Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Home Observatory Pier - The Finishing Touches

There's a great deal of satisfaction in undertaking a new project and finally reaching the point where it all comes together. Most importantly, it's a relief to finally give it a test to make sure that it actually does what you envisioned it would do.

After several weeks of digging, pouring concrete, cutting lumber, nailing, drilling, measuring, leveling, and tapping threads, the telescope pier and pier adapter I set out to fabricate and build is finished and it is exactly what I had hoped it would be - a rock solid means of mounting my two Schmidt Cassegrain telescopes in a way that will give me the stability and absence of vibration that I yearned for.
In the first of this three-part post, I delved into the challenge of designing and fabricating the pier adapter (above) for the telescopes. I was forced to make my own since no one seems to make an adapter for these telescopes and even if someone did, I figured I could make one for a whole lot less than what it would cost to buy one.
In the second post, I described how I built the pier for the telescopes. After completing the pier, I built an observing deck around it. The final step in the project was to drill the attachment holes in the pier adapter and install it on the pier.
After drilling four 1/2" holes on the underside plate of the pier adapter using a template I made that aligned the holes with the four threaded bolts that protruded from the top of the concrete pier, I threaded 4 nuts, one on each bolt, flush with the top of the pier. Large, square washers were then placed on top of the nuts to serve as the surface on which the pier adapter would rest. I placed the pier adapter through the bolts and placed identical square washers on the top surface of the bottom plate and threaded nuts on each of the bolts.

There was a reason for using nuts and washers on both the top and underside of the bottom plate instead of simply letting the pier adapter rest on top of the concrete - with 4 attachment points, I could tighten or loosen the bottom nuts to level the pier adapter so that after everything was snugged up tight, the telescope would sit on a perfectly level plane. For tracking purposes, this is critical. After tightening/loosening the nuts while using a torpedo level resting on the top plate, I had a level and secure pier plate mounted on the pier.
Attaching the telescope to the pier adapter was simply a matter of inserting three cap screws through the underside of the top plate into the underside of the telescope mount and tightening them with an allen wrench, which is precisely how the telescope mounts on the tripod that it came with.
With the pier and the adapter project complete, all that is left to do is finish moving equipment into the shed observatory and get everything up and running. I have to put the finishing touches on the observatory shed, run power to the pier for the telescope, and get the computer and the telescope talking to each other so I can control the telescope from the computer. My first trial run for visual observing will be on the first clear pre-dawn morning with Venus as the subject. Right now, Venus is shining like a beacon before sunrise and I hope to not only get a good look at it, I may try to snap some images.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Web Site Refresh

My new website home page
It was time. My website has been in its prior permutation for a while and a little voice inside me kept telling me, "Bro, it's time to do something new with the site." Change the template, change the layout, throw in some new images, take down some old images, yadda yadda yadda, but still keep it clean. So I went to my Squarespace design page and started playing around with different templates. I was using the "Wells" template and after demo-ing a few others, I found a new one I hadn't seen or tried out - "Native". The template gave a me a framework that was different from "Wells" but still gave the site a look I liked. Once I installed it and started modifying the pages to suit my design ideas, it took about a week to tweak everything and I finally hit the "publish" button last week.

I'm a huge Squarespace fan. I've been using their site to build my website for over a year and find it to be light years better than other sites like Wix. Because of my innate Cuban-ness, it's impossible for me to resist urges to clutter up sites with a lot of crap that only detracts from the goal of presenting a clean, slick, simple display of my images. Squarespace must know there are people like me who are their own worst enemies and have a built in method of protecting me from me. In using their templates you have just enough flexibility to create a site that's uniquely yours, but options are limited so you don't ruin a good thing.

In redoing the site, I merged some of the galleries. The old sports and sports pageantry galleries have been combined into one gallery.  My travel images, some of which were in a color gallery, some in a B&W gallery, some in a gallery dedicated to National Parks, and some in a landscape gallery, are now either in one color gallery or a B&W gallery. I finally have enough astrophotography images to dedicate a gallery to those images. Galleries for light painting, wildlife, composites, cars, & Auschwitz remain. I've added new images and deleted other images from just about all the galleries as images I consider worthy of showing replaced others.

 A page dedicated to my Blog is linked in the navigation block at the top of the page and I separated the old Contact page into two, an "About" page with some tidbits about me and a straight up contact page with info on how to contact me.

