Category Archives: Travel

Cruising

Publish Date: 29-November-2016

I, Steven, have recently completed one of my bucket list items… capturing stars and astro landscapes aboard a cruise ship. My interest in the idea is based on several observations:

  1. Night photography can be about movement – like star trails, for example – and cruise ships move.
  2. Cruise ships go to and through some of the darkest spots on earth – far away from any land producing artificial light
  3. Being aboard a ship means NOT having to drive anywhere or fly anywhere. Bed, food, drink and entertainment are never farther away than the length of a football field.
  4. I can still spend time with my family rather than alone in the wilderness because… we are all in the same “wilderness” at the same time.

brillianceoftheseas

My particular cruise was aboard the Brilliance of the Seas by Royal Carribbean. The ship departed from Tampa, Florida to Key West, then to Cozumel and back to Tampa. The good news is the things I feared most did not happen: I only gained 1.5 pounds and none of my equipment fell into the sea. I also had no motion sickness – though some I traveled with were uncomfortable in what were relatively light seas.

Sunrises, Sunsets and TimeStacks

It does not have to be all about night photography, right?  My travel from the West Coast to the East Coast for the cruise made it a lot easier for me to be awake at sunset and near impossible to greet a sunrise.
Sunset Reversal

Location Is Important

These two trails were taken on different days (one when the ship was cruising south, another two nights later when cruising north). Both were taken from Deck 5 with no moon. The first trail was from near the bow (front of the ship), the other from off the stern (back).

South Bound

South bound star trails from near the bow of the ship** Please read below for how I got here… it is an important detail.

Stern Seas

Looking south from the stern of a north bound cruise – with unfortunate clouds – but look at all the motion!  That bright  streak (and the cloud illuminated above it) are another passing cruise ship.

The ship was steadier when southbound – thus the first star trail looks pretty normal. The second one from the stern of the ship looks like a seismograph! Want to get a feel for the motion from the stern? Watch the video.

Tips and Insights

I did not meet any resistance or complaints from the crew or passengers using my tripod on deck. That is in part because I was mostly using it at night and had already scouted out areas to place it. My first recommendation is to …

Scout!

First scout your vessel thoroughly… do this before embarking (using deck plans available on the internet), then during the first day, and at night.  I discovered that a passageway open during the day, was gated at night. Unfortunately, that passage led to the darkest part of the ship. More about this in a minute.

Too Little Darkness on Board

Cruise ships are floating cities, and like cities, lights are everywhere and unavoidable. Onboard the Brilliance there were 2 darkish places to go and one dark place where I could not go*. One darkish spot was the top deck toward the bow. There are lights everywhere, but if you shield your eyes and moved deck chairs to cover over some of the bulkhead lights you could make out stars. What I could see, however, was nowhere near the glory that I’ve seen in even moderately rural areas. A darkish spot – mentioned by guest relations, was the starboard (right hand) side of deck 5 near the stern (back of the boat). Again, lots of lights everywhere, but that area was dark enough that with some eye shielding I could easily make out Orion.

See the next photo to see just how much light a ship casts about… the moon illuminated the sky as well – but you wouldn’t be able to see even this many stars by eye in a dark clear sky in any normal area of the ship.

Over the Railing

The light from the ship illuminates the water around it, while the moon illuminates the sky (Cuba is glowing in the distance). Notice how the ship’s pitching and rolling turned stars into squiggles.

Getting Where it Is Really Dark

You may be wondering how I pulled off the photography on the bow given that the passageway was barred at night. It happened innocently. I took advantage of a quirk on the Brilliance of the Seas. In the theater on the ship on the upper level there are what are best described as “box” seats adjacent to the wings of the stage. That area has nearby doors, one marked “Exit” the others are marked crew only. I took the “Exit” and it put me out by the passage to the Helicopter landing pad on the bow of the ship.  There was then another “gate” barring access to the helicopter landing area itself – but it was plenty dark up front. I swung my tripod up on the helopad area and controlled it with my intervalometer being careful to create as little light as possible. That’s how I got images for the first of two star trails above. I then stood at the outer rail of the helipad and took a panorama of the bridge area. Straight up and forward were MUCH darker.

Much of the crew area and the wheel house spanning the entire front of the ship is kept dark with little extra light.

Much of the crew area and the wheel house spanning the entire front of the ship is kept dark with minimal extra light. Note how much light there is on the top deck where you can see silhouettes of passengers through the glass. This is a stitched 4-shot panorama.

Packing for the Cruise

For a 5 day cruise, I took one camera, two smaller lenses batteries and a tripod. I packed almost all of my clothing for the trip inside a single large (carry-on size) bag with some extras in a small carry on “personal item”. That packing arrangement works great for short trips. To accommodate “Formal Night” I stole some space in my wife’s luggage for dress shoes and a suit.

