Comet NEOWISE from Long Island

Comet NEOWISE from the harbor at Port Jefferson, Long Island

Comet NEOWISE did not, alas, brighten into anything that could be mistaken as a Great Comet. That said, it’s probably been as good as anything we’ve seen since Comet Hale-Bopp back in 1997, which I saw easily from downtown Toronto. This week it’s been visible, with a bit of effort, from moderately dark locations, and (much) easier to photograph.

After my first attempt earlier in the week, I followed up with a wider time-lapse sequence from the harbor at Port Jefferson, and then images at 200mm this evening. From a darker location I finally got a glimpse of the comet with the naked eye! The image below is a composite median filtered (using the excellent Starry Sky Stacker) from 13 frames, shot with an iOptron SkyTracker at ISO 1600, f/4.0, 20s.

Comet NEOWISE

Comet NEOWISE

Comet NEOWISE from Long Island, July 13th

I made a first attempt to see Comet NEOWISE after sunset this evening. It’s already easy to photograph, but from a brightly lit location at the side of the road I couldn’t really see it with the naked eye. Weather permitting, I’ll try again over the next week as it rises higher into darker skies.

A hike to the Wheeler Geologic Area

Wheeler Geologic Area, Colorado

THE WHEELER GEOLOGIC AREA, in Colorado’s La Garita Wilderness, is something of an oddity. Twenty five million years ago, vast volcanic eruptions – among the largest to have occurred on Earth during the last 500 million years – created the La Garita caldera and laid down a hundred meters or more of volcanic deposits. The eroded remains are visible over just a small area in the Wheeler Geologic area, where they form a landscape of spires that resembles a less colorful version of Bryce Canyon National Park. The area was Colorado’s first National Monument (somewhat amazing when you think of all the other spectacular landscapes in the state), but visitation never took off and it now sees relatively few visitors. In summer 2019, my brother and I explored the area on a day hike.



It remains possible to drive to the base of the Wheeler formations, but the road is in poor condition and genuinely reserved for high-clearance 4WD vehicles and ATVs. Alternatively, you can hike from the Hanson’s Mill trailhead along the East Bellows trail (#790). Hanson’s Mill is about 10 miles from Highway 149, along Pool Table Road (unpaved, but in good condition). The nearest town is Creede. From the trailhead it takes about 7 miles of hiking to reach the Wheeler Geologic Area, and the start of a loop around the formations that’s about 3 miles long. (If you just want to see the best part, or are short of time, go clockwise and stop at the overlook where there’s a bench.)

The hike from the 2WD trailhead along Pool Table Road

Elevation profile: it’s about 18 miles and 3000 feet of total elevation gain

I’d rate this hike as recommended. The Wheeler is not one of Colorado’s most immediately spectacular locations, but it’s a unique landscape with an interesting geological and human history. Hiking there gives the feel of having reached an out-of-the-way spot (notwithstanding the presence of a handful of jeeps and ATVs), and makes for a good day out.

Sand Dunes across the years

Last week I went back to Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park. I first visited the dunes back (I think) in 2002, when it was still a National Monument, and for a long time one of the favorite photographs of mine was the image below. It’s from a pullout on the road opposite the park entrance sign, shot on Fuji Provia and then drum scanned.

Great Sand Dunes National Monument, 2002

Seventeen years on the tree is still there, though it doesn’t seem to be growing in the harsh environment. This time around I framed a wider shot against a summer sunset sky.

Great Sand Dunes National Park, 2019

A trip to Rapa Nui

Moai at night, Hanga Roa, Easter Island

Visiting Rapa Nui / Easter Island

Over Spring Break my wife and I visited Easter Island, also known as Isla de Pascua and Rapa Nui (the current, though possibly not the original, Polynesian name). The island is known for its moai, almost a thousand monumental stone statues that were carved in the period between about 1250 and 1500. Thought to be a form of ancestor worship, many of the statues were transported to coastal sites around the island where they stood atop stone platforms known as ahu. Others sit unfinished in the quarry, or appear to have been abandoned along old roads that led toward the coast, perhaps suggesting an abrupt end to the moai-building period. Much later, after the island had seen its first European visitors in 1722, all of the moai fell or were toppled, for reasons that remain unclear.

In modern times about 50 of the moai have been restored to their ahu at various spots around the island. The most impressive collection is at Tongariki, which is also a good location for seeing sunrise. The moai face inland, overlooking what would have been villages. Petroglyphs and the remains of boat-shaped houses are to be found everywhere.

Moai at Tongariki

Another beautiful site is adjacent to the beach at Anakena. The moai here are well-preserved, and many have been restored together with their “hats” – cylinders of a different red-ish rock that were probably added to the moai at a later date. The ocean and beach here are good for swimming.

Beach at Anakena

Centuries after the moai-building period, the island supported a less mysterious but almost equally fascinating form of worship centered around the ceremonial village of Orongo. Orongo has the most spectacular situation of any spot on the island, overlooking steep cliffs and the crater of the volcano Rano Kau. It was the center of the birdman cult, in which men competed each year to collect and bring back the first egg laid on a small island offshore. The village is well-preserved and the site of the main visitors’ center for the national park.

Overlooking the crater at Rano Kau

Rano Raraku: The quarry for the moai

Photographically, Rano Raraku, the moai quarry, is by far the most memorable and evocative location. Here sit hundreds of statues in various states of completion and disrepair, including one 21m high that dwarfs any that was successfully transported to the coast. It’s an amazing and impressive site.

