Camera Gear

New focal length

My current imaging setup had two deficiencies; short focal length for galaxy season and non-cooled camera for hot nights.  

The short focal length deficiency has a compromising, but effective remedy. Astro-physics updated their Barlow to the Advanced Barlow which is more corrected for photography with APS C sensors. The 2x Barlow provides a flat field across 80% of the sensor.  

The non-cooled camera was solved by the new ZWO ASI294 MC Pro. A cooled CMOS sensor in a 4/3 format which matches well with my Canon T5i.  

Main reason for this camera... 

  1. one shot color. I don’t want to mess with multi-filter images. 
  2. 14 bit dynamic range
  3. ability to control via WiFi on iOS device via ASI Air.  

First test of this setup was last last week with excellent results. I was able to achieve a nice image scale on M51 that I believe is better than simply enlarging a shorter focal length image.  

And I LOVE utilizing the iPad for image control of the camera!!!!!


Ipad Impressions

I have now had my iPad one month and with talk of the new Android tablets coming to market, I wanted to put down my impressions on the daily workings with the iPad so far.

It is all about the battery life!  I know this isn’t sexy, but it is amazing as to how frustrating it is now to keep my iPhone and Mac Book Pro charged after I have become accustomed to simply picking up my iPad and using it for hours on end without a concern for where the nearest AC outlet may be.  Other reviewers have stated that the iPad battery lasts well beyond the 10 hour battery life quoted by Apple and I would have to say that is probably accurate.  I haven’t quantified it directly, but I can tell you that not having to worry about the whereabouts of my charger and (gasp) even leaving home without the charger for a working lunch on the iPad is very liberating.  Not the sexiest thing, but the battery life is the one feature with the greatest benefit so far and is one that other tablets will have to overcome in order to supplant the iPad as the dominant tablet. 

The interface is simply gorgeous and fun, but it is not without its problems.  98% of the time my finger clicks where it is supposed to click and pinch zoom where it is supposed to pinch zoom, but there are times when my finger accidentally touches the screen on a hyperlink and activates the link.  That can be somewhat frustrating and is an error that I rarely, if ever, make with a mouse on a desktop or laptop.  Overall, I prefer the interface to a mouse/track pad, but I do make more “finger click” errors on the iPad than I do “mouse-click” errors on a desktop or laptop.

Viewing the screen is a joy compared to my laptops, both PC and Mac Book Pro.  Reading the Wall Street Journal or USA today is simply wonderful and much more enjoyable than reading the print on paper version.  The PDFs from Robert Hitchman Photograph America is another digital form I prefer over the paper version.  I have also enjoyed reading “The Hobbit” from the Apple Bookstore.  One great feature of the book reader is the ability to simply click a word and get the definition and pronunciation immediately.  Now that is helpful!  The Wall Street Journal has embedded video files into feature stories and that can really help provide more insight into the story such as video of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  Right now, the Wall Street Journal app is the prototype for news delivery apps on a portable tablet. 

The potential for video games is remarkable.  I prefer a story based first person shorter style game and have played Iron Man 2 and Brothers in Arms 2.  As far as portable game players go, the iPad is simply incredible.  I can’t imagine bringing a more console-like experience to an extremely portable gaming system much better than the iPad and current crop of game developers has achieved.  The games aren’t perfect with some freeze-ups, stuttering, and challenging controls, but the flaws are only occasional and game controls can be learned quickly and become almost second nature after playing a while.  One downside is that each game will probably have its own individual game controller and the variation from game to game can retard the player’s ability to become adept at game control in the early hours of game-play. 

The speed of the iPad is also quite impressive.  Now that I think about it, I can’t think of any moment where I was frustrated with the speed of the system.  It does take a while to load the Iron Man 2 game levels, but Brothers in Arms 2 loads very quickly and so I will put part of the blame on the Iron Man 2 developers.  The Safari browser is a joy to use and is now my preferred way to browse the web.  Apps open and close as quickly as one could expect and I have never experienced slow performance within any app.  Navigating Maps is incredible with pinch and zoom working nearly instantaneously.  The interface on Maps is very engaging and is several levels above what one experiences on a desktop/laptop/iPhone. 

Speaking of apps, my astronomical interests quickly led me to the wonderful astronomical apps available for the iPad and man are they awesome.  Both Star Walk and Distant Suns are remarkable on the iPad.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a video to demonstrate the compass capability of both of these apps, but imagine holding your iPad up in the night sky and moving the iPad around and the night sky display on the app moves with you, rendering the sky overhead in real-time with labels so you can easily identify planets, constellations, stars, deep sky objects.  Of all of the apps, these two are my favorite and ones that I always show to others for the “wow” factor.  iPhone apps are simply OK on the iPad, but once you have a specifically developed iPad app, you won’t want to even look at your iPhone apps on the iPad. 