Would You Like To See Celestial Delights On a Cruise?

Knowing that many travelers have never seen a properly dark night sky, I contacted Royal Caribbean and let them know I thought a potentially great ship resource was untapped. If you had a chance to view incredibly dark skies on board your cruise ship, would you relish that opportunity?  Please let us know in a comment below or on our Facebook Page. Perhaps the cruise line will contract SCA to teach night photography in addition to the many other courses on board. I, for one, would love to get on a dark deck and stare up into the Geminid meteor shower – or view the Milky Way at its finest.!

We Are Always Tweaking

Original Publish Date: 12-November-2015
Last Revision: 12-November-2015

When we get questions on our older columns, we often answer them directly and update the articles to reflect new information. For example, when we originally published our three part series on Finding and Photographing the Milky Way we had no clue they would be our most read articles. Over time we added more charts, and tables, including a table listing when the best time is to spot the Milky Way – alas, not October through February.

The Milky Way Series

Pointy Land
The articles in the Milky Way series are:


Meteors and Meteor Showers

Celestial Slasher [C_224-9234]

We have also made periodic updates to our articles on photographing meteors and meteor showers.  We point this out because the best shower of the year is the Geminids and that shower occurs December 12-14.  Start planning right now!

To help you out, we have begun adding “Original Publish Dates” and “Last Revised” dates to our articles.  Of course most of the principles we have written about are timeless.

How to Fly with Camera Gear

We, that is, Steven and the Mrs. recently had to attend a funeral on the East Coast. Steven lives on the Left Coast.  If you’re wondering what this post has to do with photography, he will admit that this article is part rant against Delta Airlines and part tips on transporting photography (or other) gear and assorted other tips. I’ve flown all over with my gear both in the US and internationally and picked up a few tips which I offer to you. I would be interested to hear any tips you have as well! If you want to skip the rant and go straight to the tips, just scroll down for the title: “Tips on Traveling with Camera Gear

Fare Tip: Bereavement fares may be available, but those fares are very likely to be a bad deal. Qualifying for a fare requires many hoops to jump through. You may find, as we did, that you can get a much better price by using PriceLine or similar service. Warning, however: you may also discover that you will be treated like a pariah. Our 3 flights went from San Jose, to LAX to Raleigh-Durham. In each flight we were relegated to the non-reclining back row seats.  This means no-resting, and extreme first hand familiarity with the poo bin. Indeed, even the new aircraft we flew on from LAX to ATL actually had direct visual access INTO the bathroom. Arom-rama and people standing around twitching does not really heighten the flying experience in any way.

Book early enough to NOT have to be in or near the back row (hard to do, of course if your travel is of an emergency nature).

But wait, it’s worse!  When we booked we were only able to claim seats on the last leg of our 3-hop circuit. The other two legs were “gate holds”.  When we checked in at the airport desk rather than actually giving us boarding passes for any flights, we were given a “placebo pass” for the first leg and told to claim our boarding passes at the gate. The gate was CHANGED however. It wasn’t actually gate 7, but gate 5.  At gate 5, apparently there was some additional difficulty. The printer was not printing.  No problem, we were told… just stop at any attended counter when we disembark.  Mind you that we only had a 40 minute layover, the plane was late arriving and since we were at the back of the plane we lost still more time while the hordes ahead of us disembarked. We had what seemed to be fractional seconds to exit the plane get boarding passes AND get to the departure gate in another terminal.  The first attended Delta counter employee said “Sorry, we’re really busy with this flight right now, could you please go to another counter?” What did we learn from this?

Insist on getting all of your boarding passes at the beginning. Don’t believe it when they tell you you can get them later – you may not have enough time or cooperation.

We ran to the gate listed on the flight display only to find that the plane we were to take the next 4+ hour ride on was already boarding.  We found ourselves relegated again to the “bathroom seats”. By now we were quite hungry, but without time to even buy a snack in LAX. We were relying on the food (at extra charge) to be served on the long leg of our flight. BUT (you knew there’d be a BUT), they RAN OUT OF FOOD about 12 rows ahead of us.  One bag of peanuts and pretzels were our only sustenance.  On a subsequent leg, beverage service was suspended due to turbulence.  The back half of the plane was unserved – not the airline’s fault, of course, but it is a cautionary tale about being prepared.

Tip: Pack something to eat *and* drink. Something substantial because you can’t trust the airlines (Delta, at least) to have any food for you. Bonus tip, make sure that your food is in your “personal item” since you may not be able to fetch it if there is turbulence, or you have to store your bag far away (see below). Ditto for any medication you might need.

