M42 - Orion's Nebula

While shooting one second images off my balcony was a good start, I was ready to head to dark skies and get my polar alignment working.

This was my first attempt and I am really happy with it!

I really did struggle with polar alignment.  Finding Polaris in the sky was easy.  Finding it through the polar scope, well, I don't think I did.  After about an hour of trying, I sort of just eyeballed it in the general direction of north.  It was just enough, though, to take 20sec images at 800mm!  I was setting up and shooting from about 7:00pm to 9:30pm.  So how come I only managed 11min of exposures?  Orion was pretty high in the sky by the time I got my act together.  Shooting vertical was awkward and the camera kept sagging on the ball head due to the weight of it and so M42 kept disappearing out of frame.  I am pretty sure I also need to invest in a second counter weight for the SkyGuider.

SPECS

  • 800mm, f11, ISO4000, 34x20sec (11min)
  • 24xBias, 28xDark, 22xFlat

Orion's Nebula and the Running Man Nebula

PROCESSING

I very quickly eliminated DeepSkyStacker for calibrating and stacking my images.  I tried all sorts of permutations and image formats (jpg, dng, tiff) but DSS just doesn't have the power to deal will the Sony A7RII images.  So by eliminating DSS, it meant that StarTools was also off the table as that program does not do stacking.  This left PixInsight.  Several hours of YouTubing later, I came up with a very nicely processed image.  I would recommend Richard Bloch.  PixInsight is pretty complicated but I think he has the right approach and that you can get better results sooner by actually doing things manually rather than using the short cuts and batch processing options.  A bit like learning how to do long division before you start using a calculator. :) 

That said, I manually calibrated and stacked the images in PixInsight and processed the image.  This took me about 9 hours.

The basic order of processing steps are:

  1. Crop
  2. Automatic background extractor
  3. Colour calilbration
  4. Manual histogram stretching
  5. Noise reduction
  6. Sharpen
  7. Contrast
  8. Saturation

I later researched that David Aldrich recommends doing noise reduction after colour calibration not after histogram stretching.  He has a more in depth method for noise reduction which I might try next time.

I took the final tiff from PixInsight and did some more tweaking in Lightroom and GoogleNix.  I did some more localised noise reduction and dodging and burning around M42.  The start points effects was done in Topaz Star plugin.  I really liked to be able to see how the stars are different colours. Red, orange, green, blue and white.

Next Target?  Pleiades M45.

Deep Space Objects

THE CHALLENGE

Is it possible to photograph deep space objects without a telescope in a heavily light polluted city?

I wont be travelling much this year so this means I need to make the most of the UAE winter.  With only January to March (maybe April) left, that means I have just 3 months to see if I can get a decent shot of a deep space object.  I have long wanted to do DSO, but the complexity of telescopes has always put me off.  But I have all this camera kit, including a telephoto lens with 800mm focal length (with a 2x tele-converter).  And if I get off my butt and drive for an hour and a half I can get to what could be a relatively dark sky.

There is not a lot on the web about this particular type of challenge so I thought I would post my experiences and find out why for myself. :) 

The LOCATION

I live in a red zone.  In terms of light pollution, that's as bad as it gets.  Coupled with persistent haze from ambient dust, courtesy of the desert dunes, there is way more pollution than even the most seasoned astronomer would dare to tackle.  Nevertheless, I am going to put the light pollution filters through their paces and see what I can do on the balcony of my apartment (I also happen to live at the end of the runway of a major international airport - hey, did I say this was a challenge?)

THE TARGET

The dark sky I found faces south, which conveniently, is the same section of sky that the constellation Orion's Belt occupies in the winter months.  There are all sorts of goodies in there that are bright like M42, so hopefully I will be able to get something. 

THE KIT

I bought 3 new pieces of kit for this challenge.  Items 9, 10, 11 as listed below.  A motorised equatorial mount (11) is required to rotate in line with the earth's axis so that long exposures and long lenses can be used to photograph the sky without star trails.  To combat light pollution I invested in a filter that fits on the sensor of the camera (10).  This appealed to me because it means I don't need a dedicated filter for each lens filter thread size and I can use it with the Rokinons that don't have filter threads.  Just for giggles, I also purchased a (relatively) cheap lens filter (9) that will fit on my 400mm lens.