As time permits, I still need to go through the images and make final cuts. Some galleries have way too many images to suit me and so begins the task of weeding out some. I have a bad habit of saving the hardest task for last, and deciding which images should be deleted is the hardest thing in the world for me since a lot of images have great sentiment attached to them.

If you'd like to check out the new version, click here. As always, any thoughts or comments are appreciated.

Friday, March 14, 2014

A (Telescope) Pier Is Born And The Home "Observatory" Is Almost Finished

A couple of months ago, I decided that if I was going to do astrophotography justice, I needed to have a semi-permanent home for my telescopes, computer and all the paraphernalia that I use when shooting the heavens above. I set out to build something in my back yard to use and no sooner had I started building my home setup, I stumbled across a high school classmate who owns property at the Chiefland Astronomy Village. My friend graciously gave me use of a 10-foot dome observatory he was going to tear down after he built a larger roll-off roof observatory and I have now set up the dome in Chiefland as my primary astrophotography venue.

Even though I will be doing the bulk of my astrophotography in the dome, I still wanted a convenient backyard site in which to play around. Chiefland is a two-hour drive from home and as fortunate as I am to have such a primo site at my disposal, the distance between Tallahassee and Chiefland necessarily limits the opportunities to use my telescopes. I still wanted to have something right outside my back door to use on clear nights after dinner, so I pressed on with the home version of an observatory to use use for visual observing and some photography.

The home "observatory" began with a some-assembly-required storage shed from Home Depot. After building an elevated framed wood floor I assembled the shed. Inside, I set up a table with computer gear to have comfortable place to control a telescope, run planetarium software, and keep my gear dry from the night dew. I built a privacy fence around the shed to block out some of the stray light from our house and the neighbor's homes (above).

After everything was pretty much finished up, I finally had a chance to set up a telescope and spend an evening looking at different objects in the sky. When I tried to observe Jupiter with high magnification eyepieces, the "shake" caused by the tripod was frustrating. I was now spoiled by having a rock solid pier on which my imaging telescope is mounted in Chiefland so I decided to build a pier for my 8" and 6" Schmidt Cassegrain telescopes (the ones I use for observing).

The first step was to find a pier adapter for these telescopes. None were available which cased me to start the project by fabricating one. I covered the fabrication process in a prior post. With that step out of the way, it was time to build the pier.

One pier option was to use an 8" X 8" post, dig a hole and set it in concrete. Another option was to use 8" square cinder blocks, stack them in the shape of a column in a concrete filled hole, and fill the inside with rebar and concrete. In the end, I decided to use an 8" Sonotube form filled with rebar rods and concrete. I dug a 16" square hole 24 inches deep, filled it with concrete, and inserted three 4-foot rebar rods vertically into the concrete as it was setting. I placed the sonotube on top of the square foundation (above, left) and dug a 30-inch square by 6-inch deep perimeter around the pier foundation to give the pier a larger footprint for stability. A few more bags of concrete mixed and poured, badda boom badda bing the pier was beginning to take shape (above, right). In order to attach the pier adapter, I inserted four "L" shaped, 8-inch long, 1/2" bolts into the concrete in the sonotube with the threaded portions protruding above the top of the concrete (left).

After the concrete was completely set, I put the finishing touches on the pier, I built a 4-foot square deck around it making sure that the deck floor did not contact the concrete pier by cutting a square notch in the deck planks. The whole purpose of the pier is to minimize vibration transmitted to the telescope and by isolating the pier from the deck, I can walk on the deck without transmitting any vibration.

The final step in this project will be to finish the pier adapter by drilling holes in the bottom plate to attach the plate to the pier. The pier adapter will be bolted to the pier and leveled/secured with nuts and washers on both the underside and on top of the bottom plate. I'll cover the final steps in a post that will follow. If I can get some clear skies, I hope to test everything out with Venus, shining like a beacon to the East in the pre-dawn sky. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Fabricating A Pier Plate Adapter For A Celestron Nexstar 8 Telescope - Part Uno

