Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Testing .22 Rimfire Match Ammunition

The rimfire ammunition that was tested (from L to R, Top to Bottom) - Ely Match 1064 fps; Ely Match 1070 fps; Ely Tenex; Wolf Match Extra; Federal Premium Gold Medal UltraMatch; Federal Premium Gold Medal Match; RWS Special Match; RWS R 100; RWS R50; and Aguila SuperExtra
I'm a newbie to the world of competitive precision rifle shooting and have been doing everything I can to learn the finer points of the activity. A couple of things I've learned is that every rimfire rifle performs at its best with a specific ammunition and that every rifle is different. A certain ammo may work beautifully with one rifle but can be a disaster with another rifle. Some say that you can have two rifles from a manufacturer, same model number with sequential serial numbers, and what shoots tight groups with Rifle A may shoot horrible groups with Rifle B. Consequently, it behooves one to try as many types of ammunition with one's rifle to determine what works best.

That's what I set out to do with my new target rifle this past weekend.

This Ain't Your Daddy's Rimfire Ammo

Match rimfire ammunition is a far cry from the .22 LR ammo I have used for years in my plinking guns, a Marlin and a Remington semi-auto .22. Generally speaking, semi-auto .22's need high velocity ammo to cycle rounds, although a few can cycle standard velocity rounds without repeated failures to eject. Match grade bolt action .22's, while they may be of the same caliber as my old Marlin and Remington, are as different as it gets from those guns. In the case of match rifles, speed kills - from an accuracy perspective, they thrive on subsonic, standard velocity rounds in the 1070 to 1080 fps range as compared to the 1200+ fps, high velocity rounds that my plinkers gobble up. Go figure. I always thought the faster the round, the flatter the trajectory, and thus the more consistently accurate bullet. This is one of the many preconceived notions I've had to revise in my head since stepping up into rimfire target shooting.

Precision Rifle Shooting…Where Did This Come From?

Mounting and leveling the scope on my Anschutz Model 1907 after its arrival
I've been an on and off plinker most of my life. My first firearm was a Marlin .22 LR semi-automatic rifle that I passed down to my son when he was old enough to learn how to shoot. Over the years I've picked up other .22's as well as other rifles in various calibers up to .308. I've hunted with some of them but I've always enjoyed shooting at targets much more. Recently, I picked up the .22 of my dreams, a barely used, gorgeous Anschutz Model 1907 .22 LR, acquired through some wheeling and dealing. It arrived a couple of weeks ago along with a sampling of match grade ammo - one box of each type - so I could decide for myself what ammo would serve me best. Included in the lot were three different types of Eley ammo (Match, 1070 fps; Match, 1064 fps; and Tenex), three different offerings from RWS (Special Match; R 100; and R 50), and a box of Wolf Special Match.

In a perfect world with unlimited spare time to play, I would have headed right out to the range, got the scope sighted in, and tested the Anschutz with the different types of ammo but, things like work got in the way. Other than mounting and leveling the scope, the rifle sat in its case waiting for the weekend to arrive for its maiden trip (at least for me) to the range. My plan was to take a trip down to Central Florida to spend some time with my son, the family expert in precision rifle shooting. I wanted him to adjust the comb, length of pull, and butt plate angle to fit the rifle to my body. Then we could spend time sighting the rifle scope in and testing the ammo as he taught me the finer points of precision shooting. 

As my weekend departure day approached, I found out about a 50-yard Benchrest Rimfire Rifle competition scheduled for that Saturday afternoon at a gun club near my son's house. Thinking it would be a great way to christen the Anschutz, I decided to enter even though I had never shot in any kind of competition before. Only problem was I didn't have enough match grade ammo to shoot. The competition involved a total of 75 shots at 15 targets with 5 shots at each target. When I added the amount of ammo needed to sight the scope in, practice some before the match, and shoot in the match, I needed a minimum of 4 boxes of the same kind of ammo. I only had one box of several different kinds so I began searching for more match grade ammo locally. You'd think .22 caliber ammo was gold based upon the availability of any kind of .22 ammo - the pickings were slim. I finally found some ammo locally, at least ammo that was touted as match grade - Aguila SuperExtra manufactured in Mexico using Eley primers, and Federal Premium Gold Medal in their UltraMatch and Match versions. I bought a few boxes of each and headed down to Central Florida, hoping one of these would work well enough with the Anschutz to avoid humiliation in the competition.