The Delta in flight entertainment screens worked great except for the intermittent pop-up 32 second advertisements that were SO LOUD you literally had to yank off your head phones or risk deafness. Oh, and the Delta attendants were also hawking American Express cards seat to seat. On the way back, I was amused to learn that the entertainment system runs Linux, and crashes!  So a tip here is do not use the Delta entertainment system unless you really want additional aggravation. Besides, they are going to charge you $5 to play Sudoku – you can get the iPhone app for free. Another thing to consider: in my experience about half of the jacks for headphones are marginally to completely non-functional.  You’re better off bringing your own entertainment on board.

Delta Inflight Entertainment Crash

Delta Inflight Entertainment Crash

Tips on Traveling with Camera Gear

As you are probably aware, Delta and many other airlines charge an additional fee if you check baggage. The additional charge has many side effects, including making it take longer to check-in. And of course it also means people are taking MORE on board the airplane to avoid those fees.  The geniuses at Delta (and Virgin) have confounded the problem with their policies. If you lug a huge-ish bag all the way to the gate, they will gate check your bag for FREE. Smart people have concluded that schlepping a large bag to the gate will likely result in not being bilked out of another $50!  The bag fiasco also means that the airline will try really hard to convince you to gate check your bag otherwise there won’t be enough overhead space!

My fully packed f-Stop Tilopa photo bag WITH tripod easily fits in every overhead bin I’ve faced. I usually separate the tripod and put it crosswise in the narrow section at the back of overhead bin. You can also attach the tripod to either side of the bag, but depending on your tripod, it might be too long to fit.

FStop Tilopa Pack

FStop Tilopa Pack

On most aircraft, the Tilopa fits long-way in – meaning the bottom of the pack is at the back of the bin rather than sideways. In fact, it’s almost a perfect fit that way. The Tilopa might look bigger than many carry ons, but it’s not! My Tilopa even fit sideways in the 50 passenger commuter aircraft. One additional benefit to carry ons: domestic airlines do not usually weigh your carry on. You might get away (as I did*) with stuffing 45 pounds of gear in there! And don’t worry, the posted weight capacity of those overhead bins is around 160 pounds… so even if three of you packed the crap out of your bags and stuffed them in the same overhead bin, the bin is engineered to take it.  It also means if you could appear to effortlessly shuffle a 100 pound bag around the airline would be none-the-wiser and you’d not have to pay an overweight baggage fee! If the airline wants to shake you down for every nickel and $20 bill they can, you might as well do some creative baggage management of your own. Besides, do you really trust baggage handling to not break or “lose” your thousands of dollars investment in camera gear?

I’ve never had a problem traveling with my tripod. Screeners seem to understand what a tripod is both when traveling domestically and internationally. Once when leaving Israel I was warned that I might not be able to take the tripod on board but there was no problem going through security. Every once in a while I am asked to remove my camera and lenses from the pack, but most of the time the pack – chock full of bodies, lenses, batteries and miscellany goes through screening without a hitch.

Those overhead bins aren’t ONLY for passengers. On our Delta flight we found toilet paper, and leaking bathroom deodorizer refills together with the usual oxygen and blankets in the overhead bin above us. To find space for your pack, you’ll want to get on the plane as SOON AS YOU CAN. That usually means you want to be IN LINE well before your zone or row are called even if they politely insist that you wait in your lounge seat. But being the first in your group may not be enough. The only available overhead space might be many rows in front of or behind you.  I now understand why the guy in row 33 put his junk over my row 17 seat: he was not lazy he had to adapt because the airline had co-opted what would have been his overhead space.  If you’re traveling on Southwest, it is probably well worth the $10 fee per flight to get “automated checkin”. That may get you in the A list for boarding.  If you find yourself in the “B” or “C” section on Southwest, you might want to get the $40 business boarding “upgrade” for at least one in your party.

Those overhead bins apparently are seldom ever cleaned. I used a thick white paper towel to wipe out the leaking bathroom deodorizer and the paper towel came out as black as my camera bag!  Don’t throw a sport jacket up there unless it’s in something to keep it from getting icky – or maybe you don’t mind smelling like a lavatory 🙂

Oia at Night (Οία τη νύχτα)

Oia at Night (Οία τη νύχτα)

*I often carry about 45 pounds (17 kg) of gear in my pack. Only the Greek airline Aegean asked to weigh my carry-on bag – and their weight limit was 7 kg despite the 90 kg capacity of the overhead bins.  They allowed me a waiver since the flight wasn’t full.  Despite their check of my carry on bag Aegean is one of the best airlines I’ve ever traveled on. Delta could learn a few lessons from them!

