Saturday, July 4, 2015

dSLR vs. Point and Shoot for Photographing Fireworks (With Pictures)

Do I need a dSLR to photograph fireworks? Can I use a pocket point and shoot camera (or even a phone) to photograph July 4th fireworks? Those are common questions that come up in early July every year in the United States as, for as many holidays as this country celebrates, Independence Day is the only one where fireworks are to be expected.

As for the answer to the above question, dSLR or pocket cam for fireworks, the idea that one needs a dSLR to get quality pictures of fireworks is a myth. Beyond that, things get more complicated.

First off, though, the point and shoot experience.

The pocket cam I used for shooting fireworks was the Olympus Stylus 550WP (review here). On paper, there is a lot going against the Stylus when one considers photographic common sense, some of these disadvantages include: a ½ second at minimum shutter speed, no manual focus, slow AF, no image stabilization, a slow lens (f3.5 on the wide end), and a tiny sensor (and hence crappy high ISO performance). Needless to say, things don't look good for the Stylus on paper but I was still determined to try and shoot the fireworks.

To my surprise, things went very, very well (all things considered, of course!).

Yes, the photos I took are, compared to properly shot firework photos, not overly spectacular. On the other hand, I was quite impressed. For only exposing for 1/2 second, the bursts were surprisingly full as recorded. To get optimal aesthetics, snap your picture just as the burst starts to go off. Depending on your minimum shutter speed, you may have to wait a little into the burst itself (like I had to do with my 1/2 second-capable camera). Second, the AF accuracy was not bad for focusing on the fly and in next to no light, though I suspect that the lights out in the field helped AF accuracy a lot. As for having no stabilization (or tripod for that matter!), I used my knee instead, which was still good enough to negate using the useless (for fireworks) self timer. Slow lens problem? The only way to cure it is with high ISO, which in itself produces noise. The good news: when shrinking the images for the web (or email), the shrinkage eliminates the visibility of any noise. For that matter, should you decide to print your pictures, the same thing will take place to an even greater effect.

So here's some advice for anyone wanting to take a cheap P&S camera (or phone) to a fireworks show. First, use a tripod if you have one. If not, brace against something, like your car's roof or yourself. Second, for focus (if manual focus isn't an option), try and focus on something like a distant light because fireworks themselves aren't a steady light source and will probably push the limited AF in the dark capability of a pocket cam to the limit. Don't expect 100% AF accuracy but remain realistic! Third, set the ISO high as in 800 (yes, noisy pictures, but you can downsize them later) to gather as much light as possible in the short exposure time your camera is capable of doing. Try and set ISO so that the camera is at its minimum shutter speed so as to maximize the amount of a burst's duration it will capture (example: if your camera maxes out at ½ second and setting at ISO 400 and 800 will result in this speed, go with the 800 to capture more light).

At the same time, I brought my Nikon D700 dSLR for a side-by-side comparison. I programmed the D700 to snap a 1 second exposure with a 2 second gap between shots for the duration of the show, manually set the lens to infinity, mounted it on a tripod, turned it on and forgot about it. Result: hundreds of pictures for the dSLR vs. a few dozen for the pocket cam. Shot for shot, the dSLR was better for one reason only: the always in focus pictures thanks to the infinity focus setting (in comparison, the pocket cam struggled to get focus in next to no light). However, when looking at the pictures, one thing became apparent: when the pocket cam nailed the focus, it became hard to tell what camera took what picture. This became just about impossible after downsizing the pictures to an identical resolution, thus negating the dSLR's immense noise advantage.

For some fun, try and guess which camera took the following pictures.

In the end, cheap pocket camera firework photography is possible even though the circumstances seem to go against all photographic common sense. The only reason I know is that I was crazy enough to try it. Yes, don't go expecting a perfect shot frame after frame with the pocket cam (if you can't set the focus manually) but, in the end, photography is all about capturing memories, which is something that a tiny pocket cam can do much more conveniently than a giant dSLR.

My advice: if you have both kinds of camera, take whichever one is more convenient for you, especially if your fireworks location requires a lot of walking through large crowds.

Oh yes, last but not least, the Stylus took all the right images and the D700 took all the ones on the left, showing that, at the pocket cam's best, it's hard to tell apart from a dSLR (especially when downsized).

So, whatever camera (or phone) you have and decide to use for your firework photography, Happy 4th of July!

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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Daylight Savings Time No More: President Obama Issues Executive Order Eliminating Time Change

Daylight Savings Time will be a thing of the past come this fall as President Obama has issued an executive order abolishing the twice a year time change. The announcement came on the heels of petition drives in several states to eliminate the time switch as states are not required by federal law to follow the switch.

