Category Archives: Tools

Photographing Aurorae with a Night Capable Camera

Photo 1: Jupiter and diffuse, but bright aurora on our first night. f/3.5, 5 sec, ISO 4000, 20mm

This is part 2 of a multi-part series on observing and photographing an Aurora. Please read Aurora: The Bewitching Glow for background information including information about what an aurora is, when, how and where it can be seen, and photographs from Aurorae we observed near Fairbanks, Alaska.

So I Have to Get Lucky?

Before we jump into the details and the 3 keys for getting a good aurora photo, I think it is wise to set expectations about how likely you are to see a truly astounding aurora. Photo 1, above is one of the first captures I got on the first night on site (December 14). It was unexpected because the weather had been completely overcast all day. On December 17, the display was ASTOUNDING. I asked staff at Borealis Basecamp – which caters to aurora goers – as well as locals in Fairbanks, and I poured over the data to determine just how lucky we were to see the jaw dropping display we observed. The short answer is… “luck comes over time”. We used the Book and Hope method described in the first article to observe the aurora, arriving on December 14, 2023 and departing on December 18th – that is 4 nights onsite. But because we didn’t use the Monitor and Go method what we couldn’t have foreknown is how much the sun would cooperate with our aurorae dreams.

Diagram 1: M and X class solar flares in December, 2023.

Take a glance at Diagram 1, above from the SpaceWeatherLive.com archive. Fortuitously the most energetic solar flare (category X) in the preceding SIX YEARS occurred on the first day we arrived (and on New Years eve). The solar wind travels at over a million miles an hour (1.6 million kilometers per hour). But the sun is 92 million miles (147 million kilometers) away, so the effect of the flare on aurora production may occur in as little as 36 hours or as many as 4 days later. Even during a solar maximum events of this magnitude only occur infrequently. December 2023 saw two X class flares in one month – there were zero X class flares in the prior 5 months at all! The Kp Index exceeded 5 a total of 16 times in the 4 month period which means an exceptional once a week event might be a reasonable expectation during this part of the solar cycle.

Eli Fox, the chief photographer at Borealis Basecamp and the man who runs much of the Borealis Basecamp social media [Instagram] [Facebook] told me that exceptional aurora events occur on average about once a month or less.

A solid plan and good luck go hand in hand. But do not let that dissuade you. The displays we saw on two other nights were very pleasing and still produced great pictures.

Can I Get a Good Photo with ANY Camera?

Photographing aurorae is not different from the night photography we cover extensively on this site. If your camera is able to take acceptable Milky Way photos, it’s a good candidate – the aurora is generally much brighter than the brightest portions of the Milky Way.

Photo 2: Looking up. Bright fast moving aurora. Notice The big dipper at the left.
f/2.8, 2 sec, ISO 6400, 18 mm

While these articles are now starting to show their age, the principles still apply:

  1. High performing cameras (or see Which Camera is Better for Night Photography?)
  2. What to Look For in a Night Photography Lens

Surprisingly, some cell phones can do a respectable job and we will cover using cellphones in the next article in the series.

For any night photography the following minimums are recommended:

It also helps to become very familiar with the settings and controls for your camera and tripod – familiar enough that you can operate them in the dark with little or no additional light. That level of familiarity comes with practice… so if you are out of the habit, we strongly suggest practicing in your back yard (or in a dark closet). Practice while wearing the gloves that you intend to use! I discovered that merino wool glove liners were sufficient to keep my dominant hand warm even when the temperature dipped to -20F – but there was no wind and I avoided allowing any snow to remain on my glove liner – preferring to use my gloved hand or jacket sleeve when brushing away snow. Snow on my glove liner would have melted due to my body heat and made me miserable. I carried a pair of outer gloves with me, in fact, I kept a glove on my non-dominant hand at all times while my dominant hand had only the glove liner. The other outer glove remained in my pocked with a chemical hand warmer activated should my hand get cold!

Additional Photo Gear for Dealing with Excessive Cold

I brought quite a lot of gear to prepare for the affects of extreme cold on my person and my camera equipment. The camera equipment I brought included:

1. Five power banks – these were used to power “dew heaters” (aka lens warmers), as well as heated clothing.
2. Four of the powerbanks also were hand-warmers, most have built in lights.
3. Pouches in which I could keep the powerbanks, chemical handwarmers, as well as cables.
4. A large sealable plastic bag that can hold the entire camera and lens.
5. Carabiners to hold the pouches to my tripod.
6. And my standard practice of affixing velcro to key places near the top of my tripod with the mating velcro on the back of my intervalometer(s). This keeps the intervalometer in a usable place and prevents it from falling or catching the wind.

The pouches had operational electric hand warmers or chemical hand warmers to keep the power bank in them warm. I thought about, but did not use external batteries for my camera. Conceptually using external batteries permits using a larger battery (or using plug-in power) as well as keeping the camera batteries warm without warming the camera. The extreme cold is GOOD for your images. Deep sky astrophotographers typically use super-cooled sensors for their work, and your camera benefits from the cold, too, in the form of less noise.