  1. Sony A7RII
  2. Really Right Stuff TVC-24 Series 2 Carbon Fiber Tripod
  3. Really Right Stuff BH-40 Ball Head
  4. Sony Sonnar T* FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA Lens
  5. Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 ED AS IF UMC Lens
  6. Samyang 14mm f/2.8 ED AS IF UMC Lens
  7. Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS Lens, with Sony FE 2.0x Teleconverter
  8. Tether Tools Case Relay Camera Power System (with a battery that plugs into a 10,000mAh an external battery pack and my camera)
  9. Hoya 77mm RA54 Red Enhancer, Color Intensifier Filter, supposedly to reduce light pollution.  Let's see.
  10. LPS-D1-A7 : LPS-D1 body-mounted filter for A7 Series.  Another light pollution suppression filter that fits on the sensor of the camera. (See image 2 above)
  11. iOptron SkyGuider Pro EQ Camera Mount
  12. Expodisc 2.0 White Balance Filter.  A fancy grey card to take my flat images.

THE SOFTWARE

I will be trialing the following programs to process my images:

  1. PixInsight - A powerful and high end astro-photography application for stacking and processing
  2. StarTools - An affordable alternative whilst still being very powerful with processing features only
  3. DeepSkyStacker - A freeware stacking tool
  4. RegiStax - A freeware stacking tool

I will be using my Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (512 GB, 16 GB RAM, Intel Core i7e) to run these applications. 

And also, how come these astro programmer types concatenate their application names like that? :)

South Georgia - Up Close

South Georgia is home to more unspoiled wildlife than you could possibly imagine.  Penguin populations alone run well into the millions as do the populations of elephant seals and fur seals.

This is probably the only place in the world intrepid travelers can get up close and personal with so much nature.  The area is well controlled by naturalists, so humans do not damage the fragile ecosystem.  Touching the animals is not allowed, but if you you sit still, elephant pups will happily come up and give you a big nudge with their noses.

What's that?

That split second right before an animal's curiosity switches from cute to expensive.
(He knocked over the tripod and bent the lens filter thread!)

Click the photo to watch me trying (not very hard!) to fend him off.

Colonies of king penguins on Salisbury Plains stretch 100's of acres.  Whilst closer to shore, large bull fur seals defend their harems against would-be usurpers.  A brand new baby pup, still tethered to the placenta, recieves a gentle kiss from mum.

Macaroni penguins are hilarious.  For the amount of time they spend on the rocks they sure are skittish when in comes to jumping in the water.   They sit of the edge egging their friends to jump in first.

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A very rare breed of giant penguin.

Photo credit: Chris Bray

Gentoo Bomber

Remember the Gentoos from Antarctica?  Well, they are back and always seem to show up every time I get my camera out.

Click on the photo to see this guy looking to party!

Antarctica

After two days at sea on board the Polar Pioneer, expedition ASG70, we crossed the infamous Drake Passage.  Our first land sighting was the South Shetland Archipelago.  The seas were rough but I was fortunate enough to be spared the dreaded mal de mar even without the aid of drugs. The crossing gave me a chance to practice my bird in flight shots.  The northern giant petrels are an intimidating, scavenging bird for sure, whilst the black-browed albatross soared effortlessly, high and fast above the ship.

As we reached the Palmer Archipelago we met the delightful gentoo and chinstrap penguins.  

Chinstrap antics at Hydrurga rocks

Despite Antarctica being a cold and mysterious ice desert it has an abundance of unspoiled wildlife.

The gentoo population is only some 300 to 400,000, but they are good travelers and as such the gentoo penguins inhabit the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic regions of our planet.

A fellow American expeditioner observed that the gentoo is the penguin equivalent of Australians; they seem to show up all over the place, looking to have a good time.

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Happy Feet

But it's not all fun and games being a gentoo. There's the nest to build in crowded rookeries and rocks to steal. And penguins don't have plumbing, so it is a bit of a hike back to the shore to wash off after a hard day's labour!

Gentoo rookery at Curverville Island

Our first continental landing was at Portal Point.  Some brave adventurers chose to dig themselves a snow coffin to sleep in overnight.  I on the other hand, took the opportunity to photograph the icebergs and mountains at sunset.  More like a long twilight, the time for this shot was around 9:30pm.

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The Skua

If the gentoos are our heroes, then surely the skua are the villains.  These scavengers, feed off the dead and prey on the weak. Watch out!, gentoo nesters!

The highlight of the trip for me, was Paradise Harbour and a zodiac cruise around Skontorp Cove.  There was the faintest sprinkling of snow over still, still waters.  A misty cloud hung tightly above the mountains, but the glaciers and bergs rose like frozen towers creating dazzling reflections across the lagoon.

Skontorp Cove at Paradise Harbour

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No Mining

Veins of porphyry copper deposits, not unlike those found in Chile, can be seen from the rock faces. 

