Category Archives: Gear

Plan C: How To Plan a Time Sequence Shot

If you missed the last total lunar eclipse, don’t worry. You’ll have another chance in October, 2014. For that, I’m grateful since as you can see I had some problems with my apparatus (the CamRanger). The battery failed after the 7th shot of the moon you see below, and then it stopped working again after 3 more shots, and needed to be slayed and restarted just as the moon was transitioning to fully eclipsed.

But this column is not about our troubles, it is about how I planned for the lunar eclipse shot you see below.

Plan C: San Jose City Hall Eclipse Sequence


The planning began with a list of possible foreground subjects. The San Jose City Hall Rotunda was “Plan C” and the least well researched of my plans. What were plan A and B? Those were one of my favorite lighthouses and a favorite landmark in San Francisco, California. For each arrangement I had to:

  1. Calculate where to stand to make sure the moon would be in an interesting phase above the object. The plan required solving these problems
    1. Determine how high in the sky the moon would be (to know what viewing angle was best)
    2. Determine which DIRECTION I needed to face to capture the moon.
    3. Determine how “wide” a lens I needed to get the sequence I wanted.
  2. Monitor the weather at each location.

After planning all that was left was to make a last-minute decision where the most likely target would have favorable conditions and make any final on-site adjustments.  I had a Plan D, too… but it was also in San Jose so it would have only been chosen had I found some serious obstacle at the City Hall rotunda.

San Jose City Hall Panorama

Calculating the Angles

Determining the angles needed is pretty simple. I used The Photographer’s Ephemeris including all the nifty tricks we teach in our Catching the Moon Webinar. Below you can see a screen shot from the Photographer’s Ephemeris which shows the moon altitude and direction at the beginning of the eclipse. I also moved the time ahead to show the same for the middle of the eclipse.  The moon’s altitude angle (32 to 41 degrees) gave me an idea how close to be to the rotunda to get the moon overhead.  Lower angles allow me to get farther away which allows me to photograph the moon larger relative to the foreground object. This eclipse, however, and the one in October will have the moon high overhead.

Coming up with a Foreground

There is no good substitute for knowing what interesting foregrounds are possible. And also knowing which direction(s) you should be facing.  I knew that the San Jose City Hall Rotunda was generally easterly because I had watched a sun rise through it. I also knew that the eclipse would be at maximum when the moon was in the southern sky so I knew that the range was SE to S directionally.  You can see a diagram from The Photographer’s Ephemeris below for more complete planning.

Calculating Where to Stand

I had to know approximately how tall the foreground object is. For the San Jose City Hall I flat-out guessed.  I found the overall height of the building through Google, and I guess the Rotunda was 60 to 80 feet tall.   My original calculations had me much closer to the building… it was only when I got on site that I realized that there were adaptations that needed to be made.

Watching the Weather

Remember that the Rotunda was plan C.  I kept a close eye on the weather for each of the planned sites.  My favorite weather app is provided by – in particular the hourly graphs. We talked about this tool in detail in a prior column.  Why do I like it so much? Because it gives me numbers instead of “partly cloudy”.  It was pretty obvious that the coastal region for Plan A, and the San Francisco Landmark (plan B) were likely to have bad weather – both fog and clouds. Indeed my friends who headed those directions were frustrated by poor visibility.  We had clouds passing through San Jose, but as the weather predictions had read: it got clearest right near totality, and overall was not a hindrance.

Last Minute Adaptation

When I first got to the site, I realized that the Rotunda was taller than I thought. I set up across the street in order to be able to have the moon over the Rotunda… but there were other problems, too. One of the problems is the floodlight on the top of the building. Another was a street light just to the right of where the red marker is in the graph below. These are problems that would only reveal themselves if you visit at night!