On Friday evening, we made all the adjustments to the rifle and my son spent a considerable amount of time walking me through the art of precision rifle and competition shooting. Saturday morning, I sighted the scope in and tested the Aguila and Federal ammo. The Anschutz seemed to like the Federal UltraMatch, shooting what I (in my ignorance) thought were decent groups. I decided that would be my ammo for the match. As the time for the match approached, I went through a box of ammo to make sure the scope was dialed in with the Federal ammo and getting in a bit of practice as I settled in for the match.

My three cards from the competition using the Federal Premium Ultra Match ammo
Then, the wind picked up…and picked up…and picked up some more. What had been a relatively calm day turned into a 15-20 mph wind blowing from 10 o'clock. Ignorance is bliss and I started shooting as soon as we were told to start. I shot a couple of sighters and then took my 25 shots at the first card, just barely getting the last shot off as the 20-minute allotted time elapsed. I was sure that I was well out of contention after retrieving my first 5-target card since I missed the "X" ring 10 times. I did however get all my shots in or on the "10" ring which meant a score of 250-15. When the first card scores were called out, I was the only one with a score of 250. The wind seemed to be wreaking havoc on the the other shooters, many of whom were used to shooting perfect scores in these competitions. Relieved that I would not be embarrassed with my showing, I repeated the process two more times trying to shoot a little faster so I could comfortably get all my shots off before time expired. At the end of the day, my score was 748-43, good for first place by 4 points. Not too shabby for my first time, but clearly it was all because of my new magnificent piece of German engineering that was more accurate than all the other Anschutzes on the line.

So, What About The Other Ammo?

My benchrest setup

After returning home, it was time to test the rifle with the boxes of match ammo that came with the rifle.    I was very pleased with the accuracy of the rifle but I hoped that different ammo would provide better groups. Examining the targets from the match, some groups were very, very tight; others were looser and several had a flier or two that were well outside the group. I didn't know if this was the result of the wind, my lack of skill, or just the inherent nature of the Federal ammo in my rifle so I headed out to the range this past Sunday to settle the matter.

5=shot test groups with each box of ammo
After setting the Anschutz up on my benchrest, I took several practice shots with each type of ammo to acclimate the rifle to it before shooting 5-shot groups into targets set up at 50 yards. The test confirmed my suspicion that while the Federal UltraMatch was decent enough ammo, the Anschutz performed much better with some of the other offerings.

The test group with Federal UltraMatch
The Federal UltraMatch (above) shot a group representative of how it had performed the previous weekend during the competition. All five shots were well inside or on the 10 ring with at least three inside or on what would have been the "X" ring on the competition targets. One "flier" (lower left) was outside the group.

The four finalists - Eley Tenex, Eley Match 1070 fps, RWS R50, and RWS R100

Two of the offerings from Eley and two from RWS beat the snot out of the Federal UltraMatch in terms of tight groups with no fliers. Since the scope was dialed in for the Federal ammo, I wasn't concerned about the exact location of the groups if they were slightly off center. I was more concerned with the tightness of the groups as a click here and a click there in scope adjustment would easily center the scope with the ammo later on.

Aguila SuperExtra - it takes more than Eley primers to keep up with the big dogs
By far, the worst ammo was the Aguila SuperExtra. It obviously had the potential to shoot good groups but it shot two fliers out of five with one of them way off.

After weeding out the good, the bad, and the ugly, I put the bad and ugly stuff away to really test the four types of ammo that seemed to have the best potential. First up was the Eley Tenex. Going in, I really thought this was going to be the top dog since it's touted as the favorite of a lot of benchrest shooters and it's the most expensive of all the ammo - $20 a box. But after critically examining the target, I was not impressed and hoped the other ammo would do better.

The Eley Tenex groups. I shot 7 rounds into the bottom left target and six into the bottom right because the first shot into each was a flier

And The Winner Is … A Tie?

5-shot groups with Eley Match 1070 fps
5-shot groups with RWS R50
 The RWS R100 was slightly better than the Eley Tenex but still left a lot to be desired. That's when the RWS R50 and the Eley Match in the 1070 fps rounds stepped up to the plate. Yowsa! Tight, tight groups with only one flier out of 25 shots with each ammo, and the flier on each was very close to the groups.

