A star trail panorama

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Moonrise at Bear Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park

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Took advantage of co-operative weather this weekend to have a first go at a star trail panorama, at Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. I’ve visited this place many times: it’s beautiful, dark, and close to a huge parking lot that so I could retreat from the cold and wind while the cameras were firing away. The setup went as planned, though with two DSLRs mounted to the rail tripod stability was not great. I packed snow around the legs to try and cut down on vibration. For star trails dark frame subtraction is a no-no, so I set the exposure at what was intended to be a balance between depth and noise – 30s, f/3.5, ISO 1600. Once it got dark enough (for future reference that’s about an hour after sunset) I locked down remote releases and retired to the car for dinner! (Not without some irrational unease at abandoning all this gear in the backcountry.)

I ran for two and a half hours, with the Moon in the sky to illuminate the peaks for the last half hour. The result was a set of 280 images from each camera, which were processed in Lightroom and stacked with StarStaX as usual. The nearly full Moon proved to be pretty bright, so I used only about two hours of exposure. Here are the individual stacks.

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Pointing ultra-wide lenses up toward the sky gives a lot more distortion that I’d realized, and despite the generous overlap Autopano Pro balked at stitching this automatically. The problem was mostly noise and a lack of clear features in the foreground, and the stitch improved dramatically after I added back the EXIF data (removed by StarStaX), lightened the foreground, and applied noise reduction before stacking. Even then the stars were a mess, but that’s easily fixed by adding manual control points to the sky.

I reckon more sky and less foreground would have been better, and even thought as much while setting up. But I wimped out seeing the unexpected distortion and fearing that my tripod might topple in the wind if pointed any further skyward. Happy with the result for a first effort though!

Stitching images shot at different focal lengths

Stitched Panorama

This is a test. This is a test… The boring panorama of my apartment building is a stitch of two frames, on the left a full-frame shot from a Canon 5D3 with an 18mm lens, on the right a crop sensor frame from a 7D at 10mm (16mm equivalent). The only point is that it works! My stitching software (Autopano Pro) combined two frames, taken on different cameras with different pixel scales using lenses of different focal lengths, with no problems. (It seems to interpolate to the smaller pixel scale, so I ended up with an enormous 66 MP image.) The panorama here has a horizontal field of view of about 120 degrees, but that was with a lot of overlap, and in theory with these two lenses you can get close to 180 degrees horizontally.

Normally of course you’d shoot a panorama like this with one camera. I’m testing using two cameras because I want to try shooting star trail panoramas, for which the left and right frames have to be shot simultaneously. Originally I feared this would need two identical cameras and lenses (which I don’t have), but at least for a scene like this the software can cope with different cameras and lenses without difficulty. A plate to mount two cameras to my tripod is on order, and once it arrives I’ll see how it works with the night sky…

Rome

Saw in 2014 with a long weekend in Rome. As you may have heard there’s quite a lot to see and do in Rome, so on this, my first visit, I was mostly occupied with the famous historical sites. Well known or not, the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the rest are incredible.

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Glimpsing the Pantheon

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Basilica of St Paul’s outside the walls

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At the Colosseum

Stitched Panorama

The Colosseum, twilight

I shot everything with the Canon 5D3 and 24-70 f/2.8L lens, hand held, stitching where necessary. It’s a good combination for church interiors and night scenes. In practice, ISO 12,800 seems pretty clean and potentially useable for a good-sized print, while 25,600 is OK but a stop too far without serious work on noise reduction.

Crazy stacking experiments

What would it look like if you shot 250 frames over about 8 hours, starting at night and continuing until just after dawn, and then stacked them using star stacking software (which retains the brightness pixel across the stack)?

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If you answered “it would look weird!” you’d be right. That’s the Moon you can see in the extreme upper right. However with the right scene – maybe ideally with no clouds – there could be potential for some interesting images with this technique.

Update: once one gets into the spirit, interesting images are not so hard to find. Here’s a stack made from the time lapse I shot in Rocky Mountain Park the other night. No night to dawn transition here, but the clouds rolling through result in some hallucinogenic sky effects…

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Munich, christmas

In Munich for work over Thanksgiving, I stopped by the Christmas Market. No sign of the feuerzangenbowle that was such a highlight of last year’s trip to Braunschweig’s Christmas Market, or even any half-meter sausages. But I like this picture.

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Utah’s San Rafael swell

A weekend in early November hiking in Utah’s San Rafael swell, a large swathe of essentially wilderness that lies mostly south of I-70 as you head west from Green River. This is one of Utah’s less well-known areas of canyon country, there are no national parks or monuments and access, although straightforward, requires negotiating lengthy stretches of mostly good dirt roads. The highlight was the Chute of Muddy Creek, which despite its rather uninspiring name is a truly spectacular canyon! (It is damn muddy though, so whoever named it knew what they were doing.) If you imagine a far remoter and only slightly less remarkable version of the Zion Canyon Narrows, you’ll get the picture.

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We hiked about 12 or 13 miles out and back from the Tomsich Butte trail head, in the course of which we met no other hikers (in fact, we didn’t even see any other cars on the 60+ miles of dirt roads to and from from I-70!). Substantial stretches of the hike call for river wading, which in November was not too deep (rarely more than knee deep) but cold. Neoprene socks were very helpful! It’s a great hike.

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I’m sure there must be other great hikes in the San Rafael swell, and probably also in the Book Cliffs area north of I-70 in the same general area. More exploration here is on my to-do list!