As a photographer who does all editing on a Windows machine with a calibrated Apple Cinema monitor at gamma 2.2, the lack of monitor calibration on the portable Apple products, and I believe their native gamma of 1.8, can be a bit frustrating.  What this means is that an image that I have optimized on my workstation really doesn’t look 100% correct on an iPhone or iPad.  Generally, the Apple mobile devices display my images a little bit brighter, with less contrast, and some of the color palette may be less saturated including some shades of red and green.  The image differences are most notable on the astronomical images.  It is a challenge that I am not sure one can overcome in this age of multiple monitors and un-calibrated systems.  It has always been this way and I guess it will always be this way.  This is frustrating for a fine-art photographer who sweats every last detail of an image.  It is only further confirmation that the fine art print is the ultimate presentation of the photographer’s vision. 

Yes, lack of Flash is a pain in the butt.  I know Mr. Jobs doesn’t feel like Flash is “good technology,” but until website developers start to move to HTML 5, the lack of Flash in the Safari mobile browser is a pain.  Many of my business interfaces use some form of Flash on their websites and unless they offer an app for the iPad/iPhone, there are some features that I simply cannot access.  The foremost problem is with my website host Square Space where I cannot edit text on my web pages from the iPad.  Square Space does have a very nice app where I can post to my blog, but I cannot make simple typo corrections on any HTML page on my site.  The lack of Flash also forces me to use YouTube for video content rather than my preferred video host Vimeo.  So the “Flash” war certainly has taken many victims and they are mostly holding iPads in their hands.  This is one of the areas where an open source Android tablet may be able to gain significant market share over the iPad. 

There is also another potential crack in the iPad armor with Adobe and that is with PDFs.  I have utilized Good Reader as well as PDF Pro apps and they work fine 90% of the time, but I have had older PDFs and some feature-laden-PDFs that would not play in either app.  So an Android based tablet with a more capable Adobe PDF reader may be able to better the iPad when it comes to PDF presentation. 

With practice, I have become most proficient at typing on the virtual keypad.  No doubt that I am more proficient in the landscape mode with the iPad sitting at a slight angle in its case.  I haven’t quantified my words per minute, but I would guess that I can easily match 80% of my Microsoft keyboard speed with the virtual iPad keyboard in landscape mode.  I have put together numerous notes and some Pages documents so far with the virtual keypad and find it to be extremely easy and convenient. 

As I was typing this I realized I hadn’t even utilized the voice feature of the iPad, so I quickly opened the iPhone app “QuickVoice” to do a test and all checked out fine.  At least for me, the voice feature has yet to become one that I utilize frequently.  I do utilize QuickVoice on my iPhone for field notes and dictations.  Perhaps the iPad will become a dictation device as well.  I do have Dragon dictation installed and I have used it on the iPhone, but not on the iPad yet.  Perhaps on my western photography trip I will get an opportunity to explore both of these apps more fully on the iPad.

Do I miss USB connectivity?  Not really.  You would think that a photographer would want USB connectivity for data transfer, but my iPad is 32 GB and that isn’t really much data storage when you think about it.  I have other, more cost-efficient, means of data-backup and never really considered the iPad for data backup.  Now I do like to use it as a portfolio presentation device.  For that I simply created image folders in iPhoto on my Mac Book Pro and sync those folders via iTunes.  I have yet to find a situation where I was frustrated by not having USB connectivity. 

So where do I use the iPad?  One way in which I use it is as a supplement to my workstation.  When I am working on processor-heavy applications like Photoshop CS5 or Premiere Elements I keep the iPad handy for email, web-surfing, and viewing video content like TWIT TV.  It is an ideal companion in this situation and allows me to keep all of my workstation’s processor power dedicated to the task at hand.  The iPad has replaced the laptop while I am watching TV.  A common scenario is watching a sporting event and surfing the web, checking email, writing notes, or reading a book during breaks in the action.  And of course it is now my travel device.  I have never utilized laptops for image editing, so I really don’t need a hard worker while in the field so the iPad does work well there.  The only shortcoming and potential area where I would like a USB is to back-up data to a portable drive.  I do need a laptop to access my large portable back-up drives in the field and plan on taking one just for that purpose on my western photography excursion. 

While I do have the 3G model, nearly 100% of my wireless activity has been via WiFi.  I expect to rely on the 3G during my western photography trip next week and at art shows with limited or no WiFi connectivity. 

Has the iPad changed the way I consume media?  No doubt, I have consolidated many of my reading sources into one device from books to daily news sources.  It is my preferred means of consuming internet TV such as TWIT TV.  It is my preferred means of presenting my photography portfolio.  It is becoming a preferred way for me to access and utilize astronomical planetarium software.  If you are primarily a consumer of media, knowing the shortcomings of no Flash, then the iPad is really a wonderful device.  It is a bit frustrating to be dependent on a wire connection to your iTunes account in order to activate and back-up the data on the iPad.  Hopefully, Apple will move to more of a “cloud” based back-up and activation.  This is probably another area where the Android systems will attempt to differentiate themselves from the iPad.  But I don’t think Apple will sit idly by and let others take their most coveted market from them, the mobile device space. 

No doubt that it will be a very interesting time for mobile computing over the next 2-3 years.  As a content creator, I hope to see a move to enabling these devices to be more productive in creating content as well as consuming content.  As always with technology, we are happy with what we have until we use it for about one hour and figure out what we would like to do and can’t.  But the iPad will be known as the device the reinvigorated the tablet and added momentum to the revolution in mobile computing. 