At Rano Raraku, the quarry for the moai

Unfinished moai at the Easter Island quarry

At Rano Raraku, Easter Island

What we did

For such a remote spot Easter Island is surprisingly easy to visit. The airport has a long runway – it would have served as an emergency landing site if the Space Shuttle had ever launched from the West Coast of the US – and LATAM flies 787s at least daily from Santiago. It’s a 5 hour flight. Coming from the other direction there are also flights from French Polynesia. There’s only one small town, Hanga Roa, but plenty of accommodation and eating options. We stayed at the Hotel Taura’a (recommended) and tried several of the restaurants. Te Moana, near the harbor area, was the best of the bunch. Car rental – small Suzuki 4WDs are most common – is easy to arrange through hotels or in person, but rather tricky to do online. One oddity is that no car insurance (apparently even for locals) is available on the island. Fortunately there’s not much traffic either! Internet and cell phone service are available, but don’t expect much in the way of speed.

Despite being substantially devoted to tourism, Hanga Roa is quite attractive. There are no chain stores of any kind, and plenty of reminders that you’re on a very small island that somehow has to service the same local needs as much much larger places. The few non-touristy shops stock a bit of everything, and there’s a pint-sized building housing the Rapa Nui parliament.

Rapa Nui’s parliament building in Hanga Roa

Most of the island is now part of a national park. You can conveniently pay the entrance fee on arrival at the airport. Tickets are valid for 10 days, but allow only one visit to each of the two premier sites: the village at Orongo and the quarry at Rano Raraku. Other locations can be visited repeatedly. It’s possible to visit some of the locations at sunrise and sunset, but the rangers will ask you to leave once it’s gotten properly dark. (At least that was our experience as independent visitors, there are also astrophotography tours offered that presumably operate by special arrangement with the park.)

We spent one full day touring with a private guide, and a couple of days exploring on our own with a rental car. That worked out pretty well. There’s only limited signage at the sites, so it’s definitely useful to have a guide, but it’s also true that not very much is known definitively about the society that built the moai. Going with a guide expect to get a mix of firm information, speculation, and a sense of what life is like on the island for the descendants of the original inhabitants. It’s a small island, so a few days is enough to get a reasonable sense of the main sites, though you could certainly relax there for longer.

The mysteries of Rapa Nui are a large part of its allure. It’s easy to imagine what may have happened on the island as an harbinger of contemporary concerns, such as environmental destruction, even if the truth may have been more prosaic. Whatever the history it’s a unique and beautiful destination that we thoroughly enjoyed visiting.

A wedding with the Canon EOS R

A friend’s wedding in Galway provided a good excuse to rent Canon’s new mirrorless camera, the EOS R, which I paired with the equally new 50mm f/1.2L. This was by no means my first foray into mirrorless, as I’ve dabbled before with both the Panasonic GH5 (mostly for video) and the Fuji GFX. Nonetheless, as a long time Canon user (EOS Rebel 2000, Elan 7, 20D, 5D2, 5D3) I was particularly curious to see what I’d make of the presumptive heir to the EOS DSLR line.

First off, though, and most importantly, the wedding was great fun. A lovely church service was followed by a wonderful reception!

At the reception

Irish dancing

The EOS R experience was also very positive. For the most part the camera behaves just as expected, which is to say very similarly to Canon’s recent DSLRs. The changes to the ergonomics struck me as a mixed bag. The addition of a control ring on the lenses – virtually an admission that removing the aperture ring all those years ago was a mistake – is a definite plus. I set it to adjust ISO, and it was very convenient. The smaller size is also welcome, though with a large lens such as the 50mm f/1.2L there’s only just enough room between the lens and the handgrip. The removal of the rear dial (or rather its replacement with an Apple touchbar-style thing) and the loss of a few other physical buttons I wasn’t so keen on, but I think those are things you’d adjust to pretty quickly. The battery lasted for 450 frames with plenty in reserve.

Also pretty similar to a Canon DSLR is the focusing and image quality. Focus can be set using the touch screen, which works pretty well, and Servo mode worked well enough to track dancing with a reasonable hit rate under very low (and difficult) lighting. ISO 1600 and 3200 looked, to my eyes, neither markedly better nor worse than 5D3 files.

(I did start with a screw up. After taking a few photos as people were gathering in the church I decided to get clever and switched into silent shooting mode. Alas the lighting and the electronic shutter didn’t play well together, and a bunch of frames were ruined with prominent dark horizontal bands! Lesson learned, I switched back to the regular shutter and enabled the anti-flicker mode.)

More interesting than the camera was the lens. The 50mm f/1.2L is a magical optic. I shot at f/1.2 whenever possible, and unlike the legendary f/1.0 the new R mount lens is both sharp and fast to focus. It’s really a joy to use!

For now I’m perfectly content with my 5D3. My guess though is that the R mount lenses, at least on the normal and wide end, are going to be enough of an advance over the EF ones that many people will consider switching before too long. A higher end EOS R body, with full frame 4k video and the new ergonomics tweaked a bit, would likely be enough to tempt me.

Manhattan

Stopped by the Empire State building on my way home this evening to catch the sunset. The view from the observation deck on the 86th floor is of course amazing and iconic (and surprisingly photographer friendly, although there are no tripods allowed the wire mesh barrier allows good angles and can be used to brace a camera). Avoiding the classic buildings the view down toward the East Side of the city has a pleasingly abstract feeling.

Manhattan

Manhattan

After 16 years in Colorado I’ve moved to New York! The new job will see me commuting into Manhattan two or three times a week, with a walk from Penn Station to the Flatiron Institute a block or so from the eponymous building. A few snapshots from the first few trips.

Darent Valley path

A Saturday walk along the the Darent Valley path, starting where the river meets the Thames and ending at Sevenoaks station. My GPS recorded a touch over 20 miles (plus 3 extra miles if you start, as we did, at Dartford station). The part from Eynsford to Otford is very familiar territory, but it’s a lovely route, mostly in the country, almost the whole way.

Darent Valley path between Eynsford and Lullingstone