This past weekend, I finally got my astrophotography observatory in Chiefland, Florida (above) up and running so I would have a place to image deep sky objects in a somewhat permanent setup. After having a chance to use my Takahashi TSA 102 refractor telescope on a pier (left) a whole new world opened up for me. I could slew the scope from one celestial target to another and then view the objects with absolutely no vibration or shaking in the telescope, even at high magnification. What a difference. The pier in the observatory is a 6 inch square steel tube that is set 3 feet into the ground with a surrounding 24 inch square concrete pad, built to support a heavy telescope/telescope mount. That was my first experience using a pier as the base for a telescope instead of a tripod and it caused me to give some serious thought to using a pier on the telescope I will be using at home for observing, an 8 inch Celestron Nexstar 8 (right). The problem is that despite a concerted effort to find a pier adapter to mount the Nexstar 8 on a pier, I couldn't find anyone who manufactured one. Not to be deterred, I decided to fabricate my own.

In order to fabricate a pier plate adapter, I needed a template to guide me with the design for bolt holes that would be used to secure the telescope to the pier plate. Unbolting the Nexstar 8 from the tripod exposed the base of the tripod plate (left). Removing the tripod plate was simply a matter of unbolting it from the tripod. Voila - the perfect template. Next I had to obtain the materials for the pier plate adapter. Since the tripod plate was fashioned from 1/2" thick aluminum I decided to follow suit with the same material for the pier plate adapter. The Nexstar and its one arm mount are very light making aluminum a plausible, solid material choice. A quick search on the web yielded a metal fabricating business a short distance from home and after a telephone call I was good to go. They had 1/2" aluminum in stock and it could be cut to any size. I settled on an 8" square piece for the bottom and a 10" square piece for the top. The bottom will be bolted onto a pier (more on that later) and the top will be the base for the telescope.

In addition to the two square pieces of aluminum, I had the metal shop cut four pieces of 1 1/2" aluminum bar stock into 4" lengths to serve as spacers between the top and bottom plates . By having 4 inches of clearance between the top late and the bottom plate I gave myself enough space to bolt the adapter to the pier. Equally important, the space between the plates would make it easy to attach and  remove the telescope from the pier by using socket cap screws through the underside of the top plate into the threads on the Nexstar's mounting plate. The plates and aluminum bar stock cost was less than $50. I picked up the necessary hardware at a local Ace Hardware - eight 1 1/2" long, 3/8" stainless beveled screws to attach the aluminum rods to the two bases and the three 1" long, 3/8" stainless socket cap screws - to build the pier adapter at a cost of $15. Now came the fun part.

Step one was drilling four 3/8" holes into the bottom plate (above, L). Although the image doesn't show it, I then used a countersink bit to create a "V" shaped bevel in each hole on the bottom of the plate so the beveled screws would be flush with the plate when inserted through the holes. Step two was drilling 5/16" holes through the center of each aluminum rod (left) and then threading the holes with a 3/8 NC tap (right) to accept the 3/8" screws. This is where the choice of aluminum stock was a blessing. Drilling and tapping thick aluminum is much easier than comparable steel stock.

Step three involved attaching the aluminum spacer bars to the bottom plate so I could make another template that would give me the location of bolt holes on the top plate (above).

I've used the template for the holes to mark their location on the top plate. After these holes are drilled and countersunk, all that is left to do is to mark/drill the holes to bolt the telescope to the top plate in order to finish the rough construction of the pier adapter. Because it was getting late, I decided to call it a night before drilling any more holes and stopped working on the project. I couldn't resist placing the top plate on the spacer rods to see how the finished adapter will look as shown in the image above which also depicts the telescope base on the top plate. I hope to finish the rough construction tonight and then prime/paint the entire pier adapter black.

After I finish the adapter I will be building a pier in the back yard and attaching the adapter to the pier. I'll probably use an 8" Sonotube filled with Sacrete and rebar rods for support. Threaded "L" rods inserted into the wet concrete will serve as the attachment method for the adapter to the pier. Stay tuned.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Hey, Let's Go See A Rodeo Tonight...In The Rain...

After being cooped up for two consecutive days inside our cabin in the North Georgia mountains this July 4 Holiday weekend, my spousal unit had had enough. We arrived Wednesday evening and It had been raining for two days and nights non stop, keeping us from even thinking about doing anything outside. On Friday night, the spousal unit cracked. There was a rodeo slated to start that night just across the Georgia/North Carolina state line and we found out it was going to take place rain or shine at 8:00 pm. Saddle up, kids, we were gonna be rootin' tootin' cowpokes.

