Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's Eve Show

Click on picture for a large view
What a wonderful way to end the year. About 4 p.m. clouds started coming in slowly covering the Moon in the still bright sky so I thought the last conjunction of the year was going to be a bust. Gloria mentioned that the sky was getting some nice colors, so I broke away from my computer thinking "well, I'll just get a beautiful sunset". As it turned out, the clouds were moving away making for a colorful scene in my backyard. Colors like these only last a few minutes.

I didn't notice the airplane and its contrail until after I looked at the image on my computer. These is just pure luck, but it adds a nice element to the composition.

I put on my old 200mm lens from my Olympus camera to get this close-up. An inexpensive adapter lets me use these great lenses on my Canon XTi digital. There is no auto-focus or auto-exposure settings with these lenses, but that's okay, because taking these type of images is pretty simple. I take lots of pictures at various exposures (about 100 for this event) then choose the best ones on my computer.
If you would like to try this type of photogrpaphy, here is how it is done:
You can use just about any digital camera to do this. The one thing that your camera needs to do is to allow you to manually set the exposures and to manually set the focus. Read your manual to see how this is done. The next thing you will need is a way to take the exposure without touching the camera. On some cameras you can buy a shutter release, which is simply a switch you hold in your hand, with a length of cord attached to the camera. Again, check your manual to see if this is possible. If not, you can still take a picture without touching the camera, just use the camera's timer (yes, check your manual on how to use this). The last item you will need is a tripod. This, of course, is because you can't hand hold a camera at slow shutter speeds and expect to get a sharp image. If you can do all of the above, you are ready to go.
Here is what I do with my camera. It may be slightly different with your camera. After I have the camera on my tripod and the shutter release attached, I adjust the zoom lens, if the camera has one, to the composition I will be using. I make sure that the aperture on the lens is set to wide open (check your manual on this).
If the Moon or Venus is in the sky, your auto-focus will probably work on these bright objects, so use it to get the correct exposure. Once focus is set, turn off the auto-focus mode (check your manual), because most of the time the composition of the picture usually does not have the Moon or Venus at the focus sensors to auto-focus, so if you leave auto-focus is on, the camera will just try to focus on blank sky and never find focus.
I then set the camera to a shutter speed that I think will be close to the correct exposure. It usually isn't, but that is okay, just look at the image on the lcd. If the image looks dark, increase the exposure, if it looks too bright, decrease the exposure. It's that simple.
It's impossible to tell you what exposure to use because every situation is different. For one thing, the amount of light is constantly changing (the sky is getting darker). The best thing to do is to experiment and try it all out. Don't wait until a big event occurs. That is no time to learn how to do it. If this is all too much trouble, well, all I can say is there are lots of people doing this very thing and I guess you can just look at them on the net. Digital cameras have made photography especially easy to learn, considering the almost instant gratification of capturing wonderful scenes such as these.
Here's wishing everyone a Happy New Year!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Planets and Moon Lineup

Click on pictures for larger image
A nice crescent Moon once again lined up with three planets today: Bright Venus at upper left, and below and right of the Moon, Jupiter sits over Mercury. Around 5 p.m. today I loaded my camera and tripod and started driving looking for a nice foreground subject. I live in Missouri, but only a half mile from the Kansas border, so I started driving west into Kansas along country roads. I couldn't find anything I liked and I was running out of time, but around 6:45 p.m. I found this nice pond in Paola, Kansas. It's actually the Waterworks pond for the town of Paola.
Tomorrow, the Moon glides 13 degrees further east and closer to Venus, then on New Year's Eve, it will be sitting above Venus, 3 degrees away. Mercury also moves eastward. Not by much, but enough so that it will be only 1 degree to the left of Jupiter. The two planest look close together but are really pretty far apart. Mercury is a little over 93 million miles from us, but Jupiter is 6 times further away, 558 million miles distant.
Hopefully, the skies will stay fairly clear.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

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Four days after the Christmas eclipse, on December 29, 2000, the Moon graciously moved next to Venus for a wonderful conjunction. A nice amount of snow on the ground made for a beautiful Christmas card scene. A blue spruce lit up in front of my home created the final touch.