If you use chemical hand warmers (charcoal, salt and iron filings), they need some airflow to keep generating heat – so don’t put them in a bag with no airflow. Indeed, if you want to reuse them, you can put them in as small a possible plastic bag to extend their life.

However I did keep spare batteries in my interior pockets where my body heat would keep them warm should I need to swap batteries. With the power banks, I also brought extra cables, an extension cord, and a 7 station USB charger. Of course all the regular stuff is needed, too… battery chargers for your camera batteries, cables, lens cloths and more. Another item I strongly recommend is gaffers tape which you can use to seal viewfinders, and lock down focus settings. And a large Ziplock bag. I also like to use a lens band (basically a large rubber band) to prevent focus or zoom settings from changing unexpectedly.

What Can Go Wrong?

Several aurora photographers wondered why I brought dew-heaters (lens warmers). These devices wrap around the end of the lens and via a power bank keep the lens warmer than the surrounding air to prevent dew (condensation) or frost from forming on the lens. Those with more experience than me typically did not use such devices because in the extreme cold dew is not typically a problem. BUT I did have complications I didn’t anticipate. In warmer, more humid climates, dew heaters can be the difference between getting a shot of “lens fog” and getting a great night shot.
The lens warmer is attached by cable to a power bank. More than once the pouch containing the power bank got bumped off my tripod yanking down on the lens ring which, unfortunately, altered either the zoom or the focus of the lens. In part for that reason I stopped using the lens warmer. But I did notice that more than once my breath crystalized on the outer lens surface. The take away here: in the extreme cold, keep your breath away from the camera as much as possible! And if you do use a lens warmer, find a secure way to attach it to your tripod so it can not yank on your lens.

From time to time I would use the viewfinder to frame my shot. But on my Sony Alpha 7R III camera, the frost from my breath condensed on the viewfinder resulting in two problems. The moist air from my breath froze on and made the viewfinder cloudy and I couldn’t see through it, and the sensor that turns off the back LCD when your eye is at the sensor got confused and refused to turn the LCD on. Effectively I was unable to use the LCD or the viewfinder to make adjustments. Fortunately this happened as the aurora was quiescing so I put my camera in a SEALABLE plastic bag, and brought it indoors.

Bag Your Camera! And Other Tips…

Why bag your camera? If you take your very cold camera indoors it will almost immediately form frost and condensation in the warmer more humid air – much like your iced drink glass forms condensation. Unfortunately condensation can occur INSIDE the lens and INSIDE the camera (e.g. on the sensor). Whenever I move the camera from a cold environment to a warmer one I bag and seal it and keep it in the bag until it has warmed to room temperature (about 1 to 3 hours). I can take it back out to a cold environment immediately if I wish. Keeping desiccant in the bag is not a bad idea, either! Oh, and you may find it advisable to remove your memory card and battery from the camera before bagging it so that you can examine the contents of the card or charge the battery while you have the bagged camera in a warmer environment.

Another unanticipated problem was that the extreme cold made the intervalometer cord quite stiff. It behaved more like a coat hanger than a wire. I strongly recommend using either a corded, or cordless intervalometer – you need it as a shutter release. The reason for the shutter release is to keep from adding any shake or wobble to the process of taking a photo – which occurs just by pressing the shutter button. A shutter release locked in “on mode” also allows you to take endless shots unattended which if you wish, you can assemble into a star trail like the photo below.

Photo 6: Applying Comet style star trails (with a satellite) (97) 6-second exposures. (each f/3.5, ISO 4000, 19mm) Total 9 min 42 secs.

Finally, I had difficulty adjusting the settings using the top dial on my camera – I believe also due to frost from my breath. I say “I believe” because it occurs to me that with my lightly gloved hand I may have been trying to rotate the function knob instead of the upper adjustment wheel. REMINDER: Get familiar with your camera before you get into the exciting environment where you may easily forget a step or two while gawking at the sky.

The Three Most Important Aurora Tips

Once you have all your gear, have a solid tripod (which you set up properly and securely) and are ready to begin photographing the amazing aurora… there are three very important things to NOT skimp on doing and double checking.

  1. Confirm (check) focus frequently especially after any bumps or changes in zoom.
  2. Do NOT judge the quality of the exposure by the display on the LCD. The only way to insure a good exposure is to look at the histogram (separate RGB channels is best).
  3. Adjust your exposure as needed to meet the circumstance. Aurora can go from dim to very bright and very bright to dim. They can move hardly at all, and they can dance about in the sky at a dizzying pace. So this means not only should you pay attention to those exposures, but you might want to avoid fixating on one area of the sky.

Tip 1: Checking and Setting Focus

The best way to check focus is to shoot an image and zoom in and check for the sharpness of any stars on the LCD. The best way to get focus right is to pre-focus at infinity when there is sufficient light (e.g. using a streetlight, the moon or a very bright star). While cameras can SOMETIMES successfully self focus most of the time they cannot without bright, motionless light in the distance. One way to get a good focus is to use live view, zoom in and hand adjust focus until a star is as compact as possible. But do not stop there… TURN OFF auto focus! You can set some lenses to “MF” or “Manual Focus”, but another strategy – perhaps easier – is to set your camera to do focus only when you press a separate focus button. Typically a camera is set to focus as you press the shutter – and that’s definitely NOT what you want.
If you’re not sure where to focus, we recommend either focusing on stars or if that seems difficult, you can focus on anything that is more than 50 feet away from you and that will be sufficient for wide-angle lenses.

