Category Archives: Tools

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

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 The phone then served as our GPS since the 12 year old navigation system in the car was clearly out of date.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.

Stay Tuned for More

Stay tuned 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

Adding Special Touches to Your Astro Landscape

Published: November 6, 2107

1000 ISO, f/2, 3 minute exposure with some augmented stars

Because stars are pinpoints of light, the camera does not capture them as our eyes see them. To our eyes, brighter stars stand out more noticeably than dimmer ones. At a workshop in Alabama Hills, one of the participants, Julian Köpke, was using a diffusion filter so the stars captured would look more like you see with the naked eye. Sometimes nature provides its own diffusion filter in the form of high, thin cirrus clouds as shown below. The large bright orb is the star Sirius in the constellation Canus Major (Big Dog). The orange star near the top of the frame is Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion. One nice thing about the blur that the clouds added is the star color is more noticeable. But the diffusion here is not uniform because the belt stars (Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka) and “corner” stars (Bellatrix, Rigel, Saiph) in Orion are all noticeably brighter than the surrounding stars while in this photo only Betelgeuse and Rigel stand out.

Dog Star [C_065586]

You can create a make-shift diffusion filter by shooting through a nylon stocking – or buy a diffusion filter. The disadvantages of using a filter are that everything is blurred – including the foreground and you reduce the amount of light collected. Most night sky photographers try to avoid clouds and you will get an image like this:

The moon and Teapot Asterism in Sagittarius – over Lone Pine Peak – as shot.

When what you had in mind is something like this:

Same Photo as above, but with the Teapot Asterism in Sagittarius enhanced.

How to Bring Out Star Color And Enhance The Apparent Star Size

Our Advanced Stacker Plus has two built-in ways to increase star brightness. We call those Bump Up and Pump Up the stars. Bump Up creates a small blur by literally duplicating the shot , nudging the duplicate(s) and recombining .  Pump Up is more sophisticated and tries to find the stars so it can then apply enhancements to just the stars. But there is a new tool in the arsenal that I have begun using: Star Spikes Pro from ProDigital Software.  Version 4 is the latest as of this writing.

NOTE: Star Spikes Pro and HLVG described later are currently only available on Windows machines.

You can use the Star Spikes Pro plugin to add diffraction spikes and diffusion. The most common diffraction spikes you see with stars are due to obstructions in the telescope used to photograph them and many people come to think of the spikes as evidence of astrophotography.  You can create diffraction spikes easily on your own.- just stop down your aperture;  however stopping down to make stars create those spikes will not work well.

The first time I tried to use Star Spikes Pro it did not quite work as I expected.

Look hard. Star Spikes Pro decided the moon was a huge star outclassing all others.

Indeed it took me a bit to realize what was going on. The good news is it was easy to work around. The huge moon looks like a huge star to Star Spikes Pro – and that makes perfect sense since the plugin is usually used with Astrophotography that does not involve landscapes.

Here is how I made it work as I wanted and limited the effect to just the desired stars.

Layer Palette and Steps to Enhance The Teapot Asterism

Above left is the layer palette. Look carefully and you may spot the fix. After loading the image (1) I first duplicated the original and called the new layer Heal (2). I then did minor contrast adjustments, used the healing brush to remove hot pixels and other offenses (short satellite trail). Next I duplicated the Heal to another layer (3) and fed it into Hasta La Vista Green – a free plugin written by Rogelio Bernal Andreo of DeepSkyColors. HLVG removes green which is an unnatural sky color usually caused by RGB artifacts. HLVG operates on the entire layer and does not know the difference between land and sky. To leave the natural green in my landscape I used the quick selection tool, dragged it across the sky followed by Select -> Modify -> Expand 4 pixels. Then I created a Layer Mask using “Reveal Selection” (4). That made the foreground come back to its normal state. If you look carefully you will notice I also used a white brush to add some of that green removal back onto the mountain by painting on the HLVG layer mask (4).

The next operation was a finger twisting sequence that has no menu equivalent: Ctrl-Alt-Shift-E (on Mac that’s Command-Option-Shift-E). What that sequence does is “flatten” all the visible layers and create a NEW layer in the process (5). That layer I called Input to SSP.  Since I had discovered that Star Spikes Pro was confused by the moon (and could be confused by the foreground), I used the quick selection tool again and brushed it across the foreground. By default using the quick select tool again ADDs to the current selection so I brushed it around inside the moon and its halo. At this point I did not need to create another layer (Ctrl-J/Command-J or Duplicate Layer) but I did so that it was easy to see what happens next. After creating the new layer I selected it and used the delete key. Delete removes the selection making it transparent – that is the foreground and moon were now gone (6).

Next up: let Star Spikes Pro loose on the image. First deselect (Ctrl-D Command-D) or Select -> Deselect), and feed the sky layer to Star Spikes Pro via Filter -> ProDigital Software -> Star Spikes Pro.  The defaults for SSP produced the image below (I’ve zoomed in on the teapot asterism)

I felt the color was a bit too strong, and I did not want the diffraction spikes. The next step was to select “Advanced” – just below Settings, set the Primary quantity to zero. Next was the Secondary tab where I reduced the quantity to 44, the intensity I bumped up to 23. Soft flare I set quantity to 12, bumped up the intensity, dialed down the size a little and dialed down the Hue to -21. These adjustments were all based on eyeballing the image and were made for aesthetic appeal.  After all the adjustments looked about right, I saved the settings as a new adjustment I called “DiffusionOnly”. Finally I clicked OK and my layer was all nicely done by the SSP filter.

The filter processed a few more stars than I intended to augment. The simple solution was to create a “Reveal All Layer Mask”, select a brush, the color black and paint out all the effects I did not want on the layer mask (7).

The final operation was to use an Adjustment Layer (8) to increase the contrast and restrict that adjustment to the sky (where you see white) and tone the adjustment down a little with a low-flow back brush on one area that looked a little too dark.

The topmost layer in the layer palette is my watermark.

There Is An Easier Way!

With some experimentation, and some coaching from the plugin author I discovered that Star Spikes Pro has several features that make the process easier than I imagined. Instead of creating the transparency (deleting the moon and landscape) I only needed to select the area I wanted Star Spikes Pro to operate on.

Also, instead of masking off the stars I did not want affected after the fact, Star Spikes Pro has two tools to greatly simplify things the: “Hide” tool to turn off any effect that I did not want, and the “Show” tool to turn the effect on.

 

Star Spikes Pro limited to specific section of the sky via a selection and using the Hide tool to turn off an effect.

 

The net is that you can get that nice diffusion effect for your stars without having to compromise by shooting through a diffusion filter. However if you DO want to try a diffusion filter, I recommend you take two shots quickly. One with the filter off, one with the filter on. You can then place the diffused shot over the normal shot. Set the diffused shot to Lighten and mask in (or out) the areas where you want the diffusion to show through.

If you’re wondering whether there is a way to get the diffusion effect on a Mac or without purchasing Star Spikes Pro, there is, but it requires a lot of Photoshop twiddling and it is not anywhere near as pleasant as using ProDigital Software’s Star Spikes Pro.

Disclaimer and Book

I am not affiliated with ProDigital Sofware. I am a happy customer of Star Spikes Pro (and another product called Astronomy Tools). I was not paid, or encouraged to write about the product. I chose to because it is that good. Rogelio Bernal Andreo  author of Hasta La Vista Green and purveyor of DeepSkyColors is a friend and a multi-multi award-winning astrophotographer. He has a Kickstarter Project that I recommend you look into called Notes From the Stars

Notes from The Stars: 10 Award Winning Authors

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.