Moon set time lapse

Over the last year or two I’ve been engaged in a very on again, off again project to shoot enough time lapse sequences to make a short movie. The slow progress has been occasioned both by dithering as to what I actually want to convey in such a film, and lack of time to actually go out and shoot anything at all! Nonetheless hope springs eternal, and I made it up to Rocky Mountain National Park this weekend for the first time since the devastating September floods to see what was going on at Many Parks Curve. This is highest point along Trail Ridge Road that can be reached in winter, and it has a nice view across to Longs Peak. With a roughly half-full moon setting at 11:20pm, I had in my mind a sequence showing Longs illuminated by the setting moon, fading as the moon set with the Milky Way above.

Here’s what was actually achieved (click on the image for the movie)…

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It didn’t work quite as planned. Or at all as planned! The clouds built steadily as the night wore on, and there was a lot more light pollution than I had expected (that’s the yellow color, the sequence was white balanced off the early moon light and then pushed a little further to the blue). And I’m not sure the Milky Way would have been in frame even if it hadn’t been cloudy! I’ve rarely been disappointed after a trip to the park though, and this was no exception. The dynamics of the clouds was very interesting, and it was fun to apparently have the park entirely to myself – from 10pm through 1am I saw a coyote, a fox and numerous elk, but no other cars or people.

(Technical details: 15s exposures at ISO 6400, f/3.5, 17mm, no dark frame subtraction.)

Back to Moab

It’s 15 years I think since I first visited Moab. On that first trip, with a friend from grad school, I hiked the Confluence Overlook trail in Canyonlands, and saw Delicate Arch and Landscape Arch in Arches. This weekend saw me back in Moab again – for maybe the 8th time – to run the Moab trail half marathon (a fun but pretty tough race!). Photography wasn’t really on the agenda, but some friends hadn’t been to Utah before so with what energy remained after the race we headed into Arches National Park. The hike up to Delicate Arch is a can’t miss, of course, but the best photos were from the Windows area. It was one of the best sunsets I can recall seeing in the park.

Twilight, Arches National Park

Twilight, Windows region, Arches National Park

Sunset, Windows in Arches National Park

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Sunset sky, Arches National Park Utah

Sky color after sunset, Arches

Coot Lake, Fall

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Pretty much the last weekend with leaves on the trees here in Boulder. Headed out to the Boulder Reservoir with the thought of a tricksy image of Fall colors in the foreground fading into a cold night sky. Didn’t quite work, but shooting almost directly into the setting sun at the nearby Coot Lake (very reliably mirror-like) produced a nice dreamy image.

David vs Goliath

In the red corner: the Sony RX100m2, weighing in at 265 grams

In the blue corner: the Canon 5Dmk3 with 24-70mm f/2.8L lens (version 1), weighing in at 1975 grams

As I recounted earlier, I used a Sony RX100m2 large sensor compact exclusively on a recent trip to Istanbul. I was very happy with the image quality. So happy in fact, that on my return a nagging doubt set in: was the diminutive Sony actually better, at least in bright light conditions, than my “real” camera, a Canon 5Dmk3? Such heresy is not inconceivable, especially as my standard lens is a version 1 of the 24-70 f/2.8L. It’s a nice lens, but not one of Canon’s best performers (the version 2 is said to be substantially better), and my copy has seen some significant abuse over the years.

Testing cameras and lenses is a tricky business, and although I am a scientist what follows is not at all scientific. Rather, I shot a few frames from my office with parameters mimicking what I would consider to be my “normal” usage of these two very different tools. For the 5D3, I would hardly ever shoot wide open in broad daylight as the depth of field would be too shallow. So I set the camera to f/5.6 at 28mm at the base ISO 100. Depth of field is less of a concern for the Sony, with its small sensor, so I stopped down about one stop from wide open for an exposure of f/3.2 at 28mm at its base ISO of 160. Departing a little from the “real world” theme, both cameras were mounted to a tripod and three frames were shot using the self-timer to minimize vibration. Frame-to-frame variation was negligible. The RAW images were then minimally processed in Lightroom to set equivalent white balances, and 100% crops of the center and corner regions exported with “low” output sharpening only.

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And the winner is… Well, as far as center sharpness goes, there’s really not much in it to my eye. The Canon image has slightly more contrast, but if one adjusted the Sony file to match that I suspect it would be hard to tell them apart in a real world situation. In the corner the Canon image is clearly sharper, though there’s also more than a bit of chromatic aberration that from now on I’ll try and remind myself to correct (quite possibly the Sony is correcting this silently in post, but if Sony and Lightroom are having a tete to tete and improving the image without telling me I have no complaints).

What about at higher ISO? To my mind, ISO 3200 and beyond is for situations that are pretty seriously dark, and unlikely to be encountered casually. If I go somewhere with the thought of taking pictures by moonlight, for example, I’d certainly pack my 5D3 (and a tripod!). ISO 1600, on the other hand, is a setting you might often need in an interior with not too much light – in fact I used it quite often with the Sony in churches and mosques in Istanbul. Here are 100% crops of frames shot later in the day at ISO 1600 (these are at about 1/30s, so long exposure noise considerations are not a factor here).

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Obviously the Canon’s full frame sensor dominates over the Sony here. There’s markedly less noise, and better resolution.

Evidently I’m comparing apples with oranges here, so there’s no real conclusion to be drawn. It’s no surprise that the laws of physics have not been repealed, and that a state of the art full frame sensor returns a better high ISO image than a compact, even one with a relatively large sensor. If you have both cameras, as I do, it’s also somewhat reassuring that even under bright conditions Goliath has the edge over David. That said, the center sharpness of the Sony lens – which much of the time is the only thing that really matters – seems for practical purposes to be as good as my Canon L glass at typical shooting apertures. Given that the battle is not really David vs Goliath, but rather a situation where you have to carry either David or Goliath into battle, there’s clearly a use case for both.