Then take an exposure and confirm the focus is spot on. I took a whole sequence of exposures with lovely snow flocked trees in the foreground, but I made the mistake of not confirming my focus was spot on! It is also worth noting that the aurora may be diffuse and therefore not have a clear focus point… so don’t judge by the aurora! By the way, we also strongly recommend that you set a fixed White Balance (e.g. cloudy or daylight), disable long exposure noise reduction, and turn on high ISO noise reduction.

Some cameras have a “focus peaking” setting that you can enable. Focus peaking colors those areas of the image that are in focus (red is easier to distinguish in a night shot). This tip comes from Eli Fox, and is something I did not know is present on my Sony!

One last tip, focus MAY change as the lens gets colder or warmer – so do check periodically.

Tip 2: Verify Proper Exposure using the Histogram Feature

Diagram 2: An aurora photo with over exposed elements (see red pointers). The histogram (top right) shows a spike at the right – brightest end – of the range.

My modus operandi when shooting is to hand shoot a few images doing the focus check AND a histogram check before I set the camera up to take continuous exposures. I then periodically stop the exposures to double check the histogram. One additional help here is to turn on over exposure highlighting if your camera supplies it. With that feature on, over exposed areas will generally blink where there are overexposed pixels to let you know what areas are over. Overexposure is very difficult to recover from. The goal is to minimize the overexposures but get the images as “bright” as possible to capture the most information. I then usually shoot a shot with the lens cap on (or my hand covering the lens) so I can tell that I’ve changed settings or adjusted the field of view. Elements at the “bright” end of the spectrum by themselves don’t mean there are over exposures. By the way this is also why we strongly recommend you shoot your photos in RAW – or like we do RAW plus the smallest JPEGs.

Tip 3: Do Not Fixate

This tip has two parts. Do not forget to recheck at LEAST your exposure histograms periodically, and do not fail to look around in the sky. While you might have the perfect foreground, the aurora behind you or above you may be the most spectacular thing you will ever see. If you do not get a photo, it may as well have never happened! And while we are on this subject, do you notice how GREEN the snow appears in the right side of the photo below (as well as earlier photos)? They are reflecting the predominate color (557.7 nano meters wavelength) coming from the aurora. This is one of the possible problems with obtaining natural looking aurora photos.

Photo 5: The recorded color (right) gives an eerie green, but the left is hand desaturated in post processing.

As noted in Aurora: The Bewitching Glow (part one of this series), there are other colors as well. This can have the affect of making the landscape look “eerie”. Eerie landscapse can be combatted in two ways. One way is to be thankful for and take advantage of light pollution (or some moonlight), and the other is to post process the photo to desaturate the areas that look unnatural e.g. as is done above in photo 5. All the other rules of good photo composition apply as well. If the photo would look pleasing without an aurora, then it will be even better if there is an aurora. But if the scene is chaotic or not well framed, it will take an incredibly amazing aurora to save it. I think the main take away here is: experiment with different compositions, directions and settings.

One last point. The aurora can move very slowly or surprisingly rapidly. If you take a long exposure for a fast moving aurora it will “smear”. But a dim, slow moving aurora may require a longer exposure or a higher ISO or both. Consider the examples below. At the left is an approximation of one ten second, ISO-6400 exposure (f/2.8, 18 mm) created by combining 5 2-second exposures and the second is a single 2 second exposure. The “eye” of the aurora is overexposed and much of the swirly detail is lost. However even if the ISO had been dialed down or the aperture stopped down to prevent overexposure, the capture over the longer time interval would lose some of the fine detail – in much the way that a moving flashlight or a moving camera would create a smear. But do notice that more stars are visible in the longer exposure because 10 seconds is sufficiently short for an 18mm shot that the stars themselves are not smeared (much). To understand this a bit better, the best resource we know of is
described in our article: 600 Rule?

In fact, if you’d like to get an idea how fast an aurora CAN move in real time, here is a video sequence – not a timelapse – from Eli Fox

VIDEO: Real Time aurora used by permission from Eli Fox.

Well, that’s it for how to use a “night capable camera” to take aurora photos. But stay tuned, we have at least two more articles on the subject coming soon including:

How to Take Aurora Photos with a Cell Phone

All about Borealis Basecamp

As always, feel free to ask questions using the comments below. Thanks for the gift of your time reading this… and if you’ve found value in it, please do share the link with those you know who would appreciate it.

Down with Duplication – And How I Backup My Images

So, you’ve probably heard this before, but your duplicates are showing… Well, mine are at least. Which reminds me of one of the signs I spotted on our Cross Country Travels.

Spotted in a shop in Cambria, California

Managing and backing up large photo files is not particularly easy. But I recently whacked my head on a problem that perplexed me.

To set some background, it may help to know that I use DropBox to BACKUP, SHARE, and DISTRIBUTE my image files both to clients AND among my various computers. I have the 2 Terrabyte Plan at $99 a year.