I'm not a geologist, but my guess is that the blue is chrysocollahydrated copper phyllosilicate and the greens, malachite and chalcocite.  Yellow might be chalcopyrite.

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Weddell seal at D'Hainaut Is, Mikkelsen Harbour

Deception Island so named because it is actually the caldera of an active volcano! Once the site for a whaling station, it erupted in 1968 and the remaining ruins give the place a spooky feel not unlike an apocalyptic video game.  Evidence of the volcano is very much apparent as steam rises up from the black sandy shoreline.

The penultimate stop in Antarctica was Elephant Point at Livingstone Island.  Aptly named as the area is heavily populated with elephant seals.  The males develop the long proboscis after reaching 7 years of age.  Two adélie penguins dropped in to say hi and northern giant petrels were nesting in the area.  Then finally we reached Point Wild on Livingstone Island.  Home to Shackleton and his 22 crew who miraculously managed to survive on the point for four months until rescued in August 1916.  A bust of  Luis Pardo Villalón who captained the Chilean ship that rescued the survivors of the Endurance is perched on the perilous spit of land.

Upon heading to Elephant Point we came across a pod of some 30 fin whales!  At 24m long and 70 tonnes in weight they are the second largest animal on earth next to the blue whale.

As a tribute to this final frontier, I combined the charismatic gentoos against the spectacular Antarctic landscape to create my first wildlife video.

Patagonia - A Rare Sighting

Just before my trip to Antarctica and South Georgia, I 'stopped' in on the way to the Chilean Patagonia region of Torres Del Paine.
With only 4 days, my mission was to photograph in the Salto Grande Waterfall region. 

It being summer, it was 3am starts for me.  And when I called Eco Camp to discuss options for a driver to get me to the places I wanted to go at the times I was interested in, I had my doubts.  As it turned out, the Manager of the Eco Camp put his hand up straight away.  He told me, "A crazy girl wants to get up in the middle of the night on an expedition into the national park?  I am totally up for that!"

Patagonia is windy.  Really windy, so photographing is tough, but Salto Grande came through and here she is.

Little did I know that on my way back from capturing a magnificent sunrise,  that I would get an extra special treat!

3 Pumas eating a fresh kill of juicy hare.

I watched them by the side of the road not 15m away for over 40min.  My guide was ecstatic!  He said he had never seen anything like that in the 4 years he had been working in the region.

Our adventure was so exciting, the Manager asked me to share my story with the other guests at Eco Camp.  I thought, gee, how am I going to get a presentation together if I am shooting all day?  I stayed up till 11:30am that night editing a quick little video and here it is.

Game of Light

It is October in the UAE, which means Winter is Coming!  I love my Game of Thrones.  So when I decided that my next adventure was going to be in the Isles of Scotland, I knew I had to lift my game. <hehe>. 

Northwest Highlands Geopark

Scotland is known as the 'Land of Light', and I really under estimated the beauty of Lewis, Harris and Skye. 

Callendish Stones

It was pretty windy, so drone footage was tricky, but this little video I did brings together about 9 months of thought bubbles in the lead up to the trip and anticipation of how I could bring my favourite things together in the one spot: Photography, GoT, Spoofs, Storytelling, and a gorgeous location.

Three Days in Meteora

Late August 2017 and Summer is still killing it in the UAE.  To break the spell, I escaped to central Greece for a long weekend to visit Meteora, located in the town of Kalambaka.  Meteora is not only home to unique monoliths but is also where ancient Orthodox monks built their monasteries.

I also went to Vikos Gorge, which is actually the deepest gorge in the world at about 1600m.

Fun Fact:  One of the Monasteries was the filming location for the James Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only.  Bad guys's secrete hideaway :)

Storm Chasing in the Dolomites

In landscape photography, you snooze you lose!
But I might have taken that a tad too seriously when I went out in the middle of the night in pursuit of a Milky Way time lapse. By 1am I decided to head back to the hotel, only to realise that the entire hotel was locked up, with no way for me to get back in side!
So I toughed it out in 8°C till the break of dawn. But with a sunrise shoot on the cards there was no rest for me until later that day.
Got some good astro shots, though! 😜
So here is the main event - Storm Chasing in the Dolomites. Enjoy.

I did manage to get one nice shot from that sunrise shoot after pulling an all nighter as well.

Epic Aurora Timelapse

Well, over the passed six months I have been honing my timelapse skills, culminating into the best timelapse I have done to date.  In February, I ventured to the remote fishing archipelago of Lofoten, Norway.  The fjords were inspiring and the conditions for aurora hunting just right.  So without further ado, here it is.