As things would have it, when I was trying to decide what camera gear to take to the cabin for the long weekend, the last thing I expected was to do anything resembling sports photography and certainly nothing requiring long, fast lenses. I thought that if there were going to be any photo adventures while in the mountains, they would be of the landscape/wide angle variety so I packed accordingly. One D3S body, 17-35mm f2.8, 35-70mm f2.8, and 15mm f2.8 fisheye. In an oh-what-the-heck moment, I threw my 70-200mm f2.8 lens in the bag along with a 1.4X teleconverter just in case. Whew. With the 70-200mm at my disposal for the rodeo, I figured I would at least be in the game, so to speak.

I would much rather have had my 400mm f2.8 with me but then I also would have much rather have had a rainless, mud-less night too. From the moment we left the cabin for North carolina until we returned it rained. The rodeo grounds were nothing but one huge mud pit. As you got anywhere within 50' of the barricades surrounding the competition area, every step you took meant sinking to your ankles (or deeper) in mud. Without any rain gear for the camera, lenses, or me, the only way to shoot was to hold an umbrella over my head with one hand and shoot one handed with the camera in the other hand. Given the mud and the difficulty walking, lugging a monopod-mounted 400mm from the parking area to the barricades would have required Moses to part the mud so I could get to/from the barricades without me and the gear ending up in the mud. Sometimes mobility has its advantages at the expense of lens length, I guess.

With only one hand to handle the shooting chores, I zoomed out to 200mm, settled on some basic exposure settings and used a new shooting technique - swing the camera up one handed to eye level, lock in on the moving subjects as quickly as possible, fire off frames until I couldn't hold the camera up any longer, and lower the camera back down. Not exactly the most stable of shooting platforms and it showed in the images I managed to get. Few were anything remotely close to the sharpness I expect to get but there was nothing I could do.

As far as sharpness goes, there were other dynamics in play that didn't lend themselves to sharp images. For one, it didn't help that I couldn't get as tight as I normally do with a 200mm focal length limitation. In order to show some semblance of action in the final images I had to crop. Man, did I have to crop. Next, because of the marginal lighting available (which consisted of four banks of high school football field type stadium lights made dimmer by the rain), I was at ISO 3200 and could only manage shutter speeds of 1/400th second. Never having shot a rodeo before, I hoped that was fast enough. I didn't want to up the ISO any higher because I knew I would be cropping images beyond ridiculous bounds. my D3S's are amazing when it comes to high ISO shooting, but when you're enlarging ISO 6400 noise by 400-500%, images are not going to look good. So I opted to go down to ISO 3200 and hoped 1/400th would stop the action sufficiently. Sometimes it didn't, sometimes it sort of did.

Then there was the issue of constant white balance changes. When we finally got back to the cabin and I downloaded the card, I saw that not only were the lights barely marginal in terms of brightness, the color and intensity shifted from frame to frame. In a five shot burst, one frame would be cyan, one magenta, one dark, one yellow, and one decent. The decent one was not always the best action shot or the sharpest shot. On some of the images (like the one above), the color issues were so bad I simply gave up trying to correct the color and just went to Black & White.

Now, you'd think that after all the griping and complaining above that I regretted trying to shoot the rodeo Friday night but nothing could be further from the truth. I actually enjoyed the challenge of trying to come up with a few serviceable images under the worst of weather conditions, shooting one handed, and having to make do with a lens that was nowhere close to being long enough. I also learned a lot from shooting my first rodeo. I'll use the experience to make my next rodeo a lot more productive since I now know what to do in terms of positioning and shooting angles. And hopefully it won't rain....

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Sports Photography 101 Part IV - Image Stabilization Feature On Lenses

Welcome to Part IV in this series of posts on sports photography. I'll start by reminding you yet again that what I say in these posts is strictly my opinion based on personal experience - what I do and how I do it works for me. There are many out there who do things differently and it works for them. Regardless of which way you elect to shoot, make sure you test out anyone's advice (including mine) for yourself before you give it a go on game day.