And then there are all of those flag posts.  My original guess at the Rotunda Height would have allowed me to stand between the fountain (brown area) and the building… but that clearly didn’t work as the rotunda was too high.  Setting up across the street (and very low) also had its challenges… namely buses and cars that came regularly.  I also realized that I had miscalculated the eclipse time by an hour (forgot it was now daylight savings time).  The miscalculation turned out to be a good thing as it left plenty of time to move around.  It would seem the ideal spot was in the MIDDLE of Santa Clara Street, but that wouldn’t have worked, of course.  Eventually I picked the spot with the red marker as a compromise between altitude of the moon above the structure, removing the glare from the tower lights, the wash-out of the street light, and the many flag poles in the way.

Planning Moonrise

If only my CamRanger had cooperated, I’d have had a continuous sequence of shots of the moon passing over the Rotunda.  There is always October… and maybe Plan A will work for that!

Of course that’s not ALL that was required to get the shot. I also had to composite each of the moon shots into their proper locations. I did that by first taking a panorama of the area, then making sure that when the exposures began I had a piece of the rotunda in each shot so I could properly align the moon over its actual location.  The creation of the image used the Easy HDR method we have previously described.

Catching the Moon Simplified

Freedom Gazes at the Moon [5_055475-7deB]

Freedom – the statue at the summit of the Nation’s Capitol – Gazes at the rising Moon

One of our popular webinars is Night Photography 111: “Catching the Moon (and the sun)”. The next webinar is April 2, 2014, by the way. Long before the many tools that now exist to help solve for moon+landmark alignments I began working on a tool I call the MoonChase Tool. As snazzy tools came into being like Stephen Trainor’s Photographer’s Ephemeris, SunMoonCalc, MoonSeeker, and many more, I neglected the MoonChase Tool and focused more attention on the Advanced Stacker PLUS. In fact, after Google discontinued the V2 map interface upon which MoonChase was built the tool languished for about a year and a half. I also stopped teaching how to use it in the NP111 Webinars. But, I kept finding that all existing tools just didn’t do what I needed, so I resurrected the MoonChase tool. I ported it to the newest Google Maps API (V3), and I then added some of the features I had on my wish list.  I’m really proud of what the tool can do now. And I have some fiendishly clever plans for the future of the tool, time permitting, of course. Operationally the MoonChase Tool is simple. The hardest part is coming up with the location where you want to stand and the landmark you want to face. If you know that there is a sightline to a landmark in the distance you can fire up MoonChaseTool and in 3 steps know when to go to get the moon or sun behind your landmark!  That’s right. You paste, paste, click and click. Or drag, drag and click. We cover how to cook up good locations in the Webinar. How do you get your hands on this tool? We’ll tell you! If you’ve attended a NP111 webinar with us, or purchased the video and notes you already HAVE access through the “private page” (you did save the password, right?).  You’ll find the link to the MoonChase Tool on the private page.  Or sign up for our webinar which includes the notes and video AND access to the MoonChase Tool – and you don’t have to wait for the webinar, we send you all the links when you sign up (see below). The tool isn’t especially pretty, we admit that.  But it is pretty EASY to use and it works even from your iPad or tablet as long as you have internet access.

3 Steps to Moon (or sun) catching

3 Steps to Moon (or sun) catching. And there is more: you can check the view with Google Street View, and even check the weather with the weather button.

After clicking “Moon” you get the report thanks to Jeff Conrad’s SunMoonCalc tool. Be careful to be sure it selects the time correctly. Below it’s off by an hour due to Daylight savings time.


Moonrise over Lick Observatory from near SJC Airport… all opportunities from this location for the next 4 years!


What Problems Does the MoonChase Tool Solve?

The tool was designed to do the trigonometry for you. Did you know there is trigonometry involved?  Don’t worry, you don’t have to know trigonometry or math.  Nor do you have to know about spherical coordinates, azimuths, altitudes or the three different kinds of twilight.  All you have to know is where you want to stand, and what you want to be in your picture. Drag the markers around on the map and click one of the Solve buttons. OR use the tool in concert with The Photographer’s Ephemeris.