So, I seem to have narrowed the choices down to two - RWS R50 and Eley Match 1070 fps. I've found a source that has both types in stock and have a brick of each on their way to me so I can settle the issue as to which will be my ammo of choice for competing with the Anschutz. Looking forward to seeing which one comes out on top but either would serve me well in any competition, especially after I have time to develop my skills as a shooter.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

How To Create Fog, Haze and Sunbeams In An Image

Preparing for my first cover shoot for Tallahassee Woman Magazine, I've been thinking about how to pull off the shoot and create a cover image that will set the tone for future covers. When I was hired to shoot covers for the magazine a couple of weeks ago, I was told that they wanted to take their cover images in a new direction - more artistic, edgy stuff. For the January/February issue, they were thinking of a cover image of the person being featured in the magazine shot in the woods with a misty, foggy feel to the image. This is a radical departure from the magazine's past covers which were typically studio portraits of the cover person. I love doing artsy fartsy, edgy stuff and am looking forward to letting the creative juices flow.

Thinking about the upcoming cover, I started playing around in Photoshop to create a mock cover to run by the folks at the magazine to make sure what I envisioned was in line with what they envisioned. This is what I came up with, using an image I took while touring the location for the shoot and adding a stock image of a model reclining on a couch.

The mock cover I created
Below is the original iPhone shot I took of the wooded scene. While scouting the property, I found several sites that I thought would be great locations for the shoot but this particular one really caught my eye - two large oak trees intermingled with magnolia tree branches that looked like huge vines. I had been told during the planning process that there was a moss covered couch available for the shoot and that we could use it as a prop. In my mind, I could picture how perfect the couch would fit in the foreground of this scene, making it the perfect setting.

A few days before I toured the property, I was sent a stock image by the person I will be shooting - a model reclining on a couch - a pose that she really liked. 

Cutting the model out of the stock image, I dropped her into my iPhone shot of the site and went to work in Photoshop to add mist, fog and haze. Here's how I did it.

The first step was to process the iPhone shot in terms of exposure, bringing out the shadows and highlights using the Camera Raw filter in Photoshop CC.

Step 2 was cutting the model out of the background and doing some color correcting. The original image was sepia toned and while I knew I could never get it to have the correct color, I at least wanted it to blend with the woods better than if it was sepia toned. This is what the cutout looked like after I dropped it into the new background.

Now it was time to add some atmosphere and mood to the composite, i.e. fog, haze and sunbeams. If you take a close look at the cutout of the model, you can see that I purposely left some white haze around her head when I cut her out of the background. This was done using the Refine Edge feature of the Selection Tool, adding some feathering to the cutout and then brushing out the feathering in areas other than around her head.

Step 3 was to add a haze to the woods. Here's how I did it as described in the captions to the images below. As a caveat, I'm assuming you're familiar with Photoshop Tools/Palettes and their various features. If not, you will have to familiarize yourself with them before going forward.

Create an adjustment layer in the image
Select Hue/Saturation
Reduce the Saturation to -100
Push the Lightness to +100 
Click on the Gradient Tool and make sure you're using the Linear Gradient feature (first box on the left at the top)
Make sure you are using the Black/White gradient feature (3rd from left)
Move your cursor under the center of the image, right click and move the cursor straight up to just beyond the top of the image. This will create what looks like a thin black line in the center of the image. Release the mouse button.
When you release the mouse button, this is what you'll see….instant, gradual haze. Adjust the layer opacity to taste.
In the image below, I've reduced the opacity of the haze adjustment layer to 65% and brought the model back in to the image to show you how nicely the fake haze is beginning to blend in with the white feathered haze I left around her head when I did her cutout.

OK, Step 4 - creating ground fog around the model and the couch so she will look a little more natural in the setting.

Create a New Layer in the background image (use the Create New Layer icon in the Layers palette or go to the top of the PS Menu, click on"Layer", then "New", then "Layer", then "OK". 
Click on "Filter" and from the drop down menu select "Render" and then "Clouds"
Don't freak out when you see what you get, but this is what it will look like at first
Click on "Edit" in the PS Menu and select "Free Transform" Change the width to 600% from 100%. Looks a lot better, huh?
Using the cursor at the top, click on the little box and move the top line down and reduce the clouds by about 2/3 of the image size. Adjust the Opacity to taste and brush out any areas you don't want. In my image, I brushed out some areas around the model's face and body with a large brush set to an opacity of 10% and a hardness of "0".
After I finished with the cloud layer, I created three more of these layers and blended them in to the first layer with different opacity settings so as to have the fog dissipate from the front of the image towards the back of the image while also selectively brushing out portions here and there (Below).