Today, we'll discuss something simple - the image stabilizing feature that comes with many newer lenses. Nikon calls it "VR" for "vibration reduction". If I'm not mistaken, Canon calls it "IS" or "image stabilization". TURN IT OFF. Not tomorrow or the day after, if your equipment is going to be used for sports photography, go to your camera bag right now and flip the switch(es) to OFF so you don't forget.

When I read advice blogs, posts or discussions on photography forums by well intentioned folks advocating the need to use VR when shooting sports I have to shake my head. I reiterate, I am the furthest thing from God's gift to sports photography but I try to develop a fairly good understanding of what my equipment does and doesn't do. I also make it a point to get some hands on, personal experience with the various features incorporated into my camera bodies and lenses rather than take the word of a part time Best Buy sales associate who thinks that a 16 MP point and shoot camera will take better quality photos than a 12 MP DSLR because it has more MP.

Don't misunderstand, in my view, VR is a wonderful advancement that has its moments, just like a lens that is capable of going to f22 and beyond has its moments. In either case, sports photography ain't one of those moments. The purpose of VR is to minimize the effects of camera shake in sloooooooowwwwwww shutter speed conditions. When using the shutter speeds necessary for freezing action (beginning at 1/500th second), VR will do absolutely nothing, unless e.g., you're shooting at a dead run or are being jostled about on a plane with turbulence.

Depending on how steady you can hold your camera will dictate when you should activate VR. I can comfortably hold a camera body with a short to medium zoom fairly steady down to a shutter speed of 1/30th of a second; I can sometimes push the envelope down to 1/20th second; and sometimes I can go a bit slower if I have something on/with which to brace myself or the camera. In sports photography, if you're shooting at anything less than 1/500th second, you're seriously running the risk of blurred or soft images. More often than not, you're shooting at a minimum of 1/1000th second. Under these conditions, there is absolutely no reason to have VR or IS switched on.

Many people confuse image stabilization with subject stabilization. They mistakenly believe that with VR switched on, it will somehow help them freeze a moving subject. It won't. VR does nothing to freeze a moving subject. There are only two things that will keep a moving subject sharp - a shutter speed that is faster than the subject's movement, or when the shutter speed isn't faster than the subject, panning with the subject. 

Since VR is a needless feature for sports, that's what makes a used Nikon 80-200mm f2.8 D ED AF-S my choice for the budget conscious sports photographer as a viable alternative for the newer 70-200mm f2.8 that comes equipped with VR. You don't need it, or at least not enough to where you should drop hundreds of dollars more on a lens that has it.

Not only do you not need VR, VR can actually impede your sports shooting. When you have VR switched on, you'll hear some  whirring noises and the image may move a bit in your viewfinder as the VR feature stabilizes the lens. Admittedly, at fast shutter speeds, image stabilization is minimal if not imperceptible, but during this process the shutter will not fire. When it finally decides to fire, the peak moment may pass you by. I may be old school, but I never want a camera to tell me when it's good and ready to fire even if the shutter delay is imperceptibly small. I want to be the Master of this domain and have it fire when I tell it to.

Reason #2 to shut off the VR feature - it chews up battery power. Before you fire a shot, battery power has been used to drive a motor that focuses the lens. If you're shooting with one of the auto-tracking focus modes (strongly suggested and a topic for another day), battery power is keeping your focus locked in. Last but not least, battery power causes the shutter to fire and then record the image on your card. If you're like me, when you have some down time, you're reviewing your images on the back of the camera to see if you got a shot or shots and deleting images that are useless. Battery drain. A lot of time I'll zoom in on an image to make sure it's sharp. More battery drain. On top of all that, why chew up battery power (and if you're auto tracking, VR is working the entire time you're tracking the subject) by engaging a feature that is superfluous and/or counterproductive?

Reason #3 to switch VR off is the strange artifacts you can get on your backgrounds when VR is engaged. One of the reasons sports photographers love f2.8 lenses is that they create a blurred, out of focus background setting for the tack sharp image of the subject. A blurred background not only makes the sharp subject stand out, it doesn't detract from the target of the image - the subject. When viewers look at a sports image, you want their gaze to immediately snap to the athlete in all his or her glory, not some fan in the stands or the official lurking in the background. VR can often times create some strange artifacts that can distract a viewer's attention as their mind attempts to interpret what that funny looking thing is in the background.

So there you have it. My take on the image stabilization feature on lenses in the world of sports photography. Look for Part V which will cover another topic.