“The American people have spoken,” President Obama declared in a press release, further stating that “in addition to the twice yearly headaches of switching the clocks, numerous scientific studies have indicated that the change of sleep patterns are correlated with increased risk of heart attacks, decreased productivity at work, and both road and workplace accidents.” The president also went on to call the elimination of the time change as “long over-due.”

Come this fall, the clocks will be set back 30 minutes in all 50 states to split the difference between Daylight Savings and Standard times, never to be moved in either direction again.

For many people across the nation, eliminating the need to switch the clocks back and forth twice a year brings relief.

According to a 2013 Gallup Poll, 63% of people surveyed called the yearly ritual of changing the clocks as “somewhat” or “very” bothersome and 87% admitted to having been late or early for work at least once in their career because of forgetting to switch the clocks. 71% of people surveyed liked the additional daylight in the evening though only 23% said that they were able to take full advantage of it without sacrificing sleep due to work/school/daycare schedules. On the other end of the day, 54% of respondents said that they “definitely” or “probably” wouldn't mind sunrise taking place an hour later in summer with 88% of these people citing work/school/daycare schedules as the reason. Lastly, 91% of people surveyed did not even know why the time change started at all.

The idea of springing the clocks ahead an hour came about during World War I as a way to save on coal, which was the primary method of firing power plants at the time. After the War, most nations that adopted the time change eliminated it until the advent or World War II, after which many of the same nations decided to keep the time switch even though there was no worldwide standardization for stop/start dates as well as the length of the change itself.

For its part to ensure uniformity, the United States enacted the Uniform Time Act in 1966, which standardized the stop/start dates across the nation as well as calling for a uniform 1-hour switch. However, the Act did not mandate states to observe the time switch at all. Currently, Arizona and Hawaii do not switch the clocks.

“Times and technology are changing . . . between an often 24-hour workplace in many industries, increasingly busy lifestyles, and ever more fuel efficient means of both generating and using power, it has been demonstrated that there is not enough energy savings to necessitate pushing the clocks forward for 8 months of the year at the price of creating both headaches and hazards for the American people,” Obama said in a press release.

So, for people who enjoy an extra hour of daylight in the evening, enjoy it as, come next year, it will be a thing of the past.

For more info:

Petitions Demand End to Time Change
White House Press Release

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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Nikon Announces D810A for Astrophotography

Nikon has just announced the first full frame camera optimized for astronomical photography: the Nikon D810A ('A' for astronomy). Like Canon's such models, the legendary EOS20Da current 60Da, the D810A is a largely standard D810 except for its enhanced sensitivity to the hydrogen alpha wavelengths, which make it, hands-down, better (Nikon claims 4 times better) than any standard dSLR for capturing the brilliant reds common to deep sky objects.

In addition to increased sensitivity to reds, Nikon has added a few other features onto the D810A to make it more astro-friendly. First up: a new long exposure mode, wherein users can select shutter speeds ranging from 4 seconds to 15 minutes before having to result to bulb mode. Another big addition not seen on the D810: image preview in long exposure and bulb mode, which allows the camera to collect photons so that an image can be previewed before it is actually taken, much the same way Olympus uses such a feature so that users can preview their images with various special effect filters. Two more, smaller benefits include a red virtual horizon and the ability to dim the OLED display in the viewfinder, both of which are night vision-friendly touches. Lastly, Nikon claims to have tweaked the sensor for even better low-noise performance than on the standard D810.

Want one yet?

Well, there's good and bad news. The good: the D810A will start shipping in late May. The bad: price is TBA (persona;lly, I expect a 10-20% premium over the standard D810). More bad: a lot of astrophotographers are drooling over this as you read right this very second, which means that you should preorder yours ASAP and worry about the price later before the line gets too long!

Key specs:
Body: metal
Sensor: 36MP FX
Aspect ratios: 3:2, 5:4
Formats: RAW, JPEG
ISO: 100-51,200
AF Points: 51
AF assist lamp: Yes
Viewfinder: 100% coverage
LCD: 3.2” 1,229k dot live view
Built-in flash: yes
Shutter Speed: 1/8000sec-15 minutes, bulb
Continuous drive: 5 fps
Exposure Compensation: +/- 5 stops
AE Bracketing: +/- 5
WB settings: 12 (plus 6 custom)
WB Bracketing: yes, 1-9 exposures at 1-3 increments
Video: 1080p full HD
Movie Formats: MPEG-4, H.264
Microphone: stereo
Speaker: mono
Wireless: optional
GPS: optional
Storage: SD, CF (1 slot each)
Weight: 1.94lbs (with battery)
Size: 5.7” x 4.8” x 3.2”
Price: TBA
Availability: Late May

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Monday, January 19, 2015

130,000 Pages of Classified UFO Files Available on the Black Vault, Nothing on Roswell

The United States government just declassified 130,000 pages of UFO reports collected during the Air Force's Project Blue Book (which also ran under Project Sign and Project Grudge) investigation into UFO sightings, which dated from 1947 to 1969. The documents are now available online at the Black Vault. For the Black Vault's founder, John Greenewald, this is the culmination of nearly 2 decades of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

Unfortunately, there's one thing that's sure to irk UFO/conspiracy enthusiasts: nothing on the Roswell incident was included.