A New Tool: Astro-Physics Refractor!

The Astro-Physics 130EDF refractorToday I received an Astro-Physics 130EDF refractor.  Astro-Physics is a premier telescope manufacturer and IMHO manufacture the best photographic instruments available today. The refractor is an f6 focal ratio and a focal length of over 800mm. The telescope can be stopped down to f4 and about 600mm focal length. This telescope has a field of view at 600mm of 2x3 degrees. It will be terrific for moderate field objects like the Andromeda Galaxy, Pleiades, Triangulum Galaxy, and the Rosette. Can't wait to put the instrument to work.

New iPhone App for Photographers

Viewfinder Standard iPhone AppIt may not always be convenient to have your camera and lens ready for judging a composition that presents itself in the field.  For those of us who utilized 4x5 or larger format cameras, we worked a bit slower in the field and utilized compositional aids to be more efficient.  I utilized a card board cut out in a 4x5 format and would hold the visualizer at varying distances from my eye to simulate various focal length lenses.  I also utilized a Linhoff visualizer tool with varying focal distances represented. These tools saved me from having to take out and setup the camera gear every time I thought I had a composition.  

Well now iPhone users have a very nice new tool to aid in visualization while in the field.  I normally have my iPhone on me so it is pretty convenient for me to access the camera, certainly more convenient than taking the camera out of the backpack every time I want to evaluate a composition.  And perhaps I am at a location without my camera gear?  Now I can use the iPhone app to capture the image and the desired focal length lens for a potential return visit with the gear.  

The app is called Viewfinder and comes in two formats, Standard or Pro.  The main difference is that the Pro version has pre-configured formats for medium format cameras and digital backs.  If you use a 35mm DSLR then the Standard is probably all you need.  The Standard version is $7.99 and the Pro is $14.99.  

As you can see in the image above, the app shows an overlay grid for varying focal lengths while you are viewing the live image on the screen.  You can click on one of the focal lengths to isolate that focal length exclusively in the view while the others are grayed out.  Setup is quite simple where you select the camera body you will be using and the focal lengths of lenses you want to have represented in the overlay.  You can also set the app to display a 16:9 format to aid in compositions for video capture.  

I see two primary limitations of the app: 

  1. The first being that the widest angle the iPhone can represent is 35mm equivalent of a 35mm DSLR camera.  Evidently there are some adapters you can attach to the iPhone camera to give a wider angle lens, but few utilize this and it seems to take away from the convenience of the device.  So knowing that you really can't visualize via the Viewfinder app any lens below 35mm is necessary in evaluating its effectiveness for you.  I don't find this a limitation at all since most wide angle compositions are pretty obvious and I need more assistance with longer telephoto compositions that isolate landscape rather than encompass landscape.
  2. The iPhone screen can be challenging to view in very bright daylight.  Now most of the time this isn't the best light to be photographing in any way, but you may be photographing in sunset light with the sun at your back and that may be challenging to view the screen.  Most of the time the viewing conditions will be fine for viewing the iPhone screen.

The Viewfinder visualizer looks like a wonderful new tool for photographers.  I expect to utilize it quite a bit in the field and hope to give it a hard workout on the upcoming field visit to the Great Smoky Mountains.  So far this is an early recommendation for the app.  Please let me know if you have any thoughts or ideas on the app.  

The Great Nebula in Orion

The Great Nebula in OrionI continue to be amazed at the newest Digital SLR technology. My friend and astroimaging partner Brent Maynard performed the necessary modifications on one of the latest cameras from Canon, the T1i. You can find a blog post about this modification by clicking on the "equipment" category or going to the post on January 30. The latest crop of DSLR are offering mind-boggling ISO 3200 and 6400 ISOs and so I just had to test the performance of these cameras at that ISO. All of this is driven by the "expose to the right" mantra espoused by Michael Reichmann (look for a future blog on this.) So the modified Canon T1i gathered first light at the Winter Star Party in Febuary 2010. I mainly imaged at ISO 3200 and found the results to be outstanding. Upon returning home, the previous blog recounts my motivation for trying the new camera in our own Donald C. Martin Observatory. Although now I wanted to give the ISO 6400 a try with a light pollution filter in the camera body to aid in gathering a high quality signal.

The results are posted today of M42, The Great Nebula in Orion. It was a very nice first experiment with the gear and I can't wait to work on some of the summer Milky Way objects with the C14 scope and AP 1200 mount with the Canon T1I camera.

The details of the image are that it is a mosaic of two frames, each with approximately 50 minutes of data comprised of individual 1 minute exposures at ISO 6400. There was a third group of exposures used to capture the dynamic range of the core where exposures where 5 seconds in duration for 1 minute total. All images were processed in Adobe Light Room, the TIFFs were then stacked in Deep Sky Stacker and the combined image was processed in Adobe Photoshop CS4.

I hope you enjoy the image and I look forward to capturing more Milky Way objects this summer. Please click on the image to access the color gallery and then click on the Great Orion thumbnail for a larger presentation.