What Do I Need to Know to Do?

It’s very helpful to be able to do the following things: grab GPS coordinates from Google Maps and/or Photographers Ephemeris.  We teach how to grab GPS coordinates in the course. You’ll also want to know how to find heights of your favorite landmarks. Google comes in really handy for finding heights of buildings!  One more thing you’ll want to verify is whether you can See the landmark from the place you want to stand. Again, we describe 4 different ways you can do that in the webinar. The rest is dragging and clicking!

How Long Will it Take?

If you already have the coordinates, it will take perhaps thirty seconds – or not even that long.

I WANT THAT! How Do I Get It?

Easy: Sign up for the webinar and you’ll get immediate access to the private page plus the videos and notes. If you’ve already taken the webinar, go to the private page and you’ll find the link in the Resources section.  Or as a prior purchaser, just sit tight as we’ll be sending the new materials out to all prior purchasers over the next 3 weeks.

Webinar: NP111 Catching the Moon and the Sun
Not Scheduled but usually 7:00 PM PDT (7 MDT / 8 CDT / 9 EDT) for 2 hours
Captured [C_044450-2tc] In this 110 minute Webinar, you will be introduced to several free (and almost free) tools that you can use to plan a moon (or sun) shot - including a tool written by Steven and made available only to attendees. Have you wanted to capture the moon "right where you want it" but weren't sure how? If you know you could resort to photo editing and fake it but you'd rather get the real deal then this class is for you. Steven will demonstrate how to determine when and where to go to capture an image like the Moon over Lick Observatory or the moon at the Transamerica Building or the sun shining through a portal in the Pacific Ocean (below). This is a Webinar so you can conveniently attend from your computer at work or home anywhere in the world. This course includes notes, access to a private page with details - including landmark events Steven has already solved for you, an online viewable recorded webinar with unlimited online viewing that you can watch NOW before the webinar is held. One indispensable tool covered in detail is the Photographer's Ephemeris by Stephen Trainor.

What You'll Learn

Steven will show
  1. How to Plan a moon or solar "contact" shot.
  2. How smartphone based tools may help - or sabotage - your attempts to get an alignment
  3. How to use the moon to illuminate your foreground,
  4. How the presence of the moon affects photos of the night sky,
  5. How to find information about interesting celestial events,
  6. How to find compelling locations for "alignment" images, and
  7. What camera settings you need to get it all exposed just right.
Photon Worshippers **Winner Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2010 - People and Space **
Remember that this event INCLUDEs online videos, notes, and access to a special tool that Steven uses to solve lunar and solar contact shots.
New Dome [5_009671]

The moon rises behind Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, San Jose, California

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!

The Ideal Handheld App For Catching the Sun, Moon and Stars

Here at StarCircleAcademy we’ve been consuming and testing quite a number of photography related apps. So far none have risen to the promise that a handheld app could bring to the table.  Rather than illuminate what is missing from each app, here I describe what I want to DO with my handheld App.

In the Evening [5_057775+92]

  1. First, I need an app with accuracy to within 0.2 degrees! Why? Because the moon and sun are only 0.5 degrees in angular diameter. If I want to catch the moon exactly behind the Pigeon Point Lighthouse less accuracy will result in a “miss”.
    Monumental [C_038216]
  2. I want the app to accurately measure and save all the relevant data so I can reuse it and share it.  At minimum it needs to keep track of: From location, to location, altitude at the to location (degrees above horizontal), and any additional constraints like the fractional number of degrees that each measurement can vary. In some locations like the shore of a lake there is more leeway to move. In other spots, like the balcony of a building there is little leeway to move.  An ideal app would allow me to stand in two or more different spots to define that leeway.Rise and Shine [C_037951+77]If I’m solving for the moon, I’d like it to also remember the moon phase I’m interested in (usually full or slender crescent). The ability to take notes including things like height of the landmark is a big plus.
  3. Ideally I can save an image representing what I want with ALL data on the image so that if all I have is a photo, I can reconstruct the parameters in other tools or other ways.
    For example, SpyGlass shows me my GPS coordinates, the elevation, altitude and azimuth (compass direction) – though as you can see it’s calculation on where to find the moon is off by about 15 degrees (30 moon diameters) due to iPhone 4 compass inaccuracy.