Step 5 was to add beams of light originating at the top left of the image and cascading down onto the model as if sunbeams were peering through the trees and falling onto her. This was probably the simplest step in the entire process but I think it's what really makes the image pop. Ordinarily, it would have been an excruciating Photoshop process but thanks to UK photographer Gavin Hoey, you won't believe how easy it is to do it.

Gavin's Light Beam brushes depicting their various effects
Go to Gavin's web site ( and download his light beam brushes which will create the light beams shown above with one click of the mouse! After you download the brushes, you'll have to unzip the file and install the brushes into your brush tool. Once that's done, here's how I applied one of his brushes to my image.

I selected the brush I liked best for the setting and adjusted the brush size to fit the image
I clicked the cursor inside the image. Voila - light beams.
I opened Free Transform from the Edit Menu 
I rotated the light beams so they would angle down from top left to bottom right
I increased the size of the beams
Badda boom, badda bing - light beams after reducing the opacity
With the clouds, haze & model's layers brought back in
The final steps in the process included playing with all the layers, tweaking their opacity, brushing in and brushing out bits and pieces, and running the model's image through OnOne's Perfect Effects to add some flair. I then flattened the layers and did some additional tweaking of the overall image with the Camera Raw filter adjusting the overall highlights, shadows, color and contrast. Finally, I added the magazine's mast head and ended up with…..

When I do the actual shoot, I will be trying different poses, playing with the lighting as I set up my  lights with different light modifiers, and I'll be using fog machines to minimize having to create same in post (unless the wind doesn't cooperate). The shoot is set for this coming Friday, so fingers crossed it goes as planned. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Say Hello To My Leetle Friend…My Astro-Tech 12" Truss Ritchey-Chretien Astrograph

My new 12" Astro-Tech 12" Ritchey-Chretien Astrograph with a Starlight Industries 3" focuser ready for collimation
Summer is gone and Fall has finally arrived in Florida. I've been chomping at the bit to get to Chiefland, Florida since May where I am fortunate enough to have a dome observatory to continue my astrophotography efforts. In June, I acquired a new telescope (actually an astrograph, i.e. a telescope that is specifically designed for astrophotography as opposed to observing) along with a slew of accessories to use this puppy but the heat and humidity had been a huge deterrent to making the two hour trip south to Chiefland to get my new baby into its home. This month's new moon weekend was just what I was waiting for - clear, cool nights. So, I  loaded up the car with the scope, the new/used Takahashi EM400 mount, the kitchen sink, and headed for Chiefland on Friday morning to get the new stuff installed.

Loaded up and headed for the observatory
Takahashi EM400 mount
Before I delve into the new telescope, I can't help making note of the Takahashi mount that I picked up to replace the Celestron CGEM mount I had been using. The EM-400 is a thing of beauty, the epitome of simplicity in a rock solid piece of hardware that purrs like a kitten as it slews and tracks. It's designed to accept up to 78 pounds of payload as compared to the Celestron that was only rated to 40 pounds. The Astro-Tech scope weighs in at 52 pounds so the Celestron mount was no longer an option. It was a great mount when used with my Takahashi TSA 102 4" refractor telescope but it wouldn't handle the 70 or so pounds of stuff I was going to use with the new setup - I'm planning on eventually mounting the Takahashi on top of the Astro-Tech (weighing in at 11 pounds) so that will take me to 63 pounds. A couple  of pounds for my SBIG ST8300 CCD camera, 4 pounds for the Orion Short Tube 80mm guide scope, a  pound for the auto guider camera, etc. and the EM-400 was just the ticket to get everything running.

Cutting 24 inches off the the 6" square steel pier so that the much bigger telescope would fit inside he dome
Once I arrived in Chiefland, we unloaded the Takahashi mount and did a quick installation on the steel pier inside my dome. We then unloaded the Ritchey and mounted it to see if there was going to be a clearance issue with the top of the dome - there was. The scope extended above the done by a good 12 inches. Not good. A few telephone calls later, I found a local welder with a mobile setup who was available to come to the property and remedy the problem.

The shortened pier with the mount installed
The solution was to cut 24 inches from the steel pier to shorten it, unweld the mounting plate from the top of the pier, and re-weld it on the shortened pier. Three hours later, the job was finished and the mount was reattached to the pier.