Before getting too excited and into Roswell (and where the files could have gone), it is important to realize that many of the UFO reports can be easily explained in a down to Earth manner. Misidentified aircraft of Earthly origin can account for a large number of the night sightings. Other common explanations for UFO sightings include meteors, satellites, and planets. However, of 12,618 reports collected during the 22-year Air Force investigation, 701 remain classified as 'unidentified.'

Now, onto Roswell.

A complicating factor in the goal of releasing UFO files to the public (and the fact that the released files rarely contribute any new information to UFO enthusiasts' investigations) is that many may have been transferred away from the military and to private corporations in order to take the information out of the public domain and into the realm of corporate secrecy where FOIA requests cannot touch them. Sound crazy? Consider this: this theory does explain why so many document requests under FOIA come back with the government saying that the files do not exist in their records, which is the response all the FOIA requests on Roswell inevitably result with.

Bottom line: either the government is lying or the records have indeed been moved.

While some hail the release of the documents as hopefully the beginning of a new era of government openness, others see it only as a few tantalizing tidbits to keep the public occupied, especially considering that the newest of these reports are 46 years old. Besides this, the tendency of governments all over the world to downplay, not investigate, and even ridicule the idea of UFOs and alien contact lends more fuel to the conspiracy fire. If UFOs/aliens are not real, why are governments so secretive about the topic?

The truth is out there, but is anyone willing to tell it . . .

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Thursday, January 1, 2015

The 2015 Astrological Horoscope

It's New Year's Day 2015, which means that Google searches for the 2015 horoscope are going to be one of the most popular on search engines this and in the next few days. It is somewhat surprising that searches for the 2015 horoscope will make up such a large part of search engine volume (they always have in the past) considering that the age of science as we know it began over 400 years ago. So, what is astrology and why do people believe it?

Astrology is the ancient belief that the stars and planets shape one's personality and fate. The ancients believed that the zodiac constellations (the ones through which the Sun passes) hold special powers that can shape personality. Also, it was believed that any given constellation was at its most influential when the Sun was present within its boundaries. As the final astrological commandment, the planets themselves have special traits that they can pass on to individuals.

Take these three tenants, combine them with the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc (false causal relation) and one gets astrology, the long since debunked belief that planets, stars, and the Sun can impact the fate of humans.

So why do people continue to believe such nonsense? The theories are many.

One belief is that humans like to be part of something bigger than themselves. That's why we have families and join social clubs, we want to belong. Taken to the extreme, some people like the idea that their personal fates are tied to the celestial realm, which seems like the ultimate way to belong to something. Unfortunately, these people are wrong when it comes to the heavens impacting their lives. However, on a much more basic, wondrous level, we are all 
part of the cosmos in that every atom in our bodies was formed either in the Big Bang or in the cores of stars.

Another (false) idea is that astrology provides answers as to why things happen. Put it this way, some people would rather believe that a bad alignment of, perhaps, Mars and Venus is the reason that he/she had a blowup with a significant other. To put it bluntly, some people just hate taking responsibility for things and the heavens can provide an easy scapegoat for life's misfortunes.

A third idea of why people believe in astrology is because those daily astrology columns really serve as an advice column. Want proof? Find and a horoscope. If you read the message closely, you'll see that the predictions aren't predictions at all, but merely suggestions, and rather vague ones at that. For some people though, any advice is good advice. Personally, if you must have advice from strangers, stick to your local Dear Abby-esque column.

A final reason that people believe in astrology is that old habits simply die hard.

So, back to the new year. 2015 is here and, if you're looking for a new year's resolution but just can't seem to settle on one, why not make it a point to kick irrational beliefs like astrology to the curb? Oh, and while you're at it, be sure to toss those lucky shirts, magic charms, and any other object that has potential to harm sound judgment out the door, too.

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Saturday, December 27, 2014

300,000 Hits; Wow!

I've been having a lot of problems with my Internet connectivity of late, hence the complete lack of anything for the past month and a half until a few days ago as more than a fleeting lock on a free wi-fi network is needed to do the research needed for most of my stuff here. Well, the web is back to cooperating and more stuff should be over the horizon come 2015 but, at the present,  my little for-fun website had just eclipsed the 300,000 hit mark! Holy cow! Honestly, I never thought I'd be seeing anywhere near this number of hits so soon especially considering that I started this whole thing as just an online storage backup for my astrophotography. Well, just over 5 years (the first 2 accounted for only a few thousand hits) and over 300,000 hits later, all I can say “thank you!” to all of my readers. Hopefully, you've found my stuff at least a little useful as I have a lot more great stuff planned for the new year. Again, thank you and happy 2015, albeit a few days early!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

What Was the Star of Bethlehem?