    SpyGlass copy

    SpyGlass snap. Note that the plotted location of the moon is off due to iPhone compass hardware.

  4. I’d like to be able to pull up my saved locations and re-execute a search to find the next occurrence. For example, a Pigeon Point Lighthouse vista that I really like only occurs a few times a year. It’s not enough to keep track of the one event I photographed or plan to photograph.
    Project Impact [5_057573-615br]
  5. Bonus points if the data is stored in a server somewhere to make it easy to share. Extra bonus points if there is a way to have the server periodically check possible alignments and send me alerts or emails when such alignments are soon to become possible.
  6. For planning shots with the Milky Way or other prominent sky features (like the Andromeda Galaxy and the Great Orion Nebula), the app needs to accurately plot the course of those objects on an Augmented Reality frame. Images of the Milky Way presented must be realistic.  A poorly illustrated Milky Way won’t help me find the galactic center (which is what I most often want) or compare the alignment I want with the foreground I am trying to capture.
    Inflow [C_072091]
  7. For night related photography, the app must also factor in twilight and moonlight. That is, I want to be able point my device at say the Transamerica building and ask the app when (or if) the Andromeda Galaxy will appear above it when there is little or no moonlight.
  8. Make it easy to use, of course.  Most of the apps that embed maps in them are difficult to use on the tiny real estate of an iPhone – and require data connections as well.

Is it unrealistic to think a handheld app could meet these requirements?  I don’t think so. The biggest problem is overcoming the accuracy limitations in the current devices. The iPhone and iPad, for example have quite inaccurate compass readings except in perfect scenarios… but there are some clever ways (I think) to correct for that inaccuracy.  The tilt angle calculations from the on-board accelerometers and gyroscopes seem to be pretty accurate.

What We’ve Tried

  • Inclinometer. Great for measuring angles above the horizon. Even has a voice mode where it says aloud the measurement. Doesn’t do Now includes augmented reality mode so you don’t have to sight along an edge of the device. On an iPad, it seemed to be accurate to about 0.2 degrees!
  • GoSkyMap. Fun interactive sky map. You can change the date / and time and point it “at space” and it will show you great details about what is there. BUT you have to make sure you set the location correctly. Doesn’t have an Augmented Reality mode so you can’t tell how the mountain in the foreground interacts with the Milky Way, for example, but you can ask it where to find constellations and it will indicate which direction you should look.
  • Sky Map. Like GoSkyMap it’s an interactive planetarium.  I prefer to use it without the “point features”. It’s my Planosphere (Sky chart) in hand. Also includes things like Meteor Showers and radiants, a list of “what’s up tonight” showing rise and set times, moon phase, etc.  No Augmented Reality.
  • PhotoPills. Lots of things rolled into one app. Biggest complaints about this app are saving and reusing Plans, usability quirks, a grossly oversized moon or sun icon in the Augmented Reality modes and an inaccurate Milky Way representation. Oh, and I’d really like it if it would measure for me!  The planner would be great if I could have the Augmented Reality compute the Azimuth and Altitude (aka Elevation) for me, especially since it doesn’t seem to have a way to measure like the Inclinometer tool does. I see, for example where someone saved the “Manhattanhenge” event. It would be great if I could load it and click “find next occurrence”. That feature alone might be worth booking a flight to New York!
  • SpyGlass. Clever app with lots of onscreen information in Augmented Reality mode. We especially like the onscreen measurements which are saved when you grab an image.

Do you know of an app that’s highly accurate and will meet our requirements? Let’s hear about it. If it exists on an Android I’ll buy an android!