Let me briefly explain how and why I do it, so what I communicate next won’t look like my crazy is showing.

Image Organization

The Watchful Warrior and the Eagle

My file organizational structure looks something like this on all my machines. Most of my work is in Windows, by the way, but I do use a Mac sometimes. I keep the same structure across multiple machines for several reasons including consistency and the ability to work the same on each machine. My folder/file structure looks like this:

  • Images
    • 2011
    • 2012 …
    • 2019
      • 2019-05
        • 2019-05-29
          • RAW
          • JPEG
          • Export
          • Processed
          • Video
      • 2019-06
        • 2019-06-03
          • (same as 2019-05-29)
      • Android
        • Phone
        • Card
      • IPhone
    • Work In Progress
  • Audio (e.g. Itunes and purchased music)
  • Business Records
  • Business Public
  • LightRoom Catalog(s) (Good luck, Lightroom doesn’t much like shared drives or volumes, so I’ve had to trick Lightroom into thinking it’s writing to a regular volume)

That’s important because you’ll notice that I do not really have a good organization system for Android and Iphone photos and videos … just a year by year copy. I also break down my images by year, month, and year-month-day. Again, not ideal, but that’s the pattern Lightroom follows and it mostly works for me.

Lightroom does not know how to separate JPEG and RAW images into separate folders. I usually shoot BOTH image types. The fast load time of the JPEGs allows me to breeze through them first, and I sometimes use the small JPEGS (which are still plenty big) for web purposes. Usually once I’m done with my photo processing sessions of the RAW images, I no longer have a need for the JPEGs – or even the RAWs. But of course I do back them up. All of them in fact except the absolute stinkers.

My Exported images are Processed images that have been downsized and watermarked ready for publication on e.g. Flickr or Facebook, etc. Processed images are those where I’ve done more than just Camera Raw adjustments or Lightroom adjustments. That is, composites or extensive masking and adjusting that I have done in Photoshop. By the way, I always create side-car files (the .xmp files) that keep track of the changes you make with Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw. I keep the Export(ed) and Processed images locally until I need space at which point I remove them from my LOCAL computer and just leave them in DropBox should I need them again.

Since Lightroom does not import things the way I want, you might be interested to know that I do the importing with a primitive Windows Batch file. I copy all the content into a pre-created directory and then run this in that directory to move the files to the respective sub-folders.

 @ECHO OFF 
 REM Can optionally specify the source folder name e.g. .\OtherDirectory
 REM cd %USERPROFILE%\Pictures\ImportFolder
 REM mkdir NEWIMPORT
 REM cd NEWIMPORT
 REM COPY all files from the card to this folder

 mkdir RAW
 mkdir Processed
 mkdir JPEG
 mkdir Video
 mkdir Export
 @echo ON

 move %1.J* JPEG
 move %1.NEF RAW 
 move %1.CR2 RAW
 @REM This should copy MOV and MP4 ... but might copy something you don't expect
 move %1.M* VIDEO
 move %1.

DropBox “Smart Sync” is nifty: and so is “Selective Sync”

One relatively new feature of DropBox is the SmartSync option which behaves a bit like Lightroom – you can have a file that is indexed, but not local. There are three ways to use Dropbox for managing backups:

A. Use selective sync to synchronize specific directories (e.g. 2019-05-29) on a computer by computer basis. Be careful, if you do it wrong, you can wipe out a whole directory at once including your backup! That is, do NOT delete a local copy of a DropBox folder until after you turn OFF selective sync. Indeed, until Smart Sync, if you turned off selective sync, DropBox will delete the whole folder LOCALLY.

B. Use the new Smart Sync feature to distinguish Local and Online copies. Local copies the same as the synced version that is in DropBox. While “Online” means DropBox preserves the file structure and names on your local computer, but doesn’t download the content unless you try to open the file. This behavior doesn’t play with with all programs, mind you.

C. Use both – that is what I do. On my under-sized laptop drive, I selectively synchronize a small handful of things (Business Records, Work In Progress and perhaps a few days worth of photos). While on my workhorse desktop machine, I keep many more photos local on a huge hard drive.

If you’re wondering why I don’t just pay Adobe for cloud storage… never mind, you’ve probably already figured out why I don’t want to pay twice, and MORE for what I already am using.

Stormy Weather predicted in Photo Organization Efforts

iPhone and Android folder structures are not consistent – Why?

The organizational structure on both the iPhone and Android are a bit messy, mysterious, and … change over time, so I have not had much success trying to duplicate the structure I use for my DSLR real photography in the cell phone space. And yet, like many of you, my cell phones are doing more and more of the lifting for illustrative things. One way my Android gets twisted up is that it has both phone memory and card memory. The problem is that there are lots of places where pictures occur, on say the Android. For example:

Galaxy S9+\Phone\DCIM\Camera
Galaxy S9+\Phone\Pictures (which has many subfolders)
Galaxy S9+\Card\DCIM\Camera
Galaxy S9+\Phone\WDisk\Photos
and more!

Trying to extricate files from those many locations sometimes means I goof and recreate the same structure multiple times. To make matters more complicated, I also record images and videos with a Mavic drone.