It is one of the most universally recognized images of all time but no one knows exactly what it was. For 2000 years, the Star of Bethlehem has captivated people the world over. Described in the Bible as the star that led the 3 Magi to the infant Christ, little else is related about the Star, leaving a lot of questions, and just as many possible answers to its true identity assuming that the whole story of the Star was not made up by the Biblical writers (the Star only appears in the Gospel of Matthew).

One problem that must be confronted right before we can even start to narrow down the possible identities of the Star is this: no one knows exactly when Jesus was born. Our current calendar is based on the birth of Christ in that His birth separates the B.C./A.D. eras. However, it is clear that the dating is wrong as the Bible describes how the Holy Family fled to Egypt to avoid the wrath of King Herod, an well-documented historical figure who died in 4 B.C. Thus, 4 B.C. is the last possible year in which Jesus could have been born. It is now generally thought that Jesus was born anywhere between 8 and 4 B.C.

Now that our time frame has been narrowed down, we can start looking to the sky.

There are two schools of thought about the Star of Bethlehem: it was either astronomical or astrological. Astronomical possibilities include supernova, planets, comets, and conjunctions. In the year 7 B.C., there was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. However, this is very unlikely to explain the Star as the planets were about a degree (little finger at arm's length) apart. Unless the Magi had very poor eyesight, there is no way that two planets this far apart could be mistaken for a single object and, for that matter, a conjunction of 2 planets to about a degree of each other is nothing that unusual, either. Comets have been suggested, especially since they were often described as “hanging” in the sky. This is exactly as the Star was described in the Bible. Unfortunately, there are no records of any Great Comets visible in the Middle East at that time. A last possible interpretation is a supernova. A bright object was seen for about 70 days in 5 B.C. by Chinese and Korean astronomers. This may just be it, but there's a problem: the star was described as moving, which leads into the other school of thought: astrology.

People at this time were almost universal believers in astrology. A notable exception here were the Jews, who were forbidden to practice astrology at numerous spots in the Old Testament. As far as everyone else was concerned, heavenly bodies had special meaning.

One thing we know was that the Magi came from the East. Considering the geographical location of Judea, “East” almost certainly meant Persia. In Persian language, the word “magi” referred to Zoroastrian priests, who practiced medicine and magic (“magic” comes from “magi”), which could also include astrology, at which the Persians were very sophisticated. Coincidentally, it is this astronomical focus of the Persians that can cause the traditional astronomical explanations for the Star to be discounted.

One particular passage in Matthew can greatly narrow down possible candidates for the true Star of Bethlehem. According to the Gospel, “the star which they had seen in the East went before them till it came and stood over where the young Child was.” If this is to be believed, the Star was a planet. Over the course of months, a star's position will change as it rises about four minutes earlier each night. Stars don't stand still, but planets do.

Observe a planet over the course of a year, noting where it is in the constellations. For most of the time, it moves forward. However, there are times where it stops, reverses course, stops again, then continues forward. This apparent change in direction called retrograde motion is an optical illusion caused by the Earth passing the slower planet as both orbit the Sun. A comparison can be made to passing cars on the highway. As you pass, the slower car seems to travel backwards. The same is true of planets.

Besides retrograde motion, there is more. Planets and constellations had different significances. Jupiter was widely considered to be associated with kingship. The constellation of Aires the ram was often associated with Israel/Judea. Putting this information together with the knowledge that the Star of Bethlehem was almost certainly a planet allows one to start putting the puzzle together.

In 6 B.C., an astronomical/astrological event that fits the bill very nicely occurred. In that year, the planet Jupiter (planet of kingship) moved into the constellation of Aires (the constellation for Israel/Judea). Thus, this could be interpreted as a sign that a new king of Israel was born. To add even more weight to the hypothesis, Jupiter first appeared as a morning object in the East. At this time, the Sun was also in Aires (Jupiter was rising just ahead of the Sun). In astrology, any constellation is at its most influential when the Sun is in it. Also, it was believed at the time that planets were at their most powerful as they emerged in the East after a period of invisibility in the Sun's glare.

As it would have taken the Magi months to reach Bethlehem from Persia, this also explains the motion of the Star. As time progressed, the Magi could have observed Jupiter slow down and stop before going into retrograde motion. The stoppage could have coincided with the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem after stopping in Jerusalem and being told of the prophecy predicting the Messiah's birth there.

This is by no means more than a hypothesis. The Star of Bethlehem will probably never be conclusively explained. Either way, Merry Christmas!

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