Photographing the night sky

Last Saturday saw a “supermoon” – where the Earth’s moon is both full and in perigeesyzygy and so appears larger than usual.  I went out to try and shoot some images of the moon over the river but it was too high in the sky for the effect I was really after and it slipped behind some clouds.  Later on, the sky cleared and I got out my longest lens to take a picture of the moon (albeit without anything to put its size into context) and this was the result:

Supermoon 2

I was pretty pleased with this – especially when I compared it with one taken from the International Space Station! – although  some of the other shots in the press showed an aeroplane silhouetted agains the moon, or the moon appearing more “yellow” as it rose.  It’s just a straight shot from my DSLR with a 500mm lens, tripod mounted, at a mid-aperture (f11) and slow-ish 1/125″ shutter speed, with ISO set to 200, and with exposure compensation set at -5 EV (to stop the moon from “bleaching out”). Other than a crop and saving it as a JPG, that’s about all it’s had done to it.

But taking photos of the night sky is not usually so straightforward and, previously, my best results had been using a similar setup, but shooting in daylight.  The image below was taken a couple of summers ago, whilst on holiday in France:

La Lune

For this shot, I used an entirely different technique – it was actually taken with a clear blue sky, in the evening, converted to black and white and then the black clipping was increased to make sure the blacks really were black.

Anyway, back to the supermoon – nice though it is, anyone can take pictures of the moon – but what about planets in our solar system? Without a telescope?

SaturnJoe Baguley tipped me off that Saturn was just down and to the left of the moon at that time and sent me a link to his shot, in which Saturn is just 12 pixels wide but its rings are clearly visible. My response: “Wow!”. I went back outside with my gear and tried to replicate it but it seems that, on this occasion, his Canon 5D Mk2’s pixel density beat my Nikon D700’s – 12 pixels wide at 400mm equates to 15 pixels at 500mm, but with 2,400,000 pixels per cm2 on the 5D vs. 1.4 on the D700. That meant I was looking at something just 9px wide and that sky was very, very dark… maybe I need to go out and buy a telescope (for my sons of course!).

(Thanks to Benjamin Ellis, who inspired me to go and take pictures of the moon on Saturday evening, to Joe Baguley for permission to use his picture of Saturn, and to Andy Sinclair, who suggested I should write this post. The two images of the moon used in this post are © 2009-2011 Mark Wilson, all rights reserved. The image of Saturn is © 2011 Joe Baguley, all rights reserved. All three images are therefore excluded from the Creative Commons license used for the rest of this site.)

Hardware lineup for 2011

This is a bit of a copycat post really but I saw Mike Taulty and Phil Winstanley‘s hardware lineups and thought it was a good idea. So, here it is, a summary of the technology I use pretty much every day and how I see that changing this year.

Car: Audi A4 Avant 2.0 TDI 170 S-Line

Audi A4 Avant 20 TDI 170 S-LineMy wife and I have been Volkswagen fans for a few years now (we find them to be good, solid, reliable cars that hold their value well) so, a couple of years ago, when I heard that Volkswagen and Audi were being added to our company car scheme, I held back on replacing my previous vehicle in order to take advantage. I did consider getting a Passat but the A4 (although smaller) had a newer generation of engine and lower emissions, so it didn’t actually cost much more in tax/monthly lease costs.

After a year or so, I’m normally bored/infuriated with my company cars but I still really enjoy my A4 – so much so that I will consider purchasing this one at the end of its lease next year. My only reservations are that I would really like something larger, sometimes a little more power would be nice (although this has 170PS, which is pretty good for a 2 litre diesel) and I do sometimes think that the money I contribute to the car might be better spent on reducing the mortgage (I add some of my salary to lease a better car than my grade entitles me to).

Either way, it’s on lease until I hit 3 years or 60,000 miles, so it’s a keeper for 2011.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Phone: Apple iPhone 3GS 16GB

Apple iPhone 3GSI actually have two phones (personal and work SIMs) but my personal needs are pretty basic (a feature phone with Bluetooth connectivity for hands free operation in the car) and I recycled my iPhone 3G when I was given a 3GS to use for work.