Another Organizational Failure

I may copy May 29 files into May 28th for my big camera images. But I never intentionally duplicate images even if it sometimes happens by accident.

Sometimes I get ahead of myself. I simultaneously copy e.g. Android stuff on one machine while copying iPhone stuff on another. When I do that, Dropbox can get confused. And that’s on top of the pain that Lightroom imparts… so I find myself using less and less of Lightroom for importing photos (too slow and cumbersome), and instead I get the structure in place and then tell Lightroom where to look. Indeed, I admit I now prefer to use Adobe Bridge, or some much simpler programs like Image Glass for quickly viewing photos. Image Glass is very quick to load and use, something like Windows Photos, and Image Photo Viewer, but more nimble (and less powerful).

After the cross country trip, I found myself with apparently MANY copies of the same cellphone and camera images… but with thousands of images it is not easy to identify which are really duplicates. Some duplicates are the result of doing in-phone photo editing. Obviously those I want to keep. However the accidental duplicate copies I do NOT want to keep.

And the duplicate situation differs by cell phone, too. Android often tags -001 to files you edit on phone, while iOS creates an .aae file.

Deduplication To the Rescue

Is there software that will do a good job cleaning up duplicates on a Windows machine? Yes and No. Yes there is, but WHAT IS A DUPLICATE? I mean I know when what I look at is a duplicate, but that doesn’t mean software is particularly good at it. I was grievously frustrated when trying to trial some of the photo/file de-duplication tools that exist. I thought, CCleaner did a pretty good job, until I realized IT DOESN’T understand images very well.

I then went on to try Easy Duplicate Finder, Duplicate Photo Cleaner, and a few others. Unfortunately my tests were against a real directory with thousands of files and these “tools” would only let you do 10 removals unless you paid the $30, $40 or $50 to activate them. Well that’s NO TEST! And more, none of them bother to tell you up front that the many minutes you spend reviewing its scan is a waste of your time – or what the charge will be to license the software. One of the tools begged to not be uninstalled and offered a significant pricing break, which brings me to a tip:

When trialing software, it’s always a good idea to try to uninstall it before you even think about purchasing it. Crafty programs (and marketers) realize that offering a discount is their only defense against losing a sale to you. The discount may be substantial!

Duplicate Photo Cleaner Irked Me

Evil minds created this!

Not only did DPC NOT tell you what the charge was, it asked you to register (you give it your email address) before it ever mentions the price ($39.90). It does seem to have some smarts to pick photos by appearance but it lumped together three different screenshots from the phone as duplicates that were NOTHING alike. Suspiciously, Duplicate Photo Cleaner and Easy Duplicate Finder are both Webmind products and use the same shameful sales tactics.

I suppose there may be instances where you want it to figure out if one image is merely a smaller version (or only “slightly different” from another), but the inspection, took a long time and decided that not only were the screenshots identical, but two quite different sunset shots were marked as duplicates. If your goal is to toss out all but the first image of your daughter, the default behavior of this tool might be what you want. You *can* adjust the settings, but the slimy marketing and the out of the box behavior had me saying No Thanks in a jiffy.

Duplicates Cleaner by kaeros < Works!

The $6 solution does the trick. Even the $0 solution works just fine.

The good news is that those badly behaved trials made me try Duplicates Cleaner from the Windows Store. I normally avoid the Windows Store because it has a lot of rubbish, and it’s Microsoft. Duplicates Cleaner is FREE. And guess what, it worked very well – got rid of 4.5 Gb of redundancy in my Android directory alone. Duplicates Cleaner has a $6 Pro version which I may well upgrade to. But the free version does the trick and includes a small ad for one of the developers products. Duplicates Cleaner doesn’t try to inspect your image to see if they are visually similar – it looks at the content (or name) to make its decision. Content is a good way to go, two files with different names and identical content ARE duplicates. You can see it also found redundancies in the organization of my “big camera” directories. (Usually because I’m not always careful about where I tell Photoshop to stick things).

With the setting “Scan Type Preference: Same Content” it’s really speedy. Once it finds the duplicates you have the choice of deleting them or backing them up. Normally it deletes the second item, but I’ve switched those because the first items were placed in the wrong folders. (Also notice how the last item is incorrectly named!)

Cross Country – Things Learned Driving East to West (Parts 1 and 2)

Last revised 6/14/2019

San Jose to East Coast by plane and then driving back over 15 days

If you already read this and are looking for the rest of the article (parts 3, 4 and 5)… Look HERE.

Steven’s father passed away last December and the family decided to hold a memorial in Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia on Memorial Day weekend. Seemed entirely appropriate as that is when all of dads cross-country scattered kin could convene… that and dad also served in the Army during the Korean War era. What I hope to illuminate in this article are some of the considerations to consider to take a multi-day or longer car trip. In this case, we flew to Roanoke Virginia via Chicago (the upper line) and then drove my fathers car back from Smith Mountain Lake through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and finally California.