Canadian Rockies

Since the Calgary Winter Olympics, it has been a long time dream of mine to visit the wilderness of the Canadian Rocky Mountains.  In September 2016, I toured the areas of Banff and Jasper which delivered some of the most spectacular scenery I could possibly hope for.

Vermilion Lakes

The focus of the trip was around the towns on Banff and Jasper.  Autumn had come early so much of the Ash and Birch had dropped their yellow hues, however, there were some patches where I could play with some camera movement and abstracts.

Along the way we encountered some wildlife.  One morning we saw some Elk grazing in a field by the side of the road. A bunch of nature photographers were already on the scene all decked out in cammo and lenses long enough to see the Hubble. Then us lot pile out of the bus carrying on with hand helds, going ooh ahh. Turns out there is quite a difference between Nature togs and Landscape togs! 

A watchful Stag protects his harem

Once again, I had a go at vlogging the adventure complete with animal antics, drone footage and time lapse!  You can check out the video here:

Exploring Hatta

The UAE is celebrating Eid with a 5 day long weekend!  So I am making the most of it by escaping the desert sands for a quick getaway to a little town called Hatta nestled in the mountain ranges on the Dubai and Oman borders.

Apart from capturing a lovely time lapse of Hatta Dam I also clocked up some all important flying time with the drone.  With only 2 more working days until the big trip to Canada I need to get ready if I am going to be able to use it in all its glory!

I also whipped up another little vlog.  Along the way to Hatta we stopped off to fly the drone over this amazing red desert sands location I am calling Tree-Topia.  How those trees survive in the desert is beyond me.

Perseids Meteor Adventure

Even though it is the Middle of Summer in the Middle East, I was itching to get out for another photography adventure.  I decided to head to Sir Baniyas Island in the hope that I might be far enough away from city lights to photograph the peak of the Perseids Meteor Shower.  Absolutely nothing there to speak of except an outcrop of rich mineralisation including hematite, salt, gypsum, sulphur (yep, you can see big chunks of sulphur sticking out of the ground) copper and magnesium to name a few. 

The Sheikh, back in the day, decided to turn it into a wildlife sanctuary and planted the entire ~48km² reserve with trees which are 24 hours fully irrigated with over 120,000km of irrigation piped in from the mainland desalination plants.

All of the animals are imported and breed freely.  There are a couple of native animals such as the Arabian Gazelle and Arabian Oryx.  They also have Hyenas, Cheetahs, Ostrich, Emu, that big herd is Eland (Africa’s largest antelope).

Perseids were definitely there! But you have to look closely.

Sequence at 3:02 is where the main event is happening which is a time-lapse taken over three hours.  And then the final still image at the end is a 15 image composite shot of all the best meteors on the one image.  That took quite a while to stitch together!

I took another time-lapse the next night to get a star trail animation around Polaris, just for giggles.

You can catch the full, 2 episode vlog of the adventure on my video page.

Part I Video, Part II Video

Desert Milky Way

Off to the far northern edges of Ras al-Khaimer, this weekend, in search of UAE's highest mountain peak, Jebel Jais.  The rocky range is shared with the neighbouring country, Oman. At just over 1900m, the peak occasionally attracts modest snow fall in winter.  But in the middle of summer, with blistering temperatures of 44C, the only thing this barren landscape was going to attract was a couple of weekend warriors armed with camera equipment and dorky head torches.

It was optimistic to say the least, that a weekend away to capture the Milky Way in the height of the hazy season, was going to be successful.  But I had run out of images to post process in Lightroom and I needed new material by hook or by crook and a reason to try out my newly acquired Samyang 14mm f2.8 prime lens. 

During the day we scouted up the jagged mountain range and decided that the peak lookout would offer a vantage point above the haze as much as possible.  It was also facing southeast which was perfect as that is where the Milky Way rises in the northern hemisphere in the summer time.

We arrived just after sunset and after about half an hour of set up, settled in for a night of time lapse and long exposures.  My favourite image of the night shows the Milky Way rising over the mountain range in all its glory with a small meteor streaking in the sky - in spite of the the light pollution and miasma. 

 

Along the journey I decided to have a crack at vlogging.  So here is my first attempt at making a video.  Be gentle, I only learnt how to edit in Premiere Elements just last weekend.

 

 

Flamingo Fancy

A 4am start saw us at Al Qudra Lakes by 5:15am just in time for sunrise and to see the flamingos come into land on one of the islets within the largest of the lakes.  Al Qudra is a series of man made lakes spread out over 10 hectares and home to more than 100 species of migratory birds. The lakes are located in the plains south east of Dubai.

The flamingos are too far out of reach for my gear, so at this stage I will have to settle for distant silhouettes.