After having owned iPhones for a few years now (this is my third one), I don’t feel that the platform, which was once revolutionary, has kept pace and it now feels dated. As a result, I’m tempted by an Android or Windows Phone 7 device but neither of these platforms is currently supported for connection my corporate e-mail service.

The main advantages of this device for me are the apps and the Bluetooth connectivity to the car (although I needed to buy a cable for media access). I use Spotify and Runkeeper when I’m running but there are a whole host of apps to help me when I’m out and about with work (National Rail Enquiries, etc.) and, of course, it lets me triage my bulging mailbox and manage my calendar when I’m on the move. Unfortunately, the camera is awful and it’s not much use as a phone either, but it does the job.

I could get an iPhone 4 (or 5 this summer?) but I’d say it’s pretty unlikely, unless something happened to this one and I was forced to replace it.

Verdict 3/10. Not mine to sell!

Tablet: Apple iPad 3G 64GB

Apple iPadAfter several weeks (maybe months) of thinking “do I? don’t I?”, I bought an iPad last year and I use it extensively. Perhaps it’s a bit worrying that I take it to bed with me at night (I often catch up on Twitter before going to sleep, or use it as an e-book reader) but the “instant on” and long battery life make this device stand out from the competition when I’m out and about.

2011 will be an interesting year for tablets – at CES they were all over the place but I’ve been pretty vocal (both on this blog, and on Twitter) about my views on Windows as a tablet operating system and many of the Android devices are lacking something – Android 3 (Gingerbread [correction] Honeycomb) should change that. One possible alternative is Lenovo’s convertible notebook/tablet which runs Windows but features a slide out screen that functions as an Android tablet (very innovative).

I may upgrade to an iPad 2, if I can get a good resale price for my first generation iPad, but even Apple’s puritanical anti-Adobe Flash stand (which means many websites are unavailable to me) is not enough to make me move away from this device in 2011.

Verdict 8/10. Hold.

Everyday PC: Fujitsu Lifebook S7220 (Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 250GB hard disk)

Fujitsu Lifebook S7220My personal preference for notebook PCs is a ThinkPad – I liked them when they were manufactured by IBM and Lenovo seem to have retained the overall quality associated with the brand – but, given who pays my salary, it’s no surprise that I use a Fujitsu notebook PC. Mine’s a couple of years old now and so it’s branded Fujitsu-Siemens but it’s the same model that was sold under the Fujitsu name outside Europe. It’s a solid, well-built notebook PC and I have enough CPU, memory and disk to run Windows 7 (x64) well.

Unfortunately it’s crippled with some awful full disk encryption software (I won’t name the vendor but I’d rather be using the built-in BitLocker capabilities which I feel are better integrated and less obtrusive) and, even though the chipset supports Intel vPro/AMT (to install the Citrix XenClient hypervisor), the BIOS won’t allow me to activate the VT-d features. As a result, I have to run separate machines for some of my technical testing (I’m doing far less of that at work anyway these days) and to meet my personal (i.e. non-work) computing requirements.

My hope is that we’ll introduce a bring your own computer (BYOC) scheme at work and I can rationalise things but, if not, it’ll be another two years before I can order a replacement and this will soldier on for a while yet.

Verdict 6/10. Holding out for a BYOC scheme at work.

Netbook: Lenovo S10e (Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz, 2GB RAM, 160GB hard disk)

Lenovo IdeaPad S10In its day, my netbook was great. It’s small, light, can be used on the train when the seatback tables are too small for a normal laptop and I used mine extensively for personal computing whilst working away from home. It was a bit slow (on file transfers) but it does the job – and the small keyboard is ideal for my young children (although even they could do with a larger screen resolution).

Nowadays my netbook it sits on the shelf, unloved, replaced by my iPad. It was inexpensive and, ultimately, consumable.

Verdict 2/10. Sell, or more likely use it to geek out and play with Linux.