I’ve divided the discussion into the following sections:

  1. Trip Planning Tools (Excel and Google Maps proved to be the most useful)
  2. Supplies and Provisions
  3. Booking Lodging and Excursions
  4. Photography and Night Photography Considerations
  5. Lessons Learned (What went wrong, what went right)

Trip Planning – Google Maps + My Scenic Drives + Excel

The way I started was simple: fire up google maps, enter my beginning city, added known stops (arranged east to west) and see what happened. To travel directly from Moneta, Virginia (Smith Mountain Lake) to San Jose mapped out as 40 hours of driving over 2722 miles. Since our actual mileage was 3982, clearly we did not take the “straight path” which would have been I40 nearly the whole way. One of the limitations with Google Maps is that you can have a maximum of 10 stops – unless you’re willing to do strange unnatural acts (or create your own map). But the key here was to see what the total distance was. Next I looked at breaking the trip up into digestible bits. The goal was to NOT drive more than 8 hours total in a day. And more significantly, to not be “on the road” more than about 10 hours including stops for sightseeing meals and potty breaks. Google maps was a bit unwieldy as I added more destinations and re-routed the segments to include driving to and through places of interest. One of the nice side benefits of using Google Maps, though, is that I could pull up the map on my laptop and send it to my phone directly. The phone then served as our GPS since the 12 year old navigation system in the car was clearly out of date.

One tool that I spent a lot of time on, and certainly helped was “My Scenic Drives“. The interface is a little clunky but My Scenic Drives can automatically divide up your driving based on time, but its method is not ideal. Indeed, the best use of My Scenic Drives was to “Find Nearby Attractions”. That proved to be it’s forte. “Avenue of the Ancients?” Why yes, thank you. “Valley of the Gods?” OF COURSE!, Chaco Culture, Mesa Verde, Bisti Badlands…. nearly all of these were suggested when searching in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. At one point I had at least 70 items “on the map” as potentials, and I paired it back to a mere 50. Reality eventually set it and I paired it back much further.

My Scenic Drives was quite useful for finding places of interest near or on the route.

I had a core list of must go places which included White Sands, NM; Monument Valley, UT; Lake Powell, AZ/UT; Lower Antelope Slot Canyons, Page, AZ; Toadstool Hoodoos, Kanab, UT; Valley of Fire State Park, NV. To that list there was a long list of LIKE-to-GOs that included Chaco Culture, Avenue of the Ancients, Mesa Verde, and many more. Since my wife traveled with me, it was also important to include stops and destinations that were of interest to her as well.

El Paso, We Have A Problem

Ultimately the reality of the distances, vehicle choice and time constraints dictated what stayed in and what fell out of the plan. And THEN it got even tougher… Scheduling it on some days required to-the-HOUR timing. To be clear, not every day needed to-the-hour scheduling, but 2 of the 14 did… and that’s when I turned to creating an Excel spreadsheet. The spreadsheet helped in a number of ways: accumulating miles (and thus predicting fuel costs and tracking lodging costs), accumulating time, and also keeping a record of addresses, reservation numbers and status… and more. The reality of one of the days made me realize that from Farmington, NM to Monument Valley, AZ, it was just not possible to go through Avenue of the Ancients AND Valley of the Gods as well. The reason: I had booked an overnight photography tour of Monument Valley and HAD to be at the View Hotel in Monument Valley by 2:30 PM or the photo tour was in jeopardy. It worked out just fine, however, as the Mrs. wanted to visit Four Corners, so we timed our Farmington, NM departure to arrive around opening time at Four Corners (a Navajo nation stop) and then budgeted time at the additional stops. Fortunately we ended up about an hour ahead of schedule on that day, and were able to take a brief detour into Valley of the Gods.

To accommodate our desired focus points, we elected to “force march” from Raleigh, NC to Amarillo, TX with no sightseeing except for one lunch stop in Omni Oak Grove in in Asheville.

Oak Grove Inn View, Asheville, NC

That’s nearly 2/3 of the total east-west distance, and we did it in three LONG days (each less than 8.5 hours of driving, however). I micro managed the stops. The locations I picked for lodging initially were Knoxville, TN, Little Rock, AR; and Amarillo, TX. But the Little Rock to Amarillo drive was almost 9 hours, and the Knoxville to Little Rock was similarly long. There was also the matter of potential rush hour traffic, so the plan changed to drive 40 miles farther west on the first day (Harriman, TN), and about 20 miles farther west the next day (Maumelle, AR instead of Little Rock). That evened out the driving a bit more and got us away from major cities during rush hour. Mind you I still had to find cities with decent lodging. While I might be willing to stay alone in a flea bag hotel for a night, that wouldn’t fly with the Mrs. Choosing better lodging made the trip better overall, anyway!

One thing I highly recommend doing is making sure to add in an extra day or two here and there for two reasons: one is to have a cushion in case you run into delays, or find places more interesting than you expected, and the second is perhaps obvious: rest is good! No sense hauling your luggage into and out of the car twice a day every day. We elected to stay two days in Albuquerque, NM; and three days on the Pacific Coast of California – the latter came about because Las Vegas was just TOO hot to stop, and we needed some cooler “wave time”.