How to Not Lose (Much) Sleep

Save the Wonder II [C_070237]

If you want to catch the good stuff… like a meteor shower, or the Milky Way rising in Spring you have to be up in the wee hours. After midnight up to perhaps sunrise.  There are some tricks to pulling this off without collapsing – or worse, falling asleep at the wheel.  One problem with doing night photography is that motels and hotels aren’t particularly suited to the night photographer who would prefer to get to bed after breakfast and sleep until dinner – you often end up paying for two days worth of room that you only use for 8 hours!

So here are some ways you can “Store up Sleep” to support your night habit.

The No Stay Method

  • Get plenty of sleep in the afternoon.
  • Drive from home to the event.
  • Do the shooting
  • Get Breakfast
  • Nap on a cot, pad or bench
  • Drive back home, stopping to rest or nap as needed.

Obviously you can try to get to the shooting location sooner, but for most people it’s not safe to not get proper rest especially if you’re driving.  For example, if I know I want to shoot a milky way rise – I work backward from my arrival time.  Let’s say I need to be on site at 3:00 am and it is a 5 hour drive. That means I will want to hit the road at 10:00 pm. It might sound scary to drive from 10 pm to 3 am, but if you’re properly rested you may find the lack of traffic refreshing and the travel time that much quicker – I do this all the time!  To pull this off, see my “Body Clock Reprogramming” method.

Stay and Play method

  • Arrive in the early afternoon.
  • Check in to an area hotel, motel or campsite.
  • Get lunch.
  • Retire EARLY for sleep.
  • Get up EARLY (depends how far away you are from the location) Perhaps a 2:30 AM or earlier.
  • Do the shooting.
  • Get Breakfast
  • Get back to the hotel in time for at least an hour or two (or ask for late checkout)
  • Check out and go home… or stay another night.

Body Clock Reprogramming

A lot of people claim that they can’t sleep during the day. Hogwash, I say.  If I know I’m going to do a long weekend of night shooting, I can push my body clock around a little – in spite of my day job. For example, if I know I’ll be shooting mostly in the pre-dawn hours, starting on Wednesday, I’ll go to bed an hour earlier and get up one or two hours earlier. If you don’t get out of bed until 9:00 am… you’ll have to start reprogramming on MONDAY.  Do this each day before the trip – go to bed an hour or two earlier and get up an hour or two earlier the following morning.  If you normally arise at 6:30 (like I do), after two days you will find you’re easily awake at 2:30 AM – perfect!  And a day later you won’t have much trouble getting up at midnight and plowing through perfectly perky until well after breakfast.   Just remember to avoid caffeine and stimulants!  By the way, altering your body clock like this is a great way to get ready for an upcoming trip to another time zone.

If you can’t push your body clock that far, then plan to sleep or nap at your shooting location. I usually bring a fully reclining chair, a comfortable pillow and TWO sleeping bags – one very warm one, one that is only meant to take the chill off. I can then either sleep out-of-doors, or if necessary in my car.  This works well if I’m running a timelapse or star trail – the intervalometer does all the work. In fact, while I was taking the shots for this timelapse/startrail:

The Cove [C_071837-940br]

I was a dozen feet from my camera in my car out of the wind checking the progress every once in a while on my CamRanger. I didn’t have to leave the car except to change batteries or memory cards!  I didn’t have to use the CamRanger, of course, an intervalometer is just fine. There is an advantage to using a Canon for unattended operation, however. That red “exposing light” on the back of the camera can be seen from a long way off. I can easily and quickly take a look and know that the camera is doing its thing. With the Nikon, you have to watch carefully for the “green flash” as it writes to the memory card – if you have 6 minute exposures, you may have to wait a LONG time.  The CamRanger makes it a bit easier because I can also check the images, and the camera battery status, and memory card status remotely.

Leave The Gear

Oh, and there is one more way: set your camera up, leave, and come back for it. I usually aim to return BEFORE dawn because few humans bother to be out before the sun is up. My gear has been left alone in the wild quite often.  Of course I’ve already triple checked and prepared for the weather conditions and I place my camera where it’s not easily located – except by me. It’s a good idea to triple check all your settings. More than once I’ve left and upon return found I forgot a setting. For a belt and suspenders approach, I also keep track of the camera’s exact location with a GPS or by “dropping a pin” on my iPhone. Of course the downside here is you may need a huge memory card, a super strong battery, and you can’t have too much separation anxiety about leaving your gear. It won’t do you any good if you leave and DON’T get any sleep because you fear for the safety of your gear.  Trust me, your gear is braver than you are!

Sometimes when we run workshops, we take turns guarding the gear for one another, so you can also agree to leave a guard soldier behind if you shoot with buddies.  Just be sure to be kind to your guard – they will likely be grumpy.