, but we'll see. I'd rather this and be able to take pictures of the things I want to than waste all my carrying capacity worrying about what I might get surprised by. Right now I think I need to chop about 5lbs out of what I think I'm bringing with me. Which is, ironically, slightly more than the entire astrophotography rig (without camera).

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What can you get with the hacks?

Now if you've ever even shopped equipment for star tracking you've got to be asking a question such as "yeah, $100 worth of stuff with most of the useful parts hacked off. You're going to align this thing by eyeballing it and then calibrate the rotation with no equipment, and you expect to get something?"

Well...yes. But I admit that's a fair question. However I pretty much have to if I want this to work for my trip (and hopefully subsequent, possibly more ambitious trips). After a night of test and practice?

(Orion Nebula, 300mm F5.6, ISO 200. Composite of eight 45second exposures)

I was also able to capture Pleiades and Andromeda Galaxy, but this image was my favorite. Note that it was an especially clear night for being at sea level, and I was able to filter out most of the light pollution. The latter part should be even better at altitude and in the middle of nowhere, assuming we get lucky on weather. Fingers crossed.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Getting serious

In the last post I talked about some of the big problems of taking pictures of the dark sky. This post is about the solutions. I can solve two of the three problems: we are moving (so the sky appears to be in long exposures and high magnification), and high sensitivity means more noise in the sensor.

By moving the camera with the sky one can take very long exposures at high magnification, and therefore not need to use high ISO settings to gather a lot of light. First we need to control the camera; The Nikon D90 doesn't natively have a setting for more than 30 seconds of exposure per button press. It does, however, have a "bulb" mode that allows longer shutter times. Also it would be nice to take multiple exposures without having to touch the camera, as well as program in some delay before starting so that any fiddling doesn't leave the camera shaking when the shutter opens. Solution:

Ebay, $32. Intervals, exposure times longer than I would ever want to, delays, ability to repeat the shot without having to touch anything.

Now about the tracking; normally when you want to get in to this game bigger is better (on some level). Heavier, harder, larger bearings mean less shake, more precision, and overall better images. It also means more expensive. The good news for me is that I'm not trying to compete with Hubble, just engage my spirit a little, and I've also got to be very size and weight conscious since I intend to lug this thing a long distance.

For these reasons I picked up a Celestron CG-2 equatorial mount off of ebay for a whopping $60, and a not-so-matching drive motor for it. An equatorial mount works by having one axis that matches the rotation of the earth in order to counteract its motion. Normally this has all kinds of other adjustment stuff on it to assist in pointing a telescope, but that very basic part was all that I need, plus a way to mount the camera itself. I chose to hack off all the parts that mounted a telescope, counterweight, and whatever else didn't serve my purpose and simply mount the same ball mount I use for all my tripods:

(some of the extra bits removed)

(The result)

I had to "manipulate" the mounting system for the drive motor using a universal adapter (hammer) and create a a couple of new parts in order to mount the ball head in a simple and removable way. All in all I'm pretty proud of my work and it's plenty solid enough for my purposes. It lacks all the things that make a real imaging system like guide scopes, autoguiders, heavy counter weights, adjusters for other directions, etc, etc. Once in the field I'll have to set up without any of the normal accouterments, calibrate on the fly, and hopefully be off and running without too much trouble.

Next? Testing and practice...

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Where the stars are...

Climbing is training, so that will be an ongoing thing. Now I have something of a base understanding of where I am, and some idea of the holes in my abilities. I'll work on those, and then check back in with the climbing gym a few times between now and the trip to judge my progress and latest weaknesses.

Taking pictures of the sky is complicated. Three major problems:
  • It's dark. Dark things are hard to photograph. This requires extreme sensitivity, extreme light gathering ability, or extreme gathering time on the part of the camera. Generally a good mix of all three.
  • We are on a big moving thing, and so if you plant your camera firmly on the ground the sky slowly shifts during the course of a long exposure. The higher the magnification the more noticeable this is for any given exposure time.
  • Light pollution sucks, and so does being at sea level for the purpose of this. Where I am there is 32 feet of water above me filtering out a great deal of starlight. This makes things darker to start with, less stable as the atmosphere shifts about, and plenty of material for the light pollution of my nearby city to muddle up.
To get the hang of things I started out by putting my trusty D90 on a firm tripod to toy with exposures and settings. Things of note:
  • With a 300mm telephoto lens an exposure of more than about 4 seconds turns the stars in to streaks. With an 11mm wide angle this takes more than 15 seconds.
  • higher ISO (light sensitivity) can be great, but it also has some flaws. This drives the sensor harder, and the result is more camera noise and grain for a given exposure length.
  • At some point you've gathered enough light that the light pollution becomes a dominant effect and longer exposures or higher sensitivity are only detrimental.
Results? Here's the result of a 15 second exposure at F2.8, ISO 500 using a Tokina 11-16mm wide angle lens. Color correction done in Lightroom, otherwise the processing is minimal:

Clouds didn't help, but that's Jupiter toward the bottom shining bright. This was a productive couple hours of practice and testing, but next up is taking this up a couple of notches...

Saturday, October 22, 2011

What first?

There are so many problems to tackle. There are almost certainly problems that I have no idea I need to tackle, and I already can think of a lot of problems.

  • Don't know what other climbing walls or real life boulders are like. Other climber friends talk about "5x10" and "v4" and all this other jargon I've never heard of before. Who knows what major parts of climbing I'm missing.
  • The last time I did anything with pointing a camera at the night sky it was mounted to the back of a 24" asteroid hunter inside an observatory. This has basically nothing to do with amateur astrophotography and everything to do with image processing and math problems.
  • I own relatively little gear that is suited to distance hiking. And by limited, I mean I've got a fleece and a gortex rain jacket for biking that are probably pretty solid bets.
  • Camera gear is heavy and spacious. Hiking is light and compact.
  • Astronomy gear is extremely heavy. Mass is usually a preferred thing because it cuts down on vibration and movement.
  • Rock climbing is dangerous, and I'm super accident prone. In the last two years I've had two concussions, a dozen stitches, two broken toes and a broken metatarsal. I don't remember the last time I didn't have at least a few bruises.
  • The place we are going is called "B l o o d M o u n t a i n." I don't know anything about it except for that fact. Seems ominous.
  • I am extremely sensitive to cold. Every time the temperature dips below 72 I start shopping for apartments in Ecuador.
  • The guys want to do some filming. Like real filming. I'm going to see about inventing some gear that is intended to take some killer shots despite being in the middle of nowhere.
Enough going against me? Sure. But let's crack this nut. I've got about a month. Step one? Local rock climbing gym. Meet Aguille:

From Rocket Sparrow
I am now a fan. While they have a bit of everything I went for bouldering. First time out of the house, so they explained the V system to me and I went to town. First a V0, then V1, then a couple of V2s (these were starting to get a little harder for me), then managed two different V3s. The V4 I could only make it halfway through. Things I learned:

  • Pocket grips. I don't have any of these.
  • compact spaces: I'm good at this because I'm really flexable.
  • I have awful technique. I make up for most things by just being really strong, so I had a habit of bailing myself out of bad situations by just hoisting myself up one handed or making a good leap and grab. This is not a sustainable solution.
  • The people there are super nice. Met some great folks climbing, and they really want to see people progress.
  • Climbing makes girls incredibly fit. Ladies? Oh Em Gee. If you're looking for a way to get in shape this clearly works.