I hope all of you have the nicest of holidays this year, and only the best for the coming year.

Christmas Eclipse

Click on image for large view
Eight years ago, Christmas day 2000, there was a partial eclipse of the Sun. When I awoke that morning the sky was completely overcast. I was going to set up my telescope to get a picture of the event but decided not to do it because of the cloud cover. After the Christmas gift giving frenzy, Gloria happened to step outside for one reason or another, looked up and saw the partially eclipsed sun through the clouds. I looked at it, then ran back inside, grabbed my camera, which at the time was an Olympus 35mm film camera, attached a 200mm telephoto to it and ran back outside. The eclipse was peaking in and out of the clouds and I could see that much heavier clouds were heading this way, so I had no time for a tripod. Not knowing what exposure to use, I instinctively set the camera to it's highest shutter speed and shot off a few hand held pictures. Sometimes luck is all you have (and a few photographic instincts).

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Wooly Worm

While cutting out some overgrown bushes at home last month I saw this wooly worm and had to grab my camera. Old folklore says that how black the wooly worm is predicts how harsh the Winter will be, but most studies have shown that this is not true. This little caterpillar is now hibernating under some rock waiting for Spring when it will then spin a cacoon of silk and in about a week will turn into a Tiger Moth.

I received a nice note from a good friend, Dan Johnson, who mentioned a few things about my last post. He says that the turtles full name is the "Ornate Box Turtle" and that it is a female. I wondered how he knew it was a female, so I googled it a found out that male box turtles have bright orange eyes. He also said that what I called a moth is actually a "Skipper". Skippers are actually a third group that is related to both butterflies and moths. Also, moths are nocternal, whereas butterflies and skippers are diurnal, or active during the day. The tiny frog is a "Chorus Frog" according to Dan. Dan, by the way, is president of the Kansas Herpetological Society, so he should know. I just found out that Dan's teenage daughter caught a copperhead snake with her bare hands!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Wishing It Was Spring

Click on each image for a larger picture
Now that Winter has turned my part of the country cold and brown, I just had to put up a few pictures from last Spring. I found the tiny frog on a lilypad. If this little guy made it through the Summer, I imagine he is sound asleep in his mud hole. The moth may have been eaten by a frog, but more than likely it got squashed on someone's windshield. My backyard always has box turtles in one corner or the other. This one was a little afraid of the big eye in front of my face.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Big Storm Coming!

A month ago, November 5 to be exact, we were on our way to Colorado across the plains of Kansas. I had to pull over and get a picture of this threatening storm we were driving into.

Click on the image for larger image.

This is the back end of the storm after it went over McPherson, Kansas. A quarter Moon was shining in the deepening twilight. We stayed overnight in Great Bend, Kansas and woke up to some extremely windy conditions. After we crossed into the Colorado, near Burlington, we saw several 18-wheelers blown over by the high winds.

The Galaxy Song

One of my favorite Monty Python songs from their film "The Meaning of Life". The facts and figures in the song are pretty close to current knowledge. A great song from a great film. Yep, Bugger all down here on earth!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Venus, Jupiter and Moon Conjunction

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My wife, Gloria, and I decided to see if we could find a nice foreground object to photograph the conjunction of the Moon with Venus and Jupiter today, so we loaded my camera and tripod and headed down the road. The clouds were playing peak-a-boo with them as we drove. Gloria spotted an old, run down barn and luckily the gate to the property was open. Dodging the cow pies and muddy spots I set up on the other side of the barn while Gloria waited by the car. I was glad she did, because the owner of the property drove up and while she talked to him I took a bunch of images, then it quickly clouded up. Gloria said she told the owner what we were doing and he told her only to make sure to close the gate so the cows wouldn't escape. It sure is nice to have great neighbors. When we got home, the clouds parted once again, so I took more images with my 300mm lens.