What I wish I had done was to pick the same “chain” of hotels as much as possible. But my strategy of not booking everything in advance proved helpful for changing plans as needed. See the Booking Lodging and Excursions (part 3) for the rationale behind each.

Maps Can Lie – BEWARE!

One last comment about using any mapping software (Google Maps, for example), is to inspect the path carefully. I’ve seen mapping software make bone-headed decisions. On the planning for this trip, for example, it routed us over about 50 miles of dirt-road driving until I forced it to pick a different route by adding intermediate destinations. Once in California, the mapping software assumed that the East Pinnacles National Park and West Pinnacles National park were connected by a road – but they AREN’T. The best you could have done is carry your car about 3 miles over a foot path… And of course there are many examples where people have relied on outdated maps of places like Death Valley and ended up in a heap of hurt.

Supplies and Provisions

Because we were flying from the West Coast to the East Coast, we couldn’t possibly take all the provisions we would want on the plane. Some of the things that just were impractical to take included:

  • A cooler for drinks (plus snacks and ice)
  • A tow strap (in case we got stuck in sand or mud somewhere)
  • Bits of carpet for traction
  • Jump Start cables & jump start battery
  • Keurig Cartridges
  • Supplies, blanket / pillow
  • Gallon or more of water
  • Quart of the proper oil
  • Gallon of Bug / Windshield cleaner

And despite my normal camera-bag-full of equpiment (2 cameras, lenses, two tripods, etc), I elected to take ONE camera – the Nikon D600 – and ONE lens (24mm manual focus), and one tripod. I also took my Mavic Drone, but was only able to use it once… most locations prohibited drones, the wind was excessive in other locations, and a complication with the software made it impossible to use in one area that I wanted to use it… more on that in the Photography and Night Photography Considerations chapter.

My father’s car is an older model Lexus and so it wouldn’t be suitable for going down the bumpy off road areas where I might take an AWD high clearance vehicle like my Subaru. I also knew that some of the destinations included driving on unpaved roads. Indeed, some of the destinations that we removed from our itinerary were removed because of the off-road driving required. Since we clearly couldn’t take all needed provisions on the plane with us, and it was not clear that we would be able to acquire all that we desired, I used Amazon to order and have shipped to my father’s house the hard-to-find supplies that I needed. We figured we could pick up a cooler, snacks and drinks, water, oil and windshield cleaner along the way. Indeed, after we noticed that the first two lodgings had in-room Keurig machines, we bought Chai and Pete’s coffee cartridges. I am a Chai drinker, and my wife is a coffee snob. Only about 40% of the places we stayed had such machines, but when they had them, it meant we could enjoy our normal morning and evening beverages.

In Case of Emergency

For our peace of mind, I purchased and activated a plan on a Garmin InReach mini. I had the device shipped to my home before we left so that I could make sure it worked, and the service was active. The Inreach mini is a portable satellite communication device that can be used to track your location –

Emergency Communication and tracking

indeed that device supplied the tracking information for the map presented at the top. One of the plans allows you to track your location every 10 minutes – you can see I turned on tracking somewhere over Nevada on our flight out. The mini can also be used like the SPOT emergency location device to send 3 different canned messages to pre-canned destinations. The mini is about twice the cost, but it’s bi-directional. The messages I chose were: All is well, just checking in when arriving at lodging for the night; Look what I found to mark a particularly interesting place for posterity; and Delayed, or rerouted to indicate we were fine, but not going to arrive as planned. The device also allows an SOS to be sent, and you can then communicate by text with the emergency personnel to indicate what your needs are, and they can text you to indicate their status. Fortunately we had no need of sending an SOS, but there were many areas where we had little and NO cell coverage on either Verizon or ATT (my wife and I have different plans on purpose), so the peace of mind was worth the about $50 of service… and no doubt I’ll use the $300 device in the future.

Enroute Planning

Strorms Ahead. (Actually the blue is from shooting through the screen in the top of the windshield ;-), but it did dump a heap of rain and hail on us just a bit father down the road in Oklahoma.

It wasn’t enough, of course, to merely plot out the path. We also had to be mindful of the weather and road conditions. I’ve written extensively about how I >> plan for weather << so visit that link to learn how I use Weather.gov to be aware of what is going on. On this particular trip, we drove through the middle of the country prior to and during tornado and flooding events. Without the maps, we might have ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. As it was, a tornado struck 1 mile away from our path two days prior to arriving (El Reno, Oklahoma) and major flooding was experienced in Little Rock and Fort Smith, AK the days of and following our trip segments there. Amarillo, TX and Roswell, NM were also hit with violent thunderstorms, and we used the forecast to refrain from heading up into Santa Fe, NM due to severe storm warnings. One Android tool I picked up and used was the NOAA Radar app. That offered alerts about nearby events – it was worth one month of subscription at $3 just to get those!

One of the other things that I discovered, but wasn’t aware of is that Google Maps in addition to notifications of slowdowns and road construction also has notifications about speed (radar) traps. We weren’t speeding anywhere, but the heads up certainly came in handy in case we decided to “blow the doors off a slowpoke driver” at an inopportune time.