John, the Astro-Tech rep (left)  just happened to be spending the new moon weekend with us in Chiefland. Nothing like having the company rep to help me collimate the scope with a laser so the mirrors would be dead on in alignment
Back to the telescope installation - collimating the Ritchey before installing it. Not only am I lucky enough to have an observatory in one of the darkest places around, it sits on a friend's property right beside his roll off roof observatory. Also on the property is another friend's dome pod. So, when I go to Chiefland, I have two experienced, talented astrophotographers who are only too happy to help me walk through the astrophotography minefield. Bill and Tony have been engaged in astrophotography for years and both were on the property this weekend waiting for me to haul the new telescope down and help with installation. On top of that, since Bill's property is located within the Chiefland Astronomy Village, there are a host of accomplished astrophotographers within a rock's throw. Most of them stopped by during the day and assisted as we worked on the installation. The icing on the cake was that the rep for the telescope company that manufactured my new scope was visiting Bill and he had set up his gear in the middle of our observatory triangle. Nothing like having the manufacturer's rep on hand to make sure everything we were doing was perfect.  

After collimating the scope on the porch of Bill's roll off roof observatory it was time to carry the scope to its home in my dome (pictured in the background just to my right). Bill (left) guides us down the stairs as Tony (center) and I carry the scope to its new home
Weighing in at 52 pounds and some 3 feet in length, having some help moving the scope was a blessing. Bill (left) was the brains of the operation, Tony and I were the muscle 
Almost in the dome. Bill (right) kept the scope from bangong into the handrails
Maneuvering the scope onto the mount
The 12" Ritchey Chretien is going to take my astrophotography to a new level since it is specifically designed for just that purpose. In 1910, American optician and astronomer George Willis Ritchey and French astronomer Henri Chretien designed a specialized Cassegrain telescope that would later become the telescope of choice for many astrophotography observatories and professionals around the world. The Ritchey Chretien astrograph has many benefits that make this design appealing to anyone who is serious about imaging:
  1. Virtually no coma (coma makes stars look like little comets around the edges of the field), which means there will be greater image quality across a wider field of view;
  2. No chromatic aberrations, or false color; and
  3. No spherical aberration from the optical system.
The Astro-Tech 12" Ritchey has a 2432mm focal length with an aperture of f8. I installed a reducer that lessens the focal length a bit but the tradeoff is a faster aperture - f6 - and with a faster lens I'll have shorter exposure times. The focal length will allow me to get up close and personal with galaxies and other small, distant targets.

For wide field nebulas and planets, the Takahashi 4" refractor will still get lots of use and will be the perfect compliment to the Ritchey. The Takahashi has an 810mm focal length at f8, and with its reducer it's 610mm at f6.  It remains one of the best general purpose telescopes for planetary high-resolution observation as well as deep sky, wide field imaging. 

Installing the sock over the carbon trusses to minimize dust on the mirrors
By dark, I had the bulk of the installation finished. I still had the finderscope, auto guider, and camera left to install, not to mention running all the cables from/to the mount, scopes and computer plus getting the computer talking to all the devices. I also had to polar align the mount once Polaris rose in the night sky. All that was left for after dinner.

CCD camera, guidescope, auto guider, cables and power supplies all installed and ready for testing 
After dinner, I balanced the scope with the counter weights, mounted the guidescope, installed the auto guider camera, got the guidescope camera talking to the computer and the mount, and installed the CCD camera on the Ritchey's focuser. Tony has an EM-400 mount and came over from his pod to help me polar align the mount. I was blown away by how easy Takahashi makes this process. So far so good.

Unfortunately, after getting all the power supplies installed, cables plugged in, and otherwise being ready for an imaging test run, I ran into a snag. The old XP Hewlett Packard desktop that I'd been using for astrophotography went into USB hell. Monitors started losing signal and other USB devices were being intermittently recognized. The result was that neither the computer nor the software would recognize the existence of the CCD camera. "No connection" was the message I would get time and time again. After painstakingly trying to diagnose the problem, I tried plugging the camera into a friend's Windows 7 laptop and the camera worked fine. After several additional but futile efforts to reboot, reinstall drivers, etc. on my desktop, I gave up. Obviously the old XP computer had reached the end of its life and it was time to put it out to pasture.

Other than the computer glitch that prevented the old desktop from recognizing the CCD camera, I'm very close to being able to image with the new setup. My next visit to Chiefland will be in November for the new moon at which time I'll install the Takahashi refractor on top of the Ritchey. I have already tested the CCD camera on a Windows 8 laptop I had at hove and it worked as it always has. I'll be taking the laptop down with me to replace the desktop as my astrophotography computer. Come November, with 2 scopes polar aligned and ready for imaging, I hope to capture more of the heavens above.