Notice the two stars on each side of Jupiter, at the upper right. These are really moons of Jupiter: Ganymede is on the left side and Callisto is on the right. Two more moons are closer to Jupiter, but only one is slightly visible as a pimple on the left side. This moon is Europa. The other moon, Io, is too close to Jupiter for it to be visible.

The dark side of the Moon is really not dark. The light that we see coming from there is really coming from the Earth, so we call it earthshine. Sunlight reflects off the Earth to the Moon, then reflects back to our eyes.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Rain Storm Racing Across The Morning Sky

* Click on the image to see a larger version *

This rainstorm was one of many that dumped rain all night at a rained out star party near Marion, Kansas. The Astronomical Society of Kansas City was holding the star party, and while everyone was still sleeping and trying to keep dry in their RV's and tents, I decided to see if I could get some lightning pictures, but instead I saw this incredible scene of waving clouds and a wall of water against the morning sky all racing across the open panorama of Kansas. I turned it into a panorama using two pictures. It was taken in June 29, 2003, with a Nikon Coolpix 995.
This past Summer I sent the image to a contest for the KCTV5 2009 weather calendar and it was chosen for the month of June. When I received a copy of the calendar, I saw that three of the pictures in the calendar were taken by a good friend and great photographer, Dan Bush. His pictures made the front cover, inside cover and the month of December. Dan's images are some of the finest images in the country. Take a look at his website:
If you would like a calendar you can can get one here:

Monday, November 24, 2008

Planets in Taurus - 2000 and Planets in Sagittarius - 2008

I am putting this image here to show a few things: First, this shows the Plieades star cluster more like what you would see it with our unaided eyes, instead of the long exposure image in the previous post. But even this is a little misleading, because the camera sees a lot more stars than our eyes. Also called the Seven Sisters, most people can only see 6 out of the 7 stars. People with really good eyesight can see up to 10 stars. Go out about an hour after the sun sets and look to the East. How many stars can you see? Then think about how far away they are. One of the closest star clusters to us, it is 440 light years away.
Everytime I see this wonderful cluster it reminds me of a line from a poem by Alfred Tennyson:
"Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro' the mellow shade,Glitter like a swarm of fireflies tangled in a silver braid."
The second thing this photo shows is another star cluster. The Hyades star cluster is a much more spread out cluster just East of the Plieades. It's brightest members form a sideways letter "V". The bright red giant star, Aldeberan, is at the end of one of the legs of the "V". Even though the Hyades is the closest star cluster to us (151 light years away), Aldeberan is even closer and not part of the cluster.
Finally, the two bright stars in the photo are really planets, Jupiter and Saturn. The picture was taken in October 2000, so you won't see these planets anywhere near this part of the sky (the constellation Taurus). Jupiter is now in Sagittarius, in the southwest just after sunset. Saturn is now in Leo, and rises in the East about 1 o'clock in the morning.
While you are out looking at the Plieades in the East, turn around and you'll find Jupiter along with brighter Venus. Watch these two planets from day to day getting closer to each other and on December 1, a beautiful crescent Moon will form a wonderful trio right after sunset. With any luck and clear skies I'll have a photo of the event on this blog.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Plieades, also known as the Seven Sisters and M45

This is the latest deep sky image. It is almost 3 hours worth of exposure (34 five minute shots). Taken from the Astronomical Society of Kansas City's "Dark Sky Site", about 75 miles south of downtown Kansas City, MO. (click on image for larger version)

First Post

I've been taking photographs ever since I can remember. My first good camera was a 35mm Canon Pelix which I purchased from a co-worker around 1970. I later bought a Canon F1. I created my own pictures in my basement darkroom and learned the art of manipulating pictures in the darkroom of Hallmark Cards in Kansas City.

In the Fall of 1978 I joined the Astronomical Society of Kansas City and started a whole new hobby combining my love of photography and astronomy. Buying and building several telescopes and using them for taking pictures of the sky has become my lifelong passion. I now have three digital cameras, a Nikon 995, Canon 300D and a Canon 400D and various lenses.

So, what you will find here are pictures of landscapes, skyscapes and people from me trying to capture a moment of time. Feel free to post a comment, but most of all, enjoy.

Tom J Martinez