Keeping Cool

Sugar free beverage + excellent “ice bottle”

We did acquire a decent cooler, small enough to fit in the backseat, but with a velcro latch so that it would be easy to open while underway. It had to be spacious enough to hold a half dozen drinks, ice AND chocolate. Since it was quite hot during our trip, even a short stint with the A/C off would result in a choco melt-down. I employed a trick I often use when hiking. After finishing an Ice beverage (sparkling sweetened drink), I rinsed it and refilled it with tap water. In lodgings that had a freezer component of the mini fridge, I put the refilled bottles in the freezer. Those frozen bottles then served as ice, and in a pinch, cold drinking water on some of our hot hikes. Do not try this with your average bottled water, however, they are too thin and flimsy to stand up to freezing.

It is also a good idea to buy a one or two gallon bottle of water that you can use for drinking (when the tap water is sketchy), and as an emergency source of coolant should your car need it.

See The Rest of the Article!

>>> Click here for parts 3, 4, and 5 along with many photos! You’re also welcome to use my excel planning sheet for yourself. The sheet contains links to the maps I used (divided into daily segments), a TODO list, as well as a heap of web references I used to select the events and locations I visited.

Sky Drift

Lickety Stitcher in Lightroom + Panoramas IN Lightroom

Published: November 15, 2017

Pointyland Redux

A conventional panorama stitched with Microsoft Image Composite Editor from 3 images.

Maybe we should start by explaining Lickety Split. Lickety Split is US English slang for fast so “Lickety Stitcher” is our contrived slang for a fast image stitcher. Image stitching is what you do to create a large image out of several smaller, overlapping images.

We’ve reported how much we like the FREE Microsoft Image Composite Editor (aka ICE) for stitching images because it is faster and more accurate than Photoshop’s Photomerge or Lightroom’s new, but sometimes anemic Photomerge. Here is a simple “quick panorama” method of creating a panorama from about 3 clicks. How? Configure Lightroom to run ICE as an export step. After creating the export step (described below) you do the following:

  1. Select photos,
  2. right click “Export -> ICE Quick Stitch”
  3. Click through the ICE Menus to Stitch, crop and Save.

Sadly, there is no Image Composite Editor for Mac computers. If someone knows of an equally easy to use, fast version for the Mac, let us know in the comments!

How To Set Up Lickety Stitcher

To use Microsoft ICE (or PT GUI, or other external tool), you create an Export setting for it. Click a photo (any photo), then “Export” and Add new settings as shown below. The only tricky part is finding the program you want Lightroom to run. In Windows it has to be the actual path, not a shortcut.

Microsoft ICE Panoramas from Lightroom

You don’t have to settle for only a “quick stitch” (which is best done with JPGs), you can also export full sized TIFF files and stitch those.  ICE can save documents in Photoshop .psd format and others. And if you have another image stitcher you really like, e.g. PT GUI, you can probably use this same trick to make that software work on demand.

What About Lightroom for Stitching?

We were happy to discover that Lightroom and Photoshop image stitching (panorama) creation has improved quite a lot since our first disasters trying to do vertoramas and panoramas. Indeed, I think we would be happy to use the new tools and skip using ICE in many circumstances. Here is how you use the Panorama creation feature of Lightroom.

First, pick your images. They should overlap by at least 1/3 from frame to frame. And you can pre-process them with noise removal and such. Highly recommend you do at least two things to images before you try to stitch them:

  • Use vignette correction appropriate for your lens.
  • Consider using Distortion correction before creating your panorama – not always necessary.

Then right click and find “Photo Merge -> Panorama”.

Lightroom did a quite respectable job. We were able to to create the image below entirely in Lightroom. We did see some problems, however:

  1. We got a message about “unable to save metadata”
  2. Lightroom insists on creating the image as a .dng file and uses the name of one of the files you picked (we’d like it to be a mash of first-through-last.
  3. Lightroom didn’t seem to be as smart as ICE in how it stitched the images. ICE joined the images without the airplane and satellite trails, or maybe it was just better at blending them out. We had to do that work by hand on the image Lightroom created. It was not difficult, though. It is not the first time we have seen ICE handle an image better than Photoshop PhotoMerge

In ICE we manually  bent the slightly arching shot back into vertical form and did manual cropping. In Lightroom we used the Boundary Warp option at the end to make the images fill the frame nicely. Here is what we got from those 11 images:

10 Image Panorama using Only Lightroom Photomerge

You can compare the above to the same images used via Microsoft ICE and finished in Photoshop.

Overarching Majesty

Stitched in ICE, Finished in Photoshop

Multi-Row Panorama

Here is a more ambitious 22 photo, multi-row panorama stitched with Microsoft ICE. There was a stitching problem due to cloud movement… maybe you’ve spotted it.

Asylum at the Sea

 

Stitching Software Alternatives to Photoshop, Lightroom and ICE

  • Hugin (FREE: mac, PC, Linux). Don’t much like this one even though it is free.
  • PTGUI (mac, PC). A little clunky, but does much more than stitching including HDR and can be automated. This is the one tool you need when you need to convince an image to stitch that just won’t do it. It can’t do miracles, but with work, it can get the job done.
  • Others… that we don’t have familiarity with, though we have heard good things about Kolor Autopano