Digital Camera: Nikon D700

Nikon D700After a series of Minoltas in the 1980s and 1990s, I’ve had Nikon cameras for several years now, having owned an F90x, a D70 and now a D700. I also use my wife’s D40 from time to time and we have a Canon Ixus 70 too (my son has adopted that). With a sizeable investment in Nikon lenses, etc., I can’t see myself changing brands again – although some of my glass could do with an upgrade, and I’d like an external flash unit.

The D700 gives me a lot of flexibility and has a high enough pixel count, with minimal noise and good low-light performance. It’s a professional-grade DSLR and a bit heavy for some people (I like the weight). It’s also too valuable for some trips (which is when I use the D40) but I always miss the flexibility and functionality that the D700 body provides. Maybe sometimes I think some video capabilities would be nice but I won’t be changing it yet.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Photography PC: Apple MacBook MB062LL/B (Intel Core 2 Duo T7500 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 320GB hard disk)

Apple Macbook White (late 2007)It’s been three years since I bought my MacBook and, much as I’d like one of the current range of MacBook Pros it’ll be a while before I replace it because they are so expensive! In fairness, it’s doing it’s job well – as soon as I bought it I ungraded the hard disk and memory, and whilst the the CPU is nt as fast as a modern Core i5 or i7, it’s not that slow either.

For a machine that was not exactly inexpensive, I’ve been disappointed with the build quality (it’s had two new keyboard top covers and a replacement battery) but Apple’s customer service meant that all were replaced under warranty (I wouldn’t fancy my chances at getting a new battery from many other PC OEMs).

I use this machine exclusively for photography and the Mac OS suits me well for this. It’s not “better” than Windows, just “different” and, whilst some people would consider me to be a Microsoft fanboi and an iHater, the list of kit on this page might say otherwise. I like to consider myself to have objective views that cut through the Redmond or Cupertino rhetoric!

So, back to the Mac – I may dive into Photoshop from time to time but Adobe Lightroom, Flickr Uploadr, VueScan and a few specialist utilities like Sofortbild are my main tools. I need to sweat this asset for a while longer before I can replace it.

Verdict 5/10. Hold.

Media: Apple Mac Mini MA206LL/A (Intel Core Duo 1.66GHz, 2GB RAM, 120GB hard disk)

(+ iPad, iPhone 3GS, various iPods, Altec Lansing iM7 iPod speakers)

Apple Mac MiniMy Mac Mini was the first Intel Mac I bought (I had one of the original iMacs but that’s long gone) and it’s proved to be a great little machine. It was replaced by the MacBook but has variously been used in Windows and Mac OS X forms as a home media PC. These days it’s just used for iTunes and Spotify, but I plan to buy a keyboard to have a play with Garage Band too.

It may not be the most powerful of my PCs, but it’s more than up to this kind of work and it takes up almost no space at all.

Verdict 6/10. Hold.

Gaming: Microsoft Xbox 360 S 250GB with Kinect Sensor

Microsoft Xbox 360sI’m not a gamer – I sold my Playstation a few years ago because the driving games that I enjoyed made me feel ill! Even so, I was blown away by the Xbox with Kinect when I saw it last month. I bought myself a 250GB model and now Kinect Adventures and Kinect Sports have become family favourites (with a bit of Dance Central thrown in!). I can’t see myself getting into first person shooters, but I can see us doing more and more with the Xbox, particularly if I can use the Connect 360 application to hook into my media library. The final piece of the jigsaw would be BBC iPlayer on Xbox – but that looks unlikely to come to fruition.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Servers and Storage: Atom-based PC, Dell PowerEdge 840, 2x Netgear ReadyNAS Duo

As my work becomes less technical, I no longer run a full network infrastructure at home (I don’t find myself building quite so many virtual machines either) so I moved the main infrastructure roles (Active Directory, DHCP, DNS, TFTP, etc.) to a low-power server based on an Intel Atom CPU. I still have my PowerEdge 840 for the occasions when I do need to run up a test environment but it’s really just gathering dust. Storage is provided by a couple of Netgear ReadyNAS devices and it’s likely that I’ll upgrade the disks and then move one to a family member’s house, remote syncing to provide an off-site backup solution (instead of a variety of external USB drives).

Verdict 6/10. Hold (perhaps sell the server, but more likely to leave it under the desk…).

Cleaning my DSLR’s sensor… the quick (and inexpensive) way

Right now, I’m attending photography workshop in North Wales, learning a bit more about digital photographic imaging. It’s been a good experience so far but, yesterday afternoon, I experienced a small disaster as not only dust but a tiny hair had appeared on all of the images I took, indicating that I had some sort of debris on my sensor (actually, it’s on the anti-aliasing filter, not the sensor but that’s being pedantic…).

Being in the middle of the Snowdonia National Park (albeit in overcast/wet weather) and on a course where I would take a lot of photos, this was not exactly welcome and I feared I’d need a costly professional sensor clean (after a weekend of creating images with hair on them). No-one in the class had any sensor cleaning swabs (not that I’ve ever used them, and I would have been a little nervous too on my still-in-warranty Nikon D700) but, luckily, one of the guys passed me an air blower and said “try this – but make sure you hold the camera body face down as you use it!”.

With the mirror locked up, I puffed some air around inside the body (it’s important not to use compressed air for this) and took a reference image – thankfully the debris was gone (and, because the front of the camera was facing down, it should have fallen out, not gone further back into the camera).

I breathed a big sigh of relief and thanked my fellow classmate. In just over a week its the Focus on Imaging exhibition – hopefully I’ll get along to it and one of the items on my shopping list will be a Giottos Rocket Air Blower

Backing up and restoring Adobe Lightroom 2.x on a Mac

Over the last few days, I’ve been rebuilding the MacBook that I use for all my digital photography (which is a pretty risky thing to do immediately before heading off on a photography workshop) and one of the things I was pretty concerned about was backing up and restoring my Adobe Lightroom settings as these are at the heart of my workflow.

I store my images in two places (Lightroom backs them up to one of my Netgear ReadyNAS devices on import) and, on this occasion I’d also made two extra backups (I really should organise one in the cloud too, although syncing 130GB of images could take some time…).

I also backup the Lightroom catalog each time Lightroom runs (unfortunately the only option is to do this at startup, not shutdown), so that handles all of my keywords, develop settings, etc. What I needed to know was how to backup my preferences and presets – and how to restore everything.

It’s actually quite straightforward – this is how it worked for me – of course, I take no responsibility for anyone else’s backups and, as they say, your mileage may vary.  Also, PC users will find the process similar, but the file locations change:

I also made sure that the backups and restores were done at the same release (v2.3) but, once I was sure everything was working, I updated to the latest version (v2.6).

Reading EXIF data to find out the number of shutter activations on a Nikon DSLR

A few years ago, I wrote about some digital photography utilities that I use on my Mac.  These days most of my post-processing is handled by Adobe Lightroom (which includes Adobe Camera Raw), with a bit of Photoshop CS4 (using plugins like Noise Ninja) for the high-end stuff but these tools still come in useful from time to time.  Unfortunately, Simple EXIF Viewer doesn’t work with Nikon raw images (.NEF files) and so it’s less useful to me than it once was.

Recently, I bought my wife a DSLR and, as I’m a Nikon user (I have a D700), it made sense that her body should fit my lenses so I picked up a Nikon refurbished D40 kit from London Camera Exchange.  Whilst the body looked new, I wanted to know how many times the shutter had been activated (DSLR shutter mechanisms have a limited life – about 50,000 for the D40) and the D40’s firmware won’t display this information – although it is captured in the EXIF data for each image.

After some googling, I found a link to Phil Harvey’s ExifTool, a platform independent library with a command line interface for accessing EXIF data in a variety of image formats. A few seconds later and I had run the exiftool -nikon dsc_0001.nef command (exiftool --? gives help) on a test image and it told me a perfectly respectable shutter count of 67.  For reference, I tried a similar command on some images from my late Father’s Canon EOS 1000D but shutter count was not one of the available metrics – even so the ExifTool provides a wealth